Bad Romance: Michael Grandage’s Nonevent Don Giovanni Proves That Good Marketing Copy Doesn’t Make Good Opera

Audience members dozed, checked Blackberries

In an interview in the Met’s season book, the company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, praises the way Mr. Grandage directs with “a cool and elegant aplomb that stays focused on the storytelling. He appreciates that the staging of a classic play has to please both knowledgeable and uninitiated audience members.”

This is code for the Met’s fear that conceptual or experimental productions of the standard repertory will alienate “uninitiated” opera-goers. Forget the blazing critical and popular success of Willy Decker’s stark, contemporary La Traviata last season: clearly, in Mr. Gelb’s mind, audiences will run from a Giovanni (or Le Nozze di Figaro or Cosi fan tutte) that doesn’t appear to have been set in a Restoration Hardware store, with bland period costumes and a blissful ignorance of the aesthetic, political, and moral issues that mattered to Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Like Robert Lepage’s first two installments at the Met of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the new Giovanni is desperate to avoid anything that could possibly be construed as ideology or updating or directorial intervention. In a recent interview Mr. Grandage said that high-concept productions tend to give only the superficial appearance of having reconsidered a piece, while his own, more traditional methods yield something more substantive.

“I think you can reinvestigate it from the inside, in a way that is about character,” he said.

But his production, like Mr. Lepage’s, has ended up lacking precisely the qualities you’d expect and hope would come through in such a “straightforward” take on the opera: characters, emotions, plot, basic interest. At one especially lethargic moment during the first act on Monday, the man on one side of me started scrolling through emails on his BlackBerry; on my other side, a man was dozing. Is this the vividly theatrical operatic experience that Mr. Gelb has promised us?

In the Met’s publicity, Mr. Grandage’s name is invariably accompanied by the phrase “Tony Award winner” (he got his trophy for Red). And you sense that the ability to tack on those words played no small part in Mr. Gelb’s decision to hire his similarly award-winning colleagues, Julie Taymor, Mary Zimmerman, Bartlett Sher, and Des McAnuff, whose production of Gounod’s Faust comes to the Met next month.

The idea is that these directors will bring two things along with them: a vibrancy perceived to be present in the theater world but lacking in opera, and a savvy audience that loved, say, Red but has steered clear of the Met.

In theory, everyone wins; in practice, we all lose. Ms. Taymor, Ms. Zimmerman, Mr. Sher and now Mr. Grandage have shown that the credentials that make good marketing copy don’t necessarily make good opera. His new Don Giovanni is worse than bad: it’s nothing.

Bad Romance: Michael Grandage’s Nonevent Don Giovanni Proves That Good Marketing Copy Doesn’t Make Good Opera