Lincoln Center is different nowadays. Outside, there is a sleek new fountain and a Parisian-style grove. City Opera has returned, and Alan Gilbert leads the Philharmonic. The façade of the Metropolitan Opera in the back is not new, but new things are happening inside that may prove to be the most enduring changes there.
General Manager Peter Gelb has made clear his intention to revitalize the Met. On top of the live HD broadcasts to movie theaters and the online video, Met Opera is expanding its audience and artistic range. Gelb understands that chasing a rapidly aging audience is a path to self-destruction, so the Met recently produced Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, and has updated Britten’s Peter Grimes, a less familiar repertory work.
The current season has nothing as new as those works, though it does include Alban Berg’s Lulu and two other unusual compositions, The Nose by Shostakovich and Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. The subtly radical thing that Gelb is doing, however, is updating productions of some of the old favorites, operas that are usually safe and unvarying. For traditionalists, this is tramping on sacred ground, and the struggle this season was immediate and obvious over Puccini’s Tosca.
Tosca was booed into the news—not the opera per se, but the production and its director, Luc Bondy, who was jeered at the premier and insulted by Franco Zeffirelli. Tosca was criticized by the Times, the New Yorker, and even Marcelo Alvarez, who played Cavaradossi. But was the booing deserved? Well, yes and no.
People booed because it was not Zeffirelli. It was not traditional, not the Tosca they once knew. They are free to boo, but it’s objection, not criticism. The production was not good, but not terrible either. Rather than a radical updating, it was surprisingly staid; those hung up on the simulated fellatio Scarpia receives missed the real problem: Puccini. His music glorifies the voice, and the fleeting emotions of his characters can thrill. His focus is on the characters, and in performance it can become displaced onto the stars playing them. His work is emotive, but it is rarely dramatic. He’s a problematic dramatist, and so the music in his operas fails to make great drama. Scarpia sings “I lust” to grand, majestically rousing music and Tosca sings the line “I’d sooner kill myself” accompanied by a dazzling major chord. These are problems. The music is at odds with what the characters are saying, and opera is a form where it must convey the drama as well. Tosca’s piety is supposed to make her murder of Scarpia wrenching, but Puccini conveys it in a superficial manner. A great performer like Maria Callas can make us care about her, but Puccini himself doesn’t. On the night I attended, understudy Maria Gavrilova filled in capably after a hesitant start, and her performance of “Vissi d’arte” showed some real ideas, but she could not be expected to create what wasn’t there.
Bondy’s plain, spare sets could not be more traditional. They placed the focus entirely on the singers, as did the production itself, leaving the supposedly scandalous details quickly forgotten. The performances were mostly pallid; Alvarez was fine but unremarkable, George Gagnidze a bland Scarpia in a role that the audience needs to hate passionately. The fundamentally daring choice was in picking Tosca itself to be updated. An opera that people love mostly as scenery is not going to be an ideal vehicle for offering new ideas about drama, but messing with Puccini is an assured way to grab attention, and there’s something to be said for getting the old-line Met operagoers booing.
I heard booing at a traditional production as well, the 1,108th performance of Aida. That number deserves a moment of contemplation. It’s what the Met has been all about: traditional and professional productions of the grandest repertory. Thrones! Tombs! A parade on stage, with slaves and horses! The booing was, strangely, for conductor Daniele Gatti, an exceptional musician who led a phenomenal, beautifully shaped, and gripping performance. He was the star of a successful production.
Aida is an example of what the Met does best. It is grand in every way. The Met has resources that few other companies can even dream of. The size of the stage allows for massive productions that please crowds and last because they work and, once paid for, cost relatively little to repeat. One of the reasons Aida works is Verdi, a great dramatist and tunesmith. The music makes sense of the characters and so the literal production is satisfying. Opera is where we go for unhappy endings, and Aida has one of the most grandly unhappy of all. The Met’s production went along professionally, if not exceptionally, until Carlo Guelfi appeared as the Ethiopian king Amonasro, and his vocal intensity and physical charisma lit a fire under the rest of the cast, which (the night I attended) included the spectacular Olga Borodina filling in for Dolora Zajick as Amneris. That and Gatti in the pit are the best indications of the amazing resources of the Met, where they can, will, and should do this kind of dramatic production every season.
Despite the minor scandal of Tosca, what the Met has been doing of late has generally succeeded. But success isn’t nearly as newsworthy. Last season’s Robert Lepage production of La Damnation de Faust is on this year’s schedule, and promises to become a part of the Met’s repertory. Faust is a demonstration of what’s possible in contemporary stagecraft, and of good choices in renewing tradition. It’s a good work but not quite an opera; there is a story, two characters who sing...and that’s about it. It’s full of wonderful, exciting music and long instrumental passages that are some of the best parts of the work. Faust is a clean template onto which new ideas can be applied. Lepage’s work is dazzling and slightly scattered; he tries just about everything, both the obvious and the surprising, and is not satisfied with one thing when several will do. When Faust sings of Christian faith, not one but five Christs on the cross appear. What the production does extremely well is enrich the narrative. The choral passage about the siege of a city is depicted through soldiers saying farewell to their wives, marching vertically along the face of the frame in which the action takes place, falling to their deaths back into the arms of the women, reviving, and marching upwards again. The climactic horse ride that brings Faust to his fate is conveyed through a shadow play of sequential images, before the shadow of Faust literally plummets into hell. It’s thrilling. Ildar Abdrazakov was particularly good as Mephistopheles, singing with power and allure and leaping around the stage in his stylized red leather costume. Ultimately Berlioz’s Faust lacks an obsessive audience that threatens to strangle it with what they think is love, and so is more open to experimentation. This experiment is a crowd-pleasing success.
The highlight of the season so far was Bartlett Sher’s new production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It’s another interesting choice, less partisan than changing Tosca and more populist in its attempts to charm people who don’t normally think of attending the Met. People who don’t know Rossini and opera but who do know Warner Brothers cartoons know enough about this work to go, and the audience seemed to be there not for opera but for Figaro himself. This production will bring many of them back to the Met. Sher places the work in eighteenth-century Seville in a way that is very modern. The cast is dressed in stylized period costumes, making the setting and the social situations clear, and the physical environment is conveyed through clever use of nothing more than a number of doors. They are configured and regrouped to depict a grand interior, the street, a garden, and a series of portals that the characters navigate screwball-style. The rest is a series of brilliant details: There is a mule that takes a bow at the end. There’s also a giant anvil that slowly descends at the close of Act I and crushes a cart filled with pumpkins. Cartoons imitate opera, and opera imitates cartoons. Sher’s production is hilarious and winning, a good-hearted gesture of cross-genre appreciation. Il Barbiere is not the most profound work, but arguably the best comic opera there is, and a type of work the opera stage could use more of. The cast in the Met’s production was excellent throughout: Barry Banks a sweet and lively Count Almaviva, the young Rodion Pogossov vivacious and confident in the title role, fan favorite Joyce DiDonato singing beautifully and with a light touch as Rosina, and John Del Carlo playing Dr. Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian and elderly suitor, stealing the show with an assured performance that was just hammy enough.
Opera as an institutional endeavor easily suffers from inertia. It is costly, and it takes huge logistical resources and staff and years of planning before anything appears on stage. Under these burdens, the easy way out is to use those productions that have been used a thousand times before. It’s an understandable decision, but one that can become stultifying. In this context, simple choices have profound effects. Tosca was not new in ideas, but did gesture against the inertia of tradition. Call it a worthwhile failure, and look at the successes like Barbiere di Siviglia for an idea of what can be achieved by questioning tradition.
GEORGE GRELLA is the publisher of the Big City Blog and writes frequently about music for the Rail, where he covers the Brooklyn Philharmonic beat.