Night of the Living Dead

By James Jorden

Revival. Strange word, and creepy, when you think about it. Something used to be alive, then it wasn’t and now (presumably) it is, again. But it’s that last step, the actual reviving that seems so often to elude the revival of an opera production. 

What started me thinking about this was the Met’s current production of Così fan tutte. This staging premiered on February 8, 1996, an evening perhaps better remembered for the debut of Cecilia Bartoli, the “household name” of the cast thanks to the hard-working PR department at Decca. The director was Lesley Koenig, in her only “production” credit at the Met: otherwise she revived or re-directed other directors’s shows. (Her last position at the Met was as “assistant manager for production,” from August 2008 until the end of 2009, when she parted ways with the company.)

It’s not clear why Koenig was tapped for this production. It was certainly a departure to select an in-house director for so prestigious a spot. The Met’s other new productions of Mozart/daPonte in the 1990s were directed by Zeffirelli (Don Giovanni) and Jonathan Miller (Le nozze di Figaro.)  So it’s not clear whether Koenig was on board with this production from the beginning or, more likely, slotted in when the original director lost favor with the notoriously touchy Joseph Volpe.

The production always felt less than completely thought out, or rather, the production never seemed to have much point of view. The design is airy 18th century lite, and nothing much unexpected happens—Despina predictably has some showy bits of business, such as hauling the house on at her first apparence, a surefire star entrance for a singer sure to provoke entrance applause.

I don’t remember a whole lot about what the show looked like in 1996, but it was at least dignified, with no behavior too glaringly anachronistic for an 18th century setting. The current revival, though, has coarsened considerably, with non-stop groping and flailing and mugging. Now, obviously something is wrong when, by comparison, one’s recollection of Cecilia Bartoli seems understated and classy.

I don’t know if the problem is Robin Guarino, who put this revival together, or the new cast, a light-voiced crew who might be daunted by the cavernously Mozart-averse expanse of the Met auditorium. But the mess onstage certainly offers one convincing reason why new productions are necessary and vital to the artistic integrity of a major opera house. A “revival” like this Così is dead on arrival.

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