The current Times Literary Supplement (UK) includes my review of Fabio Luisi conducting SIegfried and Don Giovanni at the Met, as follows:
Notwithstanding its importance as a showplace for rich boxholders — Mrs. Caroline Astor, who regularly came late and left early, was called a “walking chandelier” — the early Metropolitan Opera was a conductor’s house. During its “German seasons” (1884-1891), the dominant composer was Wagner and the dominant performer was Wagner’s protégé Anton Seidl, presiding in the pit. Not so long after, Mahler and Toscanini dominated the Met’s artistic identity. After World War I, the Italian wing was entrusted to Tullio Serafin and then Ettore Panizza, the German wing to Artur Bodanzky. Panizza and Bodanzky are largely forgotten today. How I wish the Met’s radio broadcasts would feature their broadcast recordings. Panizza’s Verdi, Bodanzky’s Wagner were incendiary, and the orchestra was a powderkeg — more explosive than any such ensemble to be heard today. (Just listen to Panizza’s 1938 “Otello” with Martinelli, Tibbett, and Rethberg, or Bodanzky’s 1937 “Siegfried” with Melchior, Schorr, and Flagstad — two of the supreme examples of operatic art ever documented in sound.)
Much later, in the final phase of Rudolf Bing’s regime after the 1966 move to Lincoln Center, the Met was a house without great conductors. The orchestra was variable, the chorus worse. This was the setting for James Levin’s appointment as music director in 1975. Levine swiftly turned the orchestra into a reliably impressive instrument. The chorus improved beyond recognition. The repertoire was refreshed. In 2009, Levine concurrently took over the Boston Symphony. But a physical decline set in — his Met performances (never light-footed) turned massive and slack. Last September, the Met announced that Levine was bowing out of the fall’s new productions of “Don Giovanni” and “Siegfried” because of emergency surgery for a damaged vertebra. He would be replaced by Fabio Luisi — who was in the same instant named Principal Conductor. As of this writing, Levine is scheduled to return to duty in the spring — but no one knows if he really can. And so five seasons into Peter Gelb’s eventful tenure as General Manager, the company is negotiating a transition in musical authority.
Though Luisi first appeared at the Met in 2005, he remains little known in the US. He was music director of the Dresden Staatskapelle from 2007 to 2010. He takes over the Zurich Opera in 2012-13. The Met is about glamour; Luisi is not glamorous. He defers to the orchestra when he takes his bows. He doesn’t smile at the audience. But he has won over the musicians. The best thing about the new “Don Giovanni and “Siegfried” productions is Luisi’s way of conducting the latter, and the orchestra’s way of playing it. He is the first conductor other than Levine to lead “Siegfried” at the Met since 1981. Before that, there was Erich Leinsdorf. To my ears, Luisi is a superior Wagnerian to either Levine or Leinsdorf. He achieves a striking refinement of style and sonority. His command is complete but never throttling. The balances between stage and pit are at all times impeccable. In the new “Siegfried,” the most memorable moments occur during the act one exchange between Mime and the Wanderer. Luisi seals the Wanderer’s music with a seamless majesty. Preparing Bryn Terfel’s descriptions of the gods and of the Volsungs, he achieves an unforgettable poetic hush.
But the talk in the lobby is about Robert Lepage’s production. This is the third installment of the Lepage “Ring,” with its high tech projections and mobile metallic slabs. His virtual-reality special effects include running water, floating leaves, slimy worms, scampering rodents, and a Forest Bird that sits in Siegfried’s lap. The production works best where it is least intrusive: act one. In act two, the shallow playing space vitiates the expansiveness of Wagner’s forest; the dragon, if impressively large and animated, is neither frightening nor poignant. In act three, the magic fire frames Siegfried’s entire scene with Brȕnnhilde. Wagner asks that it disappear after Siegfried penetrates the flames for a reason: the mountaintop he attains trembles with a preternatural stillness, a preamble to apocalyptic events. This is but one example of Lepage’s failure to listen. Directing his singers in this final scene — the most psychologically complex duet in all opera — he is clueless. The steep rake of Brȕnnhilde’s “rock” doesn’t help. Only Gerhard Siegel, a terrific Mime, is consistently effective in keeping the opera’s trajectory moving.
For “Don Giovanni” to succeed in a 4,000-seat house, it requires either an ensemble of larger-than-life vocal personalities, or an interpretation with a sharp edge. Mahler’s revelatory Met “Don Giovanni” of 1908, with a cast including Scotti, Chaliapin, Bonci, Eames, Gadski, and Sembrich, doubtless had both. The Met’s new “Don Giovanni,” directed by Michael Grandage, has neither. Remarkably, the strongest performance comes from the weakest character. Though Don Ottavio is a milquetoast, Ramon Vargas’s portrayal is so exquisite, vocally, that he steals the show. Both his great arias are delivered with exemplary diction, with pianissimo tones sustained on the breath, with elongated phrasings guided by Luisi in the pit. Grandage, a redoubtable director of plays, shows no signs of high operatic competence. Physically, the production is monotonous. The dancing at Zerlina’s wedding and Don Giovanni’s feast is over-choreographed. Inexplicably, the staging of the Don’s descent into hell is given away by the preceding statue scene: the only surprise is the duration of the conflagration.
This season, Luisi also conducts “Manon” and “La traviata.” The Met is a company in need of strong artistic leadership. Luisi exerts authority quietly and inconspicuously. The possible parameters of his institutional vision are as yet unknowable. Will he be a fit? One hopes so.