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The Machine in the Garden

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The conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin wisely ignored McAnuff’s contempt for Gounod’s irresistible sentimentalisms, leading an intensely nuanced performance. The tawny-voiced tenor Jonas Kaufmann sang Faust without heroics or saccharine overstatement but with mellifluous legato, delicate pianissimos, and a sophisticated sense of ensemble. As Méphistophélès, René Pape sang with casual majesty but also tried to lighten the proceedings with a bit of soft-shoe and a smile. I have rarely experienced such a disjunction between the opera I heard and the one I saw.

One occasion when the Met merged musical excellence with razzmatazz, irreverence, and theatrical daring was The Enchanted Island, a shamelessly inauthentic, captivating Baroque-opera mash-up that the company had made to order. What might have been a tacky revue instead proved to be a fluid anthology of obscure music by Vivaldi, Handel, and Rameau, mostly from operas that the Met will never—and probably shouldn’t—stage entire. Singers contributed arias they wanted to perform. Jeremy Sams manufactured an English libretto by stitching together The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (the brilliant team behind Satyagraha) invented a fantastic world, complete with, yes, digital projections. An opera designed by committee should by rights be a camel-like creature, but this one was a unicorn.

The production made plenty of room for silliness—Plácido Domingo as Poseidon commanding a team of carboard-cutout sea steeds, Luca Pisaroni mugging as a simian Caliban—but the show’s engine was a high-powered musical seriousness. Joyce DiDonato began an aria in wry/tragic mode and gradually eased into genuine poignancy, guiding the audience from snickers to tears. The rest of the casting could hardly have been more elite. The singing sprite Danielle de Niese, the countertenor David Daniels, the eminent conductor William Christie: This is the Baroque-opera equivalent of seal Team Six.

Gelb’s record may be no more wildly erratic than anyone else’s in the ever-dicey opera biz. But he doesn’t always seem to know whether he’s hiring a director who truly knows and trusts the music or one who wants to save a piece from its faults. This is opera, where even the most resplendent visual spectacle has to make sense to the ears.


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