Under the tenure of Peter Gelb the Met has seen “Don Giovanni.”
Once again Fabio Luisi will take over. Though his title is principal conductor, Mr. Luisi has essentially been functioning as music director all season. Opera buffs can differ about his work. But he is an indisputably accomplished conductor and an astute musician. He does all his own coaching and, from all reports, does it extremely well. Met orchestra players have openly said they find him easy to work with and empowering, as came through recently in the transparent, lithe performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried” that he led.
Yet with all the concern about Mr. Levine’s absence, not enough attention has been paid to a more pressing matter. Since arriving in 2006, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has assumed responsibility for new productions. He recruits directors, talks through their concepts and puts production teams in place. So far, the results have been frustratingly mixed.
Mr. Gelb, who previously was the president of Sony Classical, has raised the stakes by talking big. He has pledged to bring cutting-edge theatrical thinking and technical capabilities to the house, and to make the Met a place where opera will be presented as compelling theater. He has also been on a mission to re-energize the art form by recruiting directors from theater and film, even some with scant experience in opera.
Yet measured against the promise, his spotty performance as de facto director of productions raises concerns. It may be time to revive an experiment in which the director John Dexter served as the Met’s official director of productions from 1974 to 1981, then as production adviser until 1984. Not many opera companies have a full-time director of productions. But in its budget and international influence, the Met is the largest performing-arts institution in the United States and should set the standard for excellence and innovation in opera.
Dexter, who died in 1990, gave the Met some landmark productions still in use, like Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which is breathtakingly spare. He was not all-powerful and may have claimed too many assignments for himself. Still, a theatrical pro was in place to maintain standards and foster innovation.
The assumption that major directors from outside opera will automatically bring fresh thinking to bear is questionable. It is just as likely that a newcomer may be intimidated by the towering masterworks of the repertory and their rich performance legacies, not to mention being daunted by the sheer dimensions of the Met’s stage.
I am thinking of the brilliant director John Doyle, who gave Broadway audiences powerfully intimate productions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” When he took on Britten’s “Peter Grimes” for his Met debut in 2008, Mr. Doyle seemed not to know what to do. Working with his set design team, he filled the huge Met stage with an imposing wall: a movable, three-tiered thing with doors and windows.
To his credit, Mr. Gelb has given Met audiences some terrific productions. Yet with a couple of exceptions, the most inventive have been collaborations involving two or more houses. When companies pursue joint ventures, one is often the prime mover. Still, mutual collaboration ensures that diverse input from experienced production departments will factor in.
And the outstanding co-productions at the Met during Mr. Gelb’s still-short tenure have been the work of directors with long experience in the field. Take the searing staging of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead,” which involved the Vienna Festival, the Holland Festival, the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, directed by Patrice Chéreau in his long-overdue Met debut. Another surreally beautiful and deeply moving co-production that recently returned to the Met is Phelim McDermott’s staging of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” first seen in 2008. This co-production with the English National Opera makes wondrous use of aerialists, gargantuan puppets and spectacle.
In joint productions Mr. Gelb placed some bets on relative newcomers with excellent results, especially in Shostakovich’s bleak comedy “The Nose.” Directed and designed by the artist William Kentridge, it was a co-production with Aix-en-Provence and the National Opera of Lyon. For a while, Mr. Kentridge’s production, with its inventive use of still and animated projections, put the Met at the center of the modern-art scene in New York. On Tuesday evening Metgoers will see the next new co-production: Gounod’s “Faust,” directed by the Tony Award winner Des McAnuff, in his Met debut, which was introduced at the English National Opera.
By pushing for up-to-date theatrical values, Mr. Gelb has never suggested that repertory works should routinely be presented with updated concepts. There is of course a place for traditional productions. But the more traditional ones on his watch have been tentatively traditional, often courting a middle ground by mixing contemporary sets with period costumes.
The director Michael Grandage, known for his boldness in the theater world, has no strong take on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” his Met debut, which opened in October. And here again, in what is beginning to seem a default mode for new Met productions, the staging relies on a three-tiered set of balconies and doorways.
Contrast Mr. Grandage’s “Don Giovanni” with the modern-dress, sexy, subversive production that Christopher Alden created for the New York City Opera in 2009. The Met was shown up even by the Mostly Mozart Festival in August, when Ivan Fischer conducted “Don Giovanni” with the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Rose Theater. Though billed as a staged concert, this daring presentation, directed by Mr. Fischer, was more imaginative than many productions I have seen. Instead of sets, a roster of ghostly actors, doubling as choristers, linked limbs and bodies to evoke windows, tables or whatever was called for. Giovanni went to hell falling backward into a tangled web of human arms, a harrowing image.
Not all co-productions by veteran opera directors have worked out. I need only mention Luc Bondy’s gratuitously seedy staging of Puccini’s “Tosca,” shared with the Bavarian State Opera and La Scala. And some shows created specifically for the Met have been successes, like Bizet’s “Carmen” in Richard Eyre’s sleek, fluid and grimly atmospheric production.