Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Semiramide at the Met

Angela Meade, center left, in Met Semiramide
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

I'm working on a single long post about my NYC trip, but Alex Ross's current column in The New Yorker discusses both the Parsifal and Semiramide I saw last week, and I've got a few remarks vis-a-vis that article.

I'm mostly in agreement with his comments on the vocal and musical side of the performance I saw, although Gareth Morell, substituting for Maurizio Benini, had plenty of snap in his conducting of the score. And I would have been happy to hear more of the score, of which about 45 minutes got cut. (Why? My guess would be money and rehearsal time.) But I was surprised by the vehemence of Alex's comments on the production.

I do think that the principal singers were somewhat underdirected and needed more help with the drama of the piece, which is full of strong emotions. The production moves the principals around without giving them enough interaction. Whether this would have been any different had John Copley made it through the rehearsal process I do not know; his Traviata at San Francisco Opera, seen last fall, doesn't show a lot of deep insight into the characters either. Both operas deserve better Personenregie than they get in the Copley productions.

Javier Camarena and Ryan Speedo Green in Semiramide
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Here's what Alex said about Parsifal versus Semiramide:
The first offered an austerely hypnotic staging of “Parsifal,” in which singers not only did justice to Wagner’s monumental, cryptic score but brought it to shuddering life. The second unloaded a monstrously tacky version of Rossini’s “Semiramide,” one whose sets and costumes seemed to have been raided from a museum of theatrical kitsch, not excluding souvenirs of Liberace-era Las Vegas. Met No. 1 was cohesive and purposeful; Met No. 2 felt chaotic and hapless.
I did not find the Semiramide at all tacky, or demeaning to Rossini, something Alex says later in the article. I would call it spectacular rather than tacky or kitschy, although I will own that the spectacle skates close to the edge of camp. It is certainly very much of its time: Sonja Frisell's Aida, also still in use, made its debut in 1988, Zeffirelli's Boheme in 1981, the same director's Tosca in 1985. The Semiramide is from 1990. The Frisell Aida will supposedly be supplanted by a new production a couple of years out; that Boheme is a tourist attraction that...is too damn big but works pretty well except for the absurd second act.

General view of the stage
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

It's worth keeping a few things in mind when evaluating a production such as this Semiramide. The Met is staging 25 operas this year; next year they'll have 25 again, including the Ring. They can't do a new production very often of a rarity such as Semiramide, which they will not perform very often, and they're not going to replace a production that looks good and is in good condition.

Another is that the gigantic Met stage and house work in favor of large-scale productions such as this one. I'm not sure where the Met seats people who have press tickets, but undoubtedly a lot closer to the stage than I was. Even from a good seat in the Grand Tier, I had to use my binoculars to see much detail and the singers' facial expressions. Lots of audience members are sitting farther away than I was, and they want to have some idea of what's going on too. All the flashy costumes make it easier to track the stage action. (I was also in the Grand Tier for Parsifal, and I could not tell singers in the smaller solo roles apart without the binoculars because they were wearing the same damn white shirts and black slacks.)

Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Lastly, think for just a minute about those 25 productions a year. The Met, like every other musical institution, serves a diverse audience of people who go to the opera for diverse reasons. There needs to be some variety in the production style; every staging need not be sober-sided and intellectually high-minded in the way of this year's Parsifal and Elektra.

There's room on that huge stage for a little spectacle; moreover, there's plenty of evidence that composers want some spectacle. Consider the range of effects Wagner called for in the Ring; consider what Berlioz asked for in the "Royal Hund and Storm" in Les Troyens; consider the stage directions for Act III of Die Frau ohne Schatten, which I do not expect to ever see realized.

And while you're thinking about these things, take a look at some sketches and paintings from 19th c. opera productions. They look pretty spectacular! If this production were being explicitly represented as an attempt to recreate that type of production, would anyone object? Seriously, there's something to be said for being grateful that we can even see a work like Semiramide with such good singers.


Michael Strickland said...

John Copley was a very good opera director and knew how to work with different singers' acting abilities, which vary wildly. Roy Rallo, not so much.

Alex Ross said...

I have nothing against spectacle! But I thought this a very poor example of it. The bigger question about the sheer quantity of Met productions is an eternal one. There is no way the company can guarantee a consistently high level of artistic and theatrical quality on such a schedule. Given that the company is routinely having trouble filling the house, I wonder whether it is time to consider scaling back to a stagione system, as traumatic as that would be. The present model seems unsustainable.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Might be worth a look at other houses putting on a large number of productions to see what they do and how they do, although of course if such a house is receiving government subsidies, the situations are not comparable.

I think that doing a smaller number of productions in repertory is preferable to a stagione system. The latter would greatly reduce costs, but would also make it harder for out-of-towners to see multiple productions.

David Gockley made some noises about shifting to stagione in SF, but nothing came of it. I should ask: we've got only eight productions in 18-19. As recently as the early 90s, we would get 12 to 14 plus a concert or two.