Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Term four

Attempts to deflect from an obvious truth by bringing in a familiar red herring narrative have, for generations, been the New York Times's stock-in-trade, but today's Wall Street Journal piece on the new Met Traviata is a pretty thorough attempt itself. For tonight's event is not at all about the Met's need for youth, outreach, new opera, and other beloved shibboleths of the credentialed set: it's a tallying of the bets and life of the Gelb administration after a dozen years.

For Gelb took wholly over from Joe Volpe in 2006, which makes this his thirteenth season as General Manager. (Volpe, by comparison, was the boss for sixteen.) Though the long lead time in opera casting makes the analogy even more tenuous, it's still useful to compare these years to the terms of a Presidency. In the first four years, there are likely to be big immediate gains from taking opportunities not congenital to or just not perceived by one's predecessor, and the relief and glamour of novelty cover many potential criticisms. In the next four, one runs up against the limits of one's characteristic method, and troubles and criticisms pile up until enough people are sick enough of the same old thing to choose a near-opposite as one's successor.

Gelb's initial years - in their broad strokes likely planned before he officially took over - brought plenty of success. From a new union agreement and the launch of the moviecasts to the indelible glory of 2008-09, there was much to praise, and if Sonnambula and Tosca were infamous flops, the Butterfly, Lucia, Trovatore, Hoffmann, Carmen, and Nose productions (also Armida, which unfortunately hasn't had the right stars for revival) were and are significant successes. The next seasons - with Volpe's hand felt much less in shown productions and not at all in casting - brought some new plusses, but the main project (Robert Lepage's Ring) was thoroughly mediocre and (Maria Stuarda, which opened the night before) only 2013 - with Parsifal, Rigoletto and Falstaff - had memorable triumphs. Worse, Gelb's preferred decor (stark, low on representational detail), staging tics (the Obligatory Gelb-Era Humping Scene has been a thing since 2010), and singer type (chilly, un-charming European ladies) became, with previous-regime stars and productions ever more scarce contrast, all too unavoidably obvious and tiresome. And since then, with Levine's health and then scandal foreclosing much artistic direction from that side of the company, the company has seemed adrift, successes and awful failures coming almost at random from the previously successful (sometimes in the same show) while Gelb shows little sign of either leaving or finding a second string to his bow.

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If the house doesn't yet have a particular new direction, it's nevertheless shown recent willingness to least correct previous errors. Last season the much-reviled Bondy Tosca was replaced by another David McVicar production (pretty good, after his one failure in Norma), and tonight we at last get a Traviata to take the place of Willy Decker's aggressively reductive account. The latter combined awfully with the administration's preferred sort of leading lady to effectively axe, for the eight years it ran since its end-of-2010 debut here, probably the most important piece in the operatic repertory. La Traviata is not only a touchstone and cornerstone of the genre but an unrivaled vehicle for introducing newcomers to the love of opera. It would be a big step if Michael Mayer's (apparently) elaborately representational version brought that back.

(Personally, however, despite the presence of Gelb-era discoveries on which the house has wisely bet - Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Quinn Kelsey - the house's insistence on trying to jam square peg Diana Damrau into the round hole of serious dramatic leading lady is something with which I've lost patience after these many years. The dramatically electric Anita Hartig in the spring, on the other hand...)