There's been an interesting mini-trend in operatic directing in the past few months: updating 19th-century comic operas to World War II settings. Emilio Sagi's WWII La Fille du Regiment, originally produced in Bologna, had notable revivals at La Scala and in Washington (it comes to Houston later this year); here in Boston, the Boston Conservatory's spring production of "L'elisir d'amore" had a WWII setting, as did Intermezzo's Signor Deluso; and now Marc Geelhoed sends word of Chicago Opera Theater's Béatrice et Bénédict.
In general, I'm more sympathetic to high-concept modernizations of opera than most. Bad ones just vaguely toy around with making the piece "relevant" or other such nonsense, but good ones are after bigger game: the immediacy of the dramatic situation. One of my favorite modernizations was Peter Sellars' 1988 Tannhäuser for the Chicago Lyric Opera, with the title character a fallen televangelist in the Jim Bakker mold. The production was a scandal, mainly to those who already knew the piece; but for those of us who didn't (including me, at that time), it made the dramatic stakes immediately apparent, rather than something in need of explanation or exposition. (For those who remember the staging with disdain, I'll simply defend it by saying that it got me interested in Tannhäuser, and Tannhäuser is the opera that got me interested in Wagner.)
I charitably assume that directors with similar ideas are after the same thing, rather than mere novelty or shock. A rather charitable assumption, in many cases, but if we apply it to this latest spate of 1940s military imagery, what does it mean? It means the directors are sure that, as soon as we recognize the setting, we'll be put in the proper frame of mind for light romantic comedy. Which is pretty weird, when you think about it.
I would think that, after the last century's carnage, we would be pretty immune to the romanticization of war, but I guess these days, historically hung over from Vietnam, mired in Iraq, the perception of nobility and moral clarity offered by World War II has become more and more appealing. Of course, that conflict had as much ignobility and moral ambiguity as any. (Ponder the Allied response to the Holocaust, or the internment of Japanese-Americans. I'm not implying a blanket condemnation of our reactions in those situations, but just offering an example of how wartime is always messier and more complicated than we like to remember.) And WWII vets had the same difficulties readjusting to civilian life, something that was more readily discussed at the time than it is now. (Case in point: William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946 to critical acclaim.)
And yet, the 60 intervening years have made that event not only comparatively benign, but a suitable backdrop for some of the sunniest operas in the repertory. It's worth noting that nobody (myself included) has experienced these productions as cognitively dissonant, or somehow trying to directorially inject a note of bleak despair. I think what they're tapping into is that peculiar historical moment, when it seemed that, for all the cascading political complications as the war ended, the Allied cooperation and the lessons of 1919 would ensure that the brave new post-war world would really be a better place. Romantic comedies are, after all, essentially optimistic; I guess the level of underlying poignancy depends on how well you know your history.