La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Met Trashes Gluck' s Orfeo ed Euridice

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

In 2006, while he was gearing up to take over as the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb stated that one of his major goals was to “broaden the audience and make it younger at the same time.” He also made it clear that he believed the way to do this was to make more extensive use of new technology and bring in directors from film and Broadway who could bring the quality of the theatrical experience at the Met up to the level of its singing and orchestral playing.

Three years later and we are beginning to get a sense of Gelb’s achievements. He has certainly made use of technology by making Met HD Live a widely-appreciated fact of life along with more extensive use of broadcasts of Met performances on Sirius Satellite Radio. These innovations have doubtlessly won thousands of new listeners for the Met. On the other hand, while new stage directors have been brought in to shake things up, their work has often been disappointing. The latest offering, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with choreographer Mark Morris doubling as stage director, is yet another recent Met production notable both for its silliness and its extravagance.

Big Hall the Wrong Way to Go With Orfeo
The first question that needs to be asked is why a small-scale classical opera from 1762 is being performed in a house seating 3,800 people? This is an opera designed for small theaters of the sort that were the norm in the mid-Eighteenth Century. Gluck’s orchestra was small – no more than 30 players – and there would have been a small chorus and dancers and only three solo singers. In the Met production, conductor James Levine was true to period style in limiting the size of his orchestra, but this nod to scholarship only served to underline the absurdity of the situation; such a small orchestra can barely be heard in such an enormous space. So the whole project is misconceived from the start.

Choreographer as Director Should Have Worked Well
Next, someone familiar with the piece decided that while it is not hard to find solo singers and a chorus to do justice to Orfeo, it is much harder to figure out how to deal with all the dancing required in the piece. Not only is there a lot of it, but it is even harder to figure out correct period style for dance than it is for music. In the latter case, at least we have the instruments from the period to give us some clues.

It is a worthy idea, therefore, to put a choreographer in charge of staging Orfeo, but only if that choreographer has made a study of Eighteenth Century dance style. Unfortunately, Mr. Morris gave no indication whatsoever that he knew anything about this subject. What is more, he appeared to take the view that it didn’t matter anyway; he was quite prepared to do as he pleased. And so he did. The result was a mishmash of classical and modern dance clichés.

One particular dance sequence – the scene in the Elysian Fields – appeared to be borrowing from the iconic Monty Python skit dealing with the Ministry of Silly Walks; it was that awkward and risible.

Patchwork Costumes & Hollywood Squares Set Design
In this production, as in too many recent Met productions, we had the patchwork costume problem. Although Isaac Mizrahi was credited with “designing” them, once again the costumes appeared to have been put together by the cast members themselves, perhaps rifled on their way to work from bags intended for Good Will.

Superfluous and expensive sets are also a trademark Met feature. This week we had an enormous steel fire escape-type structure lowered into place from the flies. Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo walked up to the first level of this contraption, then back down again. And away it went never to be seen again!

There now appears to be a full-fledged Hollywood Squares school of set design ensconced at the Met. We saw it earlier this season in “Le Damnation de Faust” and “Dr. Atomic,” and now in Orfeo ed Euridice. The basic concept is to have people seated in cubicles three or four tiers high staring out at the audience.

In this production, the people were made up and costumed in all different ways to suggest well-known folks from the past. It was hard to tell exactly who was whom, but I thought I saw the likenesses of Henry VIII, Ghandi, Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln.

The general idea, according to director Morris, is that these are ‘dead people’ looking on as interested observers as Orfeo attempts to bring the dead Euridice back to the land of the living. On a more practical level, it was a way for the director to keep his busy chorus on stage and make them somehow part of the action. From time to time these dead personages made stylized and incomprehensible gestures. Some of these gestures even appeared to resemble similar gestures made by the dancers on stage. The one that particularly puzzled me was in the manner of holding an invisible beachball. The gospel lyric “He’s got the whole world in his hands” comes to mind. Perhaps again Morris was invoking something from Monty Python.

Vocal Brilliance and Orchestral Precision Don’t Save the Day!
On the musical side, this production fared much better. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe has the ideal voice for Orfeo. It was effortless and beautiful from top to bottom. Danielle De Niese and Heidi Grant Murphy were very good in the other roles. James Levine made little effort to approximate period style but he and his players contributed immaculate precision and expressive phrasing.

I have often complained in the past that on Met broadcasts the orchestra is recorded at a much lower level than the singers, much to the detriment of the score as a whole. This was not the case with Orfeo. In fact, we had the opposite problem; as if to compensate for its size, the little chamber orchestra positively boomed out of the speakers while the voices appeared to be recorded at just the right volume.

In summary, this opera has no business being presented in a huge theater like the Met and a production this misguided made the worst possible case for it.

On the basis of what I have seen so far this season, I am not surprised that ticket sales have fallen and that Gelb has been forced to cancel or replace four productions planned for next season. The current and global economic mess is mostly to blame, but it doesn’t help that artistic judgment is lacking, that poor directors are hired over and over again and that vast amounts of money are being wasted on dreadful productions.

To be fair, we did see a terrific Salome earlier this season. Still to come are Lucia di Lammermoor with Netrebko and Villazon (Feb. 7), and La Sonnambula with Dessay and Florez (March 21), and ‘hope,’ after all, springs eternal.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Met in HD: Berlioz' Damnation of Faust Lepage-d!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson


I learned about opera watching Herman Geiger-Torel build the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, first in the Royal Alexandra Theatre and later in the dreaded O’Keefe Centre, and annual visits to Maple Leaf Gardens by the Metropolitan Opera. As a young man, I welcomed the opportunity to see real, live opera. Mostly, what I learned and loved was the music; only later did it start to dawn on me that sets, costumes and direction could be interesting too - that is where my commitment to opera started to wane. What was presented on stage in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s was often amateurish and traditional, in the worst sense. Frequent visits to New York convinced me that the Met was not much further ahead. This distinguished company seemed content to hire the best singers money could buy and let the rest of it take care of itself.

Again, speaking personally, the future of opera began to look a whole lot brighter when I saw the productions Herbert von Karajan was presenting in Salzburg in collaboration with Gunther Schneider-Siemssen in the late 1960s and early 70s. Here was a fresh approach to a decaying art form, making use of the latest technology. Futuristic and abstract sets, complex lighting schemes and elaborate projections brought a new dimension to Wagner’s Ring cycle.

The Karajan-Schneider-Siemssen Ring was eventually brought to the Met and it was my good fortune to get to know Erwin Feher, the technical genius who adapted this production to the Met’s quite different stage and equipment.

This long introduction is my way of introducing a review of the Met’s current production of BerliozLa Damnation de Faust in its Met HD Live incarnation last week. I am all in favour of applying the latest in stage and film technology to operatic production; however, I reserve the right to object when a director turns a masterpiece into a farce. I am afraid Robert Lepage managed to do just that with Berlioz’ légende dramatique. Perhaps it was the parade of soldiers walking backwards during the “Hungarian March,” or the lines of naked men inhabiting the bowels of hell – who knew that hell was a gay bathhouse? – that did it for me. But let me start with the overall concept. More details later.

La Damnation de Faust is not an opera at all. It works perfectly well as Berlioz intended, as a concert piece. Had he wanted to turn it into an opera, he would have done so himself and most certainly would have made lots of changes in the process.

I find the whole concept offensive. To convince me otherwise will require a production far more persuasive than the incoherent mess Le Page perpetrated on the stage of the Met. Lepage has talked a great deal about how he has brought “state of the art video techniques” to this work. Mention was made of “interactive video” in which the singers can change the images simply by moving their bodies. I noticed that Lepage talked much less about any connection between the images and movements he used, and the music. My impression is that the music was simply one of many components used to heighten the theatrical experience. Think Cirque du Soleil. By the way, Lepage created a show called KA for Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2005.

For La Damnation de Faust, Lepage created a huge four-story scaffolding and virtually all the action in the production takes place in some part of this structure. As set design, think the TV quiz show Hollywood Squares with each of the celebrity panelists occupying a different cell in the scaffolding matrix. At times, Lepage did indeed have characters occupying these cells, and at other times either cellular projections or integrated projections. One could understand the fun Lepage had in organizing these cells and projections, but clearly he ran out of both money and ideas. While Cirque du Soleil can easily find $32 million for a Las Vegas show, the Met would have trouble raising one-tenth of that for a single production. Nor could they find the time required for weeks of technical rehearsals.

It appears that Lepage is a director who proceeds by free association, rather than by studying the work he is engaged to produce. I am still trying to figure out why Faust was unceremoniously dumped out of a boat – why was he in the boat in the first place? – then seen to be swimming or tumbling under water along with some unidentified other folks. Later, during the scene in which spirits are apparently bewitching the sleeping Marguerite we see eight ballet dancers in separate cells in the scaffolding doing nothing more interesting than what appear to be basic warm-up exercises at the barre. The ‘climax’ of this engrossing tableau comes when a group of half-naked men attached to cables begin climbing up and down the various levels of the scaffolding. This development combined elements of Cirque du Soleil, Chippendales and Monty Python.

The “Ride to the Abyss” was one of Lepage’s great set pieces. He put together images of galloping horses and menacing birds with riders in silhouette. Unfortunately, none of the riders were either Faust or Méphistophélès, who were content to stand nearby and deliver Berlioz’ music as best they could. Then came another Faust-dump, this time into the bowels of hell and the eager arms of the Chippendales lads looking surprisingly buff and content in their new digs. The coup de théâtre was to have Marguerite ascend into heaven by way of an enormous ladder in the middle of the stage. It was all very silly and ultimately ridiculous.

And the music? Susan Graham as Marguerite and John Relyea as Méphistophélès were excellent in spite of the appalling production thrust upon them. Marcello Giordani is turning into the ‘go-to’ guy among tenors at the Met. He seems to be involved in nearly every production. In fact, on the day of this Damnation de Faust he also replaced an indisposed colleague for the evening performance of Madama Butterfly. I would like to be able to say that he sang beautifully as Faust, but alas, he didn’t. He sang sharp from almost beginning to end. I think the poor man deserves a rest. James Levine was in the pit. I have to wonder about his judgement as music director in allowing such a travesty to go forward, let alone having to look at it every time he conducted it. Perhaps that explains why he took the “Hungarian March” at such an absurdly fast tempo. No doubt he had a car waiting.

There is, of course, another way of looking at this farrago. Lepage himself has suggested that La Damnation de Faust was merely a dry run for some of the technology he is planning to use for the new Ring cycle at the Met in the fall of 2010. If so, there is still time for General Manager Peter Gelb to retract his conviction that “Lepage represents everything I believe in regarding storytelling and visual presentation.”

Lepage may be a creative genius with his own multidisciplinary production company Ex Machina or in Las Vegas, but he is out of his comfort zone in an opera house. And to hand him carte blanche with the greatest work in operatic literature is foolish and irresponsible.

For the record, at the theater I attended in Cedar Park, Texas there were only twenty people in the audience. As Yogi Berra used to say: “If they don’t want to come, you can’t stop them.” But perhaps they knew something we didn’t. Again, for the record we had the same problems with projectionists failing to turn up the volume to an acceptable level and failing to turn off the house lights after intermission. The sound quality was once again appalling, with the magnificent Met Orchestra reduced to sounding like an acoustical recording from 1920.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: June 23 (Levine)

1943 - James Levine, Cincinnati, U.S.A.; conductor and pianist

Wiki entry
Biography & photos
Boston Globe profile, 2004

James Levine conducts the overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni

James Levine rehearsing Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera (with Jessye Norman and others)

Luciano Pavarotti and James Levine perform Tosti's "Marechiare" (Lincoln Center recital, 1988)

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