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Boo! Bravo! These Hot Directors Will Make Folks Scream

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Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw rehearsing for "The Testament of Mary" at the Jerwood Space in London. She has stepped in to direct the Metropolitan Opera's "Eugene Onegin." Photographer: Hugo Glendinning/Philip Rinaldi Publicity via Bloomberg

Aug. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Frail opera goers in New York gird yourselves and medicate.

Next February Dmitri Tcherniakov makes his debut at the Metropolitan Opera with Borodin’s “Prince Igor.”

A pared-down production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” for the Bolshoi in Moscow sent famous diva Galina Vishnevskaya into apoplectic rage. His bizarre staging of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at London’s ENO was unintentionally (?) amusing. When the leader, sad and weary, died with a paper hat on his noble head, it was hard not to chuckle.

Speaking of “Onegin,” Deborah Warner was meant to make her belated debut at the Met with this anguished tale of frustrated love set in the country estates and palaces of early 19th-century Russia.

Now 54, the British director has been central to theater and opera since the mid-1990s.

Fiona Shaw

But she will be recuperating from an operation, according to the Met’s press office, and has sent her frequent collaborator, the actress and occasional director, Fiona Shaw in her stead.

The production, which opens the company’s season on Sept. 23, has already been seen in London and is a fairly mild example of Warner’s often brainy work -- updating Pushkin’s poem into the era of Tchaikovsky.

Still, it got me thinking: Who are the most talked-about directors today -- the ones who will make folks jump at the end (booing or not) this coming season?

My list:

Hot Ticket

Richard Jones: His shows have an unsettling surreal energy unlike anything else you’ll see, plus a sense of humor that encompasses both sunny and dark. He’s slated to direct “Der Rosenkavalier” at Glyndebourne next year, which makes it an even hotter ticket than usual. And “Anna Nicole” will be presented by the New York City Opera this September at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a coup for the company.

Witty Wagner

Stefan Herheim: Another showman making big waves. The Norwegian loves splashy coups de theatre and spectacular effects. He’s just had a huge success with a witty staging of Wagner’s “Meistersinger” in Salzburg which will someday travel to the Met. His production of Verdi’s “Les vepres siciliennes” is the most anticipated show of the Royal Opera’s next season.

In Chicago

David McVicar: A solid traditionalist whose shows have just enough edge to make conservative opera-goers feel hip. Nothing wrong with that, and his safe hands have produced many a wondrous theatrical event -- including the very funny “Giulio Cesare” just seen at the Met -- as well as earned him a knighthood. He’s got a new “Rusalka” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014 which I would dearly love to see.

To Paris

Laurent Pelly: He can inject a dose of sophisticated Gallic wit even into tragic repertoire. He’s scheduled to helm a new production of Bellini’s “I puritani” at the Paris Opera in late November, which should suit him just fine.

Funny Falstaff

Robert Carsen: He’s created some of the best shows I’ve ever seen and some of the worst too. When he’s on form, his sense of spectacle and fun are infectious. His “Falstaff” was a delight at the Royal Opera, and should do good business at the Met when it travels there this December.

Hit or Miss

Katie Mitchell: Another director whose hit-and-miss ratio makes for unpredictability. She likes framing devices, theatrical alienation, film effects. The world premiere of George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” was a fascinating affair, cool and glassy -- the staging was better than the opera, in fact. She’s down to direct “Cosi fan tutte” at ENO in May, which will later go to the Met.

On the Rise

Katharina Thoma: The German is on my one-to-watch list at the moment after her fun “Ariadne auf Naxos” at Glyndebourne, updating the action to World War II. Lots of my colleagues hated it. I loved its bold flair, its clear storytelling and the way every detail contributed to a clever totality. It’ll be interesting to see what she does with “Carmen” in Dortmund next year.

Shockmeister’s Disciple

Vera Nemirova: The Bulgarian-born, Germany-based director seems to be delivering the goods in some psychologically astute Wagner productions, including a “Ring” cycle in Frankfurt. She’ll soon be at St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre with a “Flying Dutchman.” She’s a student of veteran German shock-meister Peter Konwitschny, whose Vienna “Don Carlos” featured a disturbingly jolly execution scene that was pure genius. A recent “Traviata” in London was reductive and silly. His productions regularly crop up in repertoire, especially in Vienna and Munich, if you want to sample his work.

Crazy Catalans

La Fura dels Baus: The Catalan circus-meets-street-theater collective has found a natural home in opera. Their “Ring” Cycle in Valencia (directed by Carlus Padrissa) used theater performers to create the sets; their “Magic Flute” (director Jaume Plensa) was a chance for some real spectacle. They’ve got Gounod’s “Faust” coming up in Amsterdam next May, and odds are it’ll be a blast. The Houston Grand Opera presents “Rheingold” starting in April.

Comic Australian

Barrie Kosky: The Australian runs Berlin’s Komische Oper where he’s boosted ticket sales with inventive spectacles like Ligeti’s “Le grand macabre” and “The Magic Flute.” The Mozart is a heavenly mix of silent film and surrealistic effects including a spidery Queen of the Night. See it in Berlin next February or at the Los Angeles Opera in November.

Sumptuous Cruelty

Andrea Breth: A latecomer to opera, the German theater director has hit her stride with some cool, visually sumptuous productions exploring cruelty and violence in subtle ways. She’s got Prokofiev’s nervy opera “The Gambler” coming up at Netherlands Opera, which should play to her strengths.

Zaha, Gustavo

Christopher Alden: Easy to confuse with twin brother David, another purveyor of risky concepts and exaggerated visuals. His May collaboration with spiky architect Zaha Hadid is bound to be fascinating. “Cosi fan tutte” completes the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s imaginative Mozart trilogy pairing the director with famous architects pushing the limits of Disney Hall.

If you feel like sampling a director’s work before you buy, it’s worth remembering that YouTube is a great source of production clips for opera.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff’s interview and Jason Harper on cars.

To contact the writer of this review: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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