The line up for the 2011-12 season of the Metropolitan Opera is out, and it’s surprising. The Met is the Met, and their strengths are their own, so it’s not a disappointing season to me. Opera has a broad range and I expect the outlying parts to be filed in by City Opera and other companies. On the Met’s terms, the surprises are good, bad, and, well, just plain surprising.
For the bad, and only slightly so, there is nothing that is truly ‘new,’ whether Dr. Atomic from two seasons ago, last year’s debut of Patrice Chereau with From The House Of The Dead, or this season’s production of Nixon in China. I’m truly surprised because each of those were remarkable successes, and would seem to make it easier to continue that trend. However, Satyagraha is now part of the house repertory, and that’s amazing to me and truly a watershed mark for the Met, Phillip Glass and contemporary opera. A subtly brave and bold decision.
On the surprising side there’s lots of Donizetti. Snobs from both ends of the spectrum look down on him as fodder for the board members and the patrons who sleep through performance, but the guy wrote a bunch of good works, and there’s never anything wrong about doing something that’s simply solid and musical. The new productions of standard works move apace, but that has been a mixed bag under Gelb. For example, this season’s Don Carlo, from Nicholas Hytner, seemed mostly pointless. The sets were sleek and stark but without unifying idea nor any concept that specifically had to do with the opera. The subversive comment on Ratzinger was bracing, but the other symbols seemed accidental. I’m also wary about the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island. Pastiche is problematic, of course, though there’s no reason this can’t be good. From the evidence of WIlliam Christie’s appearance conducting Cosí fan tutte I don’t know what to think. I had expectations for at least an interesting collision between the Met’s thinking about the repertory and Christie’s, but the stature and legacy of the house seemed to subvert the conductor’s personal views. Everything was fine, solid, capable if standard and pleasingly bland.
Fundamentally what the Met is known for is singing. In that, they have an interesting companion, and possibly a rival, in the New York Festival of Song. NYFOS is holding their second night of the program “Night and Day/USA: Americans Working and Dreaming” tonight at 8PM at Merkin Hall. The first was everything that I have come to expect from a NYFOS concert: a program of simply great songs, laid out in a narrative full of musical and emotional intelligence, presented with humor and humanity by Steven Blier and, of course, with great singing. On Tuesday, the voices were soprano Sari Gruber, mezzo Liza Forrester and baritone James Martin, with help from tenor Christopher Tiesi and additional accompaniment from NYFOS co-founder Michael Barrett.
A NYFOS concert is not just singing, it’s performing, and I give Blier a great deal of credit for that. He is clearly a marvelous coach, not only adding judicious theatrical touches and bits of choreography, but opening up great musical charisma that is part of the evening. The singers become the characters in the songs and the performances become deeply human. The idea of people waking up in the morning, going off to work and heading home to bed in the end was conveyed through songs that covered the twentieth century from Charles Ives “In The Morning,” sung with exquisite control and plangent feeling by Gruber, to a selection of four of Kurt Weill’s songs from Broadway, to a recent and lovely song, “The Night You Decided To Stay,” from composer Steve Marzullo. In between there were some real discoveries of obscure material and fantastic performances of truly great songs: Hall Johnson’s “On The Dusty Road,” with a lyric from Langston Hughes in a “Wow!” performance from Martin, a great setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem by Lee Hoiby, “Insomnia,” and the brilliant choice of Tom Waits’ “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue),” a song that, when removed from Waits’ own overwhelmingly distinctive voice and placed in the hands of Martin, Barrett and Blier, is revealed as a great song, proof that Waits is one of America’s greatest songwriters of any generation.
These are particulars, though, and the ultimate point is that a NYFOS concert is one of the greatest pleasures you can have hearing music. The singing is so fine and the performances are so welcoming and expressive that they make everything sound and feel like a masterpiece.