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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memories of the Gelb Administration

The Five Best (and Five Worst) Opera Productions at the Met, 2006-2012.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Aithra (Diana Damrau, L.) and Helena (Deborah Voigt, R.) extoll the virtues of the 
Omniscient Mussel (Jill Groves, standing, obscured) in Act I of Strauss' Die Ägyptische Helena. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
Since beginning his tenure as general manager of the Met in 2006, Peter Gelb has been a fierce advocate for new productions. The current administration has ushered in seven new shows each season. If you do the math (and it's not hard) 42 new stagings have taken the boards.

This ambitious program has been advanced through cooperation with other opera houses, including the English National Opera, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the Opera Lyon. Mr. Gelb has followed the old Broadway practice of "road testing" shows in international theaters before bringing them to New York.

Following the recent "kerfuffle" (parterre.box's term) over the Met's attempts at censoring bloggers and opera magazines it seems that the time is right to do a "greatest hits" of the last six years at the Met. Chronological order--click the links for the whole reviews.
The Best:
Die Ägyptische Helena   (Reviewed April 20, 2007)
"David Fielding’s new production of Helena solves many of the libretto’s problems. He created fresh ideas and solved many of the opera’s problems, including the chorus of elves and the giant singing seashell in Act One."

Il Trovatore (Reviewed Feb. 25, 2009)
"The bleak, rotating set (by Charles Edwards) consists of crumbling walls and damaged iron gratings, not to mention a huge witch-burning stake that echoes the upstage crucifix and reminds the audience of the opera's central tragedy of mistaken identity."

From the House of the Dead (Reviewed Nov. 17, 2009)
"As the curtains rose quickly, prisoners shuffled around in the dimness, the only light provided by the occasional flare of matches."

The Nose (Reviewed March 19, 2010)
"Mr. Kentridge's staging places all the action against a spectacular show curtain, using small rolling sets, film projections, and line-drawn animation to flood the eye with visual information. It's a perfect complement to the spiky music."

Satyagraha (Reviewed Nov. 9, 2011)
"The simplicity and brilliance of this production are a real pleasure. Using plain materials and their wits, the prop department built huge, monstrous figures from papier-mâché. Rusty slabs of sheet metal come to life and become skyscrapers. In Act II, newspapers are crumpled by choristers: they become a shower of stones hurled by an angry mob."
(Honorable mentions go to Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Madama Butterfly, and Le Damnation de Faust.)

An armed Odabella (Violeta Urmana) hunts down her costume designer (Miuccia Prada, not pictured)
in Act I of Attila. Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Worst: 
Some of the more embarrassing skeletons in the Met closet, with one show (Attila) that we'll hopefully never see again. Chronological order.

Tosca (Reviewed Dec. 20, 2009, Jan. 11, 2011, Jan. 11, 2012)
"Scarpia demonstrates his lust for Tosca by molesting the statues during the Te Deum.
This recalls another famous fictional cop: Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) in The Naked Gun."

Attila (Reviewed March 23, 2010)
"This ill-conceived staging by Pierre Audi elevates the principal actors well above the stage and orchestra, creating major balance problems in the large house. Even worse, the chorus are relegated to a Nibelheim-like "pit of despair" below the main level of the stage. As the chorus is important in this martial opera, this proved to be a mistake."

Armida (Reviewed April 15, 2010, March 2 2011)
"The great American diva held back until the final scene, when her character unleashes all the powers of hell against the errant knights. At this point, the opera caught fire. Unfortunately, that was with ten minutes to go in a four-hour work."

Hansel and Gretel (Reviewed December 22, 2011)
"This Hansel remains a misfire. John Macfarlane's drab sets are squeezed into a small space on the Met's giant stage. A series of descending show-curtains depict a lipless hell-mouth--a repulsive image representing the Witch's Ride."

Götterdämmerung (Reviewed Jan. 28, 2012)
"Things were great until the destruction of Valhalla. Five statues of the Gods appeared, riding the stage elevator. And then with an audible "popping" sound, their heads exploded like champagne bottles."

(Dishonorable mentions go to Boris Godunov, the "nuclear" Faust and the rest of the Ring.)

Please note that all the above comments are the personal opinion of Paul J. Pelkonen, writer and editor of Superconductor. The title, by the way is a reference to John Updike's novel Memories of the Ford Administration and is in no way meant to convey any rumors of a regime change at the Met.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.