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Elijah Moshinsky, favored Met Opera director, dies at 75
From left, Tamara Mumford as Dryade, Erin Morley as Echo and Anne-Carolyn Bird as Najade in Elijah Moshinsky’s production of "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Feb. 1, 2010. Moshinsky, an Australian theater, television and opera director known for his productions at the Royal Opera in London, Opera Australia and especially the Metropolitan Opera, died on Jan. 14, 2021, at a hospital in London. He was 75. Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Elijah Moshinsky, an Australian theater, television and opera director known for his productions at the Royal Opera in London, Opera Australia and especially the Metropolitan Opera, died Jan. 14 at a hospital in London. He was 75.

The cause was COVID-19, his family said.

The best Moshinsky productions combined traditional staging ideas with modern, striking, sometimes fanciful touches, as in his 1993 version of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” for the Met, which is slated for revival in the 2021-22 season.

That production reached the essence of Strauss’ opera, a delicate mix of grandeur and farce, providing “the thrill of beauty encased in irony, of sincerity at the end of self-consciousness,” Edward Rothstein of The New York Times wrote in a review.

Moshinsky’s version featured an exaggeratedly bustling depiction of backstage preparations for an entertainment at the home of a Viennese gentleman, as well as a trio of eerily gigantic nymphs, their colorful dresses falling to the ground.

“Ariadne” was one of nine productions Moshinsky presented at the Met from 1980 to 2001, making him “the closest thing the Met had to a house director,” Joseph Volpe, the company’s general manager for much of that period, wrote in his 2006 memoir, “The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera.”

Along with “Ariadne,” four are still in the Met’s active repertory, including a boldly stylized 1995 version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” that had a film-noir feel, and a bleak, eerily contemporary, almost expressionist 1996 staging of Janacek’s mysterious “The Makropulos Case.” Moshinsky’s last Met production was Verdi’s “Luisa Miller.”

Moshinsky’s Met career began inauspiciously with a roundly criticized production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” a clumsily updated and poorly executed production starring Luciano Pavarotti. He returned in 1986 for Handel’s oratorio “Samson,” starring tenor Jon Vickers in the title role, a stiff production that originated at the Royal Opera. But with that 1993 “Ariadne,” he announced himself anew.

In attempting to bring a contemporary edge to his productions, Moshinsky was sometimes criticized for forcing what seemed quasi-modern elements and stark monumentality onto an otherwise traditional staging.

His 1994 production of Verdi’s “Otello,” mounted for tenor Plácido Domingo, was full of grandly operatic spectacle, yet some felt it seemed heavy-handed. It was dominated by “soaring columns and towering facades” that “alternately embrace and smother a great opera,” critic Bernard Holland wrote in The Times.

When Moshinsky followed his instincts to keep things traditional, the results were often effective. Critic Peter Davis, in a review for Classical Music, called the director’s 2001 production of “Luisa Miller” the Met’s “most satisfying Verdi effort in years.” Working within a “sensible but atmospheric setting,” Davis wrote, Moshinsky directed his characters “with skill, flexibility, and a sure understanding of who these people are.”

He was also content, unlike some directors who come to opera from the world of theater, to work with singers who bring “outsized emotions” and “huge egos” onstage, as he put it in an interview with the BBC in 1993. Opera, he said, needed “people who can fill those emotional roles,” and part of his job was to engage with a performer’s temperament “to enable the best performance to occur.”

Elijah Moshinsky was born Jan. 8, 1946, in the French Concession in Shanghai, to which his Russian Jewish parents, Abraham and Eva (Krasavitsky) Moshinsky, had fled. He was the youngest of the couple’s three sons. Even though the family left Shanghai for Australia when Elijah was 5, he retained vivid memories of his early childhood, fortified by family stories and memorabilia, he said in the BBC interview.




Life was “strangely glamorous,” he recalled. “I have all these photographs of my parents sitting in nightclubs with large hats and eveningwear.” It was, he said, “a rather wonderful and unreal existence,” like scenes from the film “Empire of the Sun.”

He recalled the day his father took him to the balcony of the apartment where they lived. Gunfire sounded in the distance. “My father said that this is Mao entering Shanghai and you must remember it,” Moshinsky recounted.

In Australia, the family lived in a suburb of Melbourne. His father tried various entrepreneurial endeavors, including importing rubber flowers, but could never make a go at getting a business running, Moshinsky said. His mother mostly worked in the home.

As a teenager, Moshinsky liked photography, the flute and drawing, and had a bent for history. After graduating from the University of Melbourne, he won a scholarship to study the history of Russian liberalism at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, where philosopher Isaiah Berlin became a mentor.

Increasingly drawn to theater, Moshinsky directed a student production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” that happened to be seen by John Tooley, the general director of the Royal Opera in London, who invited the young man to be a production assistant at the house. He left Oxford without completing his studies.

In 1975, in a career-defining break, he was tapped to direct a revival of Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Britten’s “Peter Grimes.” The sets had deteriorated in a warehouse, and Moshinsky argued that for the cost of reconstructing them the company could present a new production.

His anti-picture-book concept, with a stark set, proved a more effective fit for the vocally powerful, dramatically volatile Vickers. The production (which can be seen on video) and Vickers’ performance, were triumphs and changed the general understanding of the opera.

The next year, Peter Hall, the director of the National Theater in London, invited Moshinsky to direct a production of Thomas Bernhard’s play “The Force of Habit,” which Moshinsky described in the BBC interview as a comedic parable in which a “group of circus performers try to play Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet but can’t.” The production was a dismal failure, running for just six performances.

But that same year Moshinsky found his footing with an acclaimed production of Berg’s “Wozzeck” for the Adelaide Festival, presented by the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia). Over subsequent years he directed more than 15 productions for the company, including “Boris Godunov,” “Werther” “Dialogues des Carmélites” and “Don Carlos.” At the Royal Opera, he presented notable productions of “Lohengrin,” “Tannhaüser” and “The Rake’s Progress,” as well as some Verdi rarities, including “Stiffelio” and “Attila.”

Moshinsky met Ruth Dyttman during a Melbourne Youth Theater production of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” in 1967. He did the set designs; she was in the cast. They married in 1970. Dyttman, a lawyer, survives him, along with their two sons, Benjamin and Jonathan, and his brothers, Sam and Nathan.

Moshinsky was an active theater director, working at the National Theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company and other institutions. He directed several productions for the BBC television series of Shakespeare’s plays, including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with a cast including Helen Mirren, Robert Lindsay and Nigel Davenport.

It was an enchanting production, John O’Connor wrote in a 1982 review for The Times, that “fully captures each major aspect of the play, from royal romp to witty comedy, from ominous rumblings in the forest to joyous celebrations.”

His production of William Nicholson’s play “Shadowlands” was presented on the West End before opening on Broadway in 1990.

Moshinsky spoke of how privileged he felt to work with courageous artists like Mirren, Vickers and Judi Dench, “who want to go for the truth,” in a 2019 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. “Often that is strange, uncomfortable and unfathomable,” he added, “but they do it.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company










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