It won't be news to anybody that opera is just as susceptible to the effects of the global economic situation as any other business. The Metropolitan Opera's endowment of $300m is said to have had a third of its value wiped out as investments have become depressed, and staff are being asked to accept a 10% pay cut in order to help Peter Gelb to keep the house within budget.
It has been known about for some time that some high profile revivals were being pulled, and we now have it officially confirmed that we will have to do without Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versaille, and Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. This really is a shame, as works like these enrich the repertoire significantly, stimulate audiences, and give a whole different flavour to the season. The gap is being plugged with revivals of other familiar productions which are less expensive to mount, namely Strauss's Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos and Verdi's La traviata.
Whilst these will no doubt receive fine performances from the Met, they are operas that audiences are not short of opportunities to catch, and it is unfortunate that the impact of Gelb's need to play it safe in these challenging times is so clearly perceptible to the consumer.
That said, there are eight new productions in the coming season, of which three are being mounted as vehicles for arguably the three reigning prima donnas de nos jours. Each of them may turn out to be surprising, but on paper, each of them appears oddly miscast. Karita Mattila opens the season as Puccini's Tosca in a co-production with La Scala, directed by Luc Bondy. Mattila has always been less enthusiastically received in Italian opera compared to her magnificent role assumptions in the German, French, Russian and Czech repertoire, and her recent Manon Lescaut at the Met did not display her at her best. That said, she certainly has the glamour quotient required for Tosca. Angela Gheorghiu is taking on the title role in Bizet's Carmen for the first time in a production by Richard Eyre. There is no doubt that she will look the part, and Gheorghiu's sung French has always been excellent, but one wonders how she will come across in a role with a low tessitura, normally sung by mezzo-sopranos.
Lastly, Renee Fleming is singing the title role in the Met Premiere of Rossini's Armida in a production by Mary Zimmerman, the director behind the Met's current Lucia di Lammermoor and the soon to open La Sonnambula. It is excellent news that the Met is mounting this work, but one can't help but wonder why Fleming wants to do it. The role of Armida is full of fiendish coloratura and, usually, many interpolated top notes. Whilst Fleming is certainly capable of these feats of vocalism, she makes her strongest impact in full lyric roles. That said, she had some success with the role in the 1990s, and it will be fascinating to see what she brings to it at this point in her career.
There are a further three Met premieres scheduled. Riccardo Muti is going to conduct Verdi's Attila with the remarkable creative team behind the production of Pierre Audi, Miuccia Prada, Jaques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. The cast includes Ildar Abdrazakov, Violeta Urmana and Ramon Vargas.
Janacek's From The House Of The Dead is being mounted for the first time at the Met, in a production by Patrice Chéreau who, incredibly, is making his US debut. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts, in his Met debut. Shostakovich's The Nose is being given in a co-production with the Aix-en-Provence festival and the Opéra National de Lyon, conducted by Valery Gergiev.
The remaining two new productions (strictly, I think 'new to the Met' would be a more accurate description in some cases) are Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, staged by Bartlett Sher with Rolando Villazon in the title role, Anna Netrebko as Antonia and Elina Garanca as Nicklausse, and Thomas's Hamlet featuring Simon Keenlyside in the title role and Natalie Dessay no doubt set to cause a sensation in the unfortunate Ophélie's mad scene.
Of the 18 revivals scheduled, perhaps the biggest curiosity is Verdi's Simon Boccanegra which features Plàcido Domingo in the title role, extending his career by taking on a baritone role. One can't help but wonder if Verdi, and the audience, might be better served by casting an actual baritone in the role, but Domingo's legion fans are no doubt delighted and it will be fascinating to see how his vast experience comes to bear on Boccanegra.
Several of the world's great singers are returning to roles for which they are famous, namely Anna Netrebko as Mimi in Puccini's La Bohème, who should form something of a dream team for this opera opposite Piotr Beczala, Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta in La traviata, Nina Stemme as Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos, Violeta Urmana in the title role of Verdi's Aida, and Renee Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, alongside Susan Graham, Miah Persson and Kristinn Sigmundsson – again, a near ideal cast for the piece.
In terms of the remaining operas in the season, it has to be said that whilst there are many distinguished artists in the casts, and they will no doubt be given world class performances, a lot have been seen very recently by New York audiences who do seem to have to put up with revivals following very closely on the heels of the last presentation of the piece. This category includes Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, Humperdink's Hänsel und Gretel, Puccini's Turandot, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust and Donizetti's La Fille du régiment, although the latter will no doubt go down a storm with Juan Diego Florez reprising his hugely successful rendition of the aria with the 9 high Cs, Diana Damrau's role debut as Marie, and, incredibly, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's return to the Met in the speaking role of the Duchess von Krakenthorp.
2009-10 looks like it will be a Met season with much to talk about then, a sprinkling of controversies, and the cream of the crop of international singers set to delight in some of their most celebrated roles, but one can't help feel the loss of those abandoned revivals in the face of yet another Zeffirelli Turandot.
By John Woods
Photos: Renee Fleming; Natalie Dessay in the Met's Lucia
Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2009 Preview of this summer's festival
Los Angeles and Washington Operas' 2009-10 Seasons Domingo announces his plans
Opera Rara 2009 The bel canto label announces period instrument Donizetti for 2009
Welsh National Opera 2009-10 Bryn Terfel sings his first Hans Sachs
Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum