“Questo giorno di tormenti!” the characters exclaim at the end of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro: “What a day of troubles!”
At this point, Peter Gelb would probably gladly settle for just one day. Instead, his problems, which began opening night, are stretching into the third week of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2009-10 season, the first to be planned entirely by him. There’s booing left and right, the press is biting at his heels, his marquee music director is going under the knife again, he has to fly a replacement conductor around in private jets, and even his singers (when they’re not dropping out) are doubtful about the controversial new Luc Bondy Tosca, which replaced Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved production.
“When I signed my contract, I thought it would be for the Zeffirelli production,” soprano Violeta Urmana told the Observer. Ms. Urmana, currently in town for Aida, will sing Tosca in the Bondy production’s first revival next season. Though she dislikes sitting in the Met’s heavy air-conditioning, she plans to see the production before leaving New York. “I just saw some stage sets,” she said, “and it wasn’t somehow so revolutionary. Of course, it was not so beautiful like the Zeffirelli production, which was wonderful.”
Marcelo Alvarez, Tosca’s tenor lead, did Ms. Urmana one better, comparing the production to a car wreck in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s like there’s an accident in the middle of street,” he said. “People say, ‘Ah, I don’t want to go.’ But they want to see the blood.”
They may see blood, but not James Levine. Mr. Levine, the Met’s music director, led opening night but is missing his other four Tosca performances because of back surgery. He will also be out for three Met Rosenkavaliers as well as concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, of which he is also music director.
His Rosenkavalier replacement is Edo de Waart, who just started as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. De Waart will be traveling back and forth several times between New York and Wisconsin for rehearsals and performances, including on Oct. 16, when he is conducting an 11:15 a.m. concert in Milwaukee and a 7:30 p.m. opera at the Met. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week that “the Met will arrange [de Waart’s] flights, which may include private jets,” an extravagant choice in the midst of a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and after sweeping staff pay cuts. The Met did not return phone calls before deadline.
Not everything has been bad news. The revival of Le Nozze di Figaro is youthful and exciting, and the debuts of Emma Bell in Figaro and Georg Zeppenfeld in Die Zauberflöte were notable. But it’s hard to argue that the season has started off on the right foot.
The gala premiere of Tosca was widely covered by the press (yay!), but not for the best of reasons (“boo!”). Any publicity is good publicity, but the reviews were scathing. “How did this dopey show get on stage?” asked Bloomberg News. The Wall Street Journal called it “minimally provocative” and “tepid.” “Heavy-handed,” said the Times. The Associated Press screamed that it was “one of the company’s biggest failures in decades.” The review in The New Yorker was titled, simply, “Fiasco.”
In that review, Alex Ross charitably floated the possibility that “once Bondy is safely on the plane back home it should be relatively easy to devise new stage business to replace his lamer notions.” But it’s been hard for the cast and conductor to make adjustments because of a series of cancellations and indispositions. The production’s original Scarpia, star baritone Bryn Terfel, long ago dropped out of the first performances (he’s singing four in April), and his replacement withdrew only a week before opening night on Sept. 21. George Gagnidze ended up with the role, then promptly got sick. At the second performance, in an unusual arrangement, Gagnidze acted Scarpia while it was sung from the side of the stage by Carlo Guelfi, who hadn’t had time to rehearse the blocking. By Sept. 28, Guelfi had learned the staging just in time to cede the role back to Gagnidze for the Oct. 3 matinee.
Much more serious is Mr. Levine’s medical leave, his third in recent years, which is reviving discussion about his ability to maintain his taxing schedule, rumblings that will no doubt intensify as the 2011 due date of his Met contract draws nearer. As the Times’ Anthony Tommasini wrote on Saturday, “The Boston Symphony and the Met have to be worried about the implications of Mr. Levine’s recurring ailments.” Mr. Gelb has said that Mr. Levine has the Met position for as long as he wants it, but pressure is mounting on both men and the Met’s board to address the situation.
It may not be solely a matter of health. Jeremy Eichler, the classical music critic of the Boston Globe, told the Observer that many of Mr. Levine’s medical problems wouldn’t have been prevented by a lighter conducting load. “The health issue can be a red herring here,” said Mr. Eichler, who has been critical of what he has perceived as Mr. Levine’s recent turn towards more conservative programming in Boston. “The real question is what he’s bringing artistically to both organizations and whether he’s realizing his full potential at either one.”
Mr. Levine is not the only Met conductor with problems. At the first performance of Aida on Friday, Daniele Gatti was booed, a rarity for singers and conductors in the house. The Times reported that Mr. Gatti had also been booed while conducting Aida this past spring in Munich. Peter Gelb’s goal for his company—director-driven, highly theatrical opera—is strikingly European, but if European-style perpetual booing comes with it, he may end up regretting what he wished for.
These messy opening weeks ensure that even more attention will be paid to the New Year’s Eve premiere of the season’s other new take on a repertory staple, Richard Eyre’s Carmen, which has had its own casting dramas. If Carmen is a success, the season’s tumultuous start may be forgotten. If it’s another fiasco, though, there will be serious talk about Peter Gelb’s artistic leadership. At Saturday’s premiere of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, when Dr. Bartolo sang, “A man’s not safe even in his own house,” it was hard not to think of Mr. Gelb.