Gelb and the Met: still middlebrow after all these years
In the last few weeks, Peter Gelb’s tenure as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera has come under some heavy examination in the New Yorker and New York Magazine. The consensus: Gelb is struggling. He hasn’t had all that many successes with the new productions he’s presented, particularly in this season, which is the first -- opera calendars being scheduled several years in advance -- to be planned entirely by him. Perhaps inevitably, it’s suddenly fashionable to bash him. Everything is his fault. The critics are starting to attack him; audiences are leaping on the bandwagon to boo productions that are only mediocre and not at all as scandalous as everyone would like them to be.
However, Gelb has been so successful in getting out his message that even in criticizing him, critics unwittingly promulgate it. The message is that Gelb has a great new vision of bringing in big names from other fields, like theater and film directors; the critics are saying this hasn’t always worked. The real point, though, is that it isn’t a new idea at all: opera companies have been bringing in big names from other fields since the dawn of the medium. New York City Opera was particularly successful at doing exactly what Gelb is trying to do, back in the 1950s and 1960s, as Julius Rudel wryly pointed out in a New York Times article a few months ago. Long before Gelb’s accession, other companies were bringing in the likes of David Hockney, Lina Wertmüller, Maurice Sendak, Marc Chagall, Bruce Beresford, Roman Polanski, Jerome Robbins, Ingmar Bergman, Harold Prince, Francis Ford Coppola. The English National Opera frequently enlists film directors for its productions, and provided Gelb with Anthony Minghiella's "Madama Butterfly" for the start of his first season (Terry Gilliam is slated for Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust”). Plácido Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera does too; among others, it gave Woody Allen his opera-directing debut with “Gianni Schicchi” in 2008. In short: not only is bringing in theater and film directors not new, but it’s often worked better than it has at the Met so far.
(read more after the jump)
But in the press, Gelb is the great innovator, even when that means rewriting the past. “Always a couple of decades behind, the Met is only now junking its collection of ponderously pseudo-realistic sets in favor of the kinds of lean, abstract productions that seemed startling in the nineties,” wrote Justin Davidson in New York Magazine. Weren’t those lean, abstract productions exactly the kind of thing that John Dexter was raising hackles with at the Met in the 1970s: a new, stripped-down, contemporary aesthetic? In fact, by comparison with Dexter (who, incidentally, was a theater director as well), the Met’s new productions seem decidedly overstuffed; I haven’t seen one that fits the description of “lean and abstract.” Even Luc Bondy’s “Tosca,” which drew squeals of outrage when it opened the season last fall, is not altogether lean, though its sets are certainly sparer than the ornate true-to-period Zeffirelli ones that it replaced. (That “Tosca,” by the way, has now returned with a new cast and a couple of small modifications to the stage business, and suddenly everybody loves it.)
I agree that Gelb has had problems actually identifying what’s going to make a successful production. But I submit that the real problem is exactly the same problem the Met had under Gelb’s predecessor, Joe Volpe: not that the company engages unusual directors, but that it doesn’t let them actually do what they’re good at. Gelb seems to me to have the same micromanaging side that Volpe did: the side that would see something unusual in a new production, get nervous about it, and try to rein it in.
As a result, the work of directors who are quite good in other fields is, at the Met, muted or just plain bad. I didn’t attend Mary Zimmerman’s “Armida,” the company’s latest new production mounted for Renée Fleming, so I can’t do more than repeat what others have said about it being tepid and long and uninspired (though some liked it): certainly the director’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and her “Sonnambula” at the house both showed her floundering. Adrian Noble’s “Macbeth” seemed a piece of perfect mediocrity; and Bartlett Sher, who’s touted as one of the Met’s few crossover success stories for his “Barber of Seville,” produced a piece of middlebrow pageantry in the name of “The Tales of Hoffmann.” All these directors are capable of much more. But the Met doesn’t want more. For all of its trumpetings of going off in new directions, it doesn’t really want to offend, and it keeps a pretty tight lid on excesses.
Gelb has delivered one signal achievement, but conventional wisdom appears to be taking it for granted: the live HD broadcasts to movie theaters around the world. In four short years, these have become an integral part of the opera landscape; I still don’t think they bring in many new audiences, and they may be a bigger financial investment than the company is able to sustain, but they make the existing audiences very, very happy and sell them lots of tickets. Thanks to the broadcasts, tens of thousands of people can see “Armida” for themselves on May 1. Then they can go home and complain about just how awful productions are under Peter Gelb.
April 23, 2010; 6:17 AM ET
Categories: opera , random musings | Tags: Metropolitan Opera
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