Urbanities

David Wagner
The Right Man for the Met
Winter 1991

The James Levine era at the Met is almost two decades old. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus are now arguably the greatest in the world, vocal standards are generally high, production standards are very high, and the operatic classics are flourishing.

Many critics, however, seem lukewarm on Levine. It is hard to find a responsible critic who thinks Levine a positively bad musical director, but many of even the best critics seem bored by him. Samuel Lipman, the excellent and perceptive publisher of The New Criterion, recently gave an almost perfect example of this attitude. At the end of a generally negative assessment of Levine’s Ring, he summed up the general critical reaction, including his own, this way: “There was widespread agreement that the Ring is wonderful musical theater, and that the present production is the best we are likely to see in the foreseeable future.” He then cited this judgment, which to the untutored eye might appear to be a rave, as “part of the wider, albeit often quiet despair so widely felt about today’s musical world and its future.”

The Met’s current Ring is certainly the best we have seen for a very long time. I have come to suspect that the critics’ real problem with Levine is not this or that performance, but that he so thoroughly belongs at the Met. It is the Met itself that annoys them, Levine all the more so because he expresses the spirit of the Met so well.

The Met has traditionally had a very strong grasp of this truth: that opera is the most populist of high art forms. True, in its early days as court music, opera consisted largely of classical myths set to ritualized oratorio music, a form which can scarcely lay claim to the dramatic power the opera attained in the nineteenth century. Mozart wrote some of these ponderous, mytho-historical opera seria, which have their moments (he was Mozart, after all). But when he wrote Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute, Mozart let the cat out of the bag: Opera was fun. By the time Verdi began to transcend the limits of the bel canto school (round about Macbeth, perhaps, or Rigoletto), the game was up. You could no longer keep the people away from opera.

Ever since then, what the Forest Bird in Siegfried says about herself, but which is really about Wagner, could be said of opera generally:

Happy in pain, I sing of love Joyful in love, I weave my song Only yearners know the meaning

The composers of opera’s creative period, from Mozart to Richard Strauss, “knew the meaning,” and the Met knows that this repertory is the heart of opera. Levine too knows the meaning, and for that reason has been an effective custodian, indeed a devoted acolyte, of this tradition, and a source of renewal in performing standards.

To some critics, however, Levine seems anything but an acolyte. Peter G. Davis, for instance, writing in New York, July 30, 1990, cites the Levine “precedent” and asks whether a certain other conductor (Christopher Keene, the new director of the New York City Opera) will “take advantage of his position to further his own conducting ambitions rather than the general good of the company.”

As an implicit critique of Levine, this is mysterious. Where the gap between Levine’s “ambitions” and the “general good of the company” lies, I really could not say. Levine may well have become a conducting superstar through his achievements at the Met, but it is hard to figure how the Met has been a loser thereby. Perhaps Davis has in mind the relative paucity of superstar guest conductors at the Met. But there have been some great ones (one thinks of Klaus Tennstedt’s rafter-raising Fidelio in 1983, and Carlos Kleiber’s Der Rosenkavalier early this present season). At the same time, guest superconductors are less necessary now than in the Sixties, when the Met lacked musical leadership.

Mr. Davis also terms the Met’s recent stagings “bland.” That word plays a curious role in the present cultural polemics. It is the word used by “arts advocates” to describe the condition the arts must inevitably fall into if minimum levels of pornographic content are not maintained. There is no reason to think Mr. Davis had this meaning in mind, but the general point holds good: A single production cannot accommodate all tastes. The elite drives out the popular; the avant-garde drives out the classical. The Met has made the right choice on both counts. Consider two recent and paradigmatic Met productions, Turandot, and The Ring itself.

Turandot

Puccini’s last opera has always been something of a problem for the critics. Joseph Kerman despised it, and predicted it would soon fade from view. It has not, but Joseph Kerman darn near has. (Kerman also dismissed Tosca as a “shabby little shocker,” perhaps the clearest case on record of the cleavage between what critics like and what opera-lovers love.)

The old production by Sir Cecil Beaton was—and for many turandistas is forever—linked to the epochal performances of Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli. Perhaps one of its most memorable features was Sir Cecil’s perennial fondness for putting people in hats much bigger than their heads. Turandot’s headdress was imposing, to say the least; Calaf had a tall fur hat that made him look as though he were about to apply for a position as a guard at Buckingham Palace. Liù, as a lowly, bareheaded slave girl, presented Sir Cecil with a poser, which he solved by doing her hair in an enormous topknot. (Sir Cecil also designed the original production of My Fair Lady, which explains why the Ascot scene featured mauve stovepipes taller than most stoves.)

Hats to one side, there was not much wrong with the Beaton production. But after several years’ absence from the repertory (during which time the City Opera had done a new staging by Beni Montresor, which was spectacular, yet obviously cramped on the smaller State Theater stage), it was time for both a revival and a new production. The assignment went to Franco Zeffirelli, causing a sharp intake of breath among many fans.

They were not disappointed. The thing pulses with color and passion. One always wonders what Turandot’s silent appearance in Act I will look like. For Zeffirelli, she appears on her bed, tended by handmaids. The same vision reappears at the end of the act: Once Calaf has struck the gong and turned to enter the palace gates, we see the princess again, looking over her shoulder at his advance-giving her more standing to say, in Act III, how she saw in his eyes “the light of heroes ... the proud certainty.”

Ovations break out during the Act II transition, when the lights come up on the imperial court. We behold an indoor valley of white and gold. A mylar lake shimmers at mid-stage. A heavy sense of the ceremonial hangs over the scene: The senior court officials wear masks, and everyone seems to know his place.

It is a crowded scene—open perhaps to the criticism that the principle characters get lost in the crowd. But the staging captures the genius in the scene. While set in “legendary China,” Turandot has a spirit more out of Yeats’s Byzantium. Ritual is everywhere and everything important happens in public; even Turandot’s confession of love in Act III has to be ratified in a public appearance before the entire imperial court. The first words from Act II, Scene II, from the chorus, are, “Grave, enormous, and imposing.”

The last words of the same scene, again from the chorus, are a hymn to the Emperor, the sacral hub of their world. Everything must be “according to the rites” and “according to the arch-ancient law of the world,” as Ping, Pang, and Pong sing at different points in Act II, Scene I.

Zeffirelli’s staging, extravagant as it is, merely incarnates the grandeur that Puccini imagined. Puccini, the king of naturalistic verismo, abandoned realism utterly in his last work, opting instead to do a ritualistic once-upon-a-time tale that stands as an icon of one form that the combat of the heart can take, even if only in our imaginations—or, if you will, in “legendary China.”

The Met understands all this. If you want understatement, read a haiku. This is opera.

The Ring

Nowhere in opera have directors and designers called as much unnecessary attention to themselves as in Wagner, especially in the four operas of the Ring cycle. The Ring has been the unwilling hobbyhorse of four decades’ worth of “brilliant” directors, all urgently convinced that these titanic music-dramas, properly understood, are allegories of the director’s current brand of apocalyptic politics. There are very real, very human characters there, but audiences have had to claw their way to them through layers of ugly dross, laid on thick by the brilliant director of the week in order to show us what The Ring “really” means.

The Met, in keeping with its general good sense, has been spared the worst of this species of “brilliance.” Prior to the move to Lincoln Center, the Met clung to a production of streamlined realism, designed by Lee Simonson. There was nothing wrong with it, except that it dated from the Thirties, and was similar to the officially approved productions at Bayreuth 50 years ago. Taking advantage of the stage resources of the new opera house, the Met imported a production of The Rt’ng from the Salzburg Festival. It was known as the Karajan production, because the jet-setting General Music Director of Europe supervised it, and conducted it when it debuted at the Met. It remained the official Met Ring from 1967 to 1982. The production reflected the post-War Bayreuth tendencies toward abstraction, yet compared to other abstract productions it was pleasantly devoid of political cant or arcane symbolism.

At the age of six I saw the Walküre of the Simonson production. When the Karajan staging came in, I remember being outraged by its lack of representationalism. (“But that’s not what the stage directions in the libretto say!” I squawked at my father.) As time went on, though, that staging grew on me. I now realize why: My standards were slipping.

Not only my standards, but also my expectations. Deep down I knew that the best way to do The Ring would be with highly realistic sets, rich colors, romantic acting, and nearly bonehead fidelity to Wagner’s stage directions. But I did not dare hope that anyone would actually stage it that way. The times were against it. The critics would disparage it. I grew pragmatic.

I had not reckoned with James Levine.

Having paved the way in 1978 with a Tannhäuser that combined romantic representationalism with up-to-the-minute stage technology, Levine had the same director-designer team embark on The Ring. (The designer of the new production was also the designer of the so-called Karajan production, the versatile and ingenious Günter Schneider-Slemssen.)

An essential component of Levine’s concept was that The Ring, once all four operas had been unveiled, should enter the annual repertory and stay there. In previous decades, the Ring operas were brought out only occasionally; the complete cycle was done in a single season only once throughout the Seventies. Levine realized that, while festivals have their place, operas this great and this beloved belong in the Met’s repertory.

The main excuse for not making The Ring standard repertory has been the paucity of singers with real Wagnerian capacity. In the era of lowered expectations, I suspected a good production might cover for singing that, considered by itself, was perhaps not of the first order. But Levine had an even better answer: Put on the operas, and the singers will come.

The repertory decisions of the great opera houses have repercussions all down the chain of the singing profession. Why train for Wagner if the opportunities are spotty? But let the Met put on The Ring every year, and the younger singers will train for it.

So the Met now has a Ring in which a mountaintop looks like a mountaintop, and the Valkyries’ Rock looks like just the kind of place where Valkyries might hang out. Thanks to James Levine, the Met’s staging tells the story Wagner wanted to tell, aided by a great orchestra, a great conductor, new technology unavailable to earlier realistic productions (such as those at Bayreuth in Cosima’s day), and for the most part, very fine singers. Even the supposedly impossible role of Siegfried, in the opera of that name, has found some sweet-toned yet indefatigable exponents in Toni Kramer, Wolfgang Neumann, and the inimitable Siegfried Jerusalem.

The critics were cool, at first. Recently, they have taken a second look at Levine’s Ring and decided to concede a few words of grudging praise. The noise of the box-office cash register has all but drowned them out.

Many take the stampede to the box office as evidence of the Met’s failure, not its success. A certain strand of critical opinion wants the Met to be substantially, if not entirely, given over to the experimental and the avant-garde. I hope and predict it will not be so given over, and that Levine remains steadfast.

What opera-lovers love is a canon that more or less opened with Mozart and more or less closed with Richard Strauss. Judicious expansions of the canon, like judicious expansions of the major leagues, are fine, but the Met commendably avoids becoming a sandlot for single-A trendies.

The last four decades are dotted with significant exceptions to the Mozart to Strauss rule-recent operas written in a more or less popular, and hence unfashionable, musical idiom: Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, Robert Ward’s The Crucible, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, the revised version of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, and perhaps some works by Thomas Pasatieri (who also did the marvelous orchestrations in the recent Disney movie The Little Mermaid).

Such true expansions of the canon are possible precisely because the opera canon is a tradition which remains very much a living one to contemporary audiences. James Levine’s greatness is that he has chosen to be the custodian of a great tradition. After all, if all conductors seek to be known for creative new interpretations of Wagner, then there is nowhere one can go to see Wagner’s own vision.

Certainly, New York needs an opera house with a more experimental orientation, and we are fortunate to have the New York City Opera to fill that role (as well as to give the Met a little competition in the classics).

Still, at the end of the day, we people who have some opera or other playing in our heads whenever we are not asleep, and sometimes then too, we know what we mean by opera, and with all due respect it is not Satyagraha. It is, you know, what they do at the Met.

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