A Day & Night At The Opera (Or, Making History At The Met)

Nov 1, 2016

My wife and I have been going to the Met pretty much annually since the NEPR travel program began a couple of decades ago with a series of weekends at the Met. 2016 has stood out for history making adventures for us. In the fall of 2015 we bought tickets for a trip at spring break of this year.  As it happened we had excellent seats for James Levine’s final performance as Music Director. he conducted Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and we were part of the tremendous ovation which followed, at least 20 minutes’ worth. I wrote about it at the time.

We were in New York again this past weekend for performances of Janáček’s Jenufa and a Saturday Rossini double bill.  I have loved the William Tell Overture since childhood when the Lone Ranger was my favorite radio program. And thanks to my father, an early enthusiast of the new format the LP, I had a recording to play repeatedly and annoy the rest of the family with. But I have been waiting a lifetime for the opportunity to hear it in the proper context. The Met has obliged this season with a new production featuring Gerald Finley in the title role, the legendary hero of Swiss independence from hated Austrian occupiers, Brian Hymel as a conflicted younger man whose patriotism is mixed with love for an Austrian princess he had saved from an avalanche, Marina Rebeka as the princess, Mathilde, John Relyea as the evil Austrian governor and Sean Pannikar as a young Austrian officer. All were in splendid voice, the overture was intensely thrilling, and the story had reached a gripping point, with the Swiss beginning to revolt after the heart-stopping shooting of the apple from the head of Tell’s son. The thrilling conclusion and what is said to be some of the opera’s best music awaited as we returned from the intermission.

Most of the audience was still in the lobby when I got back to my seat, but I noticed an unusual phenomenon, an entirely empty orchestra pit. When I had left my seat, a lone violist was practicing a few passages as were a scattering of other musicians. This is the usual pattern, with other musicians slowly joining them. Shortly after I returned a couple of men with walkie-talkies went along the front row looking into the pit. After they left, two men in white uniform shirts stayed guarding the pit, which remained empty until well past time for the final act to begin. The audience had long since returned to their seats and was getting restless.

Finally a man emerged from the wings to announce a delay because of a “problem on stage.” The pit remained empty. I phoned the restaurant where we had reserved a table for a between-operas dinner, and they kindly postponed our reservation. We would actually get there earlier than expected since the announcement of the cancellation of the last act soon came, greeted by a man shouting that he wanted his money back, persistently, until the rest of the audience shouted him down. By the time we got to the restaurant, the news was online about a man sprinkling a “powdered substance” into the pit. The Met’s website announced the cancellation of the last act, but hadn’t yet announced cancellation of the evening performance by the time we left to return to Lincoln Center for the evening performance of L’Italiana in Algeri. By that time, though, news reports were getting more information. And now we know the story of the opera fan who is paying tribute to his late friend by scattering the friend’s ashes at opera houses around the country. It was a well-meaning gesture, but one which backfired, costing him, along with the rest of us to miss a great finale and another complete opera we had been highly anticipating. It may also prevent a phenomenon my wife commented on before the opera started: young members of the audience coming down to the front of the aisle to have a look at the musicians warming up in the pit.

It is still possible to see Guillaume Tell Wednesday through November 12, but the cancelled performance of L’Italiana in Algeri was the last for this season. And luckily for the radio audience, Guillaume Tell will be broadcast on March 18. You can watch video of some of the highlights by following that last link. The March broadcast will be a recording of one of this Fall’s performances on a day when the matinee is La traviata which will be broadcast the previous Saturday. The new season of live opera broadcasts begins December 3 on NEPR. Stay tuned.