WHEN ambitious impresarios invest in a co-production, the equation involves more than money. Take Luc Bondy's fresh look at Puccini's "Tosca," which opens the Metropolitan Opera's season on Monday evening and the Bavarian State Opera's summer festival in Munich next June. The Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, a singing actress with animal magnetism to burn, stars on both occasions as the reigning diva of turn-of-the-19th-century Rome.
As recently installed general managers in hard times, Peter Gelb, at the Met, and Nikolaus Bachler, in Munich, face common challenges. Both serve capricious audiences who demand the best of everything: singers, conductors, directors, productions. Both seek to enliven a repertory awash in antiques. Yet the cultural divide between the continents is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.
Mr. Gelb assumed his current position in 2006 after a commercially swashbuckling decade as president of the Sony Classical record label. "The directors the Met is hiring are masters who strip a story to its essentials," he said recently. "Some of the Europeans, like Luc Bondy and Patrice Chéreau, who is joining us later this season, are formidable intellectuals, but they don't get themselves tied up in knots. A great opera production should work for any audience. I have to believe that."
Mr. Bachler, who went to the Bavarian State Opera in 2008 from the top job at the Vienna Burgtheater, one of the premier playhouses of the German-speaking world, disagrees. "Not at all," he said in a separate conversation. "In Europe our tradition of exploring ideas and issues in a very contemporary way is much more advanced than in America. Theater is for the present. Maybe it's true that any really good European production would hold up in the United States 20 years later."
If Mr. Bachler is right, why should the same take on any opera be expected to work on both continents? Here is the crux of the long-raging debate on what the Germans call regietheater (director's theater) and the English-speaking world calls high-concept production or, less politely, Eurotrash, though the phenomenon is now global. As Mr. Bachler diplomatically suggests, and as Mr. Gelb does not deny, Americans (conservative, naïve?) cling to the timeless basics of plot, whereas Europeans (worldly, jaded?) want spin, deconstruction, a crackling editorial for today.
Counting down to opening night, Mr. Gelb reported that Ms. Mattila was preparing with her customary ferocity of purpose. "The marriages between singers and directors and repertory I try to broker here are best when everyone wants the same thing," he said. "I wanted Karita to do a new 'Tosca' to open this season. She wanted to do it, and Bondy wanted to do it too. So here we are."
Of course there is more to the package. The Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez sings Tosca's lover, Cavaradossi, a partisan of the outlawed Roman republic. The Georgian baritone George Gagnidze appears as Scarpia, the sadistic chief of police, who ensnares the jealous Tosca with fatal consequences for all. (The Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo, originally scheduled for the part, has withdrawn at short notice for medical reasons.) James Levine, who made his Met debut with this opera in 1971, conducts. Later in the Met run the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann takes over as Cavaradossi, a role he will also assume in Munich, with Fabio Luisi conducting.
After a long day's rehearsals the Swiss-born Mr. Bondy, 61, seemed less concerned with cultural politics than with the basics of the task at hand. "There's no theater without staging," he said. "But to translate the material into some code of your own is to make it trivial. Too often regietheater makes you feel that the actors are soulless machines executing ideas that come from someone else. What I try to do, together with the actors, is to create something believable."
Revered throughout French- and German-speaking Europe as a master of his craft, Mr. Bondy sounded strikingly "American." Yet his best-known productions — Strauss's "Salome" (first seen at the Salzburg Festival), Britten's "Turn of the Screw" (Aix-en-Provence) — reveal a fascination with the darker corners of the mind, a taste for its subtleties and ambiguities. The stage images are composed with spartan restraint, occasionally set off by a jolt of the surreal, as when the hulking Grand Inquisitor in a Paris production of Verdi's "Don Carlos," blind and on crutches, slowly exited the king's chamber, trailing ghostly footprints of fire.
What interest would such a director have in the flagrant melodramatics of Puccini, who spills his subtext all over the surface?
"At one level 'Tosca' is an ABC of clichés," Mr. Bondy said. "The libretto is crude and cruel, but there's intelligence at work. The action is realistic, but the music is unabashedly operatic. I want to combine those things in a way that is emotionally convincing. When the Met proposed Mattila, I said yes immediately. We've done 'Don Giovanni' and 'Don Carlos' together, so I know you can work with her the way you work with the greatest actors in the world. What we're after isn't the presentation of a situation, but life. Life. Something credible. Something real."
At the Met the Bondy "Tosca" dislodges a blockbuster by Franco Zeffirelli first seen in 1985, a textbook example of the lavish hyperrealism for which the house has long been famous. Ms. Mattila, who at 49 is close to the peak of her powers, feels fortunate never to have seen it.
"My only previous Tosca was three seasons ago in Helsinki in a pre-existing, very traditional staging," she said shortly before the public dress rehearsal. "I loved it, and I loved performing the part. But you should never ask artists what they think about a production, especially a new one. We don't get to see it. We just have to present it as we've been guided." That said, she added, she is thrilled to be taking up the role afresh.
Mr. Bondy, who knows the Zeffirelli "Tosca" only from photographs, supposed correctly that it was "rather ornate." For his version, he said, he has notably stripped away any churchly paraphernalia, which onstage look to him "like symbols of symbols." At the same time he compared the heroine to Roman women described by Stendhal in his "Chroniques Italiennes," women who saw no contradiction between flaming carnal desire and equally ardent religious fervor. Though uncertain at first, Ms. Mattila has made the idea her own.
"As a child of our Western culture you might think we are talking about a double standard," she said. "But no. The things Bondy asks for may come as a surprise or a shock at first, but then you try, and you realize: 'Ha! I've been caught up in preconceptions.' I trust Bondy's goals 100 percent. He wants you to create the part the way you are, the way you can offer it the best. And in the end that's the only way to be convincing, I think."
The last time the Bavarian State Opera presented a new "Tosca," in 1976, the director was Götz Friedrich, known for his Marxist inflections. Though the Bondy "Tosca" dispenses with political or polemical filters, Mr. Bachler has every confidence that it will resonate in Munich as much as in New York, whereas the Zeffirelli version would have failed in his house even when new: it was simply too decorative, he said, too lacking in point of view.
Handed a list of a half-dozen signature productions of Mr. Gelb's first three Met seasons, Mr. Bachler thought that the Anthony Minghella "Madama Butterfly" and the Penny Woolcock "Dr. Atomic" would win favor in Munich, but not Bartlett Sher's popular "Barber of Seville," which he deemed "conventional conventional." Mary Zimmerman's "Lucia di Lammermoor" likewise failed to make his cut. "The contemporary touches are window-dressing," he said. "The production tells us nothing about what the piece might mean to us now."
In July, Munich operagoers were coming to blows over a new production of Wagner's "Lohengrin" by the British director Richard Jones, who transmogrified the romantic tale into a gloss on the composer's longing for the comforts of a bourgeois home, symbolized by a new house erected onstage brick by brick. At the same time the austere staging of Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" by the Canadian director Robert Carsen — sparing with color, devoid of décor yet rich in the way movement and gesture dovetailed with the words and music — was holding audiences spellbound.
Neither show looked promising for New York: "Lohengrin" because it was too arcane, "Ariadne" for lack of eye candy (though the scarlet five-inch stilettos of Diana Damrau's firecracker Zerbinetta added value in that regard). Mr. Bachler agreed that "Ariadne" might be too abstract for New Yorkers. "But I think our 'Lohengrin' should work visually," he said. "Visuals are very important to American people."
For the record, German reviewers tore Mr. Jones limb from limb, one indication that the tide may be turning in Europe too. Addressing the American Academy in Berlin in June, Mr. Gelb came out swinging against directors who set out to provoke and bewilder. Directors and administrators in attendance may have thought this the rant of a Yankee yahoo.
But a month later, the 34-year-old Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, the author of the international best seller "Measuring the World," joined the fray as guest speaker at the opening of the Salzburg Festival.
"What's going on here?" Mr. Kehlmann asked, echoing foreign visitors turned off, as he has been, by German theater in our time. "Why does everything onstage look so much the same? Why all the video screens and people eating spaghetti? Why is someone always smeared with something? Why all the twitching and hysterical screaming? Is there a law?"
A law? No. In Berlin Mr. Gelb blamed state subsidies, which let theaters get away with ever more aberrant shows that audiences do not want, and the perversity of powerful critics who poison the well for anything else. Opera needs to go mainstream, Mr. Gelb insisted, or it will die.
"People should enjoy opera," he added more recently in New York. "They shouldn't need a guidebook. Verdi and Puccini wanted audiences to have a good time at the opera, not to torture them."
To Mr. Bachler, who has a dog in the fight, the fracas is off the mark. "Audiences seldom go in new directions of their own free will," he said. "You have to force or seduce them. A director has no choice but to interpret. That's the job. Why are people afraid of strong choices? The only sin is putting on a show where nothing happens."
In hindsight Mr. Gelb acknowledged that he may have misspoken in Berlin. "I talked about entertainment," he said. "To German ears that's practically a dirty word. I think I'll stop using it. What I mean by entertainment is stimulating and satisfying an audience. Yes, I want the audience to pass the time in an agreeable way. But I also want the experience to be profound."