The State of the Art at the Metropolitan Opera

The Second in a Four-Part Post-Season Analysis of The Met

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 - 09:52 AM

Amanda Echalaz as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly,' one of the successes of the last decade Amanda Echalaz as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly,' one of the successes of the last decade (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

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


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Comments [14]

Matt Capell


Jun. 11 2014 09:30 PM
Dede Bacro from Bradenton, Florida

I can't imagine why you would want the "Don Carlo" to be replaced, I was rapt through the entire opera, and didn't even notice how much time passed... Also, I loved the Las Vegas Rigoletto... who wants to see the old, tired hunchback for the 34th time??? it was fresh and new and made sense... I saw it with Matthew Polenzani, and was amazed at his acting and jittery pill popping... in addition to beautiful singing, absolutely excellent production all around.

Jun. 01 2014 10:07 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

How can you have "new stage direction" for that dreadful Lohengrin???? I suggest they bring back the old set!

May. 22 2014 01:09 PM
PB Lutzin

I saw the Michael Kaye edition of HOFFMANN in Vienna and it was wonderful! Much better than other versions I've seen.

May. 22 2014 09:26 AM
Charlie Richards from Palm Beach College

A fascinating article indeed and I'm looking forward to reading the rest in the series. The only thing I wanted to comment upon is an item in Mr. Plotkin's short list of MET productions that need to be replaced, and that is Bartlett Sher's "Les contes d'Hoffmann." As a person who has been devoted to this opera for most of my life, I completely agree with Mr. Plotkin, and this for two reasons. First of all I think the production is rather incoherent and meaningless. There is deep meaning in Offenbach's opera and the challenge which a director must face when he or she is given the task of directing it, is to find that meaning and drive it home. Sadly, many directors seem to take an easier route with "Hoffmann" - "It's fantasy, nothing about it makes sense anyway, just throw in a lot of colorful stuff and you'll be fine." And this is certainly how Sher's "Hoffmann" plays. Following this plank, a director will usually end up with a "Hoffmann" that is merely a sum of its parts. I have no personal animus against Mr. Sher, in fact, I thought his "Comte Ory" was quite wonderful, I just don't think that in given "Hoffmann" he was handed a project which was right for him.
Secondly, and, perhaps, more importantly, was the MET's (actually James Levine's)decision to ignore current scholarship about this work and go with a hodge-podge conflation of two editions of the opera which have both been long discredited (Choudens and Fritz Oeser). The new edition of Michael Kaye and Jean Christophe Keck, based on Offenbach's manuscript, has finally restored all of Offenbach's authentic pages to the score, many of which were previously unknown. In the process, the historically slighted Giulietta act has gained new importance as the opera's true climax (the original denouement being quite different from anything we had known before).
Sadly, I do not think the Sher production will be replaced any time soon; it would be far too costly. So, for the present, we're pretty much stuck with it. Until a completely new production can be mounted, the best solution would be for the MET to completely revise the performing version of the Giulietta Act and the Epilogue into one which respects what Offenbach and Barbier composed, according to the edition of Michael Kaye and Jean Christophe Keck. I hope that this could be done in time for the MET's revival of "Hoffmann" in the upcoming 2014-15 season so audiences don't have to suffer the meaningless staging that so badly distorts this masterpiece.

May. 21 2014 10:23 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Do not know if this is true but I read somewhere that Ms.Bartoli is afraid to go on an airplane. Just was gifted for Mother's Day of the Barber of Seville with Bartoli and Nucci. Rather wonderful.

May. 21 2014 01:33 PM
Eileen from New York

Question to anyone - Why won't Cecelia Bartoli sing in the US? And where is Kathleen Battle?


May. 21 2014 11:13 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I did not want to like the new production of Rigoletto set in Vegas, but enjoyed it. However, I could not watch the Falstaff. Opera is theatre and seeing those large ladies in high heels was ridiculous. Don't be angry.I am being honest. Nice to read Jennifer Larmore's letter. Fine singer. Did not know what happened to her. New Yorkers think they are so sophisticated but are rather provincial.
Thanks for the fine article.

May. 21 2014 07:24 AM
Todd K

Fred, all but The Enchanted Island on your list of outstanding Gelb-era shows (Madama Butterfly, From the House of the Dead, Falstaff, Satyagraha and Parsifal) were Met *co*-productions. You write that they were not all created at the Met but were "smart acquisitions from other theaters." Those were legitimate Met productions in all ways. Another house or house(s) -- the ROH and La Scala in the case of Falstaff, for example -- got first crack at them, but the Met was always part of their genesis and always on their planned circuit.

Gelb may actually prefer not being first. It allows him to gauge reaction elsewhere. He was able to back out of a Bondy Rigoletto (co-production with Vienna Festival and La Scala) that was received with little enthusiasm overseas. Whether what we ended up getting, Mayer's Vegas gloss, was an improvement, can be debated.

I just felt it useful to point out the difference between a co-production and the importing of an existing production from another house, as Gelb's predecessor did when, for example, he borrowed the by-then-shopworn Robert Carsen Mefistofele because there was no Met production and a star bass wanted to perform the opera.

May. 21 2014 05:33 AM
Jennifer Larmore from Paris, France

Fred: The audience reaction to a particular singer doesn't make a lot of difference to the management. I can tell you this firsthand. It is a popularity contest and the singers who are popular in the press, especially in NY are the ones they bring to their stage. It is also a " provincial" problem. When I came to sing at Caramoor, the New Yorker did an article on me which essentially said that in the 90's I was a rising star and then didn't sing anymore! I have been singing nonstop for 30 years in the most famous opera houses in the world, but if I wasn't hired at the MET, they thought I wasn't singing at all. It is a matter of being aware of what's happening in the rest of the world as well as having people who can actually recognize who the audience wants to hear and last but not least an ability to appreciate singers in their prime. I know! "Prime" is a dirty word in America, but that's the time we singers finally can show ourselves at our best. I will always consider my time at the MET a highlight of my career but I do worry about the future of opera in America with such a provincial mentality. All the best to you! Jennifer Larmore

May. 21 2014 03:58 AM
James Jorden from New York City

Fred, your article would be more helpful I think if you gave examples to support some of your assertions.

To begin with, you say, "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."

All right, name six or seven of these wonderful singers who are not appearing at the Met, and then prove to me that the reason they're not here is that their faces and figures are not pretty or svelte enough. Yes, there are singers who do not appear at the Met, but I find that the really interesting ones are those who in fact who mostly stay close to home, e.g., Anja Harteros in Munich. If these "wonderful" singers were appearing regularly in San Francisco or Chicago or Los Angeles and not at the Met, that would be an issue. If, on the other hand, you are complaining that the Met can't get, e.g., Cecilia Bartoli, then that's pointless, because God Himself couldn't get her to sing opera in North America.

Then you say "'Concept' productions... must be depressing for singers as well." Have you spoken to singers who find these productions depressing? Are none of them willing to speak on the record? Can you not quote someone on condition of anonymity? Your guess at how singers might or might not feel is actually not of much value here, except so far as it reinforces your own negative opinion.

And you give as examples of "concept" productions the Met's Don Giovanni, Peter Grimes, Faust, Rigoletto and Die Fledermaus. At the broadest definition, maybe the Faust could be called a "concept" production. Rigoletto is a simple updating, Peter Grimes not much more than some skeletal sets, and the other two about as conventional as productions can get. I agree that they were hard to sit through, but that had nothing to do with "concept" -- in fact I would argue that the problem was that the director took no point of view on the material at all.

There's the further canard here that a "production" consists of a collection of sets and costumes and lighting cues, and that once this is all in place, someone comes in and moves the singers around like chess pieces. In fact, "production" is what goes on in the rehearsal room, how the director and the singers develop the action. To say that Elektra or La Boheme, which have not been touched by their original directors for 20 and 30 years respectively, don't "need" replacement is just nonsense: theater is not created by some staff assiatant reading blocking instructions out of a yellowing prompt book.

I look forward to further installments in this series, with the hope they will be more thorough.

May. 20 2014 07:20 PM
Emma from Long Island, NY

I also think that the Met should do some more exotic (if that's the right word) productions - they have never done an opera by Salieri - ever! And they are, indeed, quite good! And aside from Le Nozze, Don Giovanni and Così they have never done another opera with a da Ponte libretto! They're all quite good!

May. 20 2014 03:02 PM
Fred Plotkin

To Paul. P.: I did not call for replacing the four productions you name. Keep the sets and costumes, just get new stage direction

May. 20 2014 01:32 PM
Paul Pelkonen from Brooklyn, NY

Regarding your list of disastrous Gelb-era opera productions I'm surprised that you missed the "Attila", a hugely expensive flop which didn't work dramatically. (Then again perhaps it is better left quietly forgotten.) I also don't think that some of the shows you've listed for "replacement": specifically "Lohengrin", "Don Carlo" and the two Bart Sher Rossini productions need replacing--they are among the more successful efforts of the current administration.

Now if it were up to me we'd get a decent production of "Doktor Faust."...

May. 20 2014 01:11 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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