NEW YORK — In his second season as music director of the Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin enters the thickets of Alban Berg’s expressionist opera Wozzeck in a new production of the 1925 work that’s likely to be the talk of the 2019-20 season, announced Wednesday.
The Wozzeck production, by much-honored South African artist William Kentridge, promises a flood of imagery from computer animation, film, puppets, and live singers in the story of an Everyman driven to insanity and murder — matching Berg’s equally dense music, which required 137 rehearsals for its premiere.
Wozzeck returns to the Met repertory every three to six years, usually conducted by now-departed James Levine. But this years-in-the-making Kentridge production, which opens Dec. 27, "was always to be conducted by Yannick,” Met general manager Peter Gelb said Tuesday. "He was immediately excited. This was planned before he became music director.”
Though music of that era — atonality and all — has been largely absent from Nézet-Séguin’s Philadelphia Orchestra programs, he has a history of conducting Wozzeck in Canada.
Kentridge’s Met history includes Shostakovich’s The Nose and Berg’s Lulu. They’re both considered difficult operas, but they were extremely well-received, debated exhaustively among theatergoers, and analyzed in depth in the New York Review of Books. Kentridge brings the Met into New York’s intellectual community.
Nézet-Séguin was in the midst of a European tour with the Berlin Philharmonic (with which he is a popular guest) when the Met season was announced. He’ll also be conducting two revivals next season: Turandot, opening Oct. 3 in the famous Franco Zeffirelli production that has all but gained tourist-attraction status, and Massenet’s Werther , starring Joyce DiDonato starting March 16, 2020.
Though the Met typically opens a new production on New Year’s Eve, Nézet-Séguin will instead lead a gala spotlighting soprano Anna Netrebko in single acts of three Puccini operas: La Boheme, Tosca, and Turandot.
During the Met Orchestra’s three-concert spring season at Carnegie Hall, Nézet-Séguin will conduct two programs: Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Beethoven Violin Concerto on June 12 and Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Elza van den Heever on June 16, both in 2020.
All told, his commitment to the Met in his second year is similar in length to his first, which is to be expected. He originally planned to assume the music director position in 2020 but agreed to start two years early with a shorter schedule that accommodates previous commitments, such as his current Berlin Philharmonic tour.
“He is … more committed at the Met than I can ever have possibly imagined,” said Gelb. “Even though his time here is still not full throttle, he has immediately taken the reins of the orchestra and made his mark on the company in a significant and profound way.
“When he’s not here, we speak all the time,” Gelb said. “He’s also aware that music directors have certain civic duties, like having some involvement in fund-raising activities.”
One manifestation of that is especially noteworthy for its Philadelphia connection: Nézet-Séguin is consistently billed at the Met as “Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer Music Director,” in reference to the Neubauer Family Foundation of Huntingdon Valley.
Orchestral chairs are often endowed by philanthropists, but naming rights are less common among music directors. “We asked them [the Neubauers] if they would consider this,” said Gelb. “They have played a major role in the life of the Met [having sponsored the HD simulcasts], and they’re huge fans of Yannick as well. It seemed like a natural fit.”
Gelb doesn’t exactly assuage Philadelphia paranoia that Nézet-Séguin will be lured away from his Philadelphia Orchestra music directorship, which he has held since 2012. Gelb frankly wants as much of the conductor’s time as possible, he said Tuesday.
However, Gelb also admits “it’s ideal for him artistically to have a major symphony orchestra that’s only an hour and 40 minutes by car. The normal situation for top conductors is having two major institutions at the same time. That’s the way it’s been for the last 40 or 50 years.”
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