Last spring, the Washington National Opera had one of its greatest triumphs: Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, tellingly directed by its artistic director, Francesca Zambello, and gorgeously conducted by its music director, Philippe Auguin. You’d think the company would want to build on a critical and public success. Instead, it’s effectively repudiated it. Having underutilized Auguin for years, among rumors that Zambello wanted him gone, the company announced on Wednesday that his current contract, which ends in 2018, will not be renewed.
“That kind of repertory is not really in our financial ranges right now,” Zambello said by phone on Wednesday, speaking of the “Ring” and “Salome,” two large-scale works at which Auguin has excelled. In other words: We’re not able to continue doing some of the things that we’ve done well. One wonders whether she also meant “Madame Butterfly,” the clear highlight of this past season, which Auguin conducted for 14 performances.
WNO’s budget has indeed been cause for concern — although the company is doing much better now than it was in 2011, when it nearly went bankrupt. And including new and American work is a laudable goal. But it’s not a road to financial success. This season it was the new American work, the one-two punch of “Dead Man Walking” and “Champion,” that is causing the company financial headaches because of underperforming at the box office.
Auguin is a complicated, talkative artist who takes up a lot of space in a room and whose teddy-bear demeanor is offset by a musically demanding approach on the podium that has not endeared him to every musician in the orchestra. He and Zambello are not a natural fit personally or artistically, and Zambello, having arrived with a mandate to restore some personality and artistic energy to a company that had become anodyne in the struggling years before the merger, could be imagined to want someone more in tune with her own program, or more compliant to her wishes. As music director, Auguin was responsible for the quality of the orchestra rather than for artistic planning; he has not been given much to do at the company, and it has long been rumored that he is on his way out.
But it’s a shame to jettison someone who has done such fine work and gotten the orchestra to sound so much better, and whose biggest collaboration with Zambello, the “Ring,” got such magnificent results. The company, Zambello said, needs someone who “can be here more” — a disingenuous way of framing the fact that Auguin wasn’t offered very much. Meanwhile, the roster of available suitable music directors who are actually resident in Washington is as short as the roster of people who might be willing to relocate here for the handful of performances a year that WNO puts on. (Zambello, interestingly, will not be on the search committee to replace Auguin — or so the company’s outgoing executive director, Michael Mael, said in a phone call on Friday afternoon.)
It’s not entirely fair to brand Auguin as simply a conductor of canonical great operas — this is someone, after all, who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2001 conducting Busoni’s “Doktor Faustus,” which is not a piece people tend to whistle in the shower. But Auguin does represent a link to an old-school European tradition of music directors, from which the Washington National Opera is making it clear it wants to move away. In making this move in this way, however, it not only leaves the company in a state of some flux — Mael is voluntarily stepping down as executive director on July 1, and the orchestra is in the middle of contract negotiations — but sends an explicit signal that it wants to turn away from a tradition that means a great deal to a good portion of its audiences.
WNO could have spent this season trumpeting the story of its successes in fusing new and old: Philip Glass’s “Appomattox” and the “Ring” cycle here in the 2015-2016 season were two of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in any opera house. And the “Ring” showed how powerful it can be when a strong new vision like Zambello’s is supported by old-school musical values like Auguin’s. Instead, the company floundered in 2016-2017, and a so-so season has been capped with the announcement of Auguin’s departure, a significant artistic loss. I am the first to say it’s important not to cling too tightly to tradition, but it remains unclear exactly what vision WNO, under Zambello, is offering to replace it.