“The opening of the Metropolitan Opera House on Monday evening seemed rather a social than a musical event,” a critic wrote in 1883, after the company’s inaugural performance. The same words apply to the Met’s hundred-and-thirty-fourth opening night, on September 24th. The gilded world of the Morgans, the Roosevelts, the Vanderbilts, and the Whitneys has largely vanished, but the tradition of a Monday opening lingers, together with whatever remains of high New York society. Christine Baranski was there. Don Lemon was there. Ariana Rockefeller wore a blush-tone gown by Bibhu Mohapatra, according to Vogue. The occasion seldom lends itself to statements of artistic ambition, and the Met took no risks in that direction. Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila,” the opera on offer, packs Biblical romance, bacchanalia, rousing choruses, and sumptuous arias into a relatively tight span of three hours.
Even by the lowered standards of a gala opening, though, this “Samson” was dim and inert. Once again, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has hired a Broadway-oriented production team that seems stymied by opera’s internal dynamics. The director is Darko Tresnjak, who won a Tony Award for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”; the sets are by his regular collaborator Alexander Dodge. They conjure an ornate Middle Eastern fantasy that aspires to the aesthetic of Cecil B. DeMille. The vast Met stage usually responds well to this kind of thing, but Dodge’s sets have a hulking quality that restricts singers’ movements. The color scheme was vibrant but jumbled. I thought back fondly to the glowing desert hues of Elijah Moshinsky’s “Samson,” which opened the Met season twenty years ago. When you replace a successful old production, you shouldn’t offer something that looks like a chintzy knockoff.
The singing, too, marked a decline from the Met’s last “Samson.” In the fall of 1998, we had Plácido Domingo as the long-haired hero and Olga Borodina as his sultry seducer—voices of real power and distinction. This time, we had Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča: the one a stylish but increasingly uneven veteran, who lost his top notes in the final act; the other a coolly bewitching presence who issued gleaming tones in her upper range but failed to hit the gut on the lower end. There was no real heat between the leads. In the pit, the orchestra made a luxurious sound for Mark Elder, but electricity was missing there, too.
The Met would have been better off dropping the pretense of saying something new and opening the season with “Aida,” which rumbled onstage two nights later. This is the colossal Sonja Frisell show that has been drawing a steady traffic of horses, chariots, and bare-chested soldiers to Lincoln Center since 1988. It makes DeMille look like a subtle miniaturist, but it serves as a handsome foil for singers of stature. Anna Netrebko proved equal to the title role, emitting full-bodied, rich-hued tone from the top to the bottom of her capacious voice. More than that, she fashioned a rounded, affecting portrayal of the Ethiopian princess, transcending the array of bravura gestures that have characterized much of her past work. Aleksandrs Antonenko, as Radamès, lagged far behind in artistry but held his own on the decibel meter.
What made this “Aida” indelible, however, was Anita Rachvelishvili’s magisterially hell-raising performance as Amneris. The young Georgian mezzo-soprano, noted for her Carmen, has a huge, piercing voice, and she isn’t afraid to sacrifice purity of technique for the sake of intensity of expression. Not all the sounds she made were beautiful, but all had dramatic point. A sign of her charisma is that during the final tableau, as Aida and Radamès are expiring in the tomb, Amneris continues to transfix the attention: even when she isn’t singing, she dominates the stage. The Met should let her do whatever she wants: artists of this calibre are the reason opera exists.
If the Met began its season in an atmosphere of retrenchment, the New York Philharmonic took a bolder tack, kicking things off with Ashley Fure’s “Filament,” as experimental a work as the Philharmonic has attempted since Karlheinz Stockhausen invaded the premises in the early seventies. Fure, a blazingly inventive young American composer, transformed Geffen Hall into an open-ended experimental soundscape, in which the orchestra trades timbres with a trio of soloists—the double-bassist Brandon Lopez, the trumpeter Nate Wooley, and the bassoonist Rebekah Heller—and fifteen singers who are dispersed around the hall. Stretches of charged near-silence alternate with sudden storms of white noise. From time to time, the musicians converge on a single burning tone, only to spiral back into primordial chaos. All of this went over surprisingly well with the crowd. A subscriber offered a review on the subway afterward: “There was a totally modern piece—by a woman! And I loved it!”
The inclusion of a female composer on the first concert of the season—including the opening-night gala, where the usual rule is to avoid surprises—made one reflect on the gender imbalance that continues to reign elsewhere on Lincoln Center Plaza. The current Met season, like the last, has no female composers, no female conductors, and no female directors in charge of new productions. Just before the season began, Gelb and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company’s incoming music director, announced that they would take belated steps to address some of that imbalance, commissioning operas from Jeanine Tesori and Missy Mazzoli. A production of Mazzoli’s gritty, fraught chamber opera “Proving Up,” at Miller Theatre, last week, confirmed that she is a major new dramatic talent.
From 2009 to 2017, under the enlightened leadership of Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic made considerable strides in modernizing its repertory. Jaap van Zweden, the stubby, spirited Dutch conductor, has now taken over as music director. Whether he will be an equally insistent champion of new and twentieth-century fare remains to be seen, but he threw himself energetically into the Fure, and was even more visibly engaged in Conrad Tao’s “Everything Must Go,” which appeared on the following week’s program. Tao is only twenty-four, and also has a flourishing career as a pianist. Van Zweden commissioned him to write a prelude to Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, which occupied the remainder of the concert. Tao supplied a flickering nebula of material from which Bruckner’s stately forms seamlessly emerge. This week, van Zweden presents the world première of Louis Andriessen’s “Agamemnon,” a variously propulsive and meditative evocation of the House of Atreus.
Although the Philharmonic has cancelled two of Gilbert’s initiatives—the “Contact!” new-music series and the NY Phil Biennial—it is instituting two new series, “Sound ON” and “Nightcap,” both oriented toward living composers. The first “Nightcap” took place after one of the Bruckner concerts, in the Kaplan Penthouse, above the Lincoln Center complex. The setup inevitably recalls Mostly Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” series, which takes place in the same time slot and in the same venue, with the audience seated club-style, at tables. Tao presented a diffuse but diverting hour of electronica, piano solos, free-form tap dancing (by Caleb Teicher), and avant-garde vocalism (by Charmaine Lee), all of it intermittently related to Bruckner’s choral works. The evening was long on stage patter and short on musical focus.
In the standard repertory, van Zweden is an assertive presence, not always to satisfying effect. He has a habit of overmilking fortissimos: this happened last season, in Mahler’s Fifth, and it happened again last week, in “The Rite of Spring.” The Bruckner, though, showed an impressive control of slow-building processes. I especially liked the differentiation of instrumental voices: this was a living, moving Bruckner, not a faceless monument. David Cooper, who played French horn under van Zweden at the Dallas Symphony, sat in as principal horn, and sounded splendid. The orchestra was generally at or near its best. There is no way of knowing how conductor-orchestra relationships will turn out—an orchestra, too, can be “rather a social than a musical event”—but van Zweden has made a buoyant start.