A year ago the news came as... news, and in stages: a foretaste in spring, from the usual on-and-off issues; then the awful accident and cancellations for the first part of 2011-2012 in September; then the thud of no appearances at all. For many months -- until the announcement just last night of an eventual return, in fact -- Levine's absence has been the unspoken cloud hanging over the house. Fabio Luisi was appointed principal conductor last season, so the facade of continuity remained. And yet...
The problem for Peter Gelb and the Met is that Levine's work and presence in the pit was the core of the company's identity for decades. Singers, productions, production fads, and even general managers came and went, relying on the musical-sonic foundation provided by Levine and the orchestra he built and polished over many consecutive seasons. And not just his colleagues: for regular Met-goers, Levine's performances of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and the modernists were a pleasure one could anticipate as well as savor every year -- the one part of the experience that would not fail.
Yet it's not that Gelb and his administration have handled this crisis poorly: Luisi is as distinguished an emergency deputy as one could imagine, and circumstance has parked Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the first really plausible successor I can recall, just down the Turnpike at the Philadelphia Orchestra. The house continues its decade-long trend of trying out interesting new conducting talent, though with mixed results. But Levine's presence has been particularly important to Gelb's administration, because Levine maintained in his domain virtues Gelb otherwise is and has been reluctant to offer and value: warmth, attention to beautiful sound per se, and -- of course -- Americanness.
For all Fabio Luisi's prodigious skill and clarity, he's not that kind of counterweight. Luisi is, in fact, exactly of a piece with the Gelb administration's favored artists: a bit cerebral, a bit chilly even in his excitement, and impeccably European in pedigree. His substitution for Levine has put us now thoroughly in the Gelb era.
It's perhaps not quite coincidence that dissatisfaction with Gelb's administration is now part of the operagoing air. Spring's Opera News kerfuffle aired the extent of this development: not only did the public roundly slam the Met, but the press as well, with hints that even Tommasini at the Times may be growing tired of carrying the company's water. Why? Well, I noted at the start of Gelb's tenure that he holds a specific and far-from-universal vision of opera, and subsequent years seem to have borne this out. One could recognize the family resemblance in his productions years ago: tall blank walls, high narrow staircases and platforms, dim lighting and strong colors, near-doctrinaire avoidance/elimination of representational detail (as in Islamic art, words and abstract designs are permitted) in sets though not in costumes, and of course a general tilt to the crass and vulgar in stage direction. (Some house edict seems to have extended the latter element to revivals as well, creating the Obligatory Gelb-Era Humping Scene.) This can be fantastic -- as in, most recently, The Nose -- and is catnip to a certain segment of New Yorkers, but is contrary to the way a large (perhaps majority) portion of the Met audience takes in and appreciates visual information. And yet the alternatives -- though ever more important, as the Met rolls out its biggest and most war-horsey traditional productions (Turandot and Aida) many times this season to weather the poor economy -- are vanishing faster than they used to, thanks to the uptick in (new, Gelb-style) premieres from Gelb's co-production program.
Even the shows seemingly designed for traditional appeal do not quite scratch that itch. For not only do Bart Sher's comedic efforts (his louche Hoffmann -- the one show where he wasn't tasked with aiming for faux-traditional -- was quite good, though very much in the Gelb-era manner) and the Lepage Ring -- the most prominent efforts in this vein -- largely remix the same anti-traditional visual syntax, they in fact rely on theatrical distancing effects (video screens, frames, play-within-a-play additions) that present the story under glass, or in big quotation marks. Straightforward warmth, beauty, realism still aren't on the table, and so as traditional experiences, these new shows fail where their predecessors (often) succeeded. (Of course, they don't succeed as critic-pleasing fare either, and I can almost imagine Gelb striding bloodily onto the stage demanding "Are you not entertained!?" at their premieres.)
Some form of this complaint is now regularly aired with each premiere. But the corresponding trend in casting has been less remarked upon. For while respecting the biggest stars already in the house, Gelb brought a certain kind of singer to the fore from the start, and continues to do so today. His original favorites have largely run their course: Angela Gheorghiu crashed and burned with this administration as she did with Volpe's, Diana Damrau has failed to become an audience draw despite much exposure and press, and while Anna Netrebko still sells tickets, she does so now more as an opera celebrity than as notable artist or (as silly as it is to mention) sex symbol. Behind them, though, the Met continues to bring in and promote sopranos in their mold -- e.g. Nino Machaidze, Hibla Gerzmava, and of course the now-ubiquitous Marina Poplavskaya. As much as I like these interesting East-European singers with interesting voices, it would be an awful loss if their virtues displaced the Levine characteristics I mentioned above -- warmth, attention to beautiful sound per se, and Americanness -- in this aspect of opera as well.
The Met is closer to this point than one might think, at least among sopranos. Look at Faust: yes, Gheorghiu's cancellation/firing left the house looking for a late replacement, but Marguerite is a, perhaps the lyric soprano part, one that any singer with a voice and an iota of charm should carry off. (The greatest success in recent memory was classic soubrette-stimmdiva Ruth Ann Swenson.) And yet the Met chose Poplavskaya -- for all her virtues, the seemingly least-charming singer on its roster, and one with a functional rather than beautiful tone -- and not only let her sink the new production last season, but engaged her to ensure this season's revival is just as much of a dud. Why? When so many lyric sopranos with the classic lyric soprano virtues are out there, it's hard not to see this as a deliberate sign of what the house values and intends to value. (One might also take Kate Royal's unpleasant to hear Micaela in this vein.)
(Met Council winners do seem to get a shot, though, so let's hope Susanna Phillips seizes her long-in-coming Donna Anna and Janai Brugger turns out to be a hit as Liu.)
It's possible, of course, that Levine will, as the Met just announced, return next season hale and strong enough to make this interregnum a distant and unfortunate memory. I certainly hope so -- and even reading of his eventual return has chased off some of the gloom that inspired this piece. But even with Levine in the pit and assuring the vitality of his house, the artistic one-sidedness of the elements outside his domain will, if it continues, continue to frustrate and limit its success. For Gelb's problem, with or without Levine, remains what I noted five-and-a-half years back: the art form exists and is enjoyed in too many different ways for a single approach to be enough. Gelb's single way has shown its limits, and yet is growing ever closer to swallowing every other path. What now? Well, if I were Gelb I would look to find new approaches, with a few more shots at a real, sincere traditionalism -- beginning with a replacement for the worst production in the repertory, the unwatchable Traviata. And I'd think more about presenting beautiful voices... and I'd make sure Nezet-Seguin learns the Verdi canon as fast as possible.
I'm pretty sure the latter will be covered -- as for the rest? Unlikely, but we'll see. As I said, dissatisfaction is in the air.