Review: Climate protests upstage a Met Opera debut

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Review: Climate protests upstage a Met Opera debut
From left, Christian Gerhaher, Andreas Schager and Elza van den Heever in rehearsals for “Tannhäuser,” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, on Nov. 27, 2023. Climate-action demonstrators disrupted the opening night of “Tannhäuser” on multiple occasions on Friday, Dec. 1. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- “Wolfram, wake up!” came a shout from the highest box seats of the Metropolitan Opera. “The spring is polluted!”

At first it seemed like an odd thing to throw at the character of Wolfram in Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” which returned to the Met on Thursday night, with that role sung by the great baritone Christian Gerhaher in his company debut. (Indeed, his arrival was what made the night notable to begin with.) But that cry was the start of an unbroken stream of climate grievances, designed to coincide with Wolfram’s description, during the singing contest midway through Act II, of love as a miraculous spring.

“The spring is tainted!” the protester up in the Family Circle continued, then dropped a banner that said, “No Opera on a Dead Planet.”

Several more protesting voices emerged from the group Extinction Rebellion. Onstage, performers froze in place until the Met’s golden curtain came down around its gilded proscenium. Demonstrators and booing audience members began to roar at each other across the vast auditorium.

“Shame!” a person near me yelled in the general direction of the protests. Others howled, “Go away!” and “Go home!” As a performatively bothered couple walked out, one of them, a man dressed in black tie, said, “Is there no security here?”

People had questions. One person asked an usher, “Are the police here?” Another usher asked no one in particular, “Where’s Gelb?” — referring to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.

Another banner unfurled from a box seat across the hall, saying “Extinction Rebellion,” accompanied by the group’s logo of a circle with an hourglass inside it. Someone in the box below immediately tried to pull the banner down, obscuring the text, and the woman who had dropped it was suddenly removed from her perch. Security had arrived.

Gelb stepped onstage and told the audience: “We’re very sorry for the disturbance. We’re going to be starting in about one minute.”

When the performance did restart, though, it didn’t last one minute before another protester rose to shout from the rear of the orchestra section, holding a square banner of the Extinction Rebellion logo. The curtain came down again.

A man near the protester ripped the banner from her hands. Another threw a playbill at her face. Two rows in front of me, someone, seemingly unfazed, started to read on a Kindle.

After 20-some minutes of delays, Gelb returned to the stage and told the audience that the performance would continue, but with the house lights on, “so our security personnel in the building can remove any protesters who wish to protest and be arrested.” (The New York City Police Department later said that no arrests had been reported.) Then he added with a strangely martial tone, “We are not going to be defeated by them.”

By that point, the theater was visibly emptier — not just because of the protesters who had been taken out but also because of the many audience members who simply gave up. Still, the show went on.

Here is where I have to offer a necessary disclosure. As a critic, I’m comfortable thinking and writing about the performance up to this point. But, while I have a general sense of what followed — and what followed was excellent — I never felt fully engaged with the show again. There was the visual distraction of vigilant security and of the police officers in the aisles. And there was the nervous anticipation of the protest’s return: Would it come back in the famed Pilgrims’ Chorus? In the “Song to the Evening Star”?

It was understandable that some in the audience had been dismayed by the disruption of their night out, but it was difficult to shake the angrily bothered, even violent response from others toward the protesters. Did they consider that “Tannhäuser” comes from the most politically active time in Wagner’s life, his years in Dresden, Germany, which ended with his fleeing after the May Uprising in 1849? Did they clock that when the performance resumed, it was with the scene of a whole hall turning against Tannhäuser for an ode that to him rings of truth, and to them of heresy?

The rest of the evening — which because of the protests stretched until midnight — unfolded without any disturbance beyond the usual chime of a cellphone ring. There was no more news, at least beyond the original headline of Gerhaher’s debut.

And his performance is reason alone to return to this “Tannhäuser,” in Otto Schenk’s dusty and unfashionable, but utterly lovable, production from the 1970s. Gerhaher is one of our finest living lieder singers, a raconteur and a chameleon, a perceptive and persuasive interpreter whose approach to text shines in the recital hall. But he has also appeared on Europe’s opera stages; his “Wozzeck” at the Aix Festival in France this summer, performed without ever leaving the stage, was a Kafkaesque descent into torment and tragedy.

The Met’s immensity can be unkind to singers with Gerhaher’s size and attention to detail. But Thursday he filled the hall with ease, drowned out only by the protests. He was slightly strained at his loudest, but more human for it. His “Song to the Evening Star” was not comforting or buttery, like Peter Mattei’s when this production was last revived, in 2015; a brittle solace, it ached and felt like a true farewell.

Gerhaher was surrounded by seasoned Wagnerian singers: Ekaterina Gubanova as a lush Venus; Georg Zeppenfeld as a stentorian Landgraf Hermann; Elza van den Heever as an Elisabeth more affecting in her prayerful “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau” than in the exuberant “Dich, teure Halle.” Andreas Schager’s tenor has bright power but the irrepressibility of a fire hose, which suits roles of heroic bumbling naïveté like Siegfried and Parsifal, and not so much the anguished and multidimensional Tannhäuser. His Rome Narrative in Act III was bluntly angry where it should have been shattering.

In the orchestra pit, Donald Runnicles led the opera at first slowly but with shape, the opening more spiritual than stately. That built toward orgiastic music for the Venusberg that may have been as PG-rated as the staging that followed, but it also had remarkable clarity — in phrasing and in balance. Throughout the night, Runnicles was in full control of the score, even if he could stand to relinquish a bit of his grip.

With such an approach, though, the orchestra resisted the invitation for a saccharine opening to the third act, which instead took on a heart-rending holiness as it prefigured Elisabeth’s resigned prayer for death. While Runnicles gestured at the podium, security and police stalked the aisles, as if to preserve the music’s beauty by force. Not for the first or last time that evening, it made a good moment feel bad.


Through Dec. 23 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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