A sustained volley
This 2002 Andante article, by Jochen Breiholz, is the most sustained critique of Harry Kupfer's dramatic idiom that I have read.
Here are some interesting extracts:
At this point of his career, Kupfer still insisted that a director should work with a different designer for each opera, since each work would demand a different style and an individual look. But by the late '80s, Kupfer had dropped this conviction. From that point on, most of the sets for his productions were designed by Hans Schavernoch, whose imagination — seemingly limited to turntables, mirrored walls, and neon tubes in black abstract spaces — did not allow for that much visual variation. In a similar vein, Kupfer chose a favorite costume designer, Reinhard Heinrich, whose obsession with black leather, military coats and often screamingly colorful costumes in tasteless GDR fashion, was just as limiting. The great director's productions became visually predictable.
And, this, on the Bayreuth Ring:
Instead, Wolfgang Wagner assigned Kupfer to direct the new Bayreuth Ring in 1988 — a gripping production but one that betrayed the patterns that would soon dominate almost every Kupfer production: heavy overacting; singers rolling on the floor, creeping and crawling regardless of whether the situation demanded this (in most cases it did not); exaggerated dramatic conflicts; and the cruelly reductive message that women characters were always much stronger than their male counterparts, but that they were still all victims of overpowering men.This critique exposes a central problem with modern drama, i.e., what are the limits of a feminist-Marxist approach? There are those who would argue that an dramatic Konzept stemming from feminist and Marxist critiques of society and art are non-starters. For some works, that's trivially obvious. For example, anyone who harbors desires to set any of Mozart's operas, but especially the late stage stuff (e.g., the Da Ponte operas and Zauberflöte), to some sort of class-struggle and oppression-of-women theme is worse than an idiot. Update the staging, but leave Mozart in his own, well-deserved universe.
As to works that can tolerate a feminist-Marxist approach, a light touch is helpful. Operas should not be submitted to Socialist Realism. A simple, idiomatic reproduction of the action outlined in the score should reveal the oppression of women and the class struggle that defines history. Slathering on the camp and kitsch is like asking, after a particularly obvious or unfunny joke, "Did'ya get it, huh? Huh? Did'ya?" In other words, if it's obvious, such ham-fisted work is annoying or worse. If it isn't obvious, it isn't there. Marxists and feminists believe that everything, or most things, are framed in a context of oppression. Well, if that's the case, then it shouldn't be hard to see.
As to visual cues: I like abstract, minimalist art. However, I also like things to make sense. Wotan and Fricka mincing around in front of some neon tubing doesn't, well, make much sense. The ideological limits of feminism-Marxism are clear, and how much clearer, then, are the limits of abstraction? A lot.