This is what I’ve been SAYING! It’s not hard to connect the dots between “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark” and the Met’s lumbering “Die Walküre.” Charles Isherwood, I could make love to you right now. You’ve really hit the nail on the head! ”Die Walküre” also had me thinking of Zeffirelli with his emphasis on spectacle over substance.
QUICK question: Which New York stage production from the season just past was notable for its huge expense, its technical problems and its chilly reception?
The obvious answer is “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the Broadway musical that made headlines for itstravails; jettisoned its director, Julie Taymor; and shut down for a serious overhaul last month, with the budget approaching $70 million.
But you might just as easily have come up with another response: Robert Lepage’s new staging of Wagner’s “Ring” for the Metropolitan Opera, the first two installments of which bookended the just-concluded opera season.
In general the Broadway musical and opera inhabit separate, increasingly distant cultural spheres, but these productions represented a notable — and unfortunate — point of contact: two large-scaled, highly anticipated shows helmed by acclaimed theater directors with international reputations, both of whom were handed fat checks to realize their visions. Ms. Taymor’s “Spider-Man” was an outright fiasco, while Mr. Lepage’s “Ring,” with its monolithic machine of a set, qualifies more as a lumbering fizzle, at least at this halfway point.
This kind of drama obviously wasn’t what Peter Gelb had in mind when he took the reins at the Met in 2006 and expressed a desire to raise the company’s theatrical standards by seeking out talented theater directors to join the roster. Mr. Lepage’s “Ring” may prove to be the strategy’s most ambitious production and its most resounding flop. Of the nearly dozen other new productions from theater luminaries that have joined the Met repertory, there have been impressive successes like Nicholas Hytner’s “Don Carlo,” Richard Eyre’s “Carmen” and Bartlett Sher’s “Barbiere di Siviglia.” There have been rewarding productions in traditional style, like Jack O’Brien’s “Trittico,” and more dimly viewed adventures like Mary Zimmerman’s contemporary gloss on “La Sonnambula.” Let’s not forget the much-booed “Tosca” from Luc Bondy, the Swiss theater and opera director.
But one categorical statement I can make: If asked where to go for a reliably stimulating evening of musical theater in New York, I’d be likelier to point a visitor toward the Met than to Broadway. New musicals on Broadway today are mostly audience-pleasing machines manufactured from cultural spare parts: a movie screenplay, a rock songbook, the self-conscious attitudinizing of late-night comedy. Music in the tradition of Broadway greats like Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim has practically ceased to be a necessary or even desirable ingredient, with the result that performances of true depth and musical intelligence are increasingly rare.
In the past five years on Broadway, Kelli O’Hara’s Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific,” Alice Ripley’s disturbed wife and mother in “Next to Normal,” Patti LuPone’s Momma Rose in “Gypsy,” Raúl Esparza’s Bobby in “Company” and Michael Cerveris as the razor-wielder in “Sweeney Todd” are among just a handful of transcendent performances that spring to mind. Most came in revivals, tellingly, and it now seems possible, if not probable, that star casting in musical revivals will become the norm on Broadway, making it less likely that gifted singing actors will be given the chance at the great roles in the canon.
At the Met, on the other hand, you are likely to see at least one first-rate interpretation of a musical theater role every week. And it is inconceivable that Nicole Kidman will be crooning her way through “La Traviata” any time soon.
Mr. Gelb’s commitment to promoting gifted singers who are also persuasive actors has sometimes been confused with the practice — deplored mostly in theory by opera lovers — of simply favoring looks over voice. Remember the “little black dress” issue that caused a ruckus a few years ago when Deborah Voigt was fired from a Covent Garden production? But it’s essentially just a matter of bringing the acting standards of opera closer to the kind of nuanced interpretations that can vitalize the material in ways that the old standard — the derided “park and bark” — often failed to do.
Acting in opera and in Broadway musicals obviously requires different skills. Naturalism is the bedrock of American stage acting, even in musicals, but opera is a more purely poetic form, and its music is more complex and challenging than the standard song forms used in most Broadway musicals. It is in some sense physically impossible to sing an aria and act “naturally” at the same time. And opera librettos often reiterate emotional notes relentlessly. The Met’s popular series of high-definition broadcasts to movie theaters has added another, complicating layer to the challenge: how do you give a performance that registers truthfully and powerfully both in the opera house and in cinematic close-ups?
Watching the telecast of Mr. Hytner’s production of “Don Carlo” on DVD, I noticed that the performers were often acting in different keys. Roberto Alagna, in the title role, a creature of the old-school European opera stage, hits the emotional notes squarely and with ample recourse to semaphoric posturing, while Simon Keenlyside, portraying his boon companion Rodrigo, employs a more inside-out acting style. He occasionally seems to be searching for an authentic human connection that Mr. Alagna’s more presentational style made impossible.
In general I’ve found that the acting is at a memorably high standard at the Met these days, with performers like René Pape, Karita Mattila, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Stephanie Blythe, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Natalie Dessay and Mr. Keenlyside giving rich, intelligently conceived performances in operas from a wide range of the repertory. Equally impressive have been the ensemble casts in rarefied works like Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” and John Adams’s “Nixon in China.” And it’s not necessarily the new productions and the starry casts that deliver the goods: the highlight of my opera-going season was the masterly performance of Jonathan Miller’s production of Debussy’s haunting “Pelléas et Mélisande,” conducted by Simon Rattle with moving, persuasively human performances from the entire cast.
Directing for the opera house is a discipline with its own distinct demands, and the scale of the Metropolitan Opera’s stage adds another troublesome factor to the challenge. In the pre-Gelb era the grandiose literalism of Franco Zeffirelli was the house style at the Met, at least for the core of the repertory. His meticulous re-creations of period décor and his penchant for filling the stage with boisterous crowds and the occasional animal were pleasing to fans who enjoy opera as an escape into an eye-popping fantasyland of the past where even the greatest suffering took place in sumptuous surroundings. But Mr. Zeffirelli’s productions often had a way of diminishing the operas themselves; their emphasis on scale and spectacle could trivialize the musical dramas they were meant to showcase.
No distinct, unifying aesthetic has emerged at the Met since Mr. Gelb took over. That’s hardly surprising given the wide range of directing talent that has been brought in. Certainly the Met has not evolved into a New York outpost of a German opera house, with radically avant-garde productions the norm. (Willy Decker’s “Traviata,” with its whitewashed minimalist set and portentous clock, is about as outré as things have gotten.) Most of the new productions have trimmed fairly traditional approaches in modest stylized touches, and have kept a respectful focus on the letter of the text. Mr. Bondy’s production of “Tosca” has been the most widely reviled new production of Mr. Gelb’s tenure, but even it was fundamentally realistic, incendiary only in a few incidental details. And it is telling that the pans turned to plaudits when the production returned at the end of the season with a galvanizing new cast: Mr. Kaufmann, Patricia Racette and Bryn Terfel.
A pre-eminent truth about opera-going is that the quality of the music-making will always remain the matter of paramount importance. Once the outraged booing of the opening-night claques has faded, a great night at the opera relies infinitely more on the singers and the players in the pit than on any conceptual innovations from the production’s director. Music so predominates at the opera, as it does not in the Broadway musical, that even misguided productions can’t really rise or fall on the merits of a director’s staging.
This is the case even with Wagner’s “Ring,” although it was conceived by Wagner as a gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art) unifying music and the drama. Because it deals in myth, and its characters include gods and monsters — and because its production history has been marked by landmark experimental productions even on home turf at Bayreuth — the “Ring” accommodates and even inspires nontraditional, nonrealistic productions.
Mr. Lepage’s conceptual vision had a natural foundation in Wagner’s own, bringing as it did a single design scheme to a series of operas composed as a unity. But I’m not sure a hefty budget is always a boon to a director. Mr. Lepage’s “Rheingold” and Walkürereminded me of his similarly epic but dramatically wan Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, titled “Ka.” It too featured elaborate aerial effects and cinematic shifts of perspective, all in mechanically lavish service to an underdeveloped narrative.
The fundamental flaw of Mr. Lepage’s “Ring” boils down to a cart-horse problem: the staging of the drama had to accommodate the design, when the first responsibility of the director should be serving the musical drama. Mr. Lepage’s production seems to be perpetually in competition for our attention with the opera itself. Mr. Lepage’s machine with its undulating movements too often interrupts or compromises our engagement with the drama, whether it is to note the body doubles being used in some sequences or to wonder if all of those Valkyries are going to slide down the slabs during their famous “ride” without tumbling off.
Curiously enough, it was while watching Walküre that I thought of the Zeffirelli aesthetic for the first time during Mr. Gelb’s tenure. In its grandiosity and sheer size Mr. Lepage’s “Ring” harks back to the empty lavishness that the Met has been working to mothball. It’s high-tech, low-concept minimalism, only on a Zeffirellian scale.
Via: The New York Times