As the 2008-09 Met Season progresses, I am struck by how often I have been tempted to resort to superlatives. In October Don Giovanni and Salome were truly extraordinary performances. I was reluctant to say it myself, but I heard two friends say that that Don Giovanni was the finest they had ever heard, and I had to agree, at least as far as the singers were concerned. Not only did the principles sing and act at the very highest levels, each of the secondary roles were filled by top-level singers who were also intelligent actors. This extra effort and expense to make casts consistent in quality has made an important difference. In spite of the inevitable shortcomings and controversial points of La Damnation de Faust, Tristan, and Orfeo, these were also thoroughly memorable performances with many outstanding contributions. Who could forget Susan Graham’s Marguerite, Barenboim’s conducting of Tristan, or Stephanie Blythe’s Orfeo? Now after seeing this production of Eugene Onegin and the HD broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor (to be reviewed shortly), I’m keenly aware of what an extraordinary season it has been.
Peter Gelb’s tenure as general manager is taking shape as one in which the core values of opera and public outreach coexist in mutually beneficial teamwork. And why shouldn’t they? Opera has enough glamour associated with it, enough spectacle, and a wealth of simple stories which appeal directly to the emotions, that it should have a vital popular appeal. Artists like Renée Fleming and Anna Netrebko can stir up warm popular feeling without sacrificing any of their artistic standards. The HD screenings, in spite of some shortcomings, are enormously effective. These are readily becoming available through the Met Player online and on DVD. The venerable Saturday afternoon broadcasts continue, supplemented by satellite radio broadcasts on Sirius and streaming audio through Rhapsody and other sources. Access to Met performances has never been easier or more affordable. The house is also doing reasonably well, considering the disastrous economy. Most of the performances I have attended this season have been, by the look of things, either sold out or close to it. After significant increases in ticket sales over the 2006-07 (83.9%) and 2007-08 (88.1%) seasons, sales are now down only 1.9% in comparison with last season, in spite of the disastrous economy.
The Met always was a rather conservative house, and it still continues to play it safe, as it assimilates some of the dramaturgical innovations which have been current in Europe for a generation. The result are relatively few failures, along with intelligent, compelling productions like Eugene Onegin, Salome, and Don Giovanni. Many years of successful showmanship went behind Robert Lepage’s Damnation de Faust, which is about as far as the Met goes in the direction of daring, unless one is impressed by the flash of nudity in Salome. In casting, the Met continues to get better at capturing younger talent of a high order and allowing and offering New York audiences a broader sampling of the astonishing talent that flourishes in the world today. Certain productions have been scheduled in two “runs.” This fall Don Giovanni was performed with a pretty near flawless cast which was built on Erwin Schrott’s Don, Idebrando d’Archangelo’s Leporello, and Matthew Polenzani as Don Ottavio, Susan Graham as Donna Elvira and Krassimira Stoyanova as Donna Anna, who were replaced by others in December. In the spring the male roles will be filled by Peter Mattei, Samuel Ramey, and Pavol Breslik. The Met offered Lucia di Lammermoor with two great sopranos as Lucia—Diana Damrau in October and Anna Netrebko beginning in January.
The guiding principles of the 2009-10 season, the first entirely planned under Peter Gelb’s direction, continue this variety with a healthy appetite for change and innovation—much of it imported from European houses. We can expect new talent, as well as familiar figures in new material. There will be eight new productions: Bizet’s Carmen, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Thomas’ Hamlet, and Puccini’s Tosca, as well as the Met premieres of Rossini’s Armida, Verdi’s Attila, Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, and Shostakovich’s The Nose.
These productions will include further novelties of their own. Tosca will be director Luc Bondy’s Met debut and Karita Mattila’s first Tosca at the Met. (James Levine will conduct.) Production designer Richard Peduzzi and costume designer Milena Canonero are also making their Met debuts in this co-production with the Teatro alla Scala, Milan and with the Bavarian State Opera, Munich.Director Patrice Chéreau, who made a name for himself in his controversial production of Wagner’s Ring in 1976, and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen both make Met debuts with the new production of Janáček’sFrom the House of the Dead, a collaborative production of the Metropolitan Opera and the Wiener Festwochen, in co-production with Holland Festival, Amsterdam; the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence; and Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Richard Peduzzi designed the production, along with costume designer Caroline de Vivaise, lighting designer Bertrand Couderc, and choreographer Thierry Thieû Niang, who are also newcomers. From the House of the Deadwas voted Europe’s best opera staging for 2007 by the Charles Cros Academy.
Bartlett Sher, whose staged Il Barbiere di Siviglia two seasons ago, returns to direct Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, conducted by Levine, with Rolando Villazón in the title role, Anna Netrebko as Antonia, Elīna Garanča as Nicklausse, and René Pape as the four villains. Michael Yeargan as set designer and Catherine Zuber as costume designer, as well as by lighting designer James F. Ingalls and choreographer Dou Dou Huang. Sher describes his production as “a magical journey—inspired by Kafka—in which the title character works out different manifestations of his psyche.” The newCarmen, starring Angela Gheorghiu in her debut in the role, will also feature the debuts of director Richard Eyre, renowned for his productions of Shakespeare and other stage classics at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre (his first opera was La Traviata at Covent Garden in 1994, also with Anna Georghiu), and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Roberto Alagna will sing Don José, and Mariusz Kwiecien Escamillo. The premiere will be a gala New Year’s Eve performance. Mr. Eyre promises to shock us. More nudity?
Verdi’s rarely heard Attila, with Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role will be conducted by Riccardo Muti, who will be making his Met debut,as well as director Pierre Audi, and set and costume designers Miuccia Prada, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. (The architectural team of Herzog & de Meuron is famous for having designed the Tate Modern in London and the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. Prada needs no introduction or reminder. This will be her operatic debut.) The artist William Kentridge will direct and design a new staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose, to be conducted by Valery Gergiev. This is a co-production of the Met, the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and the Opéra National de Lyon.
Paulo Szot, the Tony Award-winning star of Lincoln Center Theater’s South Pacific, will make his Met debut as Kovalyov. Last performed at the Met in 1897, Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet will be seen in a new production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, conducted by Louis Langrée and starring Simon Keenlyside in the title role and Natalie Dessay as Ophélie. The production is owned by the Grand Théâtre de Genève and has also run at Covent Garden. Renée Fleming will appear in Rossini’s Armida, directed by Mary Zimmerman, whose Lucia di Lammermoor will be followed this season by her new production of La Sonnambula.An eighty-five-year-old Pierre Boulez will make his Met debut leading the Met Orchestra in the final concert of its annual Carnegie Hall series. The program will consist of Bartók’s ballet music, The Wooden Prince,and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. James Levine will conduct the other two concerts, as usual, in programs which will include Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” from Ariadne auf Naxos with Diana Damrau, in addition to Beethoven’s Fifth and Schubert’s ”Unfinished” Symphonies.
Other notable Met debuts in roles they have not sung there before are Olga Borodina as Marguerite, Diana Damrau as Marie, Danielle de Niese as Susanna, Natalie Dessay as Ophélie, Deborah Voigt as Senta, Anne Sofie von Otter as Countess Geschwitz, Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi, Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo, José Cura as Stiffelio, Plácido Domingo as Boccanegra (N.B. a baritone role), Marcello Giordani as Calàf, Bryn Terfel as Scarpia, and Juha Uusitalo as Scarpia and the Dutchman.
The 18 revivals of the 2009–10 season are no less exciting, including some notable Met role debuts. Anna Netrebko returns as Mimì in La Bohème, which also stars Piotr Beczala, who sings his first Met Rodolfo. Gerald Finley and debuting baritone George Petean will sing Marcello, and Nicole Cabell and Ruth Ann Swenson alternate as Musetta. Marco Armiliato will conduct.
Returning to the role that launched her international career, Angela Gheorghiu brings her famous portrayal of the title heroine in La Traviata back to the Met. Opposite her are James Valenti, a former Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner, in his Met debut as Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as Germont. Leonard Slatkin will return to conduct after an absence of 12 years. With these casts, I’m ready to renew my acquaintance with these old favorites.
James Levine will conduct Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, with Renée Fleming as the Marschallin and Susan Graham as Octavian, with Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs. Miah Persson makes her debut as Sophie, a role she shares with Christine Schäfer. Ramón Vargas and Eric Cutler alternate as the Italian singer, and Hans-Joachim Ketelsen and Thomas Allen sing Faninal.
In the season’s only Wagnerian production, Deborah Voigt will sing Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer for the first time on the Met stage, with Juha Uusitalo in his first Dutchman with the company. Stephen Gould, in his Met debut, sings Erik, and Hans-Peter König is Daland, with Kazushi Ono conducting. Voigt will also appear as Chrysothemis in Elektra, joined by Susan Bullock making her Met debut as Elektra, with Felicity Palmer as Klytämnestra and Alan Held as Orest. Following his critically acclaimed performances of Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena at the Met two years ago, Fabio Luisi returns to conduct Elektra.
Plácido Domingo will take on the baritone role of Simon Boccanegra, conducted by James Levine, with Adrianne Pieczonka, Marcello Giordani, and James Morris. Domingo will also conduct Verdi’s Stiffelio, which has not been heard at the Met in 12 years. Fellow tenor José Cura sings the title role, with Angela Marambio as Lina and Andrzej Dobber as Stankar.
Juan Diego Flórez will appear as Tonio in Donizetti’s popular La Fille du Régiment. Diana Damrau, who created a sensation in the same composer’s Lucia di Lammermoor this season, makes her Met role debut as Marie, and the Kiri Te Kanawa returns in the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Damrau also revisits Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, as does Joyce DiDonato, who sings the role in earlier performances of the run. Barry Banks and Lawrence Brownlee share the role of Count Almaviva, while Rodion Pogossov and Franco Vassallo play the barber, all under the baton of Maurizio Benini.
Alban Berg’s Lulu will return to the Met after an eight year absence, led by James Levine, with Marlis Petersen in the title role. Anne Sofie von Otter sings Countess Geschwitz, and James Morris Dr. Schön, Gary Lehman Alwa, Michael Schade the Painter, and David Pittsinger the Animal Trainer—all in their Met debuts.
I’m especially looking forward to getting another look at Robert Lepage’s spectacular production of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust with a different cast: Ramón Vargas will sing Faust, Olga Borodina Marguerite, and Ildar Abdrazakov Méphistophélès, with James Conlon conducting.
Two visually sumptuous Puccini productions return with new cast members. Franco Zeffirelli’s classic Turandot features the Met role debuts of Maria Guleghina in the title role, Marcello Giordani and Salvatore Licitra as Calàf, and Marina Poplavskaya and Maija Kovalevska as Liù. Conductor Andris Nelsons will make his Metdebut, as will Lise Lindstrom as Turandot, and Frank Porretta as Calàf. Samuel Ramey and Hao Jiang Tian will alternate as Timur.
In Jack O’Brien’s production of Il Trittico, Patricia Racette and Stephanie Blythe star in all three of the one-act operas. Racette will sing Giorgetta, Angelica, and Lauretta for the first time with the company, and Blythe (who appeared in the production’s premiere run and who recently received tremendous acclaim for her performances as Gluck’s Orfeo) again plays Frugola, La Principessa, and Zita. Željko Lučić is the new Michele and Aleksandrs Antonenko and Salvatore Licitra are Luigi in Il Tabarro. Alessandro Corbelli reprises his memorable appearance as the title character of Gianni Schicchiand Saimir Pirgu debuts as Rinuccio. Stefano Ranzani makes his Met debut conducting.
Daniele Gatti returns for the first time in 14 years to conduct a cast of powerful voices in Verdi’s Aida. Violeta Urmana and Hasmik Papian share the title role, while Dolora Zajick returns in one of her most acclaimed portrayals as the Egyptian princess Amneris, and Johan Botha, Richard Margison, and Salvatore Licitra alternate as Radamès. Carlo Guelfi sings Amonasro. Paolo Carignani will conduct the later performances.
Nina Stemme returns to the Met for the first time in nine years in the title role of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, with Aleksandra Kurzak as Zerbinetta and Sarah Connolly as the Composer, all in their Met role debuts. Lance Ryan makes his Met debut as Bacchus, and Kirill Petrenko conducts.
Danielle de Niese and John Relyea star as Susanna and Figaro in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Bo Skovhus is the Count and Emma Bell makes her Met debut as the Countess. Cherubino is played by Isabel Leonard, and Dan Ettinger debuts as conductor. Fabio Luisi conducts the later performances with Lisette Oropesa sharing the role of Susanna with de Niese, and Luca Pisaroni as Figaro, Annette Dasch in her Met debut as the Countess, and Ludovic Tézier as the Count.
Julie Taymor’s popular staging of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte returns in its full-length, German grownup version, shared between two distinguished conductors who are new to the Met, Bernard Labadie and Adam Fischer. Returning to their roles are Genia Kühmeier as Pamina, Erika Miklósa as the Queen of the Night, Matthew Polenzani as Tamino, and Nathan Gunn and Rodion Pogossov as the bird-catcher Papageno. New interpreters include Christopher Maltman in his first Met Papageno and the Met debuts of Julia Kleiter as Pamina, Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen, Matthias Klink as Tamino, and Georg Zeppenfeld and Hans-Peter König as Sarastro.
The Met’s special holiday presentations for families enter their fourth season with Richard Jones’s English-language production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Miah Persson and Angelika Kirchschlager are the lost siblings. Philip Langridge reprises his portrayal of the Witch and Andrew Davis conducts. Jones’s production is a fanciful version of the familiar fairy tale that delighted children and adults alike when it premiered at the Met in 2007. The eight performances include four matinees and are specially priced for the holidays.