Crocodile Rocks the Met * Chère Isabelle * Sheriff Sharif

The Metropolitan Opera opens on Monday for its 2003-2004 season, and that most glamorous evening should excite every music lover for miles around — even those who don’t know a basso from a mezzo or a libretto from a hole in the ground and simply care about beautiful sounds from the stage. The opening is always an exciting night to remember in New York, culturally, socially and fashionably, and this one is slated to be especially so because the brilliant and beautiful soprano Renée Fleming will be singing Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” for the first time at the Met and Ramon Vargas will perform “Alfredo,” also for the first time there.

This story first appeared in the September 26, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

This production will be an especially dazzling one because it was created and designed by the one and only Franco Zeffirelli, who, when it comes to gorgeousness and panoply on stage, bows to no one and doesn’t need to, despite the usual carping from critics who believe his scenery outshines the stars who have appeared in his numerous productions. Nonsense.

More than 600 guests in black tie will pay $2,500 each for the ultimate ticket, which includes cocktails, the performance and a sumptuous dinner for the cast prepared by Glorious Foods and served on the Grand Tier of the Opera House. But if the music is enough food for your soul, tickets can be bought for as little as $75. Bill Tansey will do his best to make the Grand Tier look festive, decorating the tables with tall vases filled with philodendron leaves and surrounded by white lisianthus and arrangements of white calla lilies, roses and amaryllis on white organza tablecloths embroidered with black dots.

For the third consecutive year, Deutsche Bank will underwrite the opening night gala and the bank’s chairman, Josef Ackermann, and his charming wife, Pirko, will be there to celebrate. The performance itself will be underwritten by the William T. Morris Foundation.

Oh, and guess who will be there in person: Sir Elton John, who will escort Renée Fleming during the evening. Elton at the Met! Don’t you love it? Oh, and also gracing the audience from a center box will be the Hon. and Mrs. Rudolph Giuliani, Rudy being maybe one of the top music lovers of all time.

Also expected to brighten the boxes are Cecile and Ezra Zilkha (she is the Met’s vice chairman), Mercedes and Sid Bass, Lynn Wyatt, Lord and Lady Black, Jayne Wrightsman, Annette and Oscar de la Renta, John Whitehead, Jean Vanderbilt, Louise and Henry Grunwald, Nancy and Henry Kissinger, the Hon. Lee Annenberg and Lord Jacob Rothschild in from London, where he is known by those who love him as Mr. Culture for the obvious reasons. Oh my!

The French film star Isabelle Huppert, considered an icon of that nation’s cinema, will be the guest of honor on Nov. 5 when the French Institute Alliance Française celebrates its Trophee des Arts gala at the Hotel Pierre. La Belle Isabelle, described as “a highly talented chameleon-like thespian,” will also be honored in 2005 at the Museum of Modern Art with a major film retrospective.

The most eagerly awaited book in years has to be the memoir “Enduring Love,” written by Farah Pahlavi, the exquisite former empress of Iran, known as the Shahbanou. It’s the story of her life from childhood to the present and hardly a more tumultuous life has ever been lived — from glorious heights at the Peacock Palace as the wife of the Shah through the revolution to her present life in Paris and Washington. The book will be published in the middle of October in French and in February 2004 in English by Miramax. Farah is one of the great women of the century.

It’s a poignant time for Gwyneth Paltrow, who will celebrate her 31st birthday Sunday. Oct. 3 is the first anniversary of the death of her father, Bruce Paltrow; her latest film, “Sylvia,” in which she stars as the doomed poet Sylvia Plath, opens in London on Oct. 16, and the end of October marks the first anniversary of the meeting of her lover, rocker Chris Martin. He has turned out to be understanding of her fame and has been quoted as remarking, “When you have a high-profile girlfriend, people forget she’s really like, well, like everyone, a person with parents and worries, you know what I mean? The initial thing of fame is short-lived — it doesn’t really mean anything.” That’s easy for him to say.

Cornered on his recent trip to New York, Chris also said, “I am not engaged. We’re not getting married.” Gwyneth, who’s more used to being cornered than Chris, just smiled and kept moving when she was asked about her wedding plans. So far it’s a blissful story, and lets just hope Gwyneth gets the “happily ever after” she deserves.

Omar Sharif is happy that his one-month jail sentence for head-butting a policeman in a gambling club in a Paris suburb was suspended. The 71-year-old star, a heartthrob in “Dr. Zhivago,” had a double fit when he lost $30,000 at the casino’s roulette table, then turned around and hit a policeman who was standing behind him. Of course he was banned from the establishment, but he pooh-poohs the whole incident, saying that he hardly touched the policeman. “I have become a hero in France,” he says. “Everyone loves someone who head-butts a cop.” Mon Dieu.

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