The year in opera, 2012: A report card, with a note to the Met

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Imagine that your aging boss goes on an indefinite sick leave.

Maybe he's coming back. Maybe he's retiring forever. In the interim, the company names a nice, hard-working guy to replace him, perhaps permanently. Now imagine a year or so into the boss' absence, the company announces that he's coming back—in another year. That's the situation the Metropolitan Opera is currently in with Music Director James Levine, who turns 70 next year, and Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi, who turns 54 this month.

Levine's sick leave has meant he hasn't conducted since May 2011; he's now scheduled to return with his baton to the opera house, but not until September 2013.

Levine had done a masterful job at the Met, and also brought plenty of attention to operas that otherwise would have been overlooked. But the Met needs to create a graceful exit for Levine in which he can still conduct to his heart's content while someone else, perhaps Luisi, can pick the repertory of the company for the next decade. It is clearly adrift.

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Putting together my 2012 report card made me realize how little of what I saw at the Met was important and vital, which is incredibly disappointing for the grande dame of opera companies in the United States.

So much time and money was invested in the new Ring Cycle by General Manager Peter Gelb that it became an artistic quicksand of sorts, sinking plenty of resources and time into a well-packaged but ultimately bland product.

While the overall quality of singing has never been better, the Met's orchestra sometimes suffers at the hands of guest conductors while the new productions under Gelb have been wildly uneven.

The successful Live in HD program could serve as a symbol for Gelb's tenure: a slicker and better-marketed Met with little artistic vision. It's time for Gelb to continue doing what he does best—run the opera company—and let someone else come up with an artistic blueprint for the future.

Here's what I saw this year, and how I think each performance measured up. 


Jan. 4: The Enchanted Island, Metropolitan Opera. B+


A salute to baroque opera and Shakespeare, this new production uses music from an array of composers including Purcell, Vivaldi, and Rameau in a fractured fairy-tale version of The Tempest—meets—A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although it doesn't quite work, the cast (including Danielle de Niese, Joyce DiDonato, Lisette Oropesa, and Anthony Roth Constanzo) is stellar, while Placido Domingo is clearly having a ball playing Neptune. An entertaining mess. 


Feb. 12: La Traviata, City Opera. C+

This was an amazingly underwhelming opening of City Opera's season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This uninspired production was used at Glimmerglass Opera in 2009 and should have been retired then. A cautious and bad decision by a company that has taken plenty of chances in its proud history.


Feb. 25: Prima Donna, City Opera. B


This was pop artiste Rufus Wainwright's first attempt at an opera and it's a worthy debut. While he's still struggling to find his musical voice, Wainwright clearly loves the medium and his story about the possible comeback of a diva is entertaining, although ultimately more of a vignette than a grand operatic tale. I hope Wainwright will ignore some of the unfairly tough reviews and work on something new.


March 10: Nixon in China, Lyric Opera of Kansas City. B+


The company's new home, the 1,800-seat Kauffman Theatre, was a delightful place to see this opera. While the cast and the chorus wasn't as universally strong as the Met's recent production (although it had the same Nixon in James Maddalena), it was still a strong performance and the orchestra kept pace in John Adams' challenging score.


March 24: Cosi fan tutte, City Opera. B+


With a terrific cast, Christopher Alden put together a very dark and contemporary interpretation of Mozart and Da Ponte's treatise on love and faith. While a few of the touches seemed a little arbitrary (why is someone wearing bunny ears?) it mostly works.


April: The Ring Cycle (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung), Met Opera. A- for the music, B- for the production. Overall, B+

A terrific cast with Eric Owens (Alberich) and Stephanie Blythe (Fricka) perhaps giving the most impressive performances in a formidable crew. Fabio Luisi does a great job with the orchestra which along with the cast and the chorus presents one of the most musically pleasing Ring Cycles you could hear. I really want to like Robert LePage's production but I just can't. Ultimately, the problem is that everything is held hostage to the 45-ton, 24-plank machine that the entire production is centered around. Instead of liberating things, the Machine often imprisons them. (Imagine an inventive chef trying to cook a five course meal with only beets, lemons, and fennel. Surely, it can be done but is it really the best way to prepare a meal?) And LePage's take on Wagner's great epic is as boring as a set of Cliff's Notes. There are so many interesting and challenging ways to present the Ring and instead we get high-tech vanilla with masterful music. I'm hoping to like it more this spring but regardless, the music is heavenly.


April 19: Il sogno di scipione, Gotham Chamber Opera. A-


Gotham Chamber Opera continues to impress me and their tenth anniversary production of this early Mozart opera is a keeper. It's a tough challenge for the singers (who mostly deliver) in a one-act opera about the Roman general Scipio who is forced to choose between Fortune and Constancy. The modern take on this enigmatic story is funny and it works.


May 11: The Makropulos Case, Metropolitan Opera. A


Karita Mattila—whose Salome in 2008 was one of the greatest things I've ever seen at the Met—gives an equally powerful performance as Emilia Marty, the tragic and cursed 300-year-old diva in Janàček's strange and powerful opera. Elijah Moshinsky's modern production is first-rate but it's Mattila's dramatic performance that is so captivating. The rest of the cast was superb—as was the conducting of Jiří Bělohlávek. Bravo.


May 12: Billy Budd, Metropolitan Opera. A-


For some reason, I liked John Dexter's production more when I first saw it 15 years ago. (Memo to the Met: why is this masterpiece so rarely performed?) Still, David Robertson's conducting was pitch-perfect as was the entire cast with Nathan Gunn in the lead role and James Morris playing a chilling Claggart.


GLIMMERGLASS OPERA: JULY 27-29



Eric Owens in Concert. B

Eric Owens puts together his tribute to Billy Eckstine, and while it's wonderful hearing him sing some standards as well as some more obscure tunes, it doesn't all quite gel. The selections are mostly slow so there's little variety to the afternoon. Still, it's great hearing Owens having some fun and letting loose with the assistance of a microphone. I hope that this annual tradition continues at Glimmerglass with the artist in residence next year, Nathan Gunn. With the help of playwright Terrence McNally, Deborah Voigt set the bar awfully high with her moving one-woman show in 2011.


Aida. B+

Bringing waterboarding and lethal injections to Aida's Egypt, Francesca Zambello takes a major gamble with her production, and it generally pays off. Noah Stewart's Radamès is particularly strong as is Eric Owens as Amonasro. It was interesting to see an opera that's usually such a large spectacle put on an intimate stage.


Lost in the Stars. B+

I had high expectations for this production and they were only partially met. Eric Owens gives an intensely moving performance as Stephen Kumalo, a priest whose family is ripped apart in Apartheid-era South Africa. Tazewell Thompson's sets were dark and grim but did little to accentuate the power of the story. I also think someone needs to tinker with the Kurt Weill score because some songs felt like filler. It's easy to see why South Pacific—which opened the same year as this—is so popular while Lost in the Stars is largely forgotten. With some work, though,  this could be quite a show.


The Music Man. B-

Maybe I shouldn't review musicals, but this was put on by an opera company, so I'll take the plunge. Deborah Voigt gave Annie Get Your Gun the old college try last summer and Dwayne Croft tries very hard in The Music Man but it's sort of like watching Michael Jordan play baseball. You want him to be really good, you're rooting hard for him, but then he strikes out. (In fairness, Voigt's Annie was better than Croft's Henry Hill.) Maybe it's time to stop putting square pegs in round holes, but I guess these musicals make money for Glimmerglass. And I'm already dreading seeing the magnificent Nathan Gunn have to give Camelot a shot this summer.


Armide. A

A total surprise and a perfect production of this Baroque gem by Lully. Peggy Kriha Dye is terrific in the title role of this opera about a sorceress who falls in love with her sworn enemy. The same tale was taken on by Rossini (Armida)—which the Met put on with Renée Fleming in 2010 with disastrous results.


SANTA FE OPERA, AUG. 1—4.


Arabella. A

Both Erin Wall and Hedi Stober are mesmerizing as sisters in this great opera by Strauss that comically deals with class, sex roles—and love. I can see why Santa Fe's late founder, John Crosby, put on a Strauss opera almost every summer in this amazing theater that's surrounded by mesas and big sky. It's such a bizarre pairing but it somehow works.


Maometto II. A

For the life of me, I don't understand why this Rossini masterpiece isn't performed more often. It has love, war, and drama and plenty of meaty arias to sink your teeth into. On the night I saw this, a windy and wet storm swept across the semi-open stage, adding more drama to Leah Crocetto's already inspired performance. Luca Pisaroni was a sympathetic Maometto and Patricia Bardon—in a pants role—was a tough general named Calbo.


King Roger. A

Though Maometto's obscurity is a mystery to me, I do understand why the exquisite King Roger isn't performed more frequently. It's allegorical, not filled with a lot of action—and in Polish. But that's where Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień rides to the rescue in this opera that's about a pied piper of sorts who comes to town and upends an entire kingdom through his charms and libertine ways. The threat of loss—of one's love and one's possessions—is palpable throughout this moving production.


Susan Graham and Friends. B

A gala night at Santa Fe with a ton of singers performing terrific arias got bogged down with too many show-tunes in its second half. Forty years from now, will opera singers be trying out Miley Cyrus songs to make an aging audience smile?


Sept. 14-23: Einstein on the Beach, Brooklyn Academy of Music. A-


This epic—and intermissionless—production has aged quite well since its debut in 1976. Perhaps the ballet sections—with their Gap-T-shirt-clad dancers—could be jettisoned ,but what's a few extra scenes among friends when it comes to a five-hour avant-garde behemoth? Kate Moran's mesmerizing looping monologue about a "prematurely air-conditioned supermarket" is still with me—as is Charles Williams' concluding and moving speech of the night.


Oct. 1: L'elisir d'amore, Met Opera. B


This could summarize the shortcomings of the Met in a nutshell: A bland new production of a "safe" opera with a stellar cast. Bartlett Sher, who is behind this production, put together a terrific Il barbiere di Siviglia and Les contes d'Hoffmann for the Met so it's puzzling to me that he then followed them up with with a weak Le Comte Ory and then this. But: Anna Netrebko is fantastic and worth seeing.


Nov. 14: The Tempest, Met Opera. A-


As much as I dislike Robert LePage's Ring Cycle, I've been a huge fan of every other opera of his I've seen, including his take on Thomas Adès' Tempest, which he sets in La Scala, Milan's famed opera house. Simon Keenlyside is a standout as Propsero and it was a treat to see Adès conduct.


Dec. 29: Les Troyens, Met Opera. B 


I had high hopes for this production but they were dashed – mostly by the fact that the first two acts were slow and underwhelming. (It’s worth noting that only the final three acts were performed during Berlioz’s lifetime). Strong singing by super substitutes Bryan Hymel and Elizabeth Bishop couldn’t rescue a long Sunday afternoon.


Here’s hoping for a year of no false notes in 2013!