The State of the Art at the Metropolitan Opera

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Let me start this discussion of the artistic merits of the Metropolitan Opera by saying that the Met’s is the best opera orchestra in the world, bar none. If you don’t believe me, look at the International Opera Awards. In the first edition, in 2013, the Met was named best opera orchestra. In the 2014 edition, there was not even an orchestra category while most others were maintained. It would be hard to seriously honor another opera orchestra apart from the Met's, which has flourished during the 43-year leadership of James Levine.

Similarly, the Met’s chorus, under the brilliant direction of Donald Palumbo, is among the world’s best. Along with the orchestra, they are the bedrock of very high musical standards at this company.  The quality of guest conductors is strong, though there is always room for someone new or old.

The Met presents many of the world’s best singers, though not often enough. There are lots of wonderful opera singers before the public today of all ages, sizes and shapes who don’t appear at the Met at all. It has become evident that pretty faces, svelte figures and shiny dispositions are often valued more at the Met than supreme artistry and something original to say. While appealing physical attributes are fine, they are not the reason real opera lovers (rather than followers of fashion) go to opera: gorgeous singing with distinct, often gorgeous, voices.

This past season saw the breakthroughs of singers such as Christine Goerke and Javier Camarena. The Met management noted the audience reactions and tried to secure the services of these artists for future seasons. But, I asked myself, didn’t they hear these people in rehearsal and realize then how good they were? To read the company’s announcements, one is led to believe that it was the audience reaction that made clear that these were great singers in our midst.

The Met audience deserves some chastising too when it comes to supporting good singers. Too often, they gallop to the exits when a show ends without according singers the applause they are due. It is fashionable among operagoers of a certain age to complain that there are no good singers and no good productions anymore--especially at the Metropolitan Opera. Such lamentations are part of being an operagoer, but I think some perspective is required.

Any art form, and the institutions that are its incubators and custodians, must change and evolve to remain vital and valid. This does not mean obliterating the past (a real problem at the Met that I will discuss in my next article), but learning from and using the past to build an innovative present and a healthy future. Opera is particular because so much of it is set in the past, but its creators and audiences know that the best works have timeless themes that are relevant even if they take place in ancient Egypt, Revolutionary France or a prison in Louisiana.

Where the Met and many theaters lose their way is when they allow a producer to be gimmicky rather than thorough and incisive in creating a new production that serves the music and ideas of an opera rather than grasping desperately for relevance. "Concept" productions can make for very long, bad evenings for operagoers and must be depressing for singers as well. That is part of the point: an opera production is not just for the audience, but the singers too. To paraphrase Birgit Nilsson, “If the birdies are unhappy, they do not sing well.” To which I would further add that if the big, rich birdies hate a production, they fly away and don’t sing at all.

Many people, myself included, have been frustrated by some of the productions at the Met since Peter Gelb became general manager in 2006. To me, the nadirs were Don Giovanni, Peter Grimes, Faust, Rigoletto and Die Fledermaus, and there have been other clunkers too. I know you have your own list if you are regular at the Met. But there have been outstanding productions in these years too. I can quickly name Madama Butterfly, From the House of the Dead, The Enchanted Island, Falstaff, Satyagraha and Parsifal (right), and could add more as well. Not all of these were created at the Met but were smart acquisitions from other theaters.

People who are nostalgic for productions from the administrations of previous Met general managers—Joseph Volpe, Bruce Crawford, Anthony Bliss, Rudolf Bing have been the dominant figures since 1950—forget that they are nostalgic for the best productions and would not want to revisit all of the mediocrities (or worse) from those eras. It is pointless to look to the past with rose-colored opera glasses.

Another problem at the Met, more so than in the past, is that many performances feel under-rehearsed.  This might be an effort to save money, but the shortcomings are evident. The stagings of revivals are often slapdash and imprecise or so routine that you feel singers are going through the motions rather than digging into their roles and performing spontaneously.

Any opera company, including the Met, wants new productions in the mix each season that are interesting and attract attention. The Stefan Herheim production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Salzburg Festival in 2013 is in the Met’s future plans. I think it is important we see Herheim at the Met. I enjoyed his way-out Rusalka I saw in Brussels (though not everyone would) but found his Les Vepres Siciliennes in London disappointing. 

But I think it is fair to ask, when money is tight and a lockout or strike looms, whether the Met should try to close its deficits by only creating new productions of operas that really need them. There is a decent Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that will be presented this December. I would only replace acceptable productions when all the bad ones have been replaced and all the new operas the company wants to add to the repertory have been staged.

I compiled a list of productions that belong to the Met that do not need replacement now. I am not saying I love them all—I don’t!—but one must prioritize when it comes to expenditure. These productions are good enough that money need not be spent on a new one when some tightening and revisiting of staging details might suffice. [Please note that I am talking here about productions that are good; you may or may not care for the operas themselves]:

Aïda; An American Tragedy; Andrea Chénier; Arabella; Un Ballo in Maschera; La Bohéme; Capriccio; Carmen; Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci; La Cenerentola; La Clemenza di Tito; Così fan tutte; Cyrano de Bergerac; La Damnation de Faust; Death in Venice; Les Dialogues des Carmélites; Dr. Atomic; Don Pasquale; Elektra (this is slated to be replaced by the Patrice Chéreau production I will see this week and will report on); L’Elisir d’Amore; The Enchanted Island; Ernani; Falstaff; La Fanciulla del West; Fedora; Fidelio; The First Emperor; Der fliegende Holländer; La Forza del Destino; Die Frau ohne Schatten; From the House of the Dead; The Ghosts of Versailles; Giulio Cesare; The Great Gatsby; Idomeneo; Iphigenie en Tauride; Kat’a Kabanová; Khovanschina; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata; Lucia di Lammermoor; Luisa Miller; Madama Butterfly; Maria Stuarda; Mefistofele; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Nabucco; Norma; The Nose; Otello; Parsifal; Porgy and Bess; Prince Igor; Queen of Spades; The Rake’s Progress; Rodelinda; Romeo et Juliette; La Rondine; Rusalka; Satyagraha; Semiramide; Simon Boccanegra; Stiffelio; The Tempest; Tristan und Isolde; Il Trittico; Il Trovatore; Les Troyens; Turandot; Two Boys; The Voyage; Werther; Wozzeck; Die Zauberflöte.

Tannhäuser has a wonderful 1977 production that desperately needs freshening and tightening of the stage direction. I gather a new production is in the works, and I am most interested in seeing it, but the old one could be quite valid if it is carefully restored.

There are Met productions where the scenery and costumes are fine but need to be rethought in terms of stage direction. One was the Die Fledermaus from the mid-1980s. It looked great and had excellent choreography but suffered from a dreadful book. The new Die Fledermaus also looks good (though not as good as the old production) and the new book and choreography are worse than the old versions. This was a huge waste of money—the real care and focus should have been placed on the dialogue.

Susanna Phillips and Christopher Maltman in Act 2 of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s 'Die Fledermaus.' (Ken Howard/Met)

Other current productions where the scenery and costumes can be kept but the stage direction needs to be entirely changed: Anna Bolena; Il Barbiere di Siviglia; Benvenuto Cellini; Boris Godunov; Le Comte Ory; Don Carlo; Eugene Onegin; Francesca da Rimini; Lohengrin; Jenufa; Macbeth; Manon; Salome; La Sonnambula; Tosca; La Traviata. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is in a category unto itself. It is too expensive to replace in a timely way. The current production has its virtues but many weak spots. It certainly could benefit from smarter, more incisive stage direction.

A short list of opera productions that, in my view, need replacing include Adriana Lecouvreur; Don Giovanni; Les Contes d’Hoffmann; Faust; La Gioconda; Manon Lescaut; Peter Grimes; I Puritani; Rigoletto. I gather a new Lulu is in the works. Der Rosenkavalier is indeed old and tired and on its way out. It is time for a new one, even though the current one has many charms. I am encouraged that the new production will be by Robert Carsen.

Next: The Broken Bond Between the Metropolitan Opera and its Audience