Monday, December 3, 2007

Verdi Big Trouble

Sometimes the people who are at the center of the opera world suffer from a peculiar form of myopia which prevents them from dealing with reality. Their passion for the art form and their personal zeal to bring certain projects to fruition conspire to cloud their vision. Since most General Directors spend their intermissions either backstage or else privately entertaining donors, these people rarely get to witness the lurid spectacle of a disappointed, disenfranchised and disinterested audience voting with its feet.

Several years ago, the San Diego Opera attempted to make hay by relying on the operatic art form's most popular composer -- Giuseppe Verdi -- for box office sales. Within ten years, the company staged Verdi's Attila, Un Giorno di Regno, I Lombardi, Nabucco, Oberto, Rigoletto, Giovanna d'Arco, Falstaff, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and Aida. While the company's commitment to the bulk of the Verdi repertoire represented an impressive artistic policy, box office statistics revealed that, although Aida had no problem selling tickets, when the rest of the Verdian literature was dangled in front of subscribers, San Diego's audiences were much more interested in going to the beach. The composer's early repertoire fascinated musicologists and hard core opera queens. His earlier works brought snores of ennui from the population at large.

In January, I had a chance to attend several performances at the Metropolitan Opera while the company was performing two of Verdi's early works, Macbeth and Luisa Miller, in repertoire. Although each of these operas is filled with beautiful music, to my astonishment and profound distress, I stood by the theatre's main entrance during each intermission and saw large numbers of ticket-buyers leave the auditorium before the performance had ended. Their mass exodus resembled the proverbial parade of rats leaving a sinking ship. Two weeks later, I seized a golden opportunity to confront the Met's General Director, Bruce Crawford, about this perverse phenomenon.

Along with several other General Directors, Crawford was appearing on a panel about "Maintaining Your Artistic Integrity" during Opera America's annual conference in Houston. After hearing plenty of high-minded references to how a General Director's job should include "gathering the great chefs of opera together," I opined that the manager of a four-star restaurant boasting the world's great chefs might well worry that something was wrong with the service, cuisine or ambience of his establishment if he started to notice customers leaving after the salad had been served.

Crawford explained that many people find Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande a difficult opera to digest and therefore leave prior to its last act. However, when I challenged his rebuttal by pointing out that (a) his audience was leaving the Met before the performance was over night after night -- regardless of the repertoire, (b) a substantial number of people were leaving the auditorium during the first rather than the last intermission, and (c) there was another opera company located 100 yards across Lincoln Center where audiences had no problem staying in their seats for the entire performance, Crawford told me that I obviously didn't know what I was talking about.

No doubt, the man was still recovering from the wounds inflicted by the New York Post's front page headlines which, in the scummiest Rupert Murdoch tradition, had referred to the "curse of Macbeth" after a depressed voice teacher had catapulted himself off the Met's balcony rail and fallen to his death during the previous week's Saturday broadcast. However, I doubt that the 82-year-old man who committed suicide could have been inspired by the Met's production standards for, as my companion remarked when we left the theatre following a performance of Macbeth, "Just imagine what this evening would have been like without Verdi!"

It strikes me as a sadly dangerous sign of the times that a freak suicide can generate more copy and media interest in the Metropolitan Opera than anything else the company has done since the start of the new year. But whose fault is that?


It would be a cheap shot to suggest that Met management has embraced an artistic policy which rests on the theory that if the audience wants garbage, it deserves to have it served to them for, as originally contracted, this season's revival of Macbeth was to have been quite a stellar affair. Unfortunately, a string of cancellations related to the impact of a weakened American dollar on European markets meant that, out of the original artistic line-up (Renata Bruson, Eva Marton, Samuel Ramey and conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli) only Ramey, who delivered a superbly musical performance as Banquo, honored his contract. The Met had to scramble for substitute artists and the final results proved to be far less impressive than the company's original plans.

Although baritone Frederick Burchinal did his best in the title role, pacing himself carefully and singing well, he was unable to generate major excitement at the performance I attended. As his scheming wife, soprano Elizabeth Connell (a formidable artist under most circumstances) delivered a portrayal of Lady Macbeth which was acceptable, but hardly riveting. Conductor Kazimierz Kord -- who led such a stirring Macbeth in San Francisco in 1986 -- could not get the Met's orchestra to shake off its sluggishness. Only tenor Vyacheslav Polozov's Macduff was able to bring some genuine blood and thunder to the evening.

The fault here lies not so much with the individual artists onstage as with the travesty of a production in which they were trapped. When Sir Peter Hall's staging of this opera was first unveiled in Lincoln Center several years ago it was nearly booed and hooted off the Met's stage. It should be noted that the evening's original and ludicrous ballet has been replaced with an ill-conceived witch's dance whose most distinctive feature is the sight of Cheryllynn Ross's right tit playing peek-a-boo with the audience (a gesture no doubt aimed at satisfying operagoers who like to keep time to the music by following the bouncing black boob). Many of the original production's appalling excesses have been toned down by director Paul Mills but, as a dramatic whole, the Met's staging of Macbeth makes precious little sense. Instead, the production cries out to be scrapped before it can do further injustice to the composer's intentions.


Opening night of Luisa Miller was an equally dismal affair. Although Isola Jones was forced to replace the ailing Mignon Dunn on short notice in the role of Federica, the rest of the cast stayed pretty much intact. Sergei Koptchak's Wurm, Paul Plishka's Count Walter and Wolfgang Brendel's Miller were all robustly sung but distinctly lacking in dramatic excitement. In her Met debut, Silvia Mosca revealed a pleasing stage presence and a serviceable soprano which did justice to Verdi's music without generating sparks.

Lesley Koenig's stage direction and Nello Santi's conducting did little to build excitement. Sadly, the most disappointing part of the evening proved to be Carlo Bergonzi's performance as Rodolfo. Although he was accorded loud, screaming ovations (and I have great respect for the 63-year-old tenor's command of the Verdian style) Bergonzi sang off pitch for a good part of the evening. This was not one of the Met's finest hours.

In his review of the performance, The New York Times's critic, Donal Henahan, suggested that if, as a general rule, Met audiences enter the auditorium expecting nothing, it will be hard for them to be disappointed. Such critical cynicism not only serves as an accurate assessment of the company's failing artistic product but as a stern warning that Met management desperately needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 24, 1988.

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