A Look Back at Peter Gelb’s Met

house A Look Back at Peter Gelbs MetLast November, things weren’t looking too good for Peter Gelb’s Met. The season-opening new production of Tosca had been booed and widely panned, and music director James Levine had made the first of what would turn out to be many health-related cancellations. Doing damage control, Mr. Gelb urged critics and fans to defer judgment. “I hope they will evaluate the Met in the context of a whole season,” he said in an interview with the New York Post

Well, the season-the first to be planned entirely by Mr. Gelb-is over, and the evaluations are in. New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who once praised Mr. Gelb’s “imaginative leadership,” wrote (in the March 29 issue) a piece skeptical of the Met’s “technologically dazzling, emotionally arid” artistic direction. Justin Davidson echoed that sentiment in the April 18 issue of New York magazine, writing, “Sometimes Gelb’s spirit of innovation looks indistinguishable from confusion.” In its May issue, Vanity Fair published a long analysis of the company’s finances-highlighting its $47 million deficit-by Nina Munk, who wrote, “[I]f you spend as much time as I have examining the Met’s financial statements, you’re likely to conclude that, in its current state, the Met is not sustainable.”

Not a single performance I saw at the Met this season was an organic dramatic experience in which the people onstage seemed to be inhabiting the same theatrical and emotional world.

In other words, there’s a backlash. There’s also, predictably, a backlash to that backlash. Anne Midgette, on her Washington Post blog, criticized the critics for taking at face value Mr. Gelb’s self-described innovations. The problem, according to Ms. Midgette, isn’t that the Met has changed, but that it hasn’t changed enough: Its aesthetic is as “middlebrow” as it was under Mr. Gelb’s predecessor, Joseph Volpe, with the same impulse to “see something unusual in a new production, get nervous about it, and try to rein it in.”

James Jorden, the Post‘s critic and editor of the opera blog Parterre Box, also chided his fellow critics for what he called the “short-sighted tendency to act as if unsuccessful productions at the Met suddenly began with Gelb’s arrival,” publishing on his site a list of all the new productions put on during Mr. Volpe’s tenure, including quite a few doozies, like the Graham Vick Trovatore and not one but two failed Lucias.

The reminder of the old regime is useful, since the major difficulty in creating compelling theater at the Met remains the same as it was under Mr. Volpe: the house’s logistics. A director’s concept, even a brilliant one, doesn’t equal cohesive drama; that results from the kind of focused, extended rehearsal work that’s next to impossible when you’re putting on almost 30 operas, each with distinct technical and musical requirements, over seven months of seven performances a week. Even new productions at the Met generally have under a month of rehearsals (and no previews period for fine-tuning), and the singers may be around for just a fraction of that time.