Leonard Slatkin may not be returning to the Metropolitan Opera anytime soon.
The music director of the Detroit Symphony is conducting a remount of Verdi's La Traviata -- substituted after John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles was busted from the season due to budget cuts -- and the people talking think the conductor doesn't know what he is doing.
You can read all about it in Anthony Tommasini's review in The New York Times.
It's a fact that a great orchestra will make it through a piece of music without a stumble when a conductor gets lost or doesn't really know what he or she is doing. It probably happens far more often than any of us would really care to know.
Opera is much more complicated, because, once rehearsals are out of the way, the singers are in charge, too. The conductor has to cue them, but also follow them. In the same instant, he has to let the orchestra know with his hands what is going on on stage.
Slatkin, the very American model of a modern musical maestro, keeps a detailed blog, in which he describes the rehearsal process in detail. The day before dress rehearsal, his Violetta (Angela Gheorghiou), doesn't feel like showing up for work. At dress rehearsal, he notices that there are new faces in the orchestra pit.
A section from Slatkin's blog entry from last Thursday sums it up:
In the orchestral world, we get used to very limited rehearsal time. With instrumental soloists, it is a luxury to get them for two sessions before a concert, something that I usually insist on. And with people I know well, we rarely meet before playing with the ensemble. Most passages get worked out as you go along, in front of everyone. It is one thing to play through a work with the piano, and another when the full orchestra is there. There have been other times when there was no rehearsal at all and we just showed up for the concert.
It is no different at the opera.
But this was a different matter altogether. Not only was the work new to me, but also I had never even met the soprano! It is a very good thing that the orchestra is used to changes such as this. They negotiated every turn with an amazing ease, saving me in a couple critical moments. I apologized just before Act 2 and thanked them.
“Welcome to our world,” was the response.
So, do we blame the conductor or the chop-chop way in which a staple of a house's repertoire gets slapped together for an eager public?
When all is said and done, it needs to be about the final product: convincing, assured performances that sound and feel as if nothing else in the world could possibly matter more than this story. That's what the critic sees. That's what the audience sees.
If things aren't up to expectations, someone needs to get blamed. It just so happens that it's the conductor's head, nicely lit with a spotlight as he takes his bow in front of the house, that's closest to the swinging axe.
I can't help adding on this bit of Wii Music silliness as a coda: