Monday, December 19, 2011

The Bologna I Puritani and the New Met

Il Teatro Buce featured a showing of Bellini's I Puritani this week, an opera hitherto unknown to either of us.   In general, we endorse what the blurbs say: lovely music, as listenable as anything Bellini did (in a short life), constrained by a galumphy libretto whose chief virtue is that it reminds you how much a good libretto--a da Ponte, or a Boito, or a von Hoffmansthall, say, can contribute to make a composer look good. Nino Machaidze, also previously unknown to me, seemed perfectly cast in the lead. Juan Diego Flórez produced what you'd expect of him (lots of tough notes), except that his role really didn't give any scope for the kind of comedy charm he has been able to deploy lately. Ildebrando d'Arcangelo also earned his keep although he of the three may have been most constrained by the limitations of the text.

But I want to talk about the staging. It wasn't bad--in a lot of ways, it was perfectly satisfying (I like those muted greys). But after the invasion of Peter Gelb, the new Napoleon of 66th Street, a production this unobjectionable can seem quaint, almost perfunctory, so much is it dominated by inevitable and invidious comparisons with What They Can Do at the Met.

For me, this kind of perception is unavoidable, but I find that unfortunate in at least two respects. One, it's unfair to Bologna: small house with necessarily a limited budget. As the great armchair general might say, you go to opera with the resources they have (and by the way, did I forget to mention Michele Mariotti? He did a lovely job in the pit and I gather he is becoming the man of the hour).

It's unfortunate also in that Met performances, for all their heart-stopping bling, may not be all that wonderful. I don't want to sound too much like a fogy her. I'm actually delighted that the Met is pushing beyond the Fellini. But several of the new Gelb-era productions--including several I've enjoyed--leave you with gnawing dissatisfaction. The problem is not the novelty per se but the nagging sense that the new auteur may have forgotten that at the end of the day, he's got to be in touch with the score. And if he's not going to relate to the score, he might as well take his block and tackle and head back to Broadway.

Any number of people have said this sort of thing about Bartlett Sher's production of Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann. I certainly felt it watching the William Kentridge production of Shostakovich's Nose. The fancy productions--even the good ones, the ones with something to offer--can blind you to their own shortcomings and may make it harder to appreciate a simpler, smaller, less ambitious, but highly satisfying show like the Bologna Puritani.  

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