History tells, in what sounds like a scene from Gogol, of the Russian general Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who had reason to fear that Catherine the Great would not be impressed when she came to inspect the scenes of his recent conquests in ravaged Crimea. Undaunted and perhaps apocryphally, he threw up façades of fake settlements along her route and brought in extras to cheer and wave. Hence the notion of the Potemkin village — an impressive shell with nothing behind it, an appearance without a reality.
We all know that theater means make-believe. But why should we make believe that a mere shell is living theater?
We live in an age obsessed — you might say besotted — by design. In the opera house, the dark side of that mania is manifest in a growing trend for decor in which drama simply cannot catch fire. The Met delivered a textbook example last season courtesy of Scott Pask, who has done brilliant work on Broadway. But his Peter Grimes was performed in front of the fog-swept façade of a fishing village, which left the players only a strip of stage by the footlights. The story could gain no momentum here, though the production is said to have played smashingly at the movies. In the house, what registered were cameo appearances by singers at doors and windows, popping out like cuckoos from clocks. This wasn't theater. It was installation art.
An elusive term, to be sure. At its humblest, installation art is within the compass of a school class dressing up the home room for a holiday. On the operatic scale, it can burgeon into gargantuan feats of engineering variously garnished with sculpture, puppetry, son et lumière or who knows what else.
I give you the thrilling Battle of Poltava from Mazeppa, as realized at the Met by the visionary designer George Tsypin. In truth, no stage action is required at all; this is a tone poem that can perfectly well be played with the curtain down. This time, however, the stage was set with a contingent of the first Chinese emperor's terra cotta warriors. (Why Chinese? Mazeppa takes place in medieval Russia.) As a snowstorm raged, the floor tipped up on its front edge, threatening to send the statues crashing into the pit. As a display of mass in motion, it was right up there with James Cameron's launch of the Titanic.
Stage designers, installation artists, architects — it's all one mafia now. Still, a line must be drawn. What distinguishes stage design sharply from installation art, or ought to, is the space it creates for living drama. Last spring, the Gladstone Gallery in Lower Manhattan plunked down four monumental polished-steel pieces by Anish Kapoor, who gave basic geometric shapes (a block, a cone) the curved surfaces of funhouse mirrors. It was a gallery installation, not a stage set, but it invited visitors to improvise scenarios of their own. It was a silver Wonderland worthy of Lewis Carroll, all set for new Alices, new White Rabbits, new Knaves of Hearts. Kids were not the only ones who went bananas. The right director could do wonders with this stuff.
And what are we looking at instead? A giant shop window, filled with dresses (Emannuel Clolus, Pelléas et Mélisande), an empty warehouse with a Plexiglas floor just waiting to crack like thin ice (George Souglides, Otello), Play-Doh mountain ranges (Karel Appel, Die Zauberflöte)….
But in the end, stage sets are like librettos — everything depends on what is made of them. Take the tacky woodland lodge Barbara Ehnes came up with for Rusalka in Salzburg last summer. "People will say 'ein Puff in Nevada'" (a cathouse in Nevada), conductor Franz Welser-Möst joked before opening night, anticipating incomprehension in some quarters. Yes, the directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito transposed the dark fable of the water sprite to a sinister demimonde of commercial sex, and the heroine climbed out of a storm drain. Yet the story assumed a gloomy power, thanks in no small part to the aquatic associations in the set, which swayed slowly back and forth like a boat on a lake, often awash in video images of life in waters no longer pristine.
For their debut as stage designers with Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, in 2006, the star architects Herzog & de Meuron dreamed up a one-of-a-kind solution — a floating white letterbox in which palpable impressions of a ship, a garden, a second Tristan materialized from an unseen Great Beyond. But a clueless director left the singers high and dry (Stefan Bachmann, take a bow), and an art installation was all we were left with. The following year, Phaedra, the new concert opera (sic) by Hans Werner Henze, was staged amid objects from the kit of Olafur Eliasson, the man who went on to build the New York City Waterfalls. A prismatic ring floating in midair, a honeycomb of mirrors, precisely focused beams of light: these talismans were all the director Peter Mussbach needed to set specific emotional accents, to magical effect. Here was theatrical installation art with a difference.