A Memento and a Harbinger: The Met Ponders a Crossroads

Peter Gelb, who’s slated to take the helm at the Metropolitan Opera this summer, recently told a reporter that he wants to “reconnect it to the world.” A former top executive at Sony Music with a fondness for merging the divergent voices of classical, jazz and pop artists, Mr. Gelb plans to increase the number of new productions per season from four to seven; hire notable directors from film and theater to stage the novelties; commission new works from non-operatic composers; embrace new technology to transmit Met performances; and in general make the Met more sympathetic to the unwashed who are presumed to regard going to grand opera as the equivalent of a duty call on their grandmother.

For those of us with long memories, Mr. Gelb’s talk of reconnecting the Met to the world sounds familiar. By enlisting such chic directors as Anthony Minghella, Robert Lepage and Peter Sellars, Mr. Gelb is merely following in the footsteps of his two most powerful predecessors, Joseph Volpe and Rudolf Bing, both of whom, on some level, tried to plug the Met into the fashions of the day.

Two recent productions that attracted a good number of the city’s opera lovers can be read as signposts pointing forward and back the way we came. The backward-pointing sign is the Met’s revival of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, a 1996 production by Giancarlo del Monaco. The forward-pointing sign was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the conductor William Christie and his troupe of Baroque players and singers, Les Arts Florissants, performed Handel’s Hercules in a production by a leading figure in today’s European avant-garde, the Swiss director Luc Bondy, a name that Mr. Gelb has dropped favorably in conversations about his plans.

Forza is one of Verdi’s problem operas—a non-Aristotelian sprawl of revenge melodrama and purple piety that lurches from Spain to Italy and back again over a span of 15 years. The del Monaco production is resolutely traditional—realistic for old Seville, luridly picturesque for the scenes in a tavern and an Italian village destroyed by war. Except for one marvelous bit of business—the candle-lit stage filled with prostrate, praying monks during the great choral scene for “La Vergine degli Angeli”—the staging is unremarkable: no updating for contemporary “resonance,” nothing unsuspected revealed. This Forza is simply a grand pictorial vehicle for the music.

Which is fine with me. Forza was my very first opera, and back in 1952 so overwhelming were the principal singers—Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, Jerome Hines—that I was blissfully unaware of any infelicity in the staging. Beginning with its famous galloping overture, the opera tears along on some of Verdi’s most vivid music; for sustained intensity, its stirring arias, duets and choruses are exceeded only by Otello.

Musically, this Forza wasn’t quite on that exalted level. The tenor Salvatore Licitra, only recently recovered from a bout of flu, struggled manfully if fitfully with the killer part of Don Alvaro, causing me once again to wonder how long this naturally glorious voice can hold up with so little support from the diaphragm. As Padre Guardiano, Sam Ramey, always a persuasive stage presence, was having one of his wobbly nights vocally. But Mark Delavan (whose rich, soft-grained baritone is so reminiscent of Warren’s) made a terrifying figure of the vengeance-crazed Don Carlo; the fortune-teller of Ildikó Komlósi and Fra Melitone of Juan Pons were wholeheartedly Verdian; and as the heroine Leonora, Deborah Voigt glowed with easy, majestic radiance.

A young Italian conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, led a spirited, marvelously singer-sensitive performance, signaling that as long as he’s available, the company’s Verdi repertoire is in good hands. Here was the “old” Met doing what it has always done better than any other opera house in the world: rocking the chandeliers with grand opera on a visceral level, which—when all is said and done—is where grand opera lives. We’ll sorely miss nights like this at the Met, if the new management decides that this sort of Forza is old hat.

OUT AT B.A.M. A FEW NIGHTS LATER, I couldn’t help but think how paltry an affair Mr. Bondy’s Hercules would seem in the Met’s vast red barn. Even in the close quarters of the Howard Gilman Opera House, the setting, cast and chorus—a nondescript warehouse with only a battered trash can for furniture, populated by young singers in casual contemporary clothes—failed to capture my interest for most of the first act. Though Mr. Christie conducted with his usual deft pacing and sense of drama, and though his charges produced high-flown Handel with wonderful ease and intelligibility, I had to fight to keep myself awake through the endless, expertly produced tunefulness.

But I gradually became aware that a powerful, unforgettable performance was in the making—that of the young American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Dejanira, the title character’s wife. Tragedy wrought by marital jealousy is the subject of this late Handel work, which lies uneasily somewhere between an oratorio and a full-fledged opera. Ms. DiDonato’s deeply focused passage from grief to misplaced rage to a kind of self-induced madness was so riveting that by the third act, Mr. Bondy’s boomer-friendly staging had ceased to matter. Only when Ms. DiDonato, a rising young star at the Met, commanded the stage did this Hercules seem like a harbinger of a future I could happily embrace.