At the Met Opera, Balancing Novelty and Tradition

The Metropolitan Opera's 2011-12 season brings seven new productions along with the revamped "Ring," not to mention a world premiere. The current season's new productions of La Traviata and Don Pasquale were terrific.

The Metropolitan Opera’s season is in full tilt, with intriquing additions and changes to the standard repertory. More new productions — and renowned talent — are slated for 2011-2012.

Should The Metropolitan Opera stick with its celebrated traditional productions or should it innovate and risk alienating its graying audience? The question came to the foreground this past year with the first part of a new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle directed by Canadian Robert Lepage, and a minimalist production of La Traviata imported from the Salzburger Festspiele. Not everyone greets innovation with open arms. When one critic complained at the season preview press conference earlier this year, general manager Peter Gelb responded, “It is necessary to renew the repertory productions from time to time.” And indeed, the 2011-12 season brings seven new productions along with the revamped “Ring,” not to mention a world premiere.

The Met’s new productions promise to generate the sort of excitement lacking at many institutions. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for example, was recently pilloried by The Washington Post for planning a season devoid of the risk-taking and innovation that the center’s president, performing arts guru Michael Kaiser, preaches in his Arts Management Institute. But new is not always better. Das Rheingold opened last season in a production whose innovation is a huge stage machine composed of motorized upright planks, a kind of palisade that morphs into angled ground planes and serves as a screen for abstract projections. I found this high-tech behemoth distractingly anachronistic and I longed for more traditional staging.

The new production of Siegfried will feature three-dimensional projections.
The new production of Siegfried will feature three-dimensional projections. (All photos Met Opera)

For the coming season’s rendition of Siegfried, Lepage is adding a new effect – a three-dimensional projection that will create the illusion of deep space behind the singers. We’ll see if it sufficiently masks the planks. In any case, we can look forward to Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel, Erich Owens, and Gerhard Siegel in leading roles, and to James Levine in his 40th season conducting. Sidelined by back problems and kidney surgery, the maestro has stepped down as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but there is every hope that he will be in form for the Met season. (Die Walküre is presented throughout April and May, Siegfried begins in November 1, and the final component, Götterdämmerung, opens January 27, 2012; three complete cycles will take place  in April and May 2012. )

La Traviata: a Thrilling Import

Stripped down decor in La Traviata at the Met.
Stripped down decor in La Traviata at the Met.

Then again, new productions can be bracing and heighten our attention to the music, players and dramatic tensions. In these respects, the current season’s recent La Traviata, though far more radically innovative than the Rheingold machine, was brilliant. The minimal set – invented for the 2005 production directed by Willy Decker – consists only of a semicircular wall facing the audience with a banquet seat running along the interior, a couch or two center stage, and a giant clock on the right. Above the wall, reaching into the fly space, a flower-printed scrim remains grey during the parts when love is vexed, and blossoms passionate red during Violetta and Alfredo’s brief period of happiness.

The stripped down décor and raked stage focus attention on the figures in a way that emphasizes their acting and the singing. Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta rises to the occasion. She enters during the overture, escaping from a party, and through her body language silently conveys angst and fatigue. A swarm of black-tuxedoed men arrive and she – in a striking red cocktail dress – rallies her strength and in the classic anthem “Libiamo” she captivates them with her allures, leaping onto the couches, wielding a champagne bottle, and flirting with aplomb.

La Traviata
Marina Poplavskaya in La Traviata at the Met.

At the performance I attended, Poplavskaya’s voice was agile, attractive and expressive of the heroine’s roller-coaster emotions. She was more convincing in her role than Matthew Polenzani as Germont, though that has more to do with his flaccid physical demeanor than his voice, which was satisfyingly masculine and sincere in the “Un di felice” duet. Andrzej Dobber, as his father, was outstanding in pleading with Violetta to give up the affair, creating with Poplavskaya an affecting rapport of mutual understanding. But it is Poplavskaya’s vocal and physical exuberance that lingers in memory.  (La Traviata resumes in April and May 2012 with Natalie Dessay in the title role.)

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale: a Worthy Addition

The newly introduced production of Don Pasquale, an opera buffa by Donizetti, is another success that brings together all these strands in a wonderful evening of theater. The commedia dell’arte characters comprise the aging corpulent Pasquale, the nephew he plans to disinherit, the plebeian widow Norina whom the nephew loves, and slick, dapper Doctor Malatesta who devises a scheme to bring the lovers together. It’s light fare, a kind of musical sit-com with a lively score, comic flourishes, and an opera rarity – a happy ending.

Don Pasquale at the Met.
Rooftop terrace in Don Pasquale at the Met.

The production hews to tradition with splendid sets including Pascuale’s broken-down palace replete with a strut holding up a listing column, a rooftop terrace where Norina reads romances, and a nocturnal garden scene where Ernesto (Matthew Polenzani) delivers a serenade that transports us to Roman night. A duet by Pasquale (John Del Carlo) and Malatesta (Mariusz Kwiecien) intertwines rapid staccato lines as they fall over one another in mannered mutual regard. It was so delightful that when it ended the singers stepped in front of the curtain and repeated it, a throwback to times when such mid-opera encores were often demanded by appreciative audiences. I hope the Met does this more often.

Anna Netrebko as Norina in Don Pasquale t the Met.
Anna Netrebko as Norina in Don Pasquale t the Met.

Anna Netrebko as Norina couples her youthful exuberance and a talent for acting with a superb voice that combines great range, precision, and sweetness. During her Act One aria “Quel guardo il cavaliere,” in which she declares her free spirit, she prances around the terrace and even does a somersault onto her chaise longue. (Alas, Don Pasquale will not be performed again this coming season.)

Netrebko is an international star, and the Met says that she will be here more than anywhere else this coming season. Her parts include the title role of Jules Massenet’s Manon (throughout March and April), and Anna Bolena in the Met premier of Donizetti’s eponymous opera (September and October, then early February 2012). In a video interview she describes the Donizetti as “challenging, dramatic and beautiful,” and cites Maria Callas and Beverly Sills as the exemplars whose interpretations have most impressed her.

The Enchanted Island: a New Take on an Old Operatic Form

The Met is also introducing a novel operatic form: the pasticcio, which consists of setting a new libretto to a score comprising disparate parts of existing operas. The form was common in the 18th century when Handel was among the practitioners. The Met commissioned a libretto from Jeremy Sams who developed a narrative merging aspects of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Dubbed The Enchanted Island, The music is Baroque, a mix of Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others. My first reaction was, Oh, no. It sounds like when radio stations play only the popular movements of symphonies.

It’s another “We’ll see,” but as usual, the Met lined up an all-star cast including Joyce DiDonato, Danielle de Niese, David Daniels, and a cameo by Placido Domingo. At a press preview, the countertenor Daniels performed an excerpt with such intensity and rigorous beauty that it swept away any concerns for the pastiche form. (The Enchanted Island premiers Dec. 31, 2011.)

Mariusz Kwiecien will star in Don Giovanni at the Met.
Mariusz Kwiecien will star in Don Giovanni at the Met.

There are more new productions, including Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Mariusz Kwiecien in the role looking, as one fellow critic noted, like Johnny Depp; and Charles Gounod’s Faust in a co-production with the English National Opera that features Jonas Kaufmann as Faust, Rene Pape as Mephistopheles, and Angela Gheorghiu as Marguerite.

And there is plenty to satisfy traditionalists. Throughout the season the Met mounts repertory productions of Verdi’s Aida, La Traviata, Macbeth, Ernani and Nabucco, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia,  Puccini’s La BohemeMadama Butterfly and Tosca, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and La Fille du Regiment, Britten’s Billy Budd, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshcina, Handel’s Rodelinda, Janacek’s The Makropulos Case, and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha.

Earlier Curtain Time, More Intermissions and Simulcasts in Movie Theaters

One innovation unlikely to encounter any opposition is the Met’s decision, responding to public demand, to change the curtain time from 8 pm to 7:30 pm in most cases. Apparently opera enthusiasts like to get to bed on time. Another adjustment will be tinkering with intermissions to insure that audience members’ attention is on the stage and not their bladders.

The Met announced also that it is expanding its “Live in HD” movie-theater simulcasts of select performances. It’s not only a marvelous way to expand the opera’s graying wealthy audience, but in many ways it offers a superior experience to sitting in the opera house. The camera is positioned to bring the viewer close to the action, able to see changing expressions of the singers that from afar are utterly unintelligible, and to follow the back and forth of action. I know it’s sacrilege to say so, but even in the orchestra the seating is not raked sufficiently to make for unobstructed sight lines (and to not worry about blocking the person behind you), the legroom is lacking for all but the petite, and the cavernous space subdues all but the most projective voices. The excitement and intimacy of feeling close to the performers is rarely achieved.

For that, one would do better to attend one of the eleven high-definition Saturday matinee simulcasts taking place this season: Anna Bolena (Oct. 15), Don Giovanni (Oct. 29), Siegfried (Nov. 5), Satyagraha (Nov. 19), Rodelinda (Dec. 3), Faust (Dec. 10), The Enchanted Island (Jan. 21), Götterdämmerung (Feb. 11), Ernani (Feb. 25), Manon (Apr. 7) and La Traviata (Apr. 14). Gelb says they have passed the seven million mark in tickets since it began six years ago. Opera for the masses: now that’s an innovation.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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