Holy Moses ! Schönberg’s Big One Caps Grand-Slam Season at Met

A nonmusical friend recently asked me, “Why do you opera buffs like to talk about opera so much?” I replied,

A nonmusical friend recently asked me, “Why do you opera buffs like to talk about opera so much?” I replied, “Because there’s always so much to complain about.”

Which is one of the reasons that I’m such a fan of the Metropolitan Opera. More than any opera house in the world, the Met is a complainer’s paradise. Setting aside the vastness and vulgarities of the place itself (which are compensated for by excellent acoustics and sight lines), you can count on the Met to give you something to grouse about at least as often as it gives you reason to cheer. Until the New Year dawned, the “nays” had it, prompted as they were by Cecilia Bartoli’s prima-donna antics in Le Nozze di Figaro , those silicone cowgirls (or whatever they were) in Franco Zeffirelli’s floor-sale La Traviata , and the most vacuous Lucia di Lammermoor in history.

But, suddenly, the clouds have parted. In the past month, I’ve been to the Met on four occasions, after three of which I’ve cheered. When it comes to opera, three out of four is a grand slam. The first triumph was the revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1991 production of Leos Janacek’s Katya Kabanova , an astutely simple realization of this beautiful village tragedy that had the bonus of providing an important Met debut for a stunning young Swedish mezzo-soprano named Katarina Karneus, as the lubricious Barbara. My only complaint was the meagerness of the audience. The house was scarcely half full–as it was for last January’s run of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes –which made me wonder whether the Met’s programmers deliberately save the best 20th-century operas for the winter doldrums, so that they can say to critics like me: “Why do you expect us to do more unfamiliar stuff when we can’t pull them in for Janacek and Britten?”

A week or so later, the Met pulled another old production out of the mothballs, this time with less success. I found John Cox’s restaging of a 1971 production of Jules Massenet’s Werther pretty enough to look at, in a generically picturesque way, and its relentless wistfulness was sensitively delivered by Susan Graham and Thomas Hampson in the leads. But these two all-American figures of radiant good health scarcely conjured up romantic helplessness–one kept expecting Ms. Graham to come out with, “Honey, get a grip!” And the title character’s lovesick bleatings, which are normally in the mouth of a lyric tenor, lost much of their effectiveness in Mr. Hampson’s much too robust baritone.

Of more recent vintage was Giancarlo del Monaco’s 1995 staging of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra , which was triumphantly revived, thanks to a splendid cast. Why this leanly textured, swiftly paced political masterwork seems to find favor only with the most sophisticated Verdians has always surprised me, though I suppose its unpopularity has something to do with an extremely convoluted plot and a relative paucity of memorable arias. But this Simon was utterly gripping. Richly outfitted in 14th-century Genovese gloom, it was sung as well as I’ve heard it by Plácido Domingo as the patrician Gabriele Adorno, by the magnificent Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as Amelia, and, in another smashing debut, by a Romanian with a tenebrous baritone, Alexandru Agache, whose command of the punishing title role was unflagging.

Which brings me to the most noteworthy of the Met’s spate of triumphs–Graham Vick’s production of Arnold Schönberg’s Moses und Aron . This is the great bogeyman of 20th-century operas: fierce and atonal in the music, argumentatively prolix in the libretto, static in dramatic action (the notorious “Dance Before the Golden Calf” is one of those orgies that won’t quit), and famously incomplete, since not even the fearlessly inventive Schönberg could ever figure out an appropriate ending. The last time it was heard hereabouts was nine years ago, at the City Opera, in a production so soporific that I had to remind myself to wake up for the nudity in Act 2.

But the Met’s new production redeems all of Schönberg’s agonies over his one full-length operatic masterpiece. The set and costume designer, Paul Brown, has retained the desert (in Magritte-like form) on which the anguished man of thought, Moses, wages his debate with the man of action, Aron, over how to bring the new concept of a purely imagined “one God” home to the Jews in their flight from bondage in Egypt.

But the real setting for this production is the 20th century, in which the fate of the Jews has hinged on the temptations of great worldly success and the threat of utter annihilation. This is brilliantly realized in the costuming of the vast Met chorus, who are clothed in everything from shtetl plain cloth to ermines and pearls, and in the great sets for the “Golden Calf” orgy, which manages to conjure up everything from the continental baths to La Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival to the last train for Auschwitz. Roused from their usual torpors in Aida and Carmen , the Met chorus has never sounded better, or acquitted themselves so vividly as theatrical characters.

In two Brits, the baritone John Tomlinson and the tenor Philip Langridge, the production boasts a Moses and an Aron of tremendous assurance. These are two deeply worked out characterizations–nothing about them smacks of oratorio-like declamation. Sharply differentiated though they are–Mr. Tomlinson’s Moses has all the wear of the world in his Karl Marx-like head; Mr. Langridge’s Aron is like a handsome, more charming James Carville–the two men seem almost mystically connected to each other, bound by some invisible umbilical cord.

But the real bonding of this piece comes from Schönberg’s incredible score. By turns ghostly, ghastly, eerie and elegant, this is music as performer –out there at the footlights, coming right at you whether you like it or not. Maestro James Levine obviously loves this crazy stuff and he conducts it with a manner I can only call loving–which is not to suggest that a smile ever creeps in. On opening night, the applause for this landmark event in the Met’s long and bumpy artistic history was appropriately tumultuous.

Holy Moses ! Schönberg’s Big One Caps Grand-Slam Season at Met