BOOKS AUGUST 23, 1975
New York’s Metropolitan Opera has the same function as its Metropolitan Museum of Art: to keep valuable works of the art it is concerned with available for interested members of the public. Its presentation of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in the fall of l973 was, then, analogous to the museum’s putting on view a few years ago, its newly acquired Rembrandt painting, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer—with one important difference; a large number of other outstanding Rembrandt paintings have been on view at the Metropolitan and other museums of this country and Europe; but Les Troyens, Berlioz’s single masterpiece in its singular grand style remained unperformed anywhere until recently. Rafael Kubelik produced it at Covent Garden in 1957, and as the musical director appointed by Goeran Gentele when he took charge of the Metropolitan in 1972, was responsible for the production there. He was also responsible for the Metropolitan’s presenting again, last fall, another singular masterpiece that it had presented in the ’50s— Musorgsky’s own revised version of his Boris Godunov, as distinguished from the complete recomposition of the work by Rimsky-Korsakov that continues to be performed by most of the world’s opera companies. And he was responsible for the Metropolitan’s presenting again, last fall, for the first time since the ’20s, yet another unusual and impressive work—Janáček’s Jenufa.
These three were the major additions in repertory that Gentele and Kubelik planned for the seasons of1973-74 and 1974-75, and I should point out that they represented an artistic understanding and taste that was new in the Metropolitan’s operation. Les Troyens would have been in several ways an eminently suitable opera with which to open the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966; but for Rudolf Bing—confident in his possession of the taste he clearly lacked—Les Troyens was“a bore”; and he opened the new house with the Antony and Cleopatra he had commissioned from Samuel Barber. Characterizing this work in The New Republic as a “pseudo Aida” produced by the “unmemorable operatic talent” that had produced Barber’s Vanessa, Stanley Kauffmann doubted that Bing really had believed Barber was “a valuable opera composer,” and contended that he had commissioned Barber because he had been determined to open the house with an American work. But the man who had commissioned Antony for the new house had produced Vanessa inthe old one, and not only this pseudo opera but Menotti’s The Last Savage, a work by the preeminent American composer of operatic trash, and one that was astonishingly feeble even in its own terms—which was to say that Bing was someone with no capacity to recognize value or the lack of it, who really did believe that Barber and Menotti were valuable opera composers. Operating without this sense for value, Bing also had wasted productions on other works of little consequence and interest like Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur and Flotow’s Martha: operating with no understanding of what was and what was not properly in the Metropolitan’s repertory, he had produced European operettas that were no more the proper concern of the Metropolitan than were the American musical shows he did not produce.
True enough, it was Bing who had restored a great work of Verdi, Don Carlo, to the Metropolitan repertory; it was he who had given that unique 20th century classic, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, its long overdue first production at the Metropolitan; and it was he who had at last replaced Rimsky-Korsakov’s recomposition of Boris Godunov with Musorgsky’s own work there. Whether he had made the decisions about Don Carlo and Wozzeck by himself I don’t know; but it became clear in time that he never perceived the nature and value of Musorgsky’s own Boris. He had been persuaded to produce it by the conductors Fritz Stiedry and Max Rudolf; having no understanding in the matter he had accepted Stiedry’s contention that Musorgsky’s orchestration needed strengthening to give it carrying power in a theater as large as the old Metropolitan. The strengthening was done by Karol Rathaus, who not only left untouched the musical substance—melody, harmony, rhythm, phraseology—that Rimsky-Korsakov had rewritten, but scrupulously adhered to Musorgsky’s choices and combinations of instruments for the tonal images in his mind, and changed only what he thought was Musorgsky’s occasionally inexpert employment of the instruments in order to realize those tonal images more exactly. This didn’t satisfy Stiedry, who insisted that some passages of extraordinary idiosyncratic writing for winds be made more “effective” by the addition of rich sonorities of strings; and with these occasional Rimskyisms in the orchestration the public heard a little less than the entirety of Musorgsky’s own work. But worse was to come a few years later, when, with Stiedry gone and Erich Leinsdorf advising Bing, the Rathaus version was replaced with Shostakovitch’s reorchestration and partial recomposition of the work. And when, still later, the singer Nicolai Ghiaurov made it a condition of his participation in a new staging of Boris, Bing announced a return to the Rimsky version. Thus Bing’s dealing with Boris illustrated something that is not sufficiently recognized: that we don’t always get the right thing in art from the right person and for the right reason; and that we must be glad, of course, to have it even when it comes from the wrong person or for the wrong reason, but should realize that what the wrong person gives he may allow to be spoiled and may eventually take away.
Kubelik was a right person; and what he planned with Gentele in addition to Les Troyens for their first season of 1973-74, as revised with Schuyler G. Chapin after Gentele’s death, included right things like the Metropolitan’s first production ever of a major work of Verdi, I Vespri Siciliani, and aproduction of Rossini’s long absent L’Italiana in Algeri. As for new stagings of standard repertory, I would like to think Kubelik shared my view of the wrongness of the staging of Wagner’s Ring by von Karajan with the designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen that had been contracted for by Bing, but recognized the necessity of completing it with Die Götterdämmerung: and that he also shared my view of the wrongness of the planned new Don Giovanni (in the end canceled for financial reasons)—the view that the discarding of the old Berman scenery, the greatest I can recall seeing in an opera, was not justified by the arguments that it didn’t fit perfectly on the stage of the new house, and that the new Don Giovanni would fulfill the promise to Leontyne Price of a new production of an opera for her.
Presumably Kubelik also participated in the discussions leading to the decisions to produce in 1974-75, in addition to Boris and Jenufa, Britten’s Death in Venice and Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth; and again I would like to think his was a voice of dissent. Britten is England’s major composer; but one must say of his music what W.J. Turner said of Bach’s—that it is not always “as expressive as it is accomplished”; which is to say that Britten, like Bach, operates much of the time as a resourceful inventor of progressions of sounds that go through the motions of saying something while actually saying nothing. There have been exceptions—above all A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, when the New York City Opera produced it years ago, seemed to me one of this century’s few impressive achievements in opera, and parts of Peter Grimes, which the Metropolitan produced. But the exceptions do not include Death in Venice, with its musical invention that doesn’t communicate the subtleties of Mann’s prose and has no purely musical interest in itself, and in addition the appalling mistranslation of Mann’s verbal images of the boy Tadzio into the ballet poses and movements of an older trained dancer in the sequences choreographed for him and a supporting group by Ashton.
As for The Siege of Corinth, I presume that Kubelik approved a production of this final revision, for the Paris Opera in 1826, of the Maometto II Rossini had written for Naples in 1820—a revision that eliminated some of the showy florid writing of the first version and added new writing in the simpler and nobler style of his later serious works. But I cannot believe Kubelik would have accepted the version of The Siege that Thomas Schippers contrived with his structurally damaging cuts, his stylistically incongruous patching together of some of the discarded florid writing of Maometto andthe simpler writing of the final revised work, and the added florid ornamentation that carried excess to sheer absurdity—a version that misused and degraded Rossini’s opera for the endless display of Beverly Sills’s coloratura pyrotechnics that was itself a misuse and degradation of her long overdue first appearances at the Metropolitan.
The production of this Schippers version of The Siege of Corinth, like the earlier productions of the Rimsky and Shostakovitch versions of Boris, demonstrated that while opera companies have the same function as art museums they don’t execute that function in the way museums do. Except for grime and deterioration caused by time, a painting is exhibited by a museum exactly as it was painted originally by the artist, never as altered by someone else; and there is never any debate whether the alterations improve the original work, but instead an understanding that whatever their effect the alterations are impermissible. But for almost 100 years it has been generally accepted that Rimsky’s Boris is more effective than Musorgsky’s and therefore the Boris to perform; and only a few—Toscanini, amazingly, not among them—have understood, first, that no matter how effective, the Rimsky recomposition of Musorgsky’s work was impermissible, and, further, that the effectiveness Rimsky achieved was not the effect Musorgsky intended—that Musorgsky’s almost drab orchestral coloring of the coronation scene, for example, was part of his perception of the scene, which Rimky’s orchestral brilliance falsified. As late as December 1974 Andrew Porter—who is made uncomfortable by the altered sound of “our modern Mozart performances at modern pitch, on modern instruments”—could write in The New Yorker that “the idea of ‘Boris’ as a colorful Russian pageant … given dazzling expression in the Salzburg production [of the Rimsky version] … by von Karajan … is not an untrue idea, but less than the whole truth”—with which he demonstrated his failure to understand that Rimsky’s dazzling pageant cannot be accepted as any part of the truth about Musorgsky’s Boris, and this truth can include only what Musorgsky himself wrote in realization of his own ideas.
As for cuts, even Toscanini, fanatical in his belief in the sanctity of the composer’s text, felt free to make a large cut in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred symphony. And even Kubelik—who told an interviewer, correctly, that one had to take a work like Les Troyens as it stood, without fiddling and cutting—did fiddle with a cut of “only eight minutes or so” of “some nice music” that was “a dramatic retardation.” But in this huge work the only “eight minutes or so” could have been left untouched; and actually what he cut was the affecting music of the scene that provides the transition from Dido’s quarrel with the departing Aeneas to her decision that she must die.
Kubelik’s resignation from his position of musical director in February 1974 left Schippers free, in the fall of that year, to make cuts in Boris that I am certain Kubelik would not have permitted. Schippers claimed, in an interview, that whereas Kubelik in Munich had “made cuts that I couldn’t figure out why,” his version would be “virtually uncut” and “the most complete performance of ‘Boris’ ever, ever, ever.” But in fact Kubelik’s one major cut in Act Two—of Feodor’s story about the parrot, which delays Shuisky’s entrance after he has been announced—was so understandable and right that Schippers did the same thing; and it was Schippers’ additional cuts that were incomprehensible and indefensible. One was the omission, earlier in Act Two, of the song to which Feodor and the nurse clap their hands in a crescendo of excitement to the sudden entrance of Boris that frightens the nurse—which destroyed the intended effect of that entrance. Others were the omission, in the Kromy scene, of the reappearance of Varlaam and Missail, and additional passages, which added up to a butchery of the scene; and the slicing out even of phrases in the dying Boris’s farewell to his son.
Also, on the matter of staging, no museum would agree that anything had to be done to paintings of past centuries to make them valid for today; but Bing was an advocate of “presenting masterpieces as seen through contemporary eyes”—i.e. the eyes of designer-director teams who used their skills not for the effective realization of the composer’s explicitly stated conceptions of the scenes and action of his opera, but instead for striking inventions of stagecraft embodying ideas of their own about the opera that might ignore or contradict the composer’s ideas. With Bing’s departure there was the hope that the Metropolitan would not again offer anything like the hollowed-out base of an enormous tree that was Schneider-Siemssen’s distractingly inadequate and absurd substitute for the interior of Hunding’s hut specified by Wagner as the performance area of the first act of Die Walküre: or the bullring—embodying Barrault’s idea of Carmen and José as antagonists in Spain’s erotic ritual of the bullfight—that Jacques Dupont designed in place of the square in Seville specified by Bizet as the scene of the first act of Carmen.
However, that hope was disappointed by the very first offering of the new regime in the fall of 1972—the new production of Carmen planned by Gentele (himself a stage director) with the designer Josef Svoboda, and staged after Gentele’s death by Bodo Igesz. It was announced as a restoration of Bizet’s work that replaced the recitatives added by Guiraud with the original spoken dialogue, and reinstated some of the music that had been omitted ever since the first performance. But instead of restoring the crowded, colorful square in Seville that Bizet specified for the first act, Svoboda perversely placed the act in what was in every detail the opposite of such a square: a bare court yard, enclosed on one side by a severely plain guard house, on the other side by an even more severe windowless wall, and in the center by an iron picket fence with a locked gate, which kept out the passersby referred to in the guards’ opening chorus—this being only the first of its disservices to the action. Also some of the restored dialogue was cut—in particular the very first exchange of Carmen and José, whose removal was part of the idea of their first encounter that Gentele substituted for Bizet’s. As Bizet has it, Carmen is piqued by José’s ignoring her and working at his chain while she sings the Habanera, and at its conclusion jars him out of his indifference with her provocative words and her throwing her flower at him As Gentele changed it, José, at his first sight of Carmen when she entered, stood transfixed, a doomed man, and continued to stand motionless throughout her Habanera; and as she approached him at its conclusion the stage was darkened except for the spotlights on the two doomed characters who stood confronting each other in silence, until Carmen threw the flower and burst into mocking laughter as she ran away. Gentele’s contrivance was dramatically effective; but so is Bizet’s; and Carmen is his opera,not Gentele’s.
It was in I Vespri Siciliani, a year later, that Svoboda revealed the full measure of the damage his obsessive idiosyncratic invention could inflict on an opera. I Vespri, written for the Paris Opera, was Verdi’s version of the large-scale, opulently spectacular grand operas that were presented there. But for this work Svoboda decided on a color scheme for scenery and costumes limited to black and gray, and on scenery limited to the enormous staircase he sees in almost every opera he designs—in this instance a staircase which, flanked by building walls, could be accepted as a street rising from the square in Palermo in the first scene, but could not suggest what Verdi specifies in the scenes that follow: a valley leading to the sea, the study in Monforte’s palace, the palace’s ballroom, its gardens. (The study was completely bare, with not even a chair for Monforte to sit on.)
But the season of 1973-74 that offered this misconceived I Vespri offered also the admirable production of Les Troyens. In spite of occasional details that were gimmicky and even damaging—the wolves symbolizing Rome that were hung above the stage; the ineffective film projection of the wooden horse that Berlioz doesn’t ask for; the unattractive as well as unnecessary fish netting that was hung over the Carthaginian scenes; the chaotic film projections and embarrassing pantomime on the stage that were an annoying intrusion during the orchestral interlude Royal Hunt and Storm—Peter Wexler’s scenery and costumes and Nathaniel Merrill’s direction fulfilled impressively the requirements of this work in the style of French grand opera that Berlioz ennobles. Except for a few details the production of L'Italiana in Algeri designed and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle also served that work well.
Jenufa and Boris Godunov, however, fared badly in the season of 1974-75—the first with the ugly sets of Schneider-Siemssen and poor direction of Günther Rennert; the second with the scenic invention of Ming Cho Lee and the direction of August Everding. Lee’s imaginative poverty was evident in what he designed as the room in the Tsar’s apartment; one of the mannerisms of his invention was exemplified at its worst in the single wall of Marina’s boudoir that was placed against the backdrop of foliage for the garden of the next of the Polish scenes; and it got to be irritating in the series of Russian scenes in which the truncated walls of rooms or facades of buildings were all placed against the one permanent backdrop of icons. Everding, ignoring Musorgsky’s stage directions for Boris’s last moments, substituted action that was striking to the eye but was contradicted by Boris’s words. And what Lee and Everding contrived for the Kromy scene, in place of what Musorgsky specifies, carried confusion to sheer absurdity. On the other hand Nicolai Benois provided good traditional scenery for The Siege of Corinth; butthe hacked-up action defied whatever skill the director, Sandro Sequi, may have.
A performance of opera in which all the elements are first-rate is rare: in the ’30s one ignored the shabby scenery of Tristan und Isolde, the insensitive conducting of Bodanzky, and was content with the singing of Leider, Flagstad and Melchior. Today one makes an effort to keep from being disturbed by what operas look like as seen through the eyes of contemporary designers, and listens to the superb musical performance of I Vespri Siciliani achieved by James Levine’s conducting and the singing of Caballé, Gedda and Milnes, or the good one of Boris achieved by Schippers and the cast headed by Talvela. Recognizing that the Metropolitan can’t have all the first-rate singers and conductors it needs, one accepts a performance of Carmen or L’Italiana in Algeri whose only distinction is the singing of Marilyn Horne; but a performance of Jenufa afflicted throughout with the strangulated, strident sounds produced by Varnay is difficult to accept even with the singing of Vickers and Kubiak; and so is a performance of The Siege of Corinth with a Sills who can offer an endless boring demonstration of phenomenal coloratura pyrotechnics, but whose voice in quiet cantilena, by now, is clouded by excessive vibrato, and becomes strident with increased intensity. These are what the Metropolitan has offered in the past three seasons, but in addition it offered one example of the rarity I spoke of a moment ago: the performance of Les Troyens that was excellently staged, superbly sung by Vickers, Christa Ludwig and Verrett, and admirably conducted by Kubelik.
It was Kubelik who, as musical director, was responsible for the Metropolitan’s undertaking Les Troyens, Jenufa and Musorgsky’s own Boris. And it is the appointment of Levine as his successor that gives one hope of musical excellence at the Metropolitan in the years ahead. What one hopes in addition is that he wants an end of the vandalism of stage designers and directors, and that he will be able to achieve it.