At its grand reopening Monday after a massive $56 million renovation, Philadelphia’s 110-year-old Metropolitan Opera House looked handsome and revitalized, like an aged beauty that’s been refreshed. The same could be said of Bob Dylan, an ideal choice to reopen the opulent and rejuvenated 3,400-seat hall.
Monday was about two things: marveling at what had become of the Met Philly, and investigating the twists and turns of Bob Dylan’s most recent set list. Where the Met was concerned, the space looked opulent and polished with new plush purple seats, and a fresh coat of gold and rose accents, all without losing the raw, ruinous look of an aged theater space. You could revel in its 110 years, yet, for all of the space’s new accoutrements and theatrical elements, the Met did not look overdone.
And the master of ceremonies? There might have been some wariness among those who’ve heard some of the criticism lobbed at the Nobel-winning songwriter over the years on his “Never Ending Tour” for daring to sing Sinatra standards, or singing his own songs with scorched earth vocals that can feel like a deeply burrowed mix of mumbling and up-talking. Yet it was clear that Dylan was up to the theatricality required for the Met’s opening evening.
Ol’ Blue Eyes was back on the back burner: Songs that have been relative rarities in his sets prior to 2018 like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” figured in, alongside the crowd-pleasing familiarity of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Beyond the set list, it was the aggressive maintenance of those songs — and the band’s artful, bold arrangements, which touched liberally on surf-rock and rockabilly — that emboldened Dylan’s night in Philly.
Backlit by vintage Hollywood 5K studio lights, Dylan and his ensemble (including longtime bassist Tony Garnier and guitarist Charlie Sexton, who found his inner Barney Kessel that night) looked beatific and shadowy. And that noir-ish quality was an apt match for their moody melodies.
Standing and playing piano throughout the evening, with exquisite, melodic harmonica breaks on “Masterpiece” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” Dylan embraced each song with what seemed like fresh eyes and ears. Though the slow, melancholy likes of “Fate,” with its yawning county vibe, and a soulfully cosmopolitan “Make You Feel My Love” were the emotive highlights of the evening, it was the fast, swinging tracks that lifted Dylan and his band off their heels.
While their usual opening number, “Things Have Changed,” became a cha-cha rocker with deep pulsing tom toms, its loose-limbed follow up, “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” bucked like an agitated thoroughbred through its jazzy new melody. From there, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Cry for Me” became driving roadhouse blues cuts with an open feel and ample room for Dylan’s voice to run its weird scales. “Early Roman Kings,” with its Bo Diddley-like pulse, also cut a dashing figure.
Dylan was in good voice at the Met, maybe the best this critic has witnessed from him since the ’90s. After the harmonica solo of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the raspy but fluid vocalist brought his epic to an emotional close, just as he did on an impassioned, honky tonk-ing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” where his surprising high notes sounded sorrowful rather than bitter as on his album version. Even the night’s closer, a lilting “Blowin’ in the Wind,” expressed regret at the answers found, with a vocal both ponderous and pointed.
The real thrill of the night, though, was Dylan and Charlie Sexton’s surf-rock reinvention of “Honest With Me,” “Gotta Serve Somebody” and a particularly brusque and rousing “Thunder on the Mountain.” While Sexton added cool jazz licks to taut rhythms that would have made Barney Kessel green with envy, the rest of the band ran the gamut of instrumental inspiration, from “Wipe Out” to “Pipeline,” as Dylan chewed up the proverbial scenery with his craggy but forceful vocals. He even dared to re-think his own songwriting on “Gotta Serve Somebody” with this update: “You may be on painkillers, you may be medicated / You may be simple minded.”
There’s nothing remotely simple about the reexplored grandiosity of the Met itself. At a time when the left coast is entranced by the futuristic possibilities of billionaire James Dolan’s MSG Sphere in Vegas, the more awesome realities of the present and the palatial past were made clear Monday on the right coast.
Local developer Eric Blumenfeld, who co-owns the opera house with the Holy Ghost Headquarters Church (there will be Sunday and holiday services at the Met), went into partnership with Live Nation for the $56 million re-do, capitalizing on the original vision of legendary opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein.
After its early decades, changing interests found the Met used for boxing matches and staged theatricals (both of which are promised for the new Met, the latter via Tyler Perry’s “Medea” retirement shows in 2019). The Church of the Holy Ghost starting having services there, in smaller rooms within the Met. By the ’90s, the space had fallen into disrepair, despite being certified by the Philadelphia Historic Commission.
Enter Blumenfeld, a Philadelphia developer who, for the last 15 years, has been obsessed with the blighted properties and underused North Broad Street corridor on which the Met stands. “Nobody believed me that anything here could work,” he said. That is, until a handful of properties that Blumenfeld developed did pay off.
“This is a world-class opera house we have made come alive,” said promoter/booking boss Geoff Gordon. In December, the new Met welcomes “Last Week Tonight’s” John Oliver, R&B giants such as PnB Rock and John Legend (doing a Christmas show Tuesday), and Philly-born alternative sensations Kurt Vile and Ween. Additional performances for the Met Philly’s 2019 run include a night featuring “Dancing with the Stars” choreographer Derek Hough, vocalist Sarah Brightman, ambient groove merchants Massive Attack, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, hometown hip-hop hero Meek Mill, Mariah Carey and the pairing of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
As Dylan sang “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” it was clear that, 110 years ago, the theater’s guiding force, Oscar Hammerstein, had painted his.