0n a recent Saturday morning, I drove out to Moosic, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Scranton, to see the Metropolitan Opera. The detour was necessitated by a venture that Peter Geib has launched in his first season as the general manager of the Met: a series of live, high‑definition broadcasts of Saturday‑matinée performances, shown at movie theatres across the country. The idea sounded a little daft when it was announced last year: how could a nearly four‑hour‑long showing of Puccini's "Il Trittico" compete with the likes of "Disturbia" at a suburban multiplex? In fact, Theatre 1 at the Cinemark 20 in Moosic was mostly full, and a similarly robust crowd watched the same transmission in Theatre 2, next door. Out of curiosity, I poked my head into a theatre showing "Disturbia"; it was half empty. So it has gone with the H.D. broadcasts all season: each weekend they have been shown, they have consistently counted among the twenty highest‑grossing films in America, and have often bested Hollywood's proudest blockbusters on a per‑screen, perday average. Such figures are a timely slap in the face to media companies that have written off classical music as an art with no mass appeal.
The broadcasts have thrived, in part, because they are exceptionally well produced. Nothing can replace the thrill of unamplified voices filling a room, but adroit camerawork can improve upon the less felicitous imaginings of opera directors. The recent "Ii Trittico," which was directed in big-budget Broadway style by jack O'Brien, with sets by Douglas Schmidt, created an imposing look for each of the installments in Puccini's trilogy‑an early‑twentieth‑century Parisian canal for "Ii Tabarro," a luminously ancient nunnery for "Suor Angelica," a cobwebbed Florentine palace for "Gianni Schicchi"‑but it lacked intimacy and dramatic focus onstage. In the movie theatre, with closeups, tracking shots, and other cinematic tricks, it had more punch, and touches that had initially struck me as campy (the apparition of Sister Angelica's dead child, for instance) went down better with popcorn and soda. The sound was generally fine, lacking the bass bloat that ruins orchestral movie scores these days. And the intermissions were filled with sprightly features: backstage tours, a talk between O'Brien and James Levine, and a mini‑documentary on the Met's National Council Auditions, for young singers around the country ("I'm going to New York!" the forceful baritone Ryan McKinny exclaimed into his cell phone, a la "American Idol").
No sooner did the H.D. phenomenon take off than opera traditionalists started worrying that the technology would distort musical values. They have forecast a dire era of photographable faces and forgettable voices mixed with outbreaks of crossover kitsch. The danger certainly exists‑music lovers have not forgotten that when Gelb ran the Sony Classical label he blemished the universe with James Horners "Titanic" soundtrack‑but I'm guessing that the broadcasts will ultimately favor singers who can sing and act, rather than those who simply look good on posters. The standout member of the "Trittico" cast, both in the house and at the movies, was Stephanie Blythe, a not quite svelte woman who commands attention with the clarion beauty of her voice and the blunt intensity of her presence. If, as rumor has it, some Met veterans are investing in plastic surgery and crash diets, they'd do better to buy acting lessons.
Whatever missteps and controversies await Gelb, he has had a remarkably successful first season. Attendance has been up (the entire last week of performances in May sold out); crowds are more diverse in age; future plans for casting and repertory seem sound. To the blinking astonishment of a lot of people in the music field, the Met administration has thrown off its deep-seated caution and adopted the mentality of a scrappy newcomer. With Gerard Mortier, the scandal‑making European intendant, set to take over City Opera, New York opera seems set to enter an anything‑goes era, and the disasters may be as entertaining as the triumphs.
0ne point of tension in the approaching Met‑City Opera showdown may be this: who will get Mark Morris? In the late eighties, Mortier, while running the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, in Brussels, gave Morris the chance to create his first great works of voice‑and‑dance theatre, "L'Allegro, II Penseroso ed il Moderato" and "Dido and Aeneas." In 2000, City Opera presented his production of Rameau's "Platée." Yet Morris just made his debut at the Met, directing Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice," and the response was sufficiently delirious so that he'll presumably want to return.
Maya Kovalevska and David Daniels play the lovers in Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice. "Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
"Orfeo," first heard in 1762 and performed at the Met in its original version, is enshrined in history as the original "reform opera," with ornate conventions of the Baroque era giving way to Classical simplicity and stir
rings of Romantic angst. Then again, with choruses of shepherds and nymphs lamenting on behalf of the tragic Orpheus and the figure of Amor zipping in to tack on a happy ending, "Orfeo" remains a rather Baroque contraption. And Morris‑an artist who sways effortlessly and enthusiastically between the high and the low, the earthy and the airy, the goofy and the grand‑is in many ways the ideal Baroque director; he practically embodies the aesthetic.
The action unfolds in front of simple, severe, handsome sets by Allen Moyer: steeply raked amphitheatre seating for the chorus of the dead; an enormous fire‑escape‑style metal staircase for Orpheus' descent to the underworld; a gauzy gray cavern for the lovers' climactic scene in the "tortuous labyrinth." These monumental spaces are alternately chilled and warmed by James Ingalls's emotionally precise lighting and humanized by Isaac Mizrahi's vivid costumes: roughly contemporary garb for the principals and the dancers (Orpheus looks a bit like Johnny Cash, with a guitar slung behind him), multi-period garb for the chorus. When you notice a tall, thin bass wearing a top hat and sporting a beard, you realize that all hundred singers have been made to resemble famous people of the past, from Cleopatra to Henry VIII and on to Lincoln, Gandhi, and Jackie 0. The concept risks cuteness but achieves pathos: celebrities are apparently doomed to spend eternity in a V.I.P. area designed by Richard Serra.
Morris's choreography was executed by members of the Mark Morris Dance Group, along with four men from the Met's ballet corps. In the opening scenes, the dancers move with a kind of constricted desperation, more with the upper body than with the feet and legs, tracing out gestures of supplication and lamentation. Later, when Orpheus retrieves Eurydice from the Elysian Fields, the dancing grows disciplined and exuberant. In a hyper‑elegant ring dance that accompanies Orpheus' aria "Che puro ciel," legs move to pizzicato bass, while arms ride the up‑and‑down murmur of arpeggios; the circle reverses direction just before the mode changes to minor, and stops when the harmony pauses on an expectant dominant seventh. Once again, Morris accomplishes the feat of making the score itself seem to dance before one's eyes.
The role of Orpheus was originally to have been sung by the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, to whose memory the performances were dedicated. The countertenor David Daniels had no hope of matching Lieberson's emotional directness, and he sometimes sounded strained against the rich, intermittently overripe sound that James l1evine drew from the orchestra. But he delivered a darkly affecting account of the central aria, "Che farô." The young Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska as Eurydice showed off her buttery, room‑filling, emotionally pointed voice; Heidi Grant Murphy made for an aggressively charming Amor, at one point maintaining pitch while being dangled fifty feet in the air. Perhaps the best singing of the night came from the chorus, which has been transformed under the direction of Donald Palumbo, its new chorus master. A group that had fallen into some lazy routines is markedly more focussed in pitch, unified in phrasing, and intense in feeling. It should strike terror into the multiplexes next season when it channels the mob violence of Britten's "Peter Grimes."
Credit for commissioning this vibrant "Orfeo" goes to Joseph Volpe, Gelb's predecessor, but it neatly fits the philosophy of theatre‑savvy opera that the new general manager has announced for the house. Can the Met possibly become a place where theatrical values match musical ones? The sequel arrives in theatres next fall.