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Trying to lure new fans, Met spreads its wings

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NEW YORK - On Monday night, with dual infusions of 21st-century populism and Hollywood-style glamour, the curtain went up on a new era at the Metropolitan Opera. Peter Gelb has taken over as general manager of the country's flagship opera house, and this year's opening night was carefully designed to sound the themes he apparently hopes will distinguish his tenure: a new theatrical excitement and a new openness that connects opera to a much wider audience and to the culture at large. Time will tell how those themes play out, but for a few hours, Gelb, music director James Levine, and the rest of the company succeeded in wresting opera from its bejeweled seclusion and placing it, quite literally, at the shining center of New York City life.

Gelb's radical makeover of the Met's opening night began with his decision to jettison the company's traditional parade of opera stars singing an eclectic mix of music. Instead, he imported a visually exquisite new production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" directed by filmmaker Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), making his first foray into opera. Then he invited a raft of celebrities and rolled out a red carpet for them to preen on. Sprinkled through the audience were Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Jude Law, Meg Ryan, Naomi Watts, and Donald Trump, among others.

Advance word of the celebrity turnout got the buzz going well before the show, but the Met's bolder step was to simulcast "Madama Butterfly" not only into Lincoln Center Plaza but also onto three giant screens on the buildings in the heart of Times Square. To witness this daring feat of urban opera activism, I headed to Times Square for most of Act 1 and, sure enough, the scene was completely surreal. Broadway was barricaded, and hundreds of viewers of all stripes were seated in rows of folding chairs running down the middle of the street. Far from the chatty social atmosphere of the Met's summer concerts in Central Park, here the seated crowd was staring up at the screens in rapt attention as enormous speakers blasted Puccini's soaring vocal lines into the neon wilderness. The neighboring buildings held the sound like an amphitheater, and passersby stopped and stared with looks of pleasant bewilderment. The whole event had a vaguely subversive air, as if high art had been smuggled into the temple of high capitalism. The Met should make it an opening-night tradition.

In the house itself, where I watched the remainder of the opera, Minghella's "Butterfly" landed fairly gracefully. A coproduction with the English National Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera, the new staging is beautifully spare, full of sliding Shoji screens and bands of deep color, with an angled mirror projecting the action out from the back of the stage. The designer Han Feng produced vibrant costumes, and Minghella shows a keen eye for the details of personal interaction - the passing gesture, the stolen glance.

But the most unusual - and ultimately mystifying - element of the new "Butterfly" is its use of a traditional Bunraku-style puppet to represent Butterfly's 2-year-old son. True, Puccini does not ask the boy to speak or sing, but his presence typically carries huge dramatic force as the flesh-and-blood symbol of the abandoned union between the faithful Butterfly and the cruelly oblivious Pinkerton. Replacing this boy with an inhuman puppet manipulated, however skillfully, by three black-clad puppeteers crouching in full view distracts the eye, shatters the mood, and cripples the potency of the interactions onstage. It's a misstep that costs this "Butterfly" some of its pathos.

In the second act, the Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas had a few erratic moments in the title role, but her portrayal grew progressively stronger and built to a rewarding finale. Marcello Giordani was a vocally suave Pinkerton, Maria Zifchak a persuasive Suzuki, and Dwayne Croft an able Sharpless, conveying all of his conflicted loyalties in a resonant baritone. Levine worked his usual magic in the pit.

Judging from the evening, it is clear that Gelb is an expert impresario with the skills to create brilliant spectacles. He still faces an uphill battle to reverse the Met's lackluster ticket sales and more dauntingly, to create the opera audience of the future without alienating the company's core constituents. Gelb's strategy includes mounting theatrically fresh productions and pioneering new modes of opera delivery, such as broadcasting Met performances to movie theaters across the country starting later this season. We can also expect more filmmakers like Minghella to try their hand at opera. The jury is still out on whether, artistically speaking, this will be a positive or negative trend. It will no doubt add to the Met's visibility in the broader culture.

But in addition to making opera accessible and theatrically enticing, one hopes Gelb's ambitions include taking artistic risks and embracing the most original musical voices of our time. Programming adventurously with so many seats to fill is a tall order but an essential one. Gelb's tenure will ultimately be judged not only by the splendor of what he brings to stage and screen, but also by the artistic daring that the Met's new swagger should make possible.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

c.2006 The Boston Globe

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