NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Elijah Moshinsky, an Australian theater, television and opera director known for his productions at the Royal Opera in London, Opera Australia and especially the Metropolitan Opera, died Jan. 14 at a hospital in London. He was 75.
The cause was COVID-19, his family said.
The best Moshinsky productions combined traditional staging ideas with modern, striking, sometimes fanciful touches, as in his 1993 version of Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos for the Met, which is slated for revival in the 2021-22 season.
That production reached the essence of Strauss opera, a delicate mix of grandeur and farce, providing the thrill of beauty encased in irony, of sincerity at the end of self-consciousness, Edward Rothstein of The New York Times wrote in a review.
Moshinskys version featured an exaggeratedly bustling depiction of backstage preparations for an entertainment at the home of a Viennese gentleman, as well as a trio of eerily gigantic nymphs, their colorful dresses falling to the ground.
Ariadne was one of nine productions Moshinsky presented at the Met from 1980 to 2001, making him the closest thing the Met had to a house director, Joseph Volpe, the companys general manager for much of that period, wrote in his 2006 memoir, The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera.
Along with Ariadne, four are still in the Mets active repertory, including a boldly stylized 1995 version of Tchaikovskys The Queen of Spades that had a film-noir feel, and a bleak, eerily contemporary, almost expressionist 1996 staging of Janaceks mysterious The Makropulos Case. Moshinskys last Met production was Verdis Luisa Miller.
Moshinskys Met career began inauspiciously with a roundly criticized production of Verdis Un Ballo in Maschera, a clumsily updated and poorly executed production starring Luciano Pavarotti. He returned in 1986 for Handels oratorio Samson, starring tenor Jon Vickers in the title role, a stiff production that originated at the Royal Opera. But with that 1993 Ariadne, he announced himself anew.
In attempting to bring a contemporary edge to his productions, Moshinsky was sometimes criticized for forcing what seemed quasi-modern elements and stark monumentality onto an otherwise traditional staging.
His 1994 production of Verdis Otello, mounted for tenor Plácido Domingo, was full of grandly operatic spectacle, yet some felt it seemed heavy-handed. It was dominated by soaring columns and towering facades that alternately embrace and smother a great opera, critic Bernard Holland wrote in The Times.
When Moshinsky followed his instincts to keep things traditional, the results were often effective. Critic Peter Davis, in a review for Classical Music, called the directors 2001 production of Luisa Miller the Mets most satisfying Verdi effort in years. Working within a sensible but atmospheric setting, Davis wrote, Moshinsky directed his characters with skill, flexibility, and a sure understanding of who these people are.
He was also content, unlike some directors who come to opera from the world of theater, to work with singers who bring outsized emotions and huge egos onstage, as he put it in an interview with the BBC in 1993. Opera, he said, needed people who can fill those emotional roles, and part of his job was to engage with a performers temperament to enable the best performance to occur.
Elijah Moshinsky was born Jan. 8, 1946, in the French Concession in Shanghai, to which his Russian Jewish parents, Abraham and Eva (Krasavitsky) Moshinsky, had fled. He was the youngest of the couples three sons. Even though the family left Shanghai for Australia when Elijah was 5, he retained vivid memories of his early childhood, fortified by family stories and memorabilia, he said in the BBC interview.
Life was strangely glamorous, he recalled. I have all these photographs of my parents sitting in nightclubs with large hats and eveningwear. It was, he said, a rather wonderful and unreal existence, like scenes from the film Empire of the Sun.
He recalled the day his father took him to the balcony of the apartment where they lived. Gunfire sounded in the distance. My father said that this is Mao entering Shanghai and you must remember it, Moshinsky recounted.
In Australia, the family lived in a suburb of Melbourne. His father tried various entrepreneurial endeavors, including importing rubber flowers, but could never make a go at getting a business running, Moshinsky said. His mother mostly worked in the home.
As a teenager, Moshinsky liked photography, the flute and drawing, and had a bent for history. After graduating from the University of Melbourne, he won a scholarship to study the history of Russian liberalism at St. Antonys College, Oxford, where philosopher Isaiah Berlin became a mentor.
Increasingly drawn to theater, Moshinsky directed a student production of Shakespeares As You Like It that happened to be seen by John Tooley, the general director of the Royal Opera in London, who invited the young man to be a production assistant at the house. He left Oxford without completing his studies.
In 1975, in a career-defining break, he was tapped to direct a revival of Tyrone Guthries production of Brittens Peter Grimes. The sets had deteriorated in a warehouse, and Moshinsky argued that for the cost of reconstructing them the company could present a new production.
His anti-picture-book concept, with a stark set, proved a more effective fit for the vocally powerful, dramatically volatile Vickers. The production (which can be seen on video) and Vickers performance, were triumphs and changed the general understanding of the opera.
The next year, Peter Hall, the director of the National Theater in London, invited Moshinsky to direct a production of Thomas Bernhards play The Force of Habit, which Moshinsky described in the BBC interview as a comedic parable in which a group of circus performers try to play Schuberts Trout Quintet but cant. The production was a dismal failure, running for just six performances.
But that same year Moshinsky found his footing with an acclaimed production of Bergs Wozzeck for the Adelaide Festival, presented by the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia). Over subsequent years he directed more than 15 productions for the company, including Boris Godunov, Werther Dialogues des Carmélites and Don Carlos. At the Royal Opera, he presented notable productions of Lohengrin, Tannhaüser and The Rakes Progress, as well as some Verdi rarities, including Stiffelio and Attila.
Moshinsky met Ruth Dyttman during a Melbourne Youth Theater production of Brechts The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1967. He did the set designs; she was in the cast. They married in 1970. Dyttman, a lawyer, survives him, along with their two sons, Benjamin and Jonathan, and his brothers, Sam and Nathan.
Moshinsky was an active theater director, working at the National Theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company and other institutions. He directed several productions for the BBC television series of Shakespeares plays, including A Midsummer Nights Dream with a cast including Helen Mirren, Robert Lindsay and Nigel Davenport.
It was an enchanting production, John OConnor wrote in a 1982 review for The Times, that fully captures each major aspect of the play, from royal romp to witty comedy, from ominous rumblings in the forest to joyous celebrations.
His production of William Nicholsons play Shadowlands was presented on the West End before opening on Broadway in 1990.
Moshinsky spoke of how privileged he felt to work with courageous artists like Mirren, Vickers and Judi Dench, who want to go for the truth, in a 2019 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. Often that is strange, uncomfortable and unfathomable, he added, but they do it.
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