Is it the end of an era at the Metropolitan Opera?

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Is it the end of an era at the Metropolitan Opera?
In an image provided by the company, Svetlana Sozdateleva and Brandon Jovanovich in Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” a highlight of the Metropolitan Opera’s season. (Evan Zimmerman/Metropolitan Opera via The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-23 season may well have been the end of an era.

Since September, the Met, which was to close for the summer Saturday, has put on 22 titles — 23 if you count both stagings of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” one complete in German and one an English-language holiday abridgment. As a repertory house and the country’s largest performing arts organization, it juggles multiple works at a time. On some weekends, it’s been possible to see four different operas in 48 hours.

But is there enough of an audience to fill so many performances in a 4,000-seat theater?

Ticket sales have been robust for some new productions, even of contemporary works. But revivals, less obviously newsworthy and less widely promoted, are no longer sure things — especially slightly off-the-beaten-path stuff like Mozart’s “Idomeneo” or Verdi’s “Don Carlo.”

In an attempt to make ends meet, the Met has raided its endowment and plans to put on 10% fewer performances next season, which will feature just 18 staged operas (six of them written in the past 30 years). The days of being the country’s grand repertory company of 20-plus titles a year could be slowly entering the rearview mirror.

So it was fitting that last month the Met said farewell to one of the shows that typified the era that’s ending: its “Aida” from the 1980s. The production was typical Met: hardly cheap but sturdy and flexible, into which you could toss singers with relatively little rehearsal. The company’s model has depended on a core of stagings of the standards like this — ones that could be mounted, and sell well, year after year.

If there’s less of a year-after-year opera audience, though, the only solution may be to do less.

It’s melancholy to look back on the past season and realize that my two favorite performances were the kind of thing that might go by the wayside in the Met to come. They were revivals of works by no means obscure but not nearly as famous as, say, “Carmen”: Donizetti’s gentle romantic comedy “L’Elisir d’Amore” and Shostakovich’s ferocious satire-tragedy “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”

This has been the glory of the Met: the love, care, craft and experience that go into works as different as these two — starkly contrasting titles, both presented at the highest level. In “Elisir,” tenor Javier Camarena and soprano Golda Schultz were all tenderness, but were lit, as if from within, with a lively spirit by conductor Michele Gamba, making his company debut.

The conductor of “Lady Macbeth,” Keri-Lynn Wilson, was also making her debut, and showed mastery of Shostakovich’s score, which is in a savage, if often eerily beautiful, mode that would have stunned Donizetti.

Neither run was nearly a sellout, but the season would have been immeasurably more barren without them.

The new vision that the company will be pursuing next season has a silver lining in its doubling down on contemporary opera. Sales for recent works have been pretty robust, though it’s unclear whether they’ve done well because people like them or because they’ve tended to be among the splashy, expensively publicized new productions rather than the perennial chestnuts.

But even if successful at the box office, the contemporary pieces this season have not been highlights. This spring, “Champion,” a boxing melodrama by Terence Blanchard — who also composed “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opened the Met’s 2021-22 season — was musically stilted and dramatically stodgy. Last fall, Kevin Puts’ score for “The Hours,” based on the novel and film, was relentlessly, exhaustingly tear-jerking.

While Puts’ work was a vehicle for a trio of divas, including Renée Fleming and Kelli O’Hara, the real star was the third: mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as a brooding but dryly witty Virginia Woolf, her voice mellow yet penetrating.

Hers was one of the performances of the year. Another was mezzo Samantha Hankey’s alert, youthful Octavian in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” Hankey was joined by the Marschallin of radiant soprano Lise Davidsen, who kept her immense voice carefully restrained for much of this long, talky opera before unleashing its full force in the final minutes.

In a clunky new production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” by director François Girard, tenor Piotr Beczala seemed almost to float — utterly assured and elegant in the otherworldly, treacherously exposed title role. This is a singer nearing 60 and doing his best work.

But the coup of the year may have been the Met debut of conductor Nathalie Stutzmann. Leading one new production of a Mozart opera is hard enough, especially as an introduction to the company, but two, simultaneously? And Stutzmann’s work in both Ivo van Hove’s austere “Don Giovanni” and Simon McBurney’s antic “Magic Flute” was superb: lithe but rich, propulsive without being rushed or stinting these scores’ lyricism.

How was she repaid? Before “Flute” opened, Stutzmann was quoted in The New York Times remarking that McBurney’s production, which raises the pit almost to stage level, lets the musicians see what’s going on rather than keeping them, as usual, in the “back of a cave” where there’s “nothing more boring.” Jokey and innocuous. But for some reason, the musicians flew to social media and condemned her for accusing them of playing bored.

Even worse, the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, rather than standing up for his colleague or trying to resolve the conflict behind the scenes, publicly cheered this unseemly pile-on, adding seven clapping emojis to an Instagram post by the orchestra. He and the musicians should be ashamed of themselves; Stutzmann should be celebrated.

Next season, while curtailed, is hardly free of ambition, offering a profusion of recent works and some intriguing repertory pieces, like Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” (not seen at the Met since 2006), Puccini’s “La Rondine” and Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”

This new approach to programming is an experiment. Revivals of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “The Hours” will test whether contemporary operas have legs beyond their premiere runs, and we’ll see if the trims to the season increase sales for what remains.

Hopefully, it all keeps the Met alive and vibrant. But whatever the coming years bring will likely be quite different. It was oddly, sadly appropriate that veteran soprano Angela Gheorghiu, absent from the company for eight years and set to return for two performances of “Tosca” in April, came down with COVID-19 and had to cancel.

This is a new phase, fate seemed to say, and the old divas — at least the ones not named Renée — need not apply.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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