All I wanted was to see a production of Guillaume Tell which didn’t become a major news event. But I went yesterday, and the performance ended without Act IV but with me giving interviews to both the Times and the AP.
The interruption and eventual cancellation was caused by, it turns out, an audience member scattering a late friend’s ashes into the orchestra pit. It was, obviously, utterly bizarre and ill-advised. You have to be a complete idiot not to realize that this was going to end with a counter-terrorism unit surrounding the besmirched timpani and an awful lot of your fellow opera fans justifiably angered by your idiocy. But opera fans often pride themselves for their distance from the modern world, and this is such a typical opera fan gesture: ridiculous, morbid, sincere, and anachronistic. So much of opera is about something that is lost, and grief is not reasonable.
So I have only three acts of Guillaume Tell to write about. This is disappointing. I didn’t get to hear the big tenor number or the final chorus, two of the best parts of the opera, and it’s highly unlikely that I will be able to return to the Met for another go at it. So let’s do this now. (Also, I missed Tristan und Isolde due to my Amtrak train running over two hours late. This season has been terrific so far!) But this production has a really great cast!
The late Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra is surely the highlight of this season at the Met. We’ve known that it was going to be for a while. It arrives a known quantity; acclaimed from its European performances, the fame of its director and cast, and its DVD. There’s something off about a “new production” which has already been available on video for a year and a half and whose director died in 2013.
Yet I suspect this is how the Met prefers it. As Peter Gelb stated repeatedly in a brief interview during the Manon Lescaut HD broadcast, the Met is in the masterpiece business (he even used this descriptor when discussing new opera, which is a whole different problem). When we roll theater and production into the operatic experience, as Gelb has tried to do, this makes new productions tricky to sell: though new, they also have to embody some of that timeless masterpiece solidity. And importing a brand-name, already-acclaimed Masterpiece from somewhere else (this Elektra is from Aix-en-Provence), is simpler than forging your own from scratch. Lest you think I’m spending too much time thinking about what is essentially marketing copy, let me remind you that this discourse shapes the way much of the Met’s audience thinks and talks about opera (I hear it from students all the time).
It’s not that Chéreau, surely one of the most important and influential directors of opera of the past 50 years, doesn’t deserve honorifics or a respectful tribute. It’s that “masterpiece” is a blunt instrument primarily used to confer status. When you’re discussing Elektra, a shabby little shocker with lurid orchestral colors and bodies that are rotting from the inside, that sacred cultural capital becomes even stranger.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut has to be one of the least sympathetic leading ladies in opera: insufficiently malevolent for a villain, too shallow and materialistic to be a heroine (her escape from her rich “patron” is foiled because she refuses to leave without her jewels, jewels she is inexplicably slow at gathering up), and too passive to be an interesting mix of the two. That doesn’t mean her story isn’t worth following, though. She’s a perfect storm of many of the nineteenth century’s least appealing ideas about women and Puccini’s score is loaded with enough high octane drama to keep your attention. With the right production and cast, it can work! Unfortunately the Met’s tepid, confusing new production doesn’t pull it off.
Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) premiered in Paris in 1863, a full decade before Carmen. Its exotic Indian subcontinent plot, complete with undulating melismas, a chaste coloratura priestess and a disapproving elder priest, inevitably recalls another opera that premiered in Paris exactly twenty years later, Léo Delibes’s Lakmé (which I saw at Opera Holland Park last summer).
For modern listeners, Lakmé and Pearl Fishers have another thing in common: they’re both somewhat obscure operas with one or two extremely popular hit numbers. For Lakmé, it’s the Bell Song and Flower Duet, for Pearl Fishers it’s the tenor-baritone duet in which two reunited buddies–one a baritone head pearl fisher, the other a tenor of vague provenance–displace any more-than-buddy feelings by singing about a beautiful, absent woman (seriously, this duet occupies Don Carlo/Posa territory of subtext).
Bizet obviously knew that he found the big hit with this duet. Its main theme is associated with absent lady Léila, who is the female part of the plot’s love triangle and isn’t absent for much longer (like Mr. Tenor in the beginning of this opera, people in The Pearl Fishers have a way of showing up exactly when they are required). This association means we get to hear it plenty more times, though usually in the orchestra. You get your money’s worth with that duet.
Unfortunately in the rest of the opera you can see why the Met hasn’t performed this one for a century. The Met’s new production showcases a score with many beautiful moments beyond the duet, but the opera itself comes across as clunky and without any emotional weight. Penny Woolcock’s production is better than I expected having read its London reviews (it was first performed at the English National Opera several years ago), but it and a somewhat mismatched cast don’t really make a convincing argument for this piece. There are worse ways to pass an evening, but it’s underwhelming. Here, I’m going to try to figure out why I thought this.
The Met’s new production of Lulu reminded me of something that might seem only a detail of the opera’s overstuffed plot: Dr. Ludwig Schön owns and edits a newspaper.
In the fin-de-siècle, newspapers were the ultimate and ubiquitous marker of bourgeois respectability. They shaped their readers’ daily experience of the world. We see this in Lulu: Lulu’s dance career is made by Schön’s paper, and news frequently arrives via newsprint. The Acrobat insults Schön’s paper as a “Käseblatt” (literally “cheese paper,” meaning poor boulevard press) but I imagine it must be a middlebrow broadsheet, part of Schön’s own facade of propriety. These are the papers that critics like Karl Kraus—whose scowl looms over this production at one point—condemned as pernicious and hypocritical, an instrument of the powerful which concealed more than they reveal.
The Met has opened this season with a slightly belated acknowledgement that a lot of blackface is not a good look for a big mainstream American institution. Unfortunately the resulting pale production of Otello, which opened on Monday and I saw on Thursday, doesn’t have anything else new to say. The production does, however, have a major selling point, one that hasn’t been nearly as widely discussed: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electrifying conducting.
If the Met’s performance Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of last Saturday were one of its own characters, it would be Veit Pogner. Pogner, Eva’s father, is aging, jovial, traditional, filthy rich (he is, after all, a goldsmith), not a great thinker, and maybe hasn’t quite thought through all of the implications of his grand plans. This was a solid Meistersinger, and it was a pleasure to have Wagner back at the Met after too long an absence. Most of it was good and a few things were more than good. Except for Michael Volle’s fascinating Hans Sachs, it was not daring and it was not exciting, but some meat and potatoes Wagner like we haven’t gotten in a while.
When a media circus gathers around a performance, or a film,or an artwork, the eventual performance ofte n fails to equal the furor that preceded it. “That’s it?” someone ends up asking. But the opposite happened at The Death of Klinghoffer: the protest was zealous but the work emerged wiser and braver than I thought it would be. This was the most intense performance I’ve ever seen at the Met, almost a tinderbox. But the opera itself, despite its unevenness and a production which, in some respects, troubled me, is far more than invective.