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Ligeti, the New York Phil, and finding stage directors for opera

Alan Gilbert’s first season as the New York Philharmonic’s music director climaxed with a triumphant run of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre – the New York premiere of a major late twentieth century opera (rare species), ingeniously semi-staged by Doug Fitch.
The crux of this achievement, it seems to me, is a new ambience. Avery Fisher Hall, the Philharmonic’s acoustically vexed home, is a formal and impersonal space. Or so it forever seemed during the tenures of Gilbert’s predecessors Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, and Loren Maazel. Gilbert not only has acquired a habit of talking from the stage; he chats with the audience. He projects a casual authority.
The sense of occasion achieved by the Philharmonic during its three sold-out Ligeti performances first of all registered a brave and necessary undertaking. But it also registered a degree of engagement – an appreciative audience, an orchestra that looked like it was having fun – only a new ambience could have secured. The piece itself, however musically complex, is a ribald entertainment. It is fun or it is nothing.
In little more than two weeks of rehearsal, Fitch achieved an enveloping theatrical spectacle. A small stage was constructed in front of the orchestra. An ingenious species of live puppetry, also onstage, was magnified on a centrally positioned screen. The singers, all of whom could act, were creatively costumed. Instrumentalists and choristers turned up in balconies, or marched down an aisle. It was neither too much nor too little. Music and action supported one another.
Comparisons to Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera are inescapable. Early in his regime, Gelb has had trouble finding directors who can achieve the striking stage pictures and effects he demands without distracting from what should be the main business at hand. He has given us unquestionably artful stage pictures – Phelim McDemott and Julian Crouch’s Sattyagraha, William Kentridge’s The Nose, Robert Lepage’s The Damnation of Faust all leap to mind – whose impact was nevertheless highly questionable. These days, one goes to the Met skeptically disposed. The first question about Robert LePage’s forthcoming Ring can only be: will its detailed special effects, certain to impress, rob attention from impressive details more important – inherent details of musical description, of psychological behavior, of political or metaphysical meaning. (Cf. my Met blog of March 25.) The music/theater symbiosis achieved by Gilbert and Fitch has been in short supply.
Gelb has sought to refresh the Met by going outside opera, outside music, in his choice of directors. But musical knowledge can also refresh. I can’t help but find it pertinent that Fitch reads music. If you watch Wieland Wagner directing Wagner on youtube, you’ll observe him coaching the delivery of sung lines – of music — the way a stage director coaches spoken text. My first Bayreuth experience was the premiere of Harry Kupfer’s instantly famous Flying Dutchman, in which the story becomes Senta’s deranged fantasy – a product of the societal repression Wagner limns (her father is a greedy capitalist; her peers are husband fodder). In the second act, Kupfer aligned the more chromatic music with Senta’s hallucination of the Dutchman; the squarer, more diatonic stretches were the quotidian reality she fled. That is: the stylistic ambivalence of this early Wagner masterpiece was supported and explained. Kupfer’s production was as musical as it was intellectually fresh and visually indelible.
Of the operatic performances I attended in New York over the past season, the two most stirring were delivered in concert: The Trojans at Carnegie Hall, with Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces, and now Ligeti with the Philharmonic. Stage directors can get in the way.

an ArtsJournal blog