It’s quite a delicate balance: How to keep old audiences happy and attract new ones. A conundrum the opera world must continually face and one that Peter Gelb, general manager at The Metropolitan Opera, has bravely defied by taking risks, some of which might not pay off exactly how he hoped (but in the end, I think, have made The Met a much more interesting and vital opera house).
A case in point was French scenic designer Richard Peduzzi’s debut at The Met in the 2009 fall season, for which he designed two productions: Tosca—directed by Luc Bondy—and From The House of the Dead—directed by Patrice Chéreau, also making his Met debut. All three of these men are leading figures on the European opera stage, but unfortunately Peduzzi’s designs for Tosca were rather enthusiastically booed on opening night at the Met. Rather minimalist rather than naturalistic, the sets stood in comparison to The Met’s prior production of Tosca, designed in lavish Italian bravura by Franco Zeffirelli. Rumor now has it that the Zeffirelli production may come back next season after all, in addition to Bondy’s new one.
Does it boil down to ticket sales VS taking chances? “The Zeffirelli ‘Tosca’ was one of our great historical productions,” Gelb said, in an article published in the New York Times on December 21, 2009. “It’s physically beautiful to look at.” Does that infer that Peduzzi’s was not? Or that The Met should not take chances on new designers and updated versions of classic productions? One would hope not.
Fortunately Peduzzi's designs for Janacek’s From the House of The Dead fared better: the tall, imposing gray concrete walls created a bleak environment for a Siberian prison camp, with a visually exciting moment when a huge collection of trash (including paper and plaster) crashes to the floor from overhead, in a cloud of dust. Costume designer Caroline de Vivaise and lighting designer Bertrand Couderec kept their palettes appropriately neutral as well, adding to the overall minimalist look.
This production had already been seen in Europe where it was voted Europe’s best opera staging for 2007. Conducted brilliantly by Esa-Pekka Salonen, From the House of The Dead was considered a big success at The Met as well, redeeming both Gelb and Peduzzi in the eyes of the audience.