Last night I went to the gala season-opening show at the New York City Opera. That was a night with special meaning, obviously, because the company was coming back from the dead, with a new directo, a refurbished theater, and a new point of view. Let’s wish them luck.
But in past weeks I also went (without addressing them here) to the season openers at the Met and the New York Philharmonic, which of course are the other two big classical music performing institutions in New York. And, looking back, as I sat in the audience last night, it struck me that all three events had something in common — a lack of star power.
The Met, maybe, came closest, partly because it’s the Met, and has inherent starry institutional heft. And because celebrities were there. And also because a big-time opera production is, even if it fails, something with heft of its own.
But there wasn’t much star power on stage. I guess — especially given the Met’s current artistic strategy, which is to bring itself into the contemporary theatrical world — the new Tosca production mgiht have been the star. But it wasn’t. I’m not going to get into the silly fight over how non-traditional it was. Better just to look at it as we’d look at a new movie, or a new production of a classic play. It was (by any reasonable measure) drab, and not really convincing.
And then there was Karita Mattila, in the title role. She’s a serious artist, with a major voice, and real dramatic force. The only thing she doesn’t have is star power, that unmistakable magic, which, if she had it, would make space seem to curve in her direction. Which in Tosca is more than a casual problem, because the music (as in almost any leading soprano role in Italian opera) more or less demands that kind of force, simply to deliver its musical punch. And also because the character herself is a diva, a star (as we’re told in the piece, and as she shows by how she behaves) does make space curve.
The Philharmonic? Well, there the idea might have been to show that the orchestra was serious, musically. So we had, on the first half of the program, a world premiere (by Magnus Lindberg), and a major and not often performed modern piece (Messiaen’s song cycle Poèmes pour Mi). Clearly not the programming of some bimbo orchestra, that mostly wants to play blockbusters for adoring fans.
But the Lindberg piece…well, I’ve said that I didn’t like it (“drab” might again be the word), but of course other people did. What no one can deny, though, is that it didn’t create much excitement. It came and went. The Messiaen offered a top classical name, Renée Fleming, but she was miscast in music that needs a bigger voice and especially a stronger lower range, and so she made an impression for serious artistry (and serious work, which I completely respect, to overcome the vocal problems the piece threw at her).
But no star power came through, especially — and this was the biggest problem — since the work itself asks to be sung and played with utter transparent sincerity, and no amount of seriousness, even at a very high level, can substitute for that. On supertitles over the stage were translations of the text, all glowing with simple and radiant Catholic faith. The performance had none of that, nor even a point of view on what Messiaen believed with every fiber of his soul. So — judged by the standard Messiaen himself was visibly giving us — the performance fell flat.
After intermission, we had the standard rep blockbuster, the Symphonie Fantastique, and here we come up against the Alan Gilbert problem, the question of what, exactly, he’s bringing to his new job as music director of the orchestra. There are various views on that (the ones I hear privately in the business being none too favorable), but even if you liked his Berlioz on opening night, you couldn’t pretend that it jumped off the stage.
So again, no star power. Especially compared to Dudamel’s inauguration in Los Angeles, which I wasn’t at, but which by all reports had enough star power to light up the sky all the way to Mars. Dudamel got a ten-minute ovation, one review said. While Gilbert got respectful applause, no more (or very little more) than a good guest conductor would have gotten in the middle of the season. (With, unless I missed something, not so much as a tap of the bow from anyone in the orchestra.)
City Opera. Again, the plan, I think, was seriousness. The gala program was a celebration of American music, from Bernstein to Rufus Wainwright. The opening looked terrific on paper. First Stravinsky’s Fanfare for a New Theater, written for the opening of Lincoln Center lo these many years ago, and of course appropriate here, because the theater we were in had been renewed.
And then a premiere, a new fanfare by Peter Lieberson. And then one of Bernstein’s irresistible orchestral pieces from On the Town. All played without pause. Except that none of it was played very well, especially the Stravinsky (he’s legitimately an adopted American composer), blatted out by a small brass ensemble with every note seemingly getting equal emphasis. Which is about the last thing you want to do in an atonal piece, where listeners who don’t know the piece or the idiom can’t supply the musical ebb and flow on their own.
The program ended with another choice that looked good on paper, a song called “Take Care of This House” (get it?), from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the many later Leonard Bernstein pieces that has never caught on. And so here there were two problems. First, it maybe wasn’t strong enough to end the program, though Joyce DiDonato sang it gorgeously (and I do mean gorgeously). But even if you liked it (and opinions can legitimately differ), nothing led up to it, and in fact the whole gala seemed to flow more or less at random.
And, on top of that, with the pieces not in the order that was shown in the program book, something that was never explained or even mentioned, either from the stage or in any kind of program insert. (There was in fact an insert, but all it said was that Anthony Dean Griffey wouldn’t be singing. It didn’t even state that the piece he was scheduled to do — “Singin’ in the Rain” — would be dropped.)
The gala, in the end, didn’t feel very gala-like. I didn’t sense excitement, or even a sense of celebration. The musical numbers came and went. In the old days, you’d have opera galas with genuine stars, so not much planning might be needed. Someone new would came out on stage, and often enough, space curved. I remember one Met gala in the ’80s when Leonie Rysanek crashed in flames in “Suicidio!” (from La Gioconda), but — she was Leonie Rysanek, so even her train wrecks were compelling. City Opera had some good singers, and Lauren Flanigan really did curve space a bit, but she was singing an aria from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, music that’s certainly classy, but doesn’t curve space on its own.
So really — some stage direction was badly needed, to give the gala from spark. And I haven’t even talked about the music, which often didn’t rise to the occasion. We can talk piously about an American opera canon, and we can even believe we mean it, but put a scene from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah on a program with “Billly’s Soliloquy” from Carousel, and — if you’re honest with yourself — I think you discover (as I did when I saw the South Pacific revival at Lincoln Center) that Richard Rodgers is the real deal, the unforgettable composer, whose music grabs you, makes you smile, makes you get teary, and most of all sticks with you. As Leonard Bernstein said years ago, our American operatic heritage is really our musicals. (Well, that’s not quite how he put it, but he pointed that way.)
One piece that really did grab me was an excerpt from Rufus Wainwright’s opera, Prima Donna, which the Met apparently declined to produce (after commissioning it), and which appa
rently didn’t have all that much success when it was premiered abroad. I can’t speak to any of that, but the excerpt struck me as lovely and quite original.
One more problem was the singer in the Carousel piece, who was perfectly charming, coming off like a sweet guy you’d love to have as a next-door neighbor, which if you know the show tells you that he didn’t even begin to fill his character’s shoes. And he couldn’t get the high notes the soliloquy ends with, so apart from the big burst of love that Richard Rodgers drew from me, the excerpt fell flat.
Bottom line — not much star power. I don’t think this is good. Star power isn’t all that classical music needs, or should have, but without it, our art is falling behind in yet another way. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame anniversary celebration had star power, and so did the world series (to name two big events that happened in New York this fall). If classical music — especially since, like it or not, people look toward it for glamour and romanice — doesn’t make space curve, if it merely, even at gala moments, puts on nice serious, professional shows, then something’s wrong. It wasn’t like this in the past.