Monday, December 5, 2011

The Top New Productions of the Gelb Regime (Yes I do like the guy)

By: David Salazar

A reader recently sent me a message telling me that I do a lot of "Peter Gelb bashing" and asked if I liked anything that he has done over the years. I'm not going to lie and I say that I was unaware of how negative some of my remarks have been toward the Met's General Manager. But considering that we are now five years into his tenure, I think it is a good time to reflect on him a bit.

Certainly there are a few things that I thought Joseph Volpe (the last General Manager) did better, most notably the respect he commanded from his singers and his unwilling to tolerate misbehavior. He fired Soprano Kathleen Battle after diva-like behavior. By comparison, Gelb has allowed Soprano Angela Gheorghiu to cancel NEW productions left and right with no penalty for her behavior.

However, Gelb has had his own fair share of successes and shown potential for growth in some areas, most notably his ability to market the Met's new image around the world through his Live in HD series. In fact, he has changed the world of performing arts with the Live in HD in general. Every time I go to the movie theaters, Fathom events is always promoting some sort of live performance in movie theaters whether it ranges from Shakespeare plays in the Globe Theater or Rock Concerts. This was virtually non-existent 5 years ago but is a major component of the movie theater and performing arts business as we now know it. And it's all because of Peter Gelb.

But the need to write this article has come up because of my constant criticizing of Mr. Gelb's strategy to bring in theater directors instead of opera directors to direct his new productions. I just want to set the record straight: I don't dislike the strategy and appreciate the desire to evolve this wondrous art form. The world of opera should not be a museum; it is a living breathing art form that needs to co-exist with its times. But opera does not need a revolution; it needs evolution. Compared to Europe's revolutionary stance on opera, Gelb has taken a more evolutionary route and I certainly applaud him for it. But with trial and error undoubtedly comes error and we have unfortunately seen a great deal during the past 5 years (and if you've kept up with my reviews this year you know a lot of error has occurred this season).

But there have been a great deal of surprising successes as well. So if any of Mr. Gelb's friends or fans are reading this, this is my opportunity to set the record straight with you.

So without further ado here are the honorable mentions followed by My Top 5 New Productions under Peter Gelb.

Honorable Mentions (no particular order):

"From the House of the Dead" by Leo Janacek
Directed by Patrice Chereau

"La Fille Du Regiment" by Gaetano Donizetti
Directed by Laurent Pelly

"The Nose" by Dmitri Shostakovich
Directed by William Kentridge

5. "La Damnation de Faust" by Hector Berlioz
Directed by Robert LePage

This Faust is technically not an opera, but has been staged as such in recent times. LePage took advantage of the work's structural freedom and magical themes to create some truly revelatory moments on stage. His use of the video technology and its ability to interact with the singers was truly mesmerizing and innovative. I had a few issues with the lack of depth on stage and some of the malfunctions of the production, but it was all forgotten as I watched Faust swim underwater and the horses race across the stage through video projections. The winning moment of the night however may have been Marguerite's aria about her passion for Faust, portrayed by a flame that matched the singer's intensity to the the tee. If the volume and strength of the voice increased, so did the size and intensity of the flame.

LePage went on to the largest undertaking possible at the Met (The Ring Cycle), but this is his best work by far.

4. "Carmen" by Georges Bizet
Directed by Richard Eyre

This was a controversial production for many critics and apparently was too violent for some audience members. I don't understand the critics problems (some thought it was conservative, some thought it claustrophobic, others too violent, etc.) and I don't know why the audience found it too violent (for tasteless violence take a look at Calixo Bieto's vulgar borderline torture porn over at the Liceu). Eyre's production was a tremendous upgrade from Zeffirelli's safer approach. It plays on that idea of evolution that I mentioned. It is still "traditional" in the sense that it tells the same story with no major alterations. However, it pushes the material into a more physical dimension that has not been previously seen at the Met. Yes it is violent, but certainly not to the point of vulgarity. Eyre brings out both the sexual tensions and allows them to simmer until they reach their boiling point. There are some nods here to past interpretations of Carmen, specifically cinematic ones: Francesco Rosi's metaphor of Carmen and Jose's battle being like a bullfight; an entire dance sequence (without music) to begin Act 2 that is clearly inspired by Carlos Saura's film based on the opera. The production eases conservative audiences into more uneasy territory while also appealing to youthful audiences with its drive and energy.

The opening black curtain has a red line across it, almost looking like it was slashed across the curtain. It adds to the violent nature of the work and prepares us for what is to come. The stage is used brilliantly throughout: the woman from the cigarette factory come up from below the stage to demonstrate not only the hell they live in but their inferiority; the soldier's base is a small space all the way downstage and separated from the center of the stage by walls and fences, emphasizing their isolation and distance from the common folk and their problems. The second act's grotto is extremely picaresque and attuned with Spanish folklore. The mountains of the third act are cavernous and menacing, while the final act actually gives us an opportunity to enter the bullring at the very end to reveal the slaughtering of the bull.

I saw this production twice and both times with different casts. From watching the performers it was clear to me that the singers completely understood their relationships on stage and with their environments. The production was clearly well thought out and the concept so clear that it crossed over from one season and cast to the next with little difficultly or detriment.

3. "Il Trittico" by Giacomo Puccini
Directed by Jack O'Brien

Another example of evolution over revolution. O'Brien essentially "updates" the setting of Puccini's trio by setting them in the twentieth century. Unlike the other productions mentioned on this list, this one is more in the vein of the traditional set that Met audiences expect with lavish sets and fine costumes. But O'Brien doesn't do lavish for the sake of lavish and visual splendor: this style has substance. "Il Tabarro" has a massive boat as its centerpiece with a gorgeous "recreation" of the Seine that is so real it almost makes you feel like you were there in that time period. But despite that initial excitement of seeing this intense realism on stage, the overall set has a grimy feel to it. The boat is corroded, the streets in the port are likewise dirty and all of the wardrobe matches this ambience with its rustic look and feel.

"Suor Angelica" is set in the garden of a convent with three walls on each side of the stage emphasizing the claustrophobic and implacable nature of the environment. The lighting has a blue hue throughout giving the work a cold and oppressive feel. This is further supported by O'Brien's direction of all the characters that Suor Angelica interacts with. Not only does the Princess reject her, but the nuns do as well, walking about like lifeless zombies (adding to the despair of this work). The final revelation takes place all the way upstage as the door in the back opens to reveal the child. It is sublime in its execution and matches the emotional intensity of Puccini's music.

The set of "Gianni Schicchi" does not have the same powerful impression of realism that "Il Tabarro" does but it is large and finely detailed. However, despite the lavish nature of the mansion, it is in disarray and filled with imbalanced structures, creating a fantastic juxtaposition for this incredible comedy.

The production is not only incredible to look at from a production stand-point. Both times I saw it, the different casts (with some like Alessandro Corbelli reprising roles) were equally engaged. The energy that emanates from the differing sets and O'Brien's trust in the material clearly transferred to the casts that made these two "Triticco" performances some of the most of memorable I have seen on the Met stage.

2. "Madame Butterfly" by Giacomo Puccini
Directed by Anthony Minghella

This production opened Gelb's tenure at the Met and remains one of the finest that he has released. The set is minimalism at its finest, blending some Asian theatrical tricks with western theatrical staples. Magic is at the center of this production's concept as Minghella and crew gave this work an ethereal nature to support Butterfly's fantasy of having a real family with Pinkerton.

The set is one large mirror that combined with incredible use of props and supreme lighting creates moments that of sublime nature. Take the famous love duet, one of the opera's major dramatic and musical centers. China balls and other globes emanating light fall from the ceiling and scatter across the stage. The stage lights are minimal, relying mainly on the effect of the lights coming from these globes. This creates a glorious feel of night, but a night that is taking place in a different dimension for the two lovers. Their playing a game of hide and seek through this maze of globes adds to the playful nature of the scene, but also emphasizes their getting lost in this world of bliss, if only for one night.

Butterfly's entrance all the way upstage in the midst of other geisha's clad in lavish attire also adds to the magical aura of this character. We hear the singing off stage and slowly getting closer. Where are they coming from? Suddenly from upstage we see the geisha's rise from below and dominate the stage.

At the start of the second act, we see Butterfly serving something for her lover Pinkerton as he sits in what is likely their living room. Suddenly a door sweeps by and takes Pinkerton with it. It was all a figment of her imagination. Moments such as these, may seem simple, but they are extremely effective in their execution.

And I have yet to bring up the puppetry that has gained a great deal of attention over the years. Instead of taking risks of putting a real baby on stage, Minghella turned to the art of puppetry to create one of the most memorable characters in any Met Production EVER. Cio-Cio San's (Butterfly) baby boy as executed by a fine team of 3 puppeteers is simply unforgettable in how he makes you forget he's a puppet; he just reads as a real child. The prelude of Act 3 also utilizes Puppetry as Butterfly imagines a different and happier life.

The final scene in which Butterfly kills herself is also electric with red lighting and extended silk robes representing Butterfly's blood. With Cio-Cio San silhouetted, one can almost see the form of the disappearing butterfly on stage giving the tragic ending a transcendent quality that seems more at home with Isolde's "Liebestod" than Butterfly's death. However, there are no complaints here as the effect does not lessen the feeling of remorse. This truly mesmerizing death juxtaposed with the moments of watching the baby blindfolded on stage left while Pinkerton arrives just a tad bit late from the downstage right are breathtakingly moving.

Most importantly, like the others on this list, Minghella trusts the text and source material and simply finds new ideas and themes from within. His theme of Butterfly living out a fantastical existence is a fascinating insight that sheds new light on a repertoire staple. And it is because this insight is founded within the confines of RESPECT for the source material that this production appeals not only to new, but also traditional audiences. These are the kind of new productions of canon works that the Met has been dying for recently and that Gelb needs to keep on bringing.

1. "Satyagraha" by Phillip Glass
Directed by Phelim McDermott

I absolutely love Minghella's Madama Butterfly production. And to give another production my top honor simply emphasizes just how moving this Satyagraha is. The production is so clear in its intent to engage its audience in a dialogue throughout. In my review of this year's performance of Satyagraha I spoke of Wagner's philosophy of the "Gesamtkunstwerk"  being achieved to perfection in this production.

The entire work does not have a typical narrative, but instead makes historical references to Gandhi's creation of the Satyagraha movement. Supporting the opera's break from traditional narrative, McDermott does the same with the production, utilizing every theatrical trick in the book to create numerous abstractions that support the material. Massive puppets and skyscraper cutouts dominate over Gandhi, emphasizing the power of the western world attacking him and his people; The Indian Opinion newspapers stretch all across the stage from left to right, up and down, and even up toward the ceiling portraying Gandhi's message reaching across all cultural and even mystical barriers. A magical flame announces the baptism of the moment. Text that projects across the set also adds insight to the philosophy of the text. Video projections emphasize the protests of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, connecting Gandhi's movement to Martin Luther King's, here believed to be the heir and perpetuation of Gandhi's legacy.

The best production decision of all? No subtitles. There simply is no need. The production is so focused and engaging that there is no reason to look away.

However, despite all the philosophy and symbols packed into the production, McDermott does not forget that people go to the opera for visceral experiences; to understand and feel the emotions of characters larger than themselves. Gandhi is definitely one of those larger than life characters and despite the dense subject matter McDermott makes it a point to provide his audience with ecstasy and catharsis. To simply quote my enthusiastic review:

 "It was in Act 3, the scene with the least visual activity, the power and message of the work really touched me. We see Martin Luther at the center of upstage, his back to the audience up on a high podium preaching. The set is closed off in an oval shape save for the opening through which we see King speak. Gandhi (played beautifully by Richard Croft) is downstage and has just lost all of his supporters and friends and is alone. He turns toward King and the stage opens up around the podium revealing a cloudy sky, giving off the sense that King is preaching to the infinity. At this moment Gandhi walks over to the podium and puts his hand over it, like King his back to the audience. The music changes its direction at this moment and begins a sequence of ascending repetitions. It is a magical moment and one that really brought across that feeling of human transcendence and unity that the opera hopes to send.  Moments later, after singing a gorgeous pleading ascending line time and time again, Gandhi turns around and comes face to face with King: the acknowledgement of that human transcendence, and absolutely cathartic moment.

For its ability to combine and stimulate human imagination, reason, and emotion this production represents one of the great milestones in Gelb's tenure as Met Manager. I am truly grateful of his desire to expand the repertoire and introduce modern works in ways that can stimulate all audiences. This Satyagraha certainly represents his best example to date. Here's hoping he keeps them coming.

I would like to reiterate that these are my opinions and impressions. I would love to hear other people's own lists and any comments whether they agree or disagree with me.


  1. How many of opera productions that you have listed here are "true" orioginal MET productions? Had already they been "premiere'd" elsewhere before reaching this GREAT OPERA HOUSE? Many of them in fact come from London's ENO or ROH "second-handed". The "Dammnation" was an OZAWA originated production many many moons ago in Kanazawa, Japan which was consequently moved to Bastille -thus the set did not fit well in the great MET OPERA! Please make sure that we do not receive all these second hand productions as "NEW TO MET" titles. Most of your favorates mentioned were prviously staged by other opera houses and "AWARDED" before coming to New York.

    1. But they were NEW to the Met stage (as in never performed at the Met before Gelb premiered them). The information you provide is valuable because it may accent the fact the best productions coming to the Met under Gel;s regime may not be original productions, but simply him using other houses' successful productions; hence maybe undermining his influence.