Arts Review

The Metropolitan Opera: Fall 2009 Season

The 2009–2010 Metropolitan Opera season is the first entirely planned by Peter Gelb, the company’s dynamic General Manager. Although Gelb officially began his tenure in 2006, much of the ensuing three seasons had already been scheduled and cast due to the opera business’s lengthy planning cycles. His major impact so far has been on marketing and distribution including a vastly increased reliance on technology to reach larger audiences. The Met’s “Live in HD” telecasts into movie theaters around the world have been enormously successful. Opera outside the opera house had always felt like a shadowy simulacrum in the past, but the HD image and sound are truly almost as satisfying as the live theater experience. In the end, however, a General Manager is judged by the quality of the operas he produces and not in how they are disseminated.

In the last few years Gelb managed to wedge a few new imported productions into the schedule: a ravishing Madama Butterfly and a striking Satyagraha from the English National Opera; a delightful La  Fille du Régiment and a luscious La Rondine, from London’s Royal Opera House; a dazzlingly theatrical La Damnation de Faust from genius director Robert Lepage, a revision of his earlier Opéra National de Paris production; and a blood-and-guts Trovatore from Chicago, the first successful mounting of the work at the Met in decades. True, the Met’s own brand-new productions over the last three years have been variable. Gelb’s first season brought a scintillating Barbiere di Siviglia, a solid Trittico and a mesmerizing Orfeo ed Eurydice, but those productions had been planned and cast by his predecessor, Joseph Volpe. New productions in later seasons were often more problematic: a terribly misguided Peter Grimes, a terribly cast Macbeth, and a muddled staging of a new opera, Doctor Atomic. But again, the blame for these productions could not entirely fall on Gelb’s doorstep. Much was therefore at stake in this new season, and it is telling—and worrisome—that, so far, the most successful new work is again one that originated outside the Met (From the House of the Dead), whereas the two original productions (Tosca and Les Contes d’Hoffmann) were both troubled.


Gelb’s job is not simple. The pull of inertia at an opera house like the Met is formidable. The preceding General Manager, Joseph Volpe, had spent virtually his entire career at the company, steeped in its culture. He ran a tight but stationary ship. Although Gelb had prior professional associations with the Met, even briefly serving as an usher in his youth, he made his career elsewhere and came in as a change agent. Ultimately, he has faced several obstructions: the systemic quagmire at any large artistic institution that deals with recalcitrant unions and opinionated donors, the ever-unstable artistic talent pool, and of course the global recession which has dried up funding and diverted attention and energy. The increasingly diminished profile of the Met’s chief public artistic face, James Levine, has also affected the company’s work. Levine joined the Met in 1971, became its Music Director in 1976 and Artistic Director in 1986. For two decades, he was deeply involved in the quotidian work of the house: repertory, casting, production. During this time, he worked with a series of short-term, less powerful General Managers and filled the leadership void with his own immense talent. Then came the strong-willed Volpe, and Levine began slowly to withdraw, conducting fewer performances and relinquishing the Artistic Director title in 2004 to become, once again, merely Music Director. He took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the same year and has recently faced a series of serious health problems. Last fall he conducted the opening night of Tosca, cancelled the rest of his performances, and returned only for the new Contes d’Hoffmann production in December. Levine’s role now seems to be more advisory, and Gelb, for all his intelligence and drive, is not an artist but a businessman. He waves the flag for enhanced theatrical values at the Met—a welcome goal—but success requires involved artists with experience and skill. Gelb can’t manufacture artistic success out of a marketing plan.

The Met’s new Tosca, which opened the season, must be read in the context of what Gelb is attempting to achieve as he ushers the Met into a new era. The preceding Franco Zeffirelli production was infamously overblown and punishingly unwelcoming to the singers who were just cogs in its massive wheels. Audiences loved it, but Gelb was certainly within his rights to want a new take on this repertory staple after a quarter century. The ultimate choice was Luc Bondy, a respected opera specialist whose work lives on the sane side of the regie continuum. Tosca was Bondy’s Met debut and the debut of the prolific set designer Richard Peduzzi. When the production team took their customary bows on opening night, there was significant if not universal booing from the audience, an event that the press reported and discussed extensively in the following weeks. The debate was framed in the usual terms: on one side, a large, vociferous mob of traditionalists decrying the effrontery of an arrogant European director who dared to impose his puerile interpretive ideas onto an opera that did not need reinvention; on the other side, a smaller, dogged coterie of progressives bemoaning the everlasting conservatism of New York audiences and championing iconoclasm. While I usually find myself in the latter camp, with this Tosca I felt the truth lay on neither side. In fact, I was astonished that the Met’s new production engendered much more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Conventional wisdom eventually branded the production a major disappointment, and I do not disagree. My problem was not what happened on stage, however, but what didn’t. Bondy’s Tosca (seen October 6) was the least dramatically engaging reading of this crackling thriller I’ve ever seen—tepid, hesitant, exceedingly dull visually, and far too reliant on the variable skills of the singers. Although the opera takes place in actual settings in Rome, I have no problem with modifying or even ignoring the scenic requirements (Zeffirelli of course re-created them with super-naturalistic accuracy), but what is on stage should ideally be evocative and meaningful. What Bondy and Peduzzi provided looked cheap and flat: high brick walls in the first act, a basement rec room with two red sofas in the second act, a bare stage with a rickety tower in the third. The action played out in airless spaces, lacking atmosphere or any sense of habitation. Blocking felt perfunctory and, in the case of the chorus, downright awkward. The grand “Te Deum” procession at the end of the first act seemed thrown together, with the company marching uncomfortably in place.

Bondy’s major innovation was a heightened rawness, visible in staging decisions that were not objectionable in themselves but were compromised by uncertain execution. At the end of the first act, Scarpia groped a statue of the Madonna, bluntly telegraphing his blasphemous nature. Religious objections were misplaced (he is the villain, after all), but theatrical objections were valid; the act felt studied, obvious, rather than shocking. At the beginning of the second act, Scarpia and his henchmen cavorted with three prostitutes, but the embarrassed-looking cast lacked conviction. The final moment of the opera was particularly egregious: Tosca ran up the steps of the tower and disappeared behind it, only to have an extremely obvious body double leap from the top parapet and freeze over the center stage, suspended by visible wires, as the lights blacked out. I applaud the attempt to create a coup de théâtre, but this was amateurish stuff, mistimed and goofy in effect.

One innovation in particular was much discussed and generally reviled, even inciting an angry letter to the editor of the New York Times. At the end of the second act, after Tosca kills Scarpia, the libretto calls on her to place a series of candles by his body, presumably as expiation for her sin, and then to flee the room as the curtain falls. In Bondy’s production, Tosca, horrified at having committed murder and bordering on hysteria, climbed to the windowsill and paused as if contemplating suicide (a marvelous foreshadowing of the opera’s finale). She then thought better of it and paced the room before settling on the couch, uneasily considering her next move as the curtain fell. This felt psychologically dead-on to me. Tosca, a canny woman, would not run out in a panic, thus alerting the henchmen and guards. Instead, she would stay put, weighing her options. The placing of the candles, while juicy from a theatrical standpoint, always felt stagey. This felt true.

Moments like this and other flashes of personal interaction worked well, and Bondy capitalized on the dramatic skills of his leading lady, Karita Mattila, who was nevertheless sadly miscast. Although Mattila is probably the finest working opera actress today, Italian roles do not come naturally to her. Last season she disappointed as Manon Lescaut, and the Toscas felt even more uncomfortable. Her voice has the wrong structure: rather than blooming at the top of the range, in the manner of a Mirella Freni or Renata Tebaldi, Mattila’s voice tightens and reaches a fine point; the climax of the big aria, “Vissi d’arte,” was a particular disappointment. She cannot really bite into the libretto either and turns Tosca’s specific, forceful outbursts into generic word clusters. What’s more, the peculiarly Italian mix of sexual provocation, theatrical conceit and sweet sincerity seems worn, not inhabited. Mattila can act Tosca, but she does not carry the character in her bones, and the result feels secondhand. Marcello Alvarez as Cavaradossi was the strongest vocal performer, with a true Italian tenor sound and an ample and handsome voice. His acting is also natural and uncomplicated. The Scarpia, George Gagnidze, was a late replacement and, like Mattila, benefited from Bondy’s strength in personenregie. Vocally he lacked suaveness and subtlety. Joseph Colaneri replaced Levine after opening night and conducted with competence but little distinction and shaky coordination.

The second new production of the season, of Leoš Janá ek’s final masterpiece, From the House of the Dead, was given its first-ever Met performances (seen November 16) and was the occasion for two major debuts: director Patrice Chéreau and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Chéreau made his name with the centennial production of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy at Bayreuth in 1976. This epochal staging is often seen as the turning point in European opera production, the moment at which it became not just acceptable but obligatory for directors to reinterpret and revitalize classic works. It is difficult to overstate the influence of Chéreau’s Ring: the theatrical energy, sexual frankness, political overlays, jumbled time periods, self-referentiality, Marxist critique—all are elements that have become central to modern European opera, for better or worse. Few execute with as much skill as Chéreau, and it was more than high time for him to make his Met debut. His House of the Dead began in Vienna and traveled to Aix-en-Provence (where it was filmed for DVD) before coming to the Met, and thus had the advantage of several “out-of-town tryouts.” The set designer was again Richard Peduzzi, doing much stronger work than in the Tosca, although with similarly spartan means. Costumes were by Caroline de Vivaise, and the sensational lighting was by Bertrand Couderc.

New York had seen House of the Dead once previously, in an honorable New York City Opera production in 1990 that did not leave much impression. The ensuing two decades, and increasing exposure to the music of the great Czech composer, have readied the public, and this time the piece was a sensation. The opera, which premiered in 1930, two years after Janá   ek’s death, is based on a novel by Dostoyevsky which relates, in fictionalized format, the author’s experiences in a Siberian prison camp. The piece has no plot but instead presents vignettes of prison life, interspersed with long monologues by several characters who relate the circumstances of their incarceration. The structure is challenging, requiring a director capable of a cinematic command of focus and flow and actors who can hold attention through the lengthy stories. The score presents its own challenges. Whereas most operas of its time develop their themes symphonically, Janá   ek supplies only a series of brief figures that repeat endlessly, with occasional interruptions for fragmented, folk-based melodies that dry up almost upon appearance. Salonen, a specialist in twentieth-century music, found and cherished every scrap of beauty in this spiky work, a reification of the novel’s embracing epigraph: “In every human being, a divine spark.”

The sense of humanity amidst hopeless routine and spirit-crushing isolation was palpable in Chéreau’s staging. As the characters appeared, little touches distinguished them from the grey crowd: Skuratov’s skittishness, Gorianchikov’s quiet nobility, Alyeya’s adolescent volatility (the latter role, usually cast with a mezzo-soprano, was sung by a tenor in a bid for increased naturalism). During the transition between the first and second scenes, a seeming ton of plaster debris fell with a thud from the flies onto the stage floor, and the cast spent the next fifteen minutes sweeping it up—a brilliant illustration of the pointless, menial work that fills the prisoners’ days. In the second scene, the prisoners enact a series of entertainments to amuse themselves and the guards, including a potted version of Don Giovanni and a mildly pornographic farce. In these and other scenes Chéreau utilized a corps of non-singing actors who blended into the chorus and provided a grounding realism and specificity to the action of the group, which an opera company might not normally be able to accomplish. Chéreau and Salonen were also able to cast the principals not for marquee value but for dramatic and vocal appropriateness. Veterans such as Kurt Streit and Willard White did their best work ever at the house, and relative newcomers such as Stefan Margita and Peter Hoare also impressed. Top honors belonged to renowned baritone Peter Mattei, who delivered Shishkov’s twenty-minute monologue in the final act with astounding intensity and vocal glamour. This was singing and acting at its peak and affirmation of Mattei’s extraordinary talent. The Met should build a new production every year around this artist.

I have been talking of these productions in mostly theatrical terms, but any opera house’s primary concern is making music. Gelb has focused attention on theatrical values mainly because the Met’s musical standards have generally been first rate. But of course you can hire the best directors and still have a disappointing evening if the music and singing do not work, and that is what happened with the Met’s new Les Contes d’Hoffmann, directed by Bartlett Sher and conducted by Levine (seen December 7). Hoffmann, a glorious, overstuffed feast of melody, is by any measure a difficult work to pull off. Jacques Offenbach, the most successful theater composer of his day, churned out one marvelous operetta after another in mid-nineteenth-century Paris but yearned to create a serious, artistic work, and Hoffmann was his attempt, tragically left unfinished at his death. Over the years, tinkerers have expanded on sketches, invented new music, arranged and rearranged arias and entire acts. In the last thirty years, musicologists have discovered long-lost original manuscripts and have constructed increasingly complex performing editions that may or may not reflect Offenbach’s original intentions. The history of the opera’s various incarnations has filled a few dissertations, and to this day there is no true authentic version, merely a series of choices that need to be made.

Levine has always favored a slightly expanded version of the traditional, corrupt edition. The new music he incorporates, reclaimed by musicologist Fritz Oeser in the 1970s, mostly concerns the character of Hoffmann’s Muse who disguises herself as his friend Nicklausse. What had been virtually a cameo in the old edition becomes, in the newer versions, a central figure: the spirit of artistic endeavor who keeps Hoffmann focused despite his various dissipations. Levine first performed this version in Salzburg in 1981 and brought it to the Met in 1992. Subsequent work by musicologist Michael Kaye has created a persuasive and much more creditable performing version that the Met has not taken into account here. For example, Levine retains the completely spurious aria “Scintille Diamant” and the famous septet, neither by Offenbach. I understand the allure—these are both wonderful pieces of music—but they bear little relationship to the music around them, and the gears shift clumsily at each insertion. What’s more, the new music Kaye has restored makes more thematic sense in relation to the underscoring and to the overall musical development, revealing Offenbach to be a composer of admirable sophistication and not just a master tunesmith.

For 100 years, the story of Hoffmann was a fairly straightforward series of triangles: a poet/lover, recounting three stories concerning the women in his life and the villains who continually thwarted him. The recent revisions have squared the triangles by presenting the Muse/ Nicklausse as a fourth major character, competing equally for Hoffmann’s attentions. Suddenly the dynamics of the opera are less straightforward. Who is good and who is bad? What is best for Hoffmann as an artist and as a man, and how can that be achieved? The restoration of Offenbach’s original design has made the opera richer, deeper, a little more mysterious. Sher’s production further blurs these lines, and the result is unnerving, not always satisfying, muddled, but not uninteresting. Older productions typically presented the opera as a jewel box, an exhibition of the beautiful and the charmingly grotesque; the celebrated 1951 Powell/Pressburger movie is certainly in this vein. Sher, an acclaimed theater director, takes his cues from the reconstructed text, presenting a dreamscape, or rather a nightmare-scape, a proto-Freudian examination of creativity, fear, the uncanny, the maternal siren and the shadow. Sher has talked about Hoffmann as an outsider, a manifestation of Offenbach, the German Jew who never quite broke into French society, despite his enormous popular success. His goal, only fitfully achieved, was to filter this sense of dislocation through imagery derived from Kafka, Magritte and Fellini. I don’t really see Kafka, but there is plenty of Fellini, with Hoffmann as an avant-la-lettre Guido Anselmi. Sher was aided by the set designer Michael Yeargan and by the fabulous costumes of Catherine Zuber, who began in the 1920s and then zoomed through various time periods, further dislocating the action from reality.

Sher fills the Met stage with loopy dream imagery, floating backdrops, bizarrely costumed choristers, circus freaks, images of decay and licentiousness. He allows characters from one story to seep into other stories and doubles and quadruples his actors, creating doppelgängers of doppelgängers. The cuteness and sentiment of previous productions is missing; for example, the toymaker Spalanzani is here a Caligari mad scientist, not a twinkly old man. The playing space is open and fluid; and while I miss the decisive solidity of the Met’s previous Otto Schenk production, Sher’s approach is more faithful to the surreal text. The results are at once overly busy and too static, sometimes strikingly beautiful and sometimes ungainly. For every stunning image, such as the gala tableau that opens the Giulietta scene, there is a fuzzy moment, such as the bungled return to the Tavern in the epilogue. Primary focus is on Hoffmann and the Muse. In her guise as Nicklausse, she is onstage for virtually the entire opera. Gradually we realize that she is directing much of the action, often invisible to the other characters. She works in tandem with the villains, helping Dr. Miracle in his temptation of the sickly Antonia, for instance. Sher asks: Is the Muse looking out for Hoffmann’s best interests by steering him away from his loves and back toward his writing desk (which is onstage for most of the evening)? What is best for Hoffmann—happiness or artistic achievement? The questions are fascinating, but again, the execution is frustrating. The Antonia act in particular, although beautifully designed and happily free of too much extraneous business, feels under-blocked. During the hair-raising climactic trio, Dr. Miracle and the spirit of Antonia’s Mother lazily stroll into Antonia’s space, and Sher neglects to position them in juxtaposition to her in a vivid way.

Critically, the production might have worked better had it been sung and acted with more conviction. Over the last nine months, this Hoffmann suffered a series of cancellations that decimated the original lineup. Rolando Villazón, René Pape, and Elina Garanca all dropped out, and star diva Anna Netrebko, who was to have sung all the heroines, opted to sing only Antonia and the cameo role of Stella. The singers that took over were disappointing across the board. Coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim stopped the show, as always, with Olympia’s aria, but the applause was more for the song than for Kim’s pretty but bland rendition. Ekaterina Gubanova was a solid but unseductive Giulietta. A few pitch quibbles aside, Netrebko sang powerfully, easily taking vocal honors. Her high notes remain things of wonder. Much has been written on the difficulty of one singer essaying all the heroine roles, but it does work so well dramatically that it’s a shame Netrebko didn’t give it a go; she would have been a fun Olympia and a luscious Giulietta. Stalwart baritone Alan Held felt like an understudy as the Villains. He is reliably strong in ensemble roles but does not have the vocal or dramatic goods to hold center stage. Tenor Alan Oke walked through the tiny roles of the “Four Servants” and was the first exponent I have seen who didn’t steal his little scenes. Joseph Calleja, in the title role, is a promising but unfinished artist. There is a honeyed sweetness in his voice and a pleasing freedom at the top that at times recalls the legendary Jussi Björling. There is also a fast, bleaty vibrato that becomes more pronounced as his voice tires. He sings bluntly, without poetry. Most disappointing of all was Kate Lindsay as the Muse. Her voice was two sizes too small for this role, and she struggled to make any kind of vocal or dramatic impression. Levine conducted sluggishly but with wonderful sonorities from the orchestra.

In retrospect, it is perhaps no great surprise that Tosca and Hoffmann were problematic while House of the Dead was successful. The great crisis in opera production over the last quarter century has really been about the Romantic works that form the core of the repertory; roughly, those operas composed between about 1830 and 1910. Earlier works from the Classical and Baroque eras are distant enough for us to accept, indeed require, a certain stylization in their presentation. These works are also grateful to the generally smaller voices available to a modern house. Modern works, from the last hundred years or so, are recent enough so that the styles in which they flourish still feel vital: naturalism, expressionism, surrealism, satire, and so forth. In general, they ask for dramatic commitment as much as for vocal technique and thus are better suited to the theatrically trained singers of today. But the Romantic works—the bel canto repertory, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Bizet, Puccini, verismo—thrive with a kind of theatrical approach that feels alien or even campy to modern audiences. Traditional productions of works from this era feel self-conscious and thus inauthentic whereas non-traditional productions can feel obvious or willfully contrary. These operas also demand a kind of singing that has all but disappeared. On any given night in, say, 1955 a major opera house could cast each of the major roles in Tosca or Hoffmann a half dozen times over without any concessions. Today it is virtually impossible to cast these works well even once. Peter Gelb, for all his brilliance in marketing and distribution, cannot make Verdi baritones, Puccini sopranos, or Wagner tenors appear at will. Confidence and ease in the theatrical and musical manifestation of the Romantic repertory has disappeared from our DNA, and we may just have to wait for it to come back.