Low Art and High Drama at the Metby George Grella
The 2009–2010 Metropolitan Opera season began with arguments over Luc Bondy’s new production of Tosca. The most aggrieved party was Franco Zeffirelli, whose work Bondy’s replaced. Nothing better illustrates General Manager Peter Gelb’s laudable desire to bring more drama to the Met’s stage than the differences between Bondy’s Tosca and the revival of Zeffirelli’s twenty-year-old production of Turandot. The contrast is between what opera actually is and what it has been perverted into: a static, meaningless spectacle little different from American Idol. Zeffirelli’s Turandot had everything and meant nothing, with its ridiculously extravagant sets and costumes and dozens of supernumeraries, chorus members, and acrobats. There was so much happening that it was impossible to focus on single, continuous events; the eye was constantly distracted by something new. Case in point is scene two of the second act, which takes place in front of the emperor’s throne. The staging literally placed the action there, but the throne was set about half a mile back and perhaps a thousand feet high, so far away that Charles Anthony, singing the role, could barely project past the orchestra pit. The set, which garnered the second-largest interruption for applause, was dressed in white, gold, and blue Western clichés of Asian art, with a lavishness that would make the most obscene McMansion look like a bungalow. Amidst the uniforms, crowns, banners, and accoutrements, the singers stood around as an afterthought. Zeffirelli hasn’t a clue what to do with characters.
The shame is that this is Puccini’s best music—dramatic, propulsive, and powerful. Andris Nelsons conducted ably and energetically, and the singing was decent enough. Maria Guleghina was top-notch as the title character; Marina Poplavskaya sweet if a little insecure in the upper registers as Liú; Samuel Ramey solid but unexceptional singing Timur; and Frank Porretta, making his debut as Caláf, was raw but clear and energetic. Applause should be earned, though. The famous aria “Nessun dorma” received the expected ovation but was mediocre: Porretta rushed the tempo and, at the performance I attended, his sound was a little rough, possibly from fatigue. Productions like this create expectations of fast-food-like comfort; audiences come to applaud the scenery and the big numbers. Zeffirelli is a vulgarian who thinks he’s an aesthete, and he has done a great deal of damage to opera. The less his work is seen at the Met the better.
Bartlett Sher and Patrice Chéreau, on the other hand, should be seen more. Sher’s production of Il Barbiere di Seviglia was already a highlight of the season, and his new production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman was, was, deservedly, a popular and critical success. It didn’t quite have the invention or the charm of Il Barbiere, but that is due to the work itself, which doesn’t have the total integration of drama and music of the greatest operas. The production and performance were committed, though, with solid, deep casting, James Levine’s return to the pit, and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja in control of the daunting, exhausting title role. The use of three fine singers to represent Hoffman’s dream loves was imaginative: Kathleen Kim as the mechanical doll Olympia, Ekaterina Gubanova as the courtesan Giulietta, and Anna Netrebko as both the singer Antonia and the prima donna Stella, Hoffman’s true ideal, of whom the other women are mere aspects. Stealing the show were both Kate Lindsey, singing beautifully as the Muse of Poetry and totally believable in the trouser-part of Hoffman’s friend Nicklausse, and the production itself. Sher knows how to direct and create appropriate mood, from the opera house to the whorehouse, the home to the tavern. Les Contes d’Hoffman is a bourgeois cliché on the mad poet in a constant inward spiral, and it’s a challenge to make that inner life interesting and dynamic to today’s audience. Sher served Offenbach’s drama in full measure.
Chéreau, who has been one of the world’s most important opera directors for 30 years, only this year debuted at the Met, joined by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in the production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. Janacek is a great and still under-heard opera composer, and this work is the epitome of operatic drama. There really isn’t a story, just observations, from Dostoevsky, of men in prison, where their static isolation makes for an ideal opera space. Chéreau’s production was bleaker than Tosca yet vibrant and exciting, with edgy, energetic direction of the characters trying to hold onto their sanity and vitality in the grimmest circumstances. They fight with and steal from each other; they stage two bawdy tales, one about Don Juan and the other about an unfaithful wife, in front of diffident visitors from town; they nurse an injured eagle (brilliantly presented as a wooden model that, even when healed, can never fly and escape); they clean up an enormous pile of trash dropped from the rafters; they drink and die. House of the Dead is an elusive and compelling work, and the production, with its emphasis on drama, was opera at its finest. Salonen, tellingly, sneaked into the pit unnoticed and began the music with no concession to ceremonial applause. When Peter Mattei mesmerized the house as Shishkov, with his long, discursive, and self-pitying explanation of how he murdered his wife, it was clear that the Met was scaling the most ambitious heights of musical drama.
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.