Perhaps it was not auspicious to name a cultural complex after a man who was shot in a theatre. Lincoln Center, at any rate, has been plagued with frequent artistic, acoustical, and architectural disasters ever since Philharmonic Hall opened to an audience which couldn't hear the lower part of the orchestra.
The new Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center's most recent monument, opened just over a week ago and the New York Times was not amused on four counts (the opera, the architecture, the decorative art, the opening night in general). But none of these four things are important compared to the miracle on 65th Street: for the first time in a Lincoln Center auditorium, you can hear--every note that the world's highest-paid orchestra and most celebrated singers produce.
True, from the start the Met trips over itself in rushing for grandeur. The facade, keystone to Lincoln Center's plaza, is immediately striking with its five soaring bays. But working with all their pastel might against the uplifting effect of stone and glass are two Chagall murals placed behind the tall windows. If you pasted the Last Judgment on the front of the Parthenon, it wouldn't do either one any good.
Inside, acres of red velvet, a grand staircase, and sheer size combine to give you the impression that you are in an opera house. But blocks of shiny white marble, pounds of gilt, and too many twinkling crystal chandeliers try to convince you that you are in New York's newest and biggest apartment building lobby.
Under a narrow ceiling and then suddenly into the auditorium. But Midas has been there first. The boxes, the ceiling, the proscenium arch, the curtain, and the fifth violinist's teeth are gold. So is a sculpture above the stage that looks like a cubist's idea of a squatting giraffe. In the old Met, the gold was dark, worked and decorated; here it is plain and so bright it hurts the eyes. Little diamond mustaches are affixed to the boxes. And there are more star-shaped chandeliers. Clearly, someone got up one morning out of his Procrustean bed with the idea of shaping the place like the old Met, but clothing it to look like a new Met.
Once the house has darkened, the Met improves infinitely.. I saw the new production of La Gioconda, in which designer Beni Montresor put San Marco Square on the stage with no trouble at all. The huge, deep stage also did justice to three other magnificent sets. What is more, the sets were built backstage and can be stored there. Several productions can be assembled in advance, and one scene can be slid forward onto the stage as another is hauled off to the side. (I assume that the interminable intermission waits at La Gioconda were due to the fact that the turntable had been broken the previous week, when the director of Antony and Cleopatra, Franco Zefferelli, loaded it with five times the weight it was designed to hold.) There are hardly any partial view seats in the new Met and the standees have padded arm rests.
As for the acoustics, both orchestra and singers sounded incredibly clear and uncannily near. A far cry, as they say, from Lincoln Center's State Theatre, where people sixteen rows back in the Orchestra shouted "Louder!" at Paul Schofield in King Lear. Cornell MacNeil stole the show in La Gioconda, and his duet with Franco Corelli brought down the house. Neither Renata Tebaldi nor Cesare Siepi were quite as brilliant, but the singing all around was fine. The Met is an avowed showcase for stars, and it was the stars who put over this museum piece.
The orchestra, under Fausto Cleva, played well; everything, from harp glissandos to threatening bass growls, was audible. Even the claque sounded good from the back of the house. (The choreography for the "Dance of the Hours" was not quite up to Folies-Bergere standards, but who had come to see pirouettes?)
With so perfect a stage, it is pointless to lament that the rest of the Met is slightly tacky. It would probably take the management twenty years to amass the funds and courage to make significant changes. The new generation that arises by that time will forgive the new Met as being quaint, just as we forgave the old Met for its idiosyncrasies.
It is equally senseless to try to find the culprits for the Met's failings. Perhaps one is architect Wallace K. Harrison. Perhaps a gaggle of interior decorators are to blame. Or maybe we should accuse the board of bankers, who have a tendency to raise thousands of dollars and then spoil everything by adding their own two cents.
Although the artistic traditions of this country are scattered and few, the Met has a solid and colorful background. There are convincing signs, from the exorbitant price of boxes in the new house to the art gallery of Met immortals downstairs, that the Met will forsake very little of its great tradition.