Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Dark and lovely

December 30, 2007

Act II, Let's eat!
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2007

My final opera for the year was the second performance of the Metropolitan’s holiday family feature – a “new” production of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel in English from the mind of Richard Jones. It is a beautiful and visually grabbing effort to put a good bit of the menace back into the original story by focusing on the aspects of hunger, fear, and isolation that run throughout the piece despite its often lyrical music. Christine Schäfer’s Gretel and Alice Coote’s Hansel are thrust from a drab gray abusive home into a German expressionist barren dining room-cum-forest with tree-men and dreams of giant masked chef/angels. In Act III, Philip Langridge further torments the children in a stark industrial kitchen with plenty of treats but nary a cotton-candy awning or gingerbread wall in sight. All turns out quite well, however, musically and otherwise. The production is top notch featuring a detailed and nuanced account of the score under Vladimir Jurowski. Schäfer and Coote are excellent as are the supporting cast.

If you want a primer of everything that Peter Gelb is doing right or possibly wrong at the Metropolitan Opera, this production says it all. Sure there are all of the technical and PR “innovations” designed to increase public access – HD broadcasts to theaters, Sirius radio broadcasts, cheap rush tickets the day of performance, etc. But what isn’t written about as much and seems to me to be as crucial to his mission to move this company forward is its increasing reliance on artistic development strategies that are stock-in-trade for most smaller American companies for decades. A prime example is the Metropolitan’s increasing participation in the global economy of opera. Instead of relying on unique and proprietary productions, the house is incorporating more and more that are “new” to it but have been seen far and wide and often received good reviews elsewhere. Presumably, this is cheaper and in some ways carries less risk. I’m not just talking about “co-productions” here, but about looking for content that already exists and “adapting” it instead of spending money on something brand new. Take this Richard Jones staging of Hansel and Gretel which may be new to the house, but has already traveled to many other parts of the world in reasonably similar forms. In fact much of the touted increase in the number of “new” productions at the Metropolitan rely on either adapted imports or co-productions.

Certainly these trends are not new or unique to this house or any other and while this more easy access may be a good thing, the increasing prevalence on traveling material does raise some questions. As this globalization trend continues and big fish like the Metropolitan participate more and more, what, if anything will there be left to see? Soon everyone has seen the Tambosi Jenufa with Karita Mattila or Richard Jones' Hansel and Gretel or Laurent Pelly's Fille du Regiment with Dessay and Florez. Like the rest of global capitalism, as financial risk is reduced by having only the biggest stars appearing in only the best-received staging over and over again we may be paying for increasing artistic “quality” with increasing artistic homogeneity. With opera houses all eager to distribute their DVDs and broadcasts and everyone increasingly relying on more of literally the same thing, opera may start looking like the rest of America with a Gap or a Starbucks on every corner. Of course none of this is really new. Touring productions of big hits have been around forever and people will always want to see big stars. But, I think we need to recognize the increasing trends of more pervasive distribution in the presence of increased homogeneity of product.

In any event, this is an excellent production with several performances left including one that will be simulcast to theaters on New Year's Day. It's well worth seeing, even if you have seen it before elsewhere.


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