Sir David McVicar has been directing opera for quite some time, working with such prominent companies as the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Monnaie, and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
He has also sustained a healthy relationship with the Metropolitan Opera, particularly in recent years where he has been given carte blanche to put together eight new productions, including two opening nights and two New Year’s Eve galas.
This season was of particular note for the Scottish stage director, as he opened the Met season with “Norma” and got to present his “Tosca” on New Year’s Eve.
His “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” double bill is currently on the Met stage and his “Il Trovatore” is days away from joining the others during the 2017-18 season; half of his output at the Met will have been seen by audiences at some point this season.
As McVicar enjoys this major season, here is a look at his productions, ranked in order of this writer’s perceived quality. As always, this is an opinion piece and you are free to disagree in the comments below!
Let me get this out of the way – McVicar’s most recent Met production is attractive aesthetically. The opening act cathedral is portentous, the second act room works, and the third act represents the Castel Sant’Angelo quite decently.
But it is also the production that lacks the most personality or insight. McVicar doesn’t always get it right, but he always has something to say. But that voice seems mostly lacking in this “Tosca,” McVicar’s staging going through the expected motions without any major surprises. Unlike his best productions, where he often poses questions (whether he does it effectively is another matter), this production doesn’t challenge the audience. And of course, there are some staging moments that really don’t work in the least.
The 2017-18 opening night headliner works visually in setting the scene, but it doesn’t really take the audience deeper into one of opera’s most riveting dramas. He proposes some unique ideas in having Adalgisa and Norma together throughout “Casta Diva,” but he doesn’t propose many other unique or novel points of view on Bellini’s fateful drama. One thing that is interesting about this production, especially if you read our three reviews (here or here or here), is that it relies heavily on the leading lady, which is both a blessing and a curse. A great singing actress can make us forget about the dark surroundings and the overall static environment. A decent one may not be enough to bring it to life. Productions can never truly be actor-proof in the sense that they always rely on the performers. But at the same time, they should illuminate us regardless.
6. Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci
These operas should probably be ranked individually, but McVicar pairs them directly by having the action of both works take place in the same location, centuries apart. It is an interesting idea, but the geographic location isn’t enough to truly marry the two operas into a coherent or insightful vision.
“Pagliacci” is the better of the two by a long-shot and it would likely be ranked higher if not for “Cavalleria” and its incessant rotating set. McVicar knows how to use a rotating set effectively, as noted later on this list, but in this particular work, he overdoes the technique making it lose its significance. There are some solid touches, such as emphasizing Santuzza’s isolation, but they don’t do enough to propel the drama. “Pagliacci” is more of an actor’s piece and McVicar deserves credit for creating a splendid set that allows them the freedom to work. That said, his staging of the murder scene can be quite comical in the wrong hands (why does Nedda run into a knife instead of off-stage?).
5. Anna Bolena
There might be some good news for the “Tosca” production because the “Anna Bolena” was far superior the second time it was staged with Sondra Radvonovsky. It isn’t a revolutionary production, but it presents the story from the perspective of the labyrinthine castle. The sets move about in a manner that makes the palace feel massive and yet claustrophobic all the same, allowing the audience to interact with the central figure as a prisoner of marriage. In fact, it asks the viewer how all the characters in the story are prisoners in some way or another.
The production doesn’t always work, particularly in bigger ensembles where McVicar simply has extras stand about without interacting much with their surroundings, taking away from his ability to create a truly immersive experience.
4. Roberto Devereux
For his final production of the Tudor trilogy, the director opts for a bit of experimentation though it doesn’t always work. His decision to set the best of the three operas in a “theater” seems a bit forced, but the distraction of seeing “audience members” onstage never really creates that many problems overall. It does, however, illuminate his concept of imprisoned monarchs, with the main characters essentially “playing” their roles for an audience, even if their deepest emotions aren’t always in line with their actions. This opera is about characters lying to the people they hold most dear and the consequence of that.
His set relies on simplicity and intimacy that is not always as evident in the other Tudor operas. And the final scene with Elizabeth, wherein she removes her wig and stares at her withered figure in front of a mirror is one of the most magical directorial choices of McVicar’s Met career. In simplicity, there can truly be sublime beauty.
3. Maria Stuarda
All three of the Tudor trilogy operas are about the imprisonment of its main characters, but whereas the “Anna Bolena” emphasizes this theme through changing sets and “Roberto Devereux” through stage within a stage, “Stuarda” is the most expressionistic of the lot, relying on massive contrasts in color. We get fiery red for Elizabeth in the first half while Stuarda is always in black, her doom imminent.
The massive time jump between the two halves emphasizes the length of the conflict between the two powerful women while the literal “writing on the wall” furthers this idea of time passing and emphasizing the main heroine’s fate. McVicar doesn’t do much with the final scene, instead relying on his lead actress to take the cake. Sometimes less is more. And in this case, his finest production of the Tudor trilogy.
2. Giulio Cesare
This production is a true joy to watch and works on so many levels. It develops Cleopatra’s character through her wardrobe quite effectively, emphasizing her conquest by Cesare and her land by Western culture. But the clincher is the emphasis on dance, a stark reminder that baroque music’s origins is in movement. There are also fascinating character touches that the director adds, which simply portray the opera in a new and often unexpected light. McVicar has perhaps never put together such riveting characters in a Met production.
1. Il Trovatore
Not an original Met production, but still a tremendously good one. Some might gripe about the wardrobe for lady-in-waiting Leonora, but no one can deny how McVicar manages to play up the dark atmosphere of the piece from the massive Goya painting he uses as the curtain. It sets the mood for a dark and dreary reading of the Verdi masterwork that is often overlooked due to a “questionable” libretto. But in McVicar’s hands, this opera becomes one of civil strife and the destruction of family. We see two gypsy brothers fighting. We see Azucena nearly attack a child. It all puts a greater spotlight on the fact that Manrico and di Luna’s conflict is one of two brothers tearing apart their family and their country. The turntable is also highly effective, keeping this drama moving at full speed.