Opera was conceived as a musical art indissolubly associated with its staging. To say that La Traviata, for example, is intensely theatrical relates directly to its effectiveness as a work of musical drama on the opera stage. Opera is being performed unstaged in more than a few concert venues. Are opera's musical values enhanced or diminished when the work is divorced from its staged setting? The answer, inevitably, is "It depends."
A recent transcendent concert performance of Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung by the Washington National Opera on November 15, 2009, put the issue into sharp relief. Actually the performance was "semi-staged," meaning that while there were no sets or costumes, the characters interacted as though there were a staging, and the orchestra was in the pit of the Opera House of the Kennedy Center, rather than on the stage with the singers, who usually sing "on book" from vocal scores on music stands. Some of WNO's singers were "off-book," but others relied at least in part on the vocal score. Musically, the performance was sublime, with especially noteworthy contributions by Iréne Theorin, Gidon Saks, Alan Held, and debut conductor Philippe Auguin leading the WNO Orchestra, which played as never before heard.
Washington Concert Opera presents two performances each year, usually of works (such as Il Giuramento or Esclarmonde) not commonly staged, at least in Washington, often with singers in their Washington debut. If many of these works were not performed in concert, at least with these cast members, the works would not be heard at all. The music easily sustains an evening's entertainment, because vocal display often trumps dramatic values. More contemporary works, the operas of Benjamin Britten, for example, do not work as well divorced from the stage setting.
But the Ring has become a repertory staple for larger opera companies, some of which mortgage their futures to present a Ring cycle. So it is uncommon, if not rare, to hear one of these mighty works in concert. But WNO's Die Götterdämmerung worked on all levels. Musically, it was a superior performance. Of all Wagner's operas, Die Götterdämmerung is in some respects the most problematic to stage. How is the end of the old world and the birth of a new world to be staged? Having seen a number of Ring cycles, none of the concluded in a staging that was convincing visually, at least not to me.
Fortunately, all the drama is in Wagner's music. An unstaged Ring has the virtue of provoking the imagination to visualize what Wagner conceived. Too often opera, and especially Wagner's operas, is at the mercy of egomaniacal, misguided, or even delusional stage directors who use great works as vehicles to parade their puny visions before the public. Katharina Wagner's misguided, even perverse 2007 staging of Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth is only the most recent, but hardly the worst, example of "Eurotrash" productions in my experience. Concert performances of these great repertory works eliminate the annoyance, if not outrage that these productions engender.
So, long live concert opera!