The Met's new `Il Trovatore' gets a chilly reception. Maybe Verdi's dark opera is at least partly to blame

The wall of boos that greeted the director/designer team at the end of the first night of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's ``Il Trovatore'' had two messages. People who had spent up to $250 a ticket were irritated that the production looked so ugly and was so utterly lacking in imagination. But it was also, it seems to me, a statement by the Met's most faithful following - the Opera Guild benefit audience - that they are beginning to lose patience with what they are seeing on a regular basis at the house. There has been serious booing in the past, but there were always those trying to drown out the boos with bravos. At the ``Trovatore,'' however, it was as if a soundman had switched off the applause track just before the chilling - and unexpectedly loud - manifestation of hostility began.

The production itself is easily dealt with; the implications of the production and this demonstration are not. For some unfathomable reason, Verdi's dark, vengeance-riddled opera brings out the worst in designers and directors. Ironically, Ezio Frigerio (sets) and Franca Squarciapino (costumes) both worked on the staging of Zandonai's ``Francesca da Rimini,'' still the most beautiful production the Met has done in two decades.

But Mr. Frigerio's stagewide black marbleized staircase and six laterally mobile gothic columns spoke more of budget considerations than an imaginative solution to potential overproduction problems. The only color in all this blackness came from projections and constructions projected onto, or placed behind, a rear scrim. Fabrizio Melano's direction was preoccupied with singers entering and exiting and with planting the silly-costumed chorus in symmetrical, oratorio-like groupings. Gil Wechsler's proclivity for underlighting was, for once, well suited to the occasion.

The all-but-unanimous rebuke of the director and designers clearly had something to do with audience perception of a lack of artistic direction at the house. At its best, the Met has had a strong visionary at its helm. Sir Rudolf Bing - general manager from 1950 to 1972 - had his problems, but his core team of aides knew their directors and designers. His era had its share of legendary productions, and he knew that house directors such as Mr. Melano lacked the grandeur of vision to mount a work like ``Trovatore.''

Today, casting is at an all-time low: Audiences are being asked to pay up to $90 a seat for too much mediocrity. At the same time, the local press has been incessantly attacking the Met for sinking huge sums of money - over $1.5 million a shot - into what has been dubbed the ``razzle-dazzle'' of Franco Zeffirelli productions. The implication of much of the New York press is that big is bad, and, in terms of voice, loud is lousy.

I can understand the Met's confusion. After all, the Zeffirelli productions are exactly the right size for this ultra-large opera house. Filling a huge stage in a 3,800-seat auditorium demands large sets and stunningly theatrical visual gestures, as well as big-voiced singers. Unfortunately, a crushing sort of overrealism has become the norm at the Met, and only Zeffirelli does it well.

The Met is reluctant to turn to even the more reasonable brand of unorthodox European director to pepper the diet somewhat: Its brand of rethinking has been the disastrous Sir Peter Hall production of Verdi's ``Macbeth,'' and now this abysmal ``Trovatore,'' which will be taken to Japan this spring and open the Met season in New York next year.

Ironically, the cast for this new production is illustrious - Luciano Pavarotti, Dame Joan Sutherland, Leo Nucci. The singing was not. Mr. Pavarotti was not in top form in a role that never really suited him. Mr. Nucci was miscast as di Luna. Debuting mezzo Livia Budai prompted booing and even a moment of uproarious laughter after a badly interpolated high note. Another debut, that of Franco de Grandis as Ferrando, was inexplicable.

As for Dame Joan, one can only wonder why, in the twilight of her career, those around her - husband/conductor Richard Bonynge, managers, and the Met's artistic staff - would encourage her to revive a role to which she was never suited. As this may well be her Met farewell, how lamentable that her thrilling and historic career, which spanned both the old and new house, should conclude on such a tenuous note.

The Met's management is, it would appear, cowed by the critics, while it is simultaneously worried about keeping the box office healthy. But there is an increasing tendency to rely on sets rather than singers. Granted, the season is far too long to fill it with glittering casts seven times a week, and this issue will eventually have to be addressed. And everyone knows how hard it is to get great singers to the US, particularly with the weakened dollar and the high European fees (over $20,000 a performance in Italy, compared with a Met top of $9,000). Still, something needs to be done, and quickly, to win back the confidence of the guild audiences which is its financial stability.

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