Financial Times / December 28, 2007 / Arts
The Hype and the High Notes
By Martin Bernheimer
Operatic New York in 2008? It promises to be stimulating,
boring, fabulous, not-so-fabulous, frazzling, soothing,
wild, cautious... Just like 2007.
The Metropolitan is becoming increasingly progressive under
the leadership of Peter Gelb, and hype is on the rise.
Hard-sell has come to the opera.
Take the case of "Peter Grimes," Benjamin Britten's epochal
exploration of fear and isolation in a British fishing
village, ca. 1830. A new production on February 28, much
vaunted, will at last supersede the staging by Tyrone Guthrie
first seen in 1967, last in 1998. Original plans called
for importation of Trevor Nunn's essentially picturesque
vision of the opera as created for Glyndebourne in 1992 and
revised for the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2005. Gelb had
second thoughts. Nunn was out. John Doyle, prize-winning
director of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" on Broadway and the
West End, was in. "I thought this would be a more exciting
way of presenting the opera in New York," declared the
The Met blurbs promise "an engrossing and haunting theatrical
journey." We shall see. Doyle, it should be remembered,
garnered much fascination by having his singing-actors in
"Sweeney Todd" and, later in "Company," accompany themselves
on musical instruments. The gimmick at least saved the
expense of a pit band. *One hopes Britten's tormented
protagonist won't toodle a tuba between monologues.*
The Met bills "Grimes" as "a modern masterpiece" and Grimes
as "what may be 20th-century opera's most impressive tenor
role." It will be undertaken by Anthony Dean Griffey, a
gentle American giant most celebrated, perhaps, as Lennie
in Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men." He replaces Neil
Shicoff, a more temperamental artist whose withdrawal remains
unexplained. Patricia Racette ("riveting") portrays the
sympathetic schoolmarm, with Anthony Michaels-Moore as the
crusty sea-captain. Donald Runnicles supervises the "sweeping
orchestral beauty". [Runnicles owns this one, and the cast
is superb. JG]
High-note aficionados -- you know who you are -- still gush
in ecstasy when they recall the night in 1972 when a popular
but hardly adulated tenor named Luciano Pavarotti first
appeared here in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment." Enjoying
a respite from bel-canto madness, the great Joan Sutherland
was on daffy-diva duty, and the company had assembled a
candybox production for her, directed by Sandro Sequi. Never
mind. It was the incipient tenorissimo who magnetised
attention, and instantly changed the course of idol worship,
as he nonchalantly soared through a volley of high Cs --
nine, count 'em, nine -- in "Pour mon ame." When the Met
last cranked out the same "Fille" in 1995, both the production
and the hero had known better days.
On April 21 Donizetti's gentle charms may be reinvigorated
at last. The stratospheric tenor this time will be Juan
Diego Florez, a compelling specialist in sweetness, lightness
and charm. The object of his affections, no doubt irresistible,
will be Natalie Dessay, the divette who broke most hearts
as Lucia di Lammermoor at the opening of the current season.
The reportedly witty production, staged by Laurent Pelly,
is shared with Covent Garden and the Vienna Staatsoper.
This is the lend-lease era. We are told that the London
version sagged a bit with the frivolous enlistment of Dawn
French as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, a crucial speaking-role.
New York may do better with Zoe Caldwell, whose credits
include a notable impersonation of Maria Callas. Hope
The Met goes relatively mod on April 11 with Philip Glass'
"Satyagraha," importing a production by Phelim McDermott
from the English National Opera. This terribly mystical,
relatively minimalist challenge -- stultifying or hypnotic,
take your pick -- reaches our so-called premier company 27
years after its world premiere in Rotterdam. In this
incarnation, the Improbable Theater designer Julian Crouch
employs a team of aerialists to manipulate "improvisational
puppetry" in support of the Mahatma Gandhi narrative. The
text quotes ancient Sanskrit scripture, as in the "Bhagavad
Gita." It will be instructive to see if the Met subscribers,
conservative by nature, embrace this brave not-so-new world
of opera. The general response to Glass' "The Voyage," a
Met commission in 1992, was hardly rapturous.
The New York City Opera frequently plays David to the Goliath
of the Met, next door at Lincoln Center. The spring season
promises little of special interest, however, apart from a
dancerly second-hand production of Purcell's "King Arthur"
on March 5, conducted by Jane Glover and staged by that
ingratiating bad-boy, Mark Morris. Opera gives way to
inflated musical-comedy on April 8 with another run of
Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," conducted by John Mauceri
and staged by Hal Prince. Then come question-marks.
Gerard Mortier, the controversial innovator who officially
takes over the company in 2009, has bravely, maybe brashly,
announced his intention to scuttle the standard-repertory
staples that attract his basic audience. He will concentrate
on 20th-century challenges alone, at least in his first
season. The decision seems equally idealistic and unrealistic.
He also plans to explore nontraditional venues that may
enhance intimacy (the State Theatre accommodates nearly
3,000), and to renovate the acoustically challenged State
Theater. Rumours suggest a temporary closure sometime next
Meanwhile, anyone in quest of adventure may be drawn to the
Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. Mortier hopes to
play Messiaen's "Saint Francois" d'Assise" at this forbidding
red-brick structure, built in 1879. He has been scooped,
however, by Nigel Redden, mastermind of the Lincoln Center
Festival, who intends to invade the unorthodox facility on
July 5 with "Die Soldaten," Bernd Alois Zimmermann's
gargantuan, sociopolitical blow-out of 1965. A brash and
bracing multimedia production, transported from the Ruhr
Triennale and staged by David Pountney, will carry the
audience on railoard tracks along a 15-scene panorama.
Created in 1965, Zimmermann's ultracomplex, percussive score
requires an orchestra of 110 plus 40 singers, actors and
dancers. Previous productions in the States -- well-meaning
simplifications, actually -- emerged at the Opera Company
of Boston (1982) and the New York City Opera (1991).
Manhattan, as usual, ponders and wonders.
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