Analysis: The Metropolitan Opera's 2013-14 Season

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The annual announcement of the Metropolitan Opera’s new season, which came today, is always a reason to pause and consider the state of that institution and, by connection, the state of Planet Opera. I did such a consideration last year and thus far, some of my hopes have been realized while others have been dashed because of singers and conductors who did not appear or were no longer suited to the repertory they agreed to do when first approached.

New Yorkers have long been jealously proud of the Met, declaring it the world’s best opera company. They feel protective and defensive of it and find ways to counteract claims that the companies of Vienna, Munich, Paris or elsewhere are better. I would say that the Met ranks among the best and we want it to be even better. What we New Yorkers sometimes forget is that we have more than two dozen operas to pick from at the Met each season and there will be things that please and displease all opera lovers. Other American opera companies, even the best ones, offer eight to ten works a season at most and, in straitened economic times, many have cut their seasons down to five operas. 

The big European theaters have offerings that rival the Met’s and I am very conscious of the fact that they secure special singers we don’t often see in New York. Some great artists who do sing at the Met are conspicuously absent next season. Among the missing in 2013-2014 are Daniela Barcellona (who would be great in several operas the Met does next season); Mariella Devia (a placid stage presence to be sure but, even at an advanced age, just scored a huge triumph in Il Pirata in Barcelona); Gerald Finley; Ferruccio Furlanetto (amazing right now in Don Carlo at the Met. His Boris Godunov was acclaimed in Moscow and St. Petersburg and needs to be seen here); Vesselina Kasarova; Karita Mattila; Adrianne Pieczonka; Rene Pape; Nina Stemme; Bryn Terfel.

A special case is Anja Harteros. Her Violetta and Donna Anna at the Met were unforgettable, but she is a frequent canceler and I would guess that her absence at the Met is not due to the company’s lack of trying. That said, there will be many great singers at the Met next year in familiar and new roles. The star of soprano Susanna Phillips is ascendent. She will be Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Musetta in La Bohème and Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, which gets a new production on New Year’s Eve. 

I wonder if the Met might have used the money for Die Fledermaus for better purposes. The old production had sets by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen that were wonderfully idiomatic. There were great costumes and choreography too. It also had an absolutely dreadful book that was leaden and humorless.  Viennese humor, which I adore, does not translate easily. That production was also done before projected titles brought text closer to audiences and not every opera singer can deliver a funny line. The Met’s announcement says that the new production has lyrics by Jeremy Sams (in English, I presume) and “dialogue” by Douglas Carter Beane. Both are very talented men, but I think their gifts could have been used on the old production. Sams had a major hand in the baroque pastiche, The Enchanted Island, which returns next year with a great cast headed by Susan Graham as Sycorax, Luca Pisaroni as her son Caliban, David Daniels as Prospero and Plácido Domingo parting the waters as Neptune. 

It is no secret that the choices made by Met General Manager Peter Gelb have delighted many opera lovers and infuriated many others. Those of us with long memories can tell you that previous general managers also divided public opinion. Certain singers, conductors and producers are favored by every general manager. This is not news.

Levine to Make Comeback

The biggest and best news of all is the announced return of music director James Levine to the orchestra pit. He is scheduled to lead the Met orchestra at Carnegie Hall on May 19 and then will begin conducting opera on Sept. 24 with Così fan tutte. Mozart is one of Levine’s specialties and Così is, to me, one of the composer’s most sublime scores. 

Levine has been the heart and soul of the Metropolitan Opera for more than four decades. His return, if he is disciplined about his health and energy, will bring all kinds of benefits to the music-making at the Met, even in the productions in which he is not directly involved. He will surely fine tune the excellent Met orchestra and help restore its glow.

Later in the season, Levine will lead a new production of Falstaff by Robert Carsen, one that I saw in London (right) that was my favorite new production of 2012. I think that Carsen is the most gifted opera director now at work, so this is very good news. In March, Levine is scheduled to conduct Wozzeck, one of the operas closest to his heart, and that will be a must-see.

The new season will have six new productions and 20 revivals in a rather eclectic and adventurous mix. There will be three operas each by Bellini (Norma, I Puritani, La Sonnambula), Puccini (La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca) and Richard Strauss (Arabella, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Rosenkavalier). In addition to Bellini, bel canto lovers can look forward L’Elisir d’Amore and La Cenerentola, which has a dream cast including Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez and Luca Pisaroni. The conductor is Fabio Luisi.

The notable presence of Strauss is due to the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1864. There are interesting casts in these operas, with Christine Goerke, who just sang the role of The Dyer’s Wife in Amsterdam, certain to be riveting as that character in Frau, along with Anne Schwanewilms and Meagan Miller making their debuts sharing the role of the Empress. Vladimir Jurowski conducts. Viennese soprano Martina Serafin will be the Marschallin in Die Rosenkavalier and Elina Garanca and debutante Daniela Sindram share the role of Octavian. Garanca also stars in a new Richard Eyre production of Massenet’s Werther, with Jonas Kaufmann certain to bring his soulful artistry to the title role. This, on quick review, seems to be the only French-language opera in the new season.

New opera is always important to the health of the art form. The Met commissioned Nico Muhly’s Two Boys as part of its initiative to develop new works. This co-production with the English National Opera will have its Met premiere on Oct. 21, 2013. The opera is in experienced hands, with a libretto by Craig Lucas, conductor David Robertson, director Bartlett Sher, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber and a talented cast led by Alice Coote.

Only two operas next season will be by Verdi (Falstaff, Rigoletto) and none by Wagner, the two composers celebrating the bicentennial of their births in 2013. This is an interesting choice, even though Verdi and Wagner are omnipresent in the 2012-2013 season. Verdi operas sell tickets and a season without Wagner seems to have a piece missing. It is expensive to stage Wagner’s long operas, so the shorter Der Fliegende Holländer might have done the trick, perhaps starring Bryn Terfel and Nina Stemme. A centennial revival of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night’s Dream will have the always-welcome presence of James Conlon in the orchestra pit.

Russian and Slavic opera will be prominent. Renée Fleming appears in one of her signature roles, Rusalka. Also being revived is the thrilling William Kentridge production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, conducted by Valery Gergiev, which is nothing to sneeze at. Opening night will have a new production, by Deborah Warner, of Eugene Onegin, with Gergiev leading Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala and Mariusz Kwiecien. I think Warner does a lot of great work (I loved her staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Paris’s Opera Comique last March) but I am very sad to see Robert Carsen’s lovely production of Onegin be retired. There are many other works I would be glad to see Warner tackle. 

I am very excited about the arrival of Borodin’s Prince Igor, with Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role, a production by Dmitri Tcherniakov and the welcome return of Gianandrea Noseda in the pit, who is a specialist in Russian repertoire. He will also lead Andrea Chénier, which he will surely shine in, with Patricia Racette, Marcelo Alvarez and Zeljko Lucic promising excitement on the stage.

Racette will also sing Tosca, a role she will share with Sondra Radvanovsky, who starts the season as Norma. Later in the run, the Druid priestess will be sung by Angela Meade, who then will be Alice Ford in the new Falstaff, starring the wonderful Ambrogio Maestri and Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo will have an increased profile, reprising his elegant Ferdinand in The Enchanted Island and certain to be great fun as Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus.

There will be ten HD international transmissions: Eugene Onegin (Oct.5 ); The Nose (Oct. 26); Tosca (Nov. 9); Falstaff (Dec. 14);  Rusalka (Feb. 8); Prince Igor (Mar. 1); Werther (Mar. 15); La Bohème (Apr. 5); Così fan tutte (Apr. 26); La Cenerentola (May 10). I think the absence of Wozzeck is a big missed opportunity and it might have been interesting to have Two Boys documented as well. I would have eliminated both of the Puccini operas as these productions already exist on video, but it is understandable that the Met would want to include two popular works in the eclectic HD line-up.

Opera Revival at Carnegie Hall

New Yorkers will be glad to know that Carnegie Hall has increased its commitment to the vocal arts. In addition to three recital series, the Marilyn Horne master classes and large choral works, there will be four not-to-miss operas in concert next season. On Nov. 22 (Britten’s 100th birthday), the St. Louis Symphony performs Peter Grimes with the wonderful Anthony Dean Griffey and the ubiquitous Susanna Phillips. Carnegie Hall is doing a special focus on Vienna in the winter of 2014, including a visit from the Vienna State Opera for Wozzeck (Feb. 28) and Salome (Mar. 1). 

One of the best opera performances I have been to lately was a concert version of Handel’s Radamisto at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 24. It was conducted by Harry Bicket and starred David Daniels at the peak of his artistry. This bodes well for the Giulio Cesare they will do this spring at the Met. They return to Carnegie on Feb. 2, 2014 in Handel’s Theodora, with Dorothea Röschmann in the title role and Sarah Connolly as Irene.

We New Yorkers want all of our arts institutions to be strong. We have many excellent smaller companies in addition to the big ones (including the New York City Opera). It is easy to be cynical, despondent or overly nostalgic, but new works, new singers and new visions of classics are an essential part of keeping opera vibrant. Where there is life, there is hope.

Photo: Kai Rüütel, Ana Maria Martinez, Amanda Forsythe in 'Falstaff' (credit: Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House)