Saturday, December 30, 2006

The year in plotlines

Writing about trends makes me cranky, but a paragraph or two seems obligatory.

If one wants already to synthesize the story of New York opera 2006 -- though what was truly important may not become clear for decades -- it's easy to grab on to the Met handover from Joe Volpe to Peter Gelb. The year was rather mixed for both. Volpe's last production showed Otto Schenk at his least defensible, while despite the New York Times-enforced honeymoon for Gelb and his chosen stars (and I think the Times is doing itself and its music writers an unfortunate disservice with this policy), his two new offerings have disappointed. It was the almost-new that did each credit: Lohengrin (mothballed since 1998) in the spring and Butterfly (which, as one may recall, premiered previously at ENO) this fall. Each treated the press with a cynicism (Sunnegårdh/the "everything's new" metastory) that would be appalling if this press didn't seem so happily cooperative.

But of course there were structural decisions that may prove more important: the labor agreement that begat the frequent Met transmissions over Sirius satellite radio, or City Opera's failure to secure a new home.

Fortunately, opera is not about trends or structure, which collectively explain some things but not the very present magic that happens at every good performance -- whether in good artistic climate or bad, as daily occurrence or happy aberration.

So from 2006 I remember that some very interesting tenors bowed, not least Jonas Kaufmann and Joseph Calleja. That baritone Carlos Alvarez did Verdi credit -- twice, and baritone Thomas Hampson (iffy high notes and all -- and they may even have helped) was wrenchingly human as the only human being depicted in Wagner's pageant Parsifal (that is, Amfortas). And that Natalie Dessay did this.

But two nights in particular stand out. October 12 was Dorothea Röschmann's solo recital, and the finest I've seen in many seasons. (If the Met doesn't become a regular operatic home, I hope that her New York recital visits nevertheless continue.) Before that was May 3, which was an even more remarkable thing.

First, it was an outing of the most notable production of the year. As charged by Karita Mattila, the revival of Robert Wilson's Lohengrin was the revelation for eye, ear, brain and heart that every fancy-director production aspires to be but only Herbert Wernicke's Die Frau ohne Schatten (despite flawed casting) has otherwise realized in recent decades here.

Lohengrin performances before May 3 featured Ben Heppner in the title part. May 3 brought the debut of a barely-known tenor, Klaus Florian Vogt.

How often does a performer debut at a great house, in a great production, opposite the greatest performer of his time and produce not only a complete, screaming-audience success, but one that actually puts the co-star in second place? Who shows a vocal quality that no one present could believe except for the fact that all had just heard it? (In fact, I'm not sure I believe it now. The DVD of his subsequent Lohengrin in Baden-Baden comes out in a month, and will perhaps provide some evidence. It also occurs to me that the Met's house tape could appear on Sirius at some point.)

If for nothing but Klaus Florian Vogt's Met debut, 2006 was a very good year for local opera. If for nothing but their neglect of the event, 2006 was a very bad year for the local operatic press.


  1. I'm tempted to say the big news of 2006 is news announcements (well, and gossip) about upcoming seasons. There was so much...but most of it from a source you disdain, so...

    I'm thinking of: possibility of Tudor Queens at the Met, scuttlebut about Levine's departure in 2012, Podles' re-debut, and that big one that won't go away but doesn't seem to be reliable about a bunch of singers' contracts being bought out over the next year or two. Etc.

    As far as last year's news, I'm leaning towards saying the big story was Minghella/Butterfly, even if it was only new to us. Well, or you could just as well look on the bleak side and say the big story was the staggering number of great singers who left us. Weren't there an awful lot this year?

  2. Actually, no. What am I thinking? The very biggest story for me was unquestionably the opening of the vaults at the Met, perhaps the whole Sirius thing. The broadcasting of four operas a week after we thought broadcasts were possibly about to die is just huge. And access to all the old broadcasts? It still makes me weak in the knees.

  3. Wow, I don't care for the Met's FrOSch much at all. It destroys the carefully laid out triple-level structure of the opera in favor of the two-part set.

    But maybe I'm just picky.

  4. Maury: every year brings rumors of the future, but every year also brings the often-rather-different truth behind previous speculations. Thinking about the former more than the latter is a nice recipe for headache...

    Anyway, it seems to me the world's full enough of things of abstract putative significance; it's the more visceral significance of actual performance that's neglected.

    SM: Heartless, maybe?

  5. I think you're being a tad unfair to Gelb. All the interviews I have read from Minghella indicate that Gelb got the MET involved in the production very early in the design stage...and that his input was extensive. Also, there were a number of changes Gelb insisted on after the two ENO runs (and one in Lithuania) that Minghella said made the MET production much better.
    As for FIRST EMPEROR, I don't know how Gelb gets blamed for that debacle when it was commissioned & completely planned by VOLPE.

  6. Heartless? Oh, dear sir, how little you know me. :)

  7. sterlingkay: As much as I'd like to believe that things will improve, the Golijov commission seems to me evidence of the opposite. (See last January's account of Ainadamar.)

    SM: Chalk it up to the perils of being pseudonymous...

  8. In my line of work, it's a nice luxury to be able to indulge every once in a while with a nom de plume.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.