One of the most frequent calls I hear from opera fans is for directors to stage ‘traditional’ productions and complaints about those who stage works in modern dress that have been more familiarly seen in wigs or togas.

The esteemed critic Rupert Christiansen is one who favours the more conservative approach, arguing in an online debate for Welsh National Opera that some pieces relate to specific circumstances that no longer exist, and which are therefore best kept as they might first have been seen. Certainly, no ambitious director is going to make a splash by setting Carmen in 19C Spain or Butterfly in 1900 Japan, cynics argue. But with many recent productions challenging expectations, it’s worth asking what’s going on.

Attitudes change. Some regarding race, disability, class or nationalism may be unacceptable today. And others question why it’s usually the woman—often a femme fatale—who gets it in the end, while the bloke walks free.

Counsel for the defence of Regietheater—the posh name for this trend—argue that directors are trying to convey what the composer / librettist had in mind as it is likely to be understood by an audience today. Verdi, for example, had to set pieces in distant lands or times to avoid censorship; Handel was writing for a class that would have been familiar with classical myths now mostly forgotten. And composers from Cavalli to Puccini loved modern gadgetry. I bet they would have used video projection had it been around.

And what about Fidelio? Written at a time when Beethoven saw Napoleon as the radical anti-aristocratic, anti-clerical hero who would sweep away injustices of the old order, yet now hardly capable of being set in exactly the same period and conveying the same import. No wonder it is one of the most frequently transposed operatic masterpieces.

A more recent example came to mind after watching productions of Poulenc’s wonderful Les Dialogues des Carmelites. The deeply religious composer sets his drama of the massacre of Carmelite nuns at the time of the French Revolution.

It’s a powerful story of the triumph of the spirit even in death. Yet how much more powerful it seemed viewing the interpretation of Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov for Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, who set the piece in our own lifetime, in the context of Stalinist labour camps, a world of brutal barbarity that Poulenc could never have imagined.

OK—disjuncture can arise, the scripted sword gives way to the performer’s pistol. But whenever I watch some avant-garde production, the questions are still the same: what are they trying to say, how well is it said, and is it worth saying—even if someone’s Carmen is set on the 52nd floor of Trump Tower! And sometimes, if it's done well, the piece speaks to me with a clearer voice.

Good, bad, ugly. Judge for yourself from these illustrations of operas available online or on DVD.