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Critic's Notebook: It's time to cut Slatkin some slack

April 8, 2010 |  1:30 pm

Slatkin Seven years ago, Plácido Domingo took over the last couple of performances of a new Los Angeles Opera production of “The Damnation of Faust” from then-music director Kent Nagano. Domingo had sung the title role of Berlioz’s opera/oratorio, but he had never conducted it. So he figured this would be a good opportunity to familiarize himself with a very tricky score as well as with the work of the stage director, Achim Freyer. No one expected Domingo to match Nagano’s refinement or sensitivity to the French style, but Domingo had the good will of the cast and orchestra, who naturally wanted their boss to look good. He did.

Leonard Slatkin reportedly did not look so good last week when he conducted his first (and thus far only) performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera. The accusation heard far and wide is that Slatkin did not know the score. He clearly didn’t. I’m not talking about Verdi’s score.

Slatkin blogged about the rehearsal process and that is where the trouble began. Candidly, the conductor mentioned that he thought working with a company that had performed this opera hundreds of times and with a seasoned cast that included soprano Angela Gheorghiu as the consumptive courtesan Violetta, he might pick up a pointer or two on the “Traviata” tradition, just as Domingo had wanted to reap the benefit of L.A. Opera’s Berlioz experience. Slatkin also hoped he might bring a fresh perspective to the table.

Many commentators have said that Slatkin’s mistake was accepting this engagement. He was originally hired to conduct John Corigliano’s 1991 opera, “The Ghosts of Versailles,” which was replaced by “Traviata” in a cost-cutting measure. No one at the Met is, of course, talking. But when the opera police finally send a detective to lock down the house until someone breaks, the first question to ask would be whether Slatkin’s arm was twisted by management. Was he under contract and thus pressured to continue, lest the Met have to pay him off?

The old, overstuffed Franco Zeffirelli production was trotted out for the last time and the Met went into opera factory mode, which meant very few rehearsals. The backstage gossip is that Slatkin arrived unprepared. But unprepared for what?

There may be plenty of room for interpretive subtlety, but technically “Traviata,” with its pages of oom-pah-pah accompaniments, is not terribly difficult to conduct. Certainly Slatkin, who has been a professional conductor for four decades, knew how the music went. And after a couple of weeks of rehearsals, he was hardly conducting unfamiliar music opening night.

This is a conductor who, after all, I once heard pull off a concert performance in London of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an opera of tremendous rhythmic difficulty, with minimal rehearsal. Slatkin does not have a reputation for always being a detail man at rehearsals, but it is inconceivable that “Traviata” got away from him.

What did get away from him was his soprano. In the midst of rehearsals, the Met asked Gheorghiu to substitute for an ailing Anna Netrebko in “La Bohème,” and so Gheorghiu pulled out of the first critical “Traviata” run-through with orchestra. 

Monday, the Italian conductor, Marco Armiliato, who took over from Slatkin (he withdrew from the “Traviata” for “personal reasons”), told Bloomberg.com that Gheorghiu is “a diva and she prefers the conductor to follow her lead. She knows exactly what she wants, and 99 percent of the time she’s right.”

There is, of course, no such thing in music as being 99% right. This is hardly a singer who wanted to re-examine a role, let alone experiment with a conductor with a fresh perspective.

I have no doubt that Slatkin’s “Traviata” performance went as badly as my colleagues reported (illness forced baritone Thomas Hampson to miss rehearsals and Slatkin had minimal time with the orchestra and chorus). But the fact is the company could make him look good or bad. The rumors that Gheorghiu wanted Slatkin replaced by a slavish maestro who let her eat the scenery is not hard to believe, nor that the Met would scapegoat a conductor for the sake of a star who sells far more seats than does Slatkin.

Still, it doesn’t have to be that way. Esa-Pekka Salonen once told me that when he conducted Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” for the first time in the opera house, he had a discussion with his soprano, Waltraud Meier, a noted Isolde. She told him that in certain passages, she did this, this and this. Everything else was negotiable. Hers, that night in Paris five years ago, was the finest Isolde I had ever encountered on stage.

Slatkin never had that, or any, discussion with Gheorghiu. But then I don’t imagine that the no-nonsense Meier came to Salonen’s dressing room after the performance and cooed a lullaby to him, as the accommodating Armiliato proudly told Bloomberg his Violetta did Saturday night.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Leonard Slatkin conducting at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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