August 23, 2015

Sizing up the Met's 2015-2016 "Live in HD" cinema season

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Hey, are you married?
Because there's a woman I want you to meet...
We're about a month away from the Metropolitan Opera's opening night, and one further week removed from the first of ten HD transmissions at your local cineplex, assuming you have one. (I mention that because my daughter, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois in Urbana, lives in a community without access to these opera-at-the-movies presentations. Wassup wid DAT, Champaign-Urbana?)

I thought I'd peruse the list and share my observations and thoughts with you, my Faithful Readers.

First up: geez, Met, were ticket sales THAT bad last season? Following seasons in which we've had such non-standard fare as The Enchanted Island, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, The Nose, Francesca da Rimini and Nixon in China, the most outre production on tap this season is Berg's Lulu, which is not really off the beaten track. Furthermore, exactly half of the operas are by Verdi and Puccini.

So yes: the Met is a museum. This doesn't outrage me as much as it does some of you, because in the larger context of contemporary opera,we're living in a very active period, especially for American composers.

I was also struck by the cast list for Verdi's Otello. Given the nature of the scheduled artists, I'm surprised they haven't re-titled the piece Otell-ski. Five of the eight listed singers are Slavic! Yes, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that"; it's just such a contrast with the ethnic makeup of much of the company's history. These "Venetians" will be sung by:
  • Sonya Yoncheva (Bulgaria)
  • Hibla Gerzmava (Republic of Georgia)
  • Aleksandrs Antonenko (Latvia)
  • Alexey Dolgov (Moscow)
  • Željko Lučić (Serbia)
Again - not complaining, nothing wrong with it; I just note it with interest. 

One other note about Otell-ski which is of political/historical interest but will have no particular effect on the performance: for the first time in Met history, the title role will not be depicted in so-called "blackface", the device of applying makeup designed to make a white performer appear to be a person of color. (Otello is a Moor, a dark-skinned North African.) This is a good move, Peter Gelb; late in coming, but good.

Both of the Verdi productions (Trovatore is the other one) follow the current norm of moving the time period away from that of the original libretto. If you're the cranky-pants kind of opera-goer who just hates that aspect of the opera world, then the Met's Tannhauser is for you. (Forgive my spelling - Blogger doesn't permit symbols like umlauts. DOGGONE IT, BLOGGER!) This will be as traditional as traditional gets, with an Otto Schenk production. Schenk and Zeffirelli productions are the ones with the kind of sets and costumes one might have seen in the 1950's.

In reading the blurb about Lulu on the Met's website, I had to chuckle at the optimistic way the music is described: 
"Berg's score employs the 12-tone technique pioneered by his teacher Arnold Schoenberg but in a keenly dramatic way that makes it accessible to all kinds of audiences."

Look, I adore Berg, but that sentence lacks a certain connection to reality. C'mon, now: "all" types? Um, no.

My guess is that the production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers will be a break-out hit; a box-office smash. How this company managed to ignore such a juicily melodic score by a master composer for ONE CENTURY staggers my imagination. I don't get it. It's no Carmen, but the list of operas inferior to Pearl Fishers routinely staged by the Met would be a substantial one. And the cast, with Damrau and Pollenzani in the leads, should be capable. This will be "boffo" (as opposed to "buffa", which is a whole different thing.)

Wait - wasn't I just talking about Franco Zeffirelli a couple of paragraphs ago? Well, speak of the devil! (Or - for traditionalists, the angel..) The old boy's Turandot crops up this season, probably the most appropriate of all operas to be a vehicle for his lavish eye-candy. Do we need a Turnadot set in ISIS headquarters, or Catfish Row, or the South Pole, or a Nazi Concentration Camp? Nah - we don't even want it in modern Beijing; give me PEKING, baby! Start roasting that Peking Duck NOW! I want it CRISPY!!!

I'll be grateful for Donizetti's Roberto Devereux for two reasons:
  1. It's not Lucia di Lammermoor which (IMHO) has worn out it's HD welcome with over-exposure, and
  2. The presence of a glorious and likeable soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky. 
Madama Butterfly? Whatever. It's the same production already seen in cinemas in 2008. That puppet is looking a bit frayed by now. Consider this the soybean meal in the hamburger that is this season.

I'm more interested in the same composer's Manon Lescaut. For one thing, it boasts the tenor who makes women's hearts (and possibly other organs) go pitty-pat: Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux. Also, I suspect I'll find Kristine Opolais a more effective Manon than Karita Mattila, who sang the role several years ago. 

The season will end on an artistic high note with a masterpiece: Elektra. Everything about this production looks stellar: the conductor (Esa-Pekka Salonen), the principals (Nina Stemme, Waltraud Meier, Eric Owens, et al) and the look of the production itself. 

By the way, not to play matchmaker, but wouldn't it be cool if Maestro Salonen were to marry actress S. Epatha Merkerson? Esa-Pekka Salonen and S. Epatha Merkerson: now THAT'S a fun couple.

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