OBITUARIES : J. Ponnelle, 56; Iconoclastic Opera Director

Times Staff Writer

Jean Pierre Ponnelle, the unpredictable, iconoclastic opera director whose sumptuously detailed productions were sometimes criticized as being overly stylish, died Thursday in Munich, West Germany.

He was 56 and the Associated Press said he died in a hospital but that the cause of death was not disclosed.

Musical sources in the United States said he had been with the touring Cologne Opera in Israel when he suffered some kind of an attack and literally fell into the orchestra pit. He was flown to Germany for treatment.

Ponnelle, who enjoyed a long and artistically attractive relationship with the San Francisco Opera during the regime of Kurt Herbert Adler in the 1970s and early ‘80s, had been based primarily at the Paris Opera where he worked with the greatest names in contemporary music: Herbert von Karajan, Karl Boehm, Seiji Ozawa and Claudio Abbado.


Never Studied Direction

Although he never studied stage direction, telling The Times’ Martin Bernheimer in 1985 that “it can’t be taught,” he was one of the most acclaimed and controversial stage directors in the world.

He took liberties with plots and narratives in operas ranging from “The Magic Flute” to “Cinderella” and once, in San Francisco, staged “Rigoletto” as a flashback nightmare of the tormented jester.

His constructions of “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Madama Butterfly” were considered definitive works when broadcast on television while his motion pictures of “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Rigoletto” and “The Barber of Seville” were held up as examples of adapting the widely expressive theatrics of opera to the intimacy of film.


Born in Paris, Ponnelle studied music, history and art and spent part of his childhood in Baden-Baden, in West Germany.

Ponnelle worked first as a set designer before making his directorial debut in 1962 with Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” in Dusseldorf.

Major Opera Houses

During the 1960s, Ponnelle worked at the world’s premier opera houses, from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City to La Scala in Milan and from Covent Gardens in London to the Vienna Opera.

Although his association with the San Francisco Opera had lessened in recent years he was due there in two weeks to stage revivals of “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Der Fliegende Hollander.”

He had been scheduled to supervise the staging of “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Moses and Aron” at this year’s Salzburg Festival but was forced to cancel.

Bernheimer, in his 1985 interview and commentary on the flamboyant Frenchman, said that “at his inspired best, Ponnelle has made opera a source of stimulation for the thinking man. . . .”

Ponnelle is survived by his wife, German actress and director Margit Saad, and a son.