Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Party's (Almost) Over

May 15, 2010

Marlis Petersen as Lulu
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

I know I’m late to the party. In fact, as of this writing the Metropolitan Opera’s 09/10 season is officially one for the history books. Nonetheless, I traveled out to New York this weekend to catch the last few performances before the summer break and maybe to reflect on things more broadly if I feel like it. The first night was a rocky one and probably one of the worst things I've seen at the Met all season. In a season where Wagner was almost completely absent, the recently closed revival of Der Fliegende Holländer was doing no one any favors. Virtually nothing worked well from the super-dull production, to Kazushi Ono’s conducting, to the vocal performance. The single bright spot in Thursday’s final performance was tenor Russell Thomas’ turn as the Steersman. He was as fresh and exciting as I remember from appearances in Adams’ The Flowering Tree and I wished he'd had more to do in Wagner’s sea epic. The big star, of course, was Deborah Voigt as Senta, and she did give a competent and solid performance if it was marked at times by some shrillness. Her acting is still very convincing, but she had little help from her male counterparts. Juha Uusitalo was about as distant and uninvolved in his performance as the Dutchman as anyone I can think of in any role in the last year, though Philip Webb’s Erik was pretty stiff competition for the title. Ono’s conducting seemed uncertain throughout, and the lack of musical continuity made the cramped and overly snowy quarters of August Everding’s 1989 production even more claustrophobic. You know it’s bad when you sit there wishing you were watching Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick again.

Deborah Voigt as Senta
Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera 2010

Things markedly improved on Saturday, though, with the last of three performances of Berg’s Lulu conducted by the Metropolitan Opera’s new principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi, who was filling in for the ailing James Levine. He gave a lovely reading of the score with the orchestra. (You can never go wrong musically with someone who loves pugs.) The big star here was the Lulu of the moment, Marlis Petersen, who gave as rich and poignant a performance as she had in Chicago in 2008. She dominates the stage, as she should, and manages the physicality of the part very well. Her supporting cast were all quite reasonable, including the woefully underutilized Michael Schade who I’d love to hear in America more often. James Morris sang Dr. Schön and though he’s a little long in the tooth vocally speaking, he could be creepy at times. Anne Sofie von Otter, another vocalist who is trying to find her place in a new decade of her career, sang Countess Geschwitz with a lot of sympathy and not too much gravel. Gary Lehman’s Alwa is certainly a fair site better than his Tristan. The John Dexter production from 1977 is the only one the Met has ever known and it looks threadbare and musty. The comic moments in the production aren't where they should be indicating some tone problems that have crept in over time. That the cast can inject any sexiness into this golden oldie is a miracle at this point and with general director Peter Gelb’s accelerated schedule of new productions each season, it should be a priority for such an important 20th-century opera to get a new look. In fact given the Met’s historic reputation as one of the more artistically conservative companies in the business, it’s odd that their greatest artistic successes this season (e.g. Lulu, From the House of the Dead, The Nose, and Der Rosenkavalier) are all 20th-century operas. Who knew? This revival was musically a great one. Now it’s time to give Berg’s masterpiece the theater component it deserves. We'll continue this later, shall we?


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