Being Boccanegra: Throwing the Spotlight on Directors, the Met Brings Back Elijah Moshinsky

I’ve seen many performances of Elijah Moshinsky productions at the Metropolitan Opera, but according to Elijah Moshinsky, I have never seen an opera actually directed by Elijah Moshinsky.

“I don’t understand how revivals work,” Mr. Moshinsky, 64, said by phone from his home in London, England, reflecting on the Met’s current remounting of his 1993 production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. “Because it’s mine without me reviving it, if you know what I mean. I don’t revive my work at the Met. They take it over and they adjust it to suit their aesthetic. I haven’t seen Ariadne since the first night with Jessye Norman.”

Mr. Moshinsky, one of the busier directors at the Met in the 1990s, hasn’t even been to New York City since 2001, when his production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller opened to mixed reviews. The Times dismissed it as “generic,” and Mr. Moshinsky himself remembers it as a “mish-mash.” For a few years, he had noticed that his energy level had declined, and soon after the opening he was diagnosed with lymphoma. It’s only recently that he has recovered and begun to work at something approaching his old pace.

But his productions have been done numerous times here in the past decade; this season alone has brought the Ariadne (there is a final performance on Friday) and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. And he’ll be returning to the Met next year to personally direct the revival of his production of Janacek’s Makropulos Case starring the soprano Karita Mattila.

For a long time, this was a rarity at the Met, where it remains standard practice for staff directors to lead almost all revivals. If this new director was present at the original rehearsals, all the better; sometimes, particularly with older productions, they were not, and instead use video footage and institutional memory to recreate what they can.

But with different casts and a different director, recreating hours of blocking can be an impossible goal, and the deeper directorial interpretation–the characters’ psychology and interactions, the connection of the music and words–will necessarily be new: sometimes worse, sometimes better, but always different. The only thing that remains largely constant is the design. Though we critics often refer to “a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos,” we are really talking about “a revival of Ariadne auf Naxos on the same set as Elijah Moshinsky’s production.”

“The scenery isn’t the direction,” Mr. Moshinsky said. “The scenery is a part of the whole production. The most important thing for me in Ariadne is the study of these two women in love, and also an investigation into theater. And into the nuances of what’s being said. How it’s directed is incredibly important.”

Since Peter Gelb took over, the Met has been emphasizing the theatricality of opera and hiring directors prominent on Broadway and in film; many in the audience now come to see “Mary Zimmerman’s Lucia” as much (if not more) than “Natalie Dessay’s Lucia” or “Donizetti’s Lucia.” The company’s internal practices are changing accordingly, with a production’s original director more frequently being brought back to work with new casts and on revivals. In the fall, the executive director of the union that represents, among others, the company’s directors told me that in upcoming contract negotiations they will press for explicit protections of directors’ work in revivals.

With this new emphasis on directors comes a new respect for opera as vibrant theater, open to fresh, risky perspectives. This is a major change for the traditionally conservative, voice-obsessed American opera audience–Mr. Moshinsky compared the shift to the Arab Spring–but it is already the norm at European opera houses like London’s Covent Garden, where Mr. Moshinsky has directed operas for nearly 40 years and where he handles all his own revivals.

In the early seventies, while working on a doctorate at Oxford, he directed a production of As You Like It. It impressed the head of Covent Garden enough to convince him to hire Mr. Moshinsky, whose breakthrough was a stark, Brecht-influenced production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975.

He made his Met debut in 1980 with Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, starring Luciano Pavarotti. It was a rocky experience (the Met’s online archive says that Mr. Moshinsky had his name removed from the following year’s revival “because of numerous changes made in his staging and in the décor”), but he earned a reputation for being able to intelligently handle the company’s stars, including Vickers, Placido Domingo, Ms. Mattila, and the famously divalike Ms. Norman. He gave them handsomely stylized productions that eschewed the extremes of European-style “Regietheater”–no modern dress–but contained arresting setpieces. No one who saw The Queen of Spades will forget the veteran soprano Leonie Rysanek punching her way up through the floor.

And the Ariadne production remains one of the most elegant in the Met’s repertory, its visual coups subtle and satisfying. The three nymphs are fantastically tall, with elongated skirts in gemlike colors; the set of the opera within the opera consists mainly of receding prosceniums that dilate and constrict, like a fantasy of 18th-century dramaturgy. The Queen of Spades uses the same technique to potent effect, and the seemingly solid back wall at the opening of the second act of his Otello flies open to reveal the waiting crowd. We are, in Mr. Moshinsky’s productions, always being framed, always at least glancingly aware that we are in a story.

A story that can be seamlessly told, he thinks, in any medium: “When you have a really good production, it looks good on television. If you have a good director and a good production and a truthful, interesting performance, it works. If you turn out for ‘Live from the Met’ and it’s a bit second-rate, it’s second-rate whether it’s on television or on the stage.”

He has sometimes changed his perspective on characters who have aged with him, like Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. “I now have children,” he said. “I know what Boccanegra feels like. I know the bitterness and how the emotions need to be read. I think I’m much more insightful now about the progress of a man who wants some kind of redemption.”

Boccanegra-style redemption may well be on the mind of a director who, as he jokes, was “once all the rage and then was never to be seen again.” Certainly age and his illness will inform Mr. Moshinsky’s direction of the revival of The Makropulos Case, which revolves around a 300-year-old opera singer searching desperately for a potion granting eternal life. And who knows? Leading Ms. Mattila in a blazing star vehicle like that, one of the highlights of next season, he may yet end up all the rage again.


Being Boccanegra: Throwing the Spotlight on Directors, the Met Brings Back Elijah Moshinsky