Two nights in a row at the Metropolitan Opera in New York is as self indulgent as ordering a Sundae at Dairy Queen – and demanding a side of fudge.
But, seeing in short order Dvorak’s “Rusalka” (a recent Mary Zimmerman production) and Bellini’s “I Puritani” (a beloved 1976 Sandro Sequi veteran, original cast Pavarotti, Sutherland and Milnes) did illuminate the running debate about Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager since 2006. In the words of Glenda Slagg; “Don’tcha hate him?” … “Don’tcha love him?” He is the focus of a controversy that’s not just America’s. Is the Met being ruined by controversial new productions that are said to drive away the traditional audience? Or, do they open the way to wider audiences who hate stuffiness?
“I Puritani” was less of a revival, more an exhumed corpse. The opening diaphanous screen interposed between audience and the action (hallucinatory, how New Age) – then cutting edge 70’s technology, just like the teleprinter – through the ruined church with visible cables attached for rapid scene changes, to the outmoded production style of static choruses facing audiences, blasting over the heads of principals and the audibly creaking sets, all had this (usually) Gelb critic screaming silently for him to wield his merciful axe.
And Bellini’s “I Puritani” is a ghastly creation anyway. At Ireland’s Wexford Festival in October I shall see operas long forgotten that should be in the repertoire. “I Puritani” is firmly in the repertoire, but would be best forgotten. Bellini wrote it “on the run” to showcase some favoured “voices” of the Parisian day.
It is beyond me how he gulled a French audience into taking any serious message in the then current revolutionary times (1835) from his farce of oxymoronic, “jolly-ish” Puritans chasing the widowed Queen Henrietta around England after chopping off her husband Charles I’s head while she was in reality holed up, yes, in Paris at the time.
The libretto blows repetitious platitudes around in dazzling Bel Canto. But, after Friday’s performance I’ve decided I don’t like “Bel Canto”. It’s like watching performing horses. Very clever, but they don’t really take you anywhere. The denouement is a last minute message of reprieve for all concerned from Cromwell. Really?
It’s probably too Machiavellian to accuse Mr Gelb of allowing this zombie to stalk the stage, thus easing introduction of his avant garde projects, but that’s what it does.
And, “Rusalka”? A shimmering and threatening reminder of how complex and dark are the “fairy” tales of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. This Zimmerman production proved that today’s “eye” can breathe new life into the most familiar repertoire. The Ball scene in Act II was filled with fluid dance action exuding menace. No static chorus here.
I’ve loathed some of this season’s “Gelb-kinder”; Tristan set on a 40’s destroyer with a distracting radar dominating the set; Manon Lescaut set in 40’s occupied France with jackbooted Germans shipping Paris prostitutes from Le Havre to – Louisiana. (The SS had other things on their mind at the time – and, what is it with our obsession with Nazi history anyway?); and “L’Amour de Loin” – scored by Saariaho – a relentlessly boring love story by letter, its only distinguishing feature being the 28,000 LED lights that represented the swelling sea. When critics unanimously enthuse first about the number of LED lights in a production, be on guard!
Surprisingly, Mr Gelb has yet to spot the controversial talent of Risotto Trattoria, the Bronx soprano discovery. Her rendering of the “Silence” aria in Philip Glass’s monotone opera “Akhnaten” puts the “M” in minimalism. Now said to be on “manoeuvres” for an actual singing role, she is creating tabloid headlines by dating Julian Middle-Temple MP, pole position Labour leadership contender, who controversially absented himself from a Brexit three line whip last week to be by her side during the Glass 80’th birthday celebrations at the 21 Club.
Beyond the Met, innovation is alive and well in the US. Last year Manhattan saw the rebirth of New York City Opera onstage after fifteen years of concert performances. Staged at the Rose Theater on Columbus Circle was a double bill of Rachmaninov’s “Aleko” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” an innovative twist on the usual inevitable coupling with “Cavalleria Rusticana”. In 2017 four new productions are planned.
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Loft Opera, a pop up ensemble that performs in unlikely Brooklyn venues – last year “Le Comte Ory” at The Muse warehouse in Moffat Street, deepest Brooklyn and Verdi’s “Macbeth” in the Brooklyn Navy Yard – provides loads of “bangs” for a ticket price of 30 bucks. It’s bent on breaking the Met mould, doomed, they say, by outrageous production costs.
The cast of up and coming young “wannabes” sing their hearts out. The skilled band drawn from, amongst others, the Juilliard School, is top class and productions sizzle with humour – yet don’t tamper fussily with originality. It’s a timely reminder of the fine line that often divides acknowledged “first-raters” from those who may never become household names, only because they lack that essential “L’elisir d’Opera” – luck!
In the interval of “Macbeth” I chatted with one of Loft Opera’s directors. The production budget was $30k. Mr Gelb’s last Ring Cycle at the Met came in at a whopping $19.5 million. Sense of proportion, moi?
Intervals didn’t interfere with the fun. In an ill-lit corner of the cavernous Naval Yard hanger a couple suddenly burst into a spontaneous, frenzied tango – perhaps only to keep warm – making sweeping use of the cavernous space. It was bloody freezing. Suddenly, I was transported to the foreground of Jack Vettriano’s “The Singing Butler” – minus the umbrellas. The couple emerged into the light to the spontaneous applause of Bud swilling patrons. Was it Ed Balls? No, it wasn’t. For 30 bucks you can’t have everything.
Part of the Loft Opera experience is “getting there”, especially if you’re a mean Scot who relentlessly uses the Subway, against all peer group advice. The 20 minute midnight walk through ill-lit industrial Brooklyn to York Street Metro station, then the “F” train to Penn Station was riskier than Macbeth’s encounter with Birnam Wood at Dunsinane. One piece of gratuitous advice about riding the New York subway at midnight: ditch the sports coat and the bow tie. Memo to self: Brooks Bros. do good hoodies.
Then, there’s the US “cutting edge” opera scene. “Persona”, an operatic version of Ingmar Bergman’s celebrated psychological film drama of 1967, already performed in Boston and Brooklyn, demonstrates why modern opera stands out as the most immersive experience an audience can enjoy. The composer, Keeril Makan, doesn’t let his lyrical score get in the way of the action. And the action is disturbing and thought provoking, adding another dramatic layer to Bergman’s already edgy film. This is what opera is for.
Performed “in the round,” as it was in Brooklyn’s new “National Sawdust” performing space, audience involvement is inevitable, especially as the action focuses on a central character, Alma, nurse to a catatonic starlet, Elisabeth Vogler. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not a recipe for a bundle of laughs and “Cavalleria Rusticana” fans should look elsewhere. But it was a searing experience.
Effectively, it’s a one-character show – after all, one of the characters is catatonic – and Florida-based mezzo, Amanda Crider, is well on the way to making the part of Alma entirely her own, after well-reviewed performances in Boston and New York. Hers is a feisty, sensitive rendering of the troubled Alma’s morphing into Vogler. Persona shows again at LA Opera in November, with Ms Crider in the lead role. “Worth the Journey,” as the Michelin Guide would advise.
Next, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston – where “Eugene Onegin” and the US premiere of Vivaldi’s “Farnace” beckon.