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The purpose of this page is to set out my impressions of the current season at the Metropolitan Opera as well as of recordings I have listened to over the last year or two and to welcome comments from others.
HOW THIS WILL WORK:
I will share my impressions and provide links to recordings. I will also try to follow particular performers who have appeared in different roles over the current season. I will make the rest up as I go along.
2008 - 2009 SEASON
This month's performance of Adriana Lecouvreur -->impressed me as having the least comprehensible plot of any opera that I have ever encountered. Even with the synopsis, translation and actually watching the action, I could make no sense out of what was going on. Francesco Cilea was the composer and I had never heard of him before and certainly know of no other work of his. This was the first time I had heard Placido Domingo in person. Though on the tail end of his career, he was still quite good and was duly appreciated by the audience. It was quite obvious to me that Domingo is on a higher level than most other opera singers. There is a certain quality about him that also existed with Pavarotti that tells the listener that he exists on a different plane. I have seen Maria Guleghina previously. I have a vague recollection that she was good, but my confusion over the action dulls my powers of recollection. I really do like the music, but now that I know the story is nonsensical, I am left with the impression of the music as just one level devoid of underlying passion, thought or meaning. Glad I saw Domingo, but otherwise, it was a disappointment.
The performance this month of Eugene Onegin -->by Tchaikovsky was much more to my liking. I had really been looking forward to seeing this opera in person since I first encountered the opera on DVD and CD over the last year. I had seen Queen of Spades another Tchaikovsky opera earlier this year and had seen Rene Fleming's performance at the Met on DVD. This current performance had Karita Mattila singing the lead soprano role of Tatiana. She was really impressive in the role as many people in the audience were saying to one another. Interestingly, she had the soprano lead in Salome earlier this year which was an entirely different kind of role. Salome required her to appear naked for about 4 seconds in her role as a mega blasphemer. In Onegin she was at the opposite end of the spectrum as a woman who places her wifely obligations over embarking upon an illicit romance with Onegin. Tchaikovsky uses the music to slowly build the dramatic tension over the course of the opera as Tatiana first offers her love as a young girl to Onegin only to be rejected, then moves on into society while Onegin roams around the world beset with guilt over having killed his best friend in a duel, and then finally returns the favor by rejecting Onegin even though both admit their love for one another. The role of Eugene Onegin was song by Thomas Hampson who was also quite good and really looked the part. Apparently Matilla is someone in the process of making her mark at the Met.
Verdi's Rigoletto -->is one of his more well known operas which includes the aria "La donna e mobile" by which the Duke sings about the fickleness of women. The irony here is of course that the Duke should be the last one to complain given his rapacious pursuit of a variety of young innocents. Among these is Gilda the daughter of the hunchback Rigoletto. There are so many interesting aspects of the plot most of which involve the character of Rigoletto. A good question here is whether what we see played out is an issue of Rigoletto's character or his job as the court jester - the local Don Rickles, who spares no one however unfortunate from his unrestrained barbs. In the end, Rigoletto suffers from what he has himself put in motion on many levels. Gilda's innocence does her in. The Duke seems to get away scott free. As Mel Brooks once said, "It's good to be king." Seeing this year's performance for me was strongly influenced by having seen Anna Netrebko sing the role of Gilda last year. Nothing they could do this year would have topped that. My impression of this year's performance is that it seemed to lack passion. Notwithstanding that, I still picked up the unfortunate nature of Rigoletto and the sad turn of events. My recording of this opera is the Sutherland-Pavarotti recording. I invariably opt for the Sutherland-Pavarotti version of an opera if there is one.
Orfeo et Euridice
The night after Rigoletto, I saw Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice. The experience was totally different. The performance of Orfeo was totally spellbinding. First the staging was quite imaginative. I was expecting some traditional, more classical kind of staging. Instead, it was simple, but innovative. There was a multistory scaffolding structure which moved to different locations and configurations based on the scene of the opera. It was filled with the larger chorus members - maybe a hundred people. It represented all of those other inhabitants of the Underworld - in a classical, Greek sense, not a Christian sense. The top floor was composed of people, each of whom was dressed up as obviously famous people. There was Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin, Einstein, Princess Diana and a whole raft of kings, queens, dukes, indian chiefs, etc. For the descent into the Underworld, there was a Disneyland-type mountain with a stairway and some lights along the way.
OK, now to the cast. The opera is essentially a tour de force for the role of Orpheo who occupies the stage and is singing throughout the entire opera. This role though the husband of Euridice is a Soprano role and was sung by Stephanie Blythe. Now, truth be told, Ms. Blythe is not what you would call a beautiful looking person and even less so when portraying a man. However, her voice was simply awesome. She carried the role magnificently and was as I have said - spellbinding. I quickly run out of superlative adjectives to describe her performance. The role of Euridice was sung by Danielle de Niese who did look the part of the gorgeous - albeit dead bride. She also sung quite admirably. The combination of the two of them made for a highly passionate and impressive performance. Interestingly, in this version by Gluck Euridice does not get permanently thrown back into the Underworld when Orpheo looks at her. She gets a last minute reprieve and is allowed to emerge from the Underworld, again alive. I love those happy endings!
The mournful, murmurings of the cellos create an ominous mood driving the beginning of Verdi's Il Travatore. The amazing cast at last night's performance at the Metropolitan Opera took us on an impressive journey through this tale of brotherly love and hate and the competition for the love of Leonora. The plot is a challenging one to follow, but the music is Verdi at his bel canto best and flows from one gorgeous aria to the next. Sondra Radvanovsky sang the role of Leonora. Her nuanced, lyrical performance was spellbinding as she moved through the exhilarating music that Verdi wrote for that role. Dolora Zajick was the gypsy mother of Manrico. She, too, lit up this role with power. Marcelo Alvarez sang the tenor role of Manrico. There is a Pavarotti-like resonance to his voice. And, the well-known Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang the baritone role of the Count di Luna. I had been looking forward to hearing him in this role. His powerful baritone voice complemented the other voices in the various duets, trios and quartets. He gave a marvelous performance in the DVD recording of Eugene Onegin with Renee Fleming. Prolonged applause and multiple bravos greeted every aria along the way and went on for some time at the end of the performance. The word among veteran opera goers in my section of the hall was that this was an amazing cast to have been assembled for this opera. Certainly, that was my opinion by the end of the evening.
Writing about an opera performance several months after the fact is not the easiest thing to do. However, since the Met season started several months before I started my blogging career, I have no choice. I will do my best to capture at least some aspect of the fall performances as this page goes on. I attended the performance of La Boheme in December. The most significant thing about the performance was that the role of Mimi was scheduled to be sung by Anna Netrebko. This was my motivation in getting tickets for an opera that I love buthave also seen numerous times. In fact, I saw it at the Met within the last year or two. Alas, as I found out about a month prior to the performance, Netrebko was out having a baby. I Googled her replacement, Maija Kovalevska, and found a little information and no recordings. In the end, I could not resist another visit with La Boheme and the adventure of seeing a recent arrival on the opera stage with the hope that it might prove to be one of those surprise revelatory moments.
My recollection is that Kovalevska did a decent job. I can't recall being disappointed and it was a generally pleasant evening. An opera critic who I met while having coffee at Zabars said he thinks very highly of Kovalevska and that he even prefers her to Netrebko. I certainly don't share that perspective. The performance also left me with this major sense of deja vu. The set was the same as last time. Paul Plishka was again called in to sing Benoit and Alcindoro. In this performance Ramon Vargas sang Rodolfo and Susanna Phillips sang Musetta. I ask myself, can I see this opera every year and not get bored or tired of it. I guess I am looking for something new and different - a new staging or an exciting combination of performers. So, while I continue to enjoy listening to the music, I think I should give it a rest for a while at least at the Met. I like the Pavarotti-Freni recording. In fact, my very first opera was La Boheme at the old Met sung by Freni. So, there is a big of nostalgia there as well.
While I am sharing impressions of opera performances that I can't easily recall, I will deal with the October performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni. I was really excited about seeing this opera. I had seen a very modernistic version in the past and was really curious about how the staging would be done especially with regard to the talking statute on the Commendatore's grave and with Don Giovanni being consumed by flames. I recall the opera as being well staged and more traditional. However, it seemed like Don Giovanni in the end just fell through a trap door on the stage. The music in this opera has grown on me over the years.
An opera that does stick in my mind even though I saw it in October was the performance of Salome by Richard Strauss. This is an opera that is hard to forget. It was controversial when it first appeared and continues to have shock value even now. The opera was staged in a very contemporary and exciting manner with a main scene filled with glass and light. The glass allows for greater perspective on the ongoing action. Karita Mattila sang the part of Salome. She was convincing as the lascivious and to my mind somewhat deranged Salome. In the last scene, Salome dances seductively for Herod, removing her clothes at the end. Her reward for this dance based on the promise by Herod is the head of Jochanaan, the holy man who has been imprisoned and who has steadfastly refused the advances of Salome. She kisses the lips of the detached head in fulfillment of her opera-long obsession and seems to instantaneously regret either her ill deed or the fact that she only got the head and not the man. Matilla as Salome dies at the end but not before giving an impressive performance.
On New Year's Eve, the Met featured a performance of Puccini's La Rondine with the husband and wife team of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberta Alagna in the main roles. Samuel Ramey also appeared in the opera. I have been a fan of Ms. Gheorghiu since I first saw her as Liu in Turandot a number of years ago at the Met and was totally awed by her performance. This performance of La Rondine offered the prospect of seeing both together.
The setting seemed to be a la roaring twenties. Both Gheorghiu singing Madga and Alagna singing Ruggero seemed to be in the background during the early part of the opera. They become more central as the opera, the plot and their romantic relationship progresses. The chemistry between them especially during their love scenes was quite noticeable and supplied an added dimension to the performance.
The opera ends at a hotel on the Riviera as does the relationship between Magda and Ruggero. Magda chooses to go back as mistress to her previous Banker lover rather than bringing what she sees as her "contaminated" self into a marriage with the the still naive, Ruggero who is still looking for an idyllic life with her back on the family's farm in the country. I don't recall that the role of Magda is a tour de force in soprano roles. However, it was a pleasure to see this performance.
As I write this, I am aware of the theme of virtuousness or lack thereof in the last several of these operas. Mimi and Rodolfo in La Boheme always tried to do the right thing by each other. Virtue is overt and never questioned. Don Giovanni is a seducer and murderer without any vestige of remorse or repentance. In terms of evil, he is the opposite of Mimi and Rodolfo. There is also no internal struggle on his part. The struggle is in the external world where he is swallowed up likely by the fires of Hell. Salome is Don Giovanni's equal or superior in terms of evil. Since Jochanaan may be intended to be John the Baptist, Salome's lack of virtue may extend to greater dimensions. There is a also a total lack of internal struggle on her part. The struggle is external in that Herod opposes granting her the promised wish and in the end kills her for her actions.
In La Rondine, Magda outwardly reflects her internal struggle prompted by her love for Ruggero and the feeling that the truth about her would disappoint the virtuous Ruggero and his mother's wishes for them as a couple. From a contemporary outside view, her struggle is not between virtue and lack of virtue. But in her own mind and in the context of the mores of the time, she sees herself as lacking virtue because of her prior sugar daddy relationship with her Banker lover and as a result consigns herself to her previous existence of "sin." She recognizes that she is living either a lie, a false existence or living in an idealized romance with Ruggero. The irony here is that by overtly choosing to continue her prior "contaminated" life rather than subject Ruggero and his family to ultimate disappointment, she achieves a higher level of virtue.
I cannot help but make the non-musical connection to our contemporary world where many people in government and the financial world appear to be following in the footsteps of Don Giovanni or Salome seducing not their love interests but the general public or their investors with no sign of self-awareness, internal struggle or remorse. Justice or at least their just desserts must come from an external source and, thus far that does not appear to be the case. No one is being pursued by phantom figures from the Netherworld or being swallowed up by the fires of Hell. Maybe there are just too many of them. Who will write the opera for this libretto?
The Queen of Spades
The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky provides another opportunity to consider the issue of virtue or the lack thereof in human beings. The opera also provides a perspective on greed and obsession. The opera is based on a story by Alexander Pushkin. The setting is Russian society where Ghermann sung by Ben Heppner is in love with Lisa sung by Maria Guleghina. Ghermann has an obsession with gambling which at this point consists of watching his friends play all night though he never plays himself. Ghermann learns a story about Lisa's grandmother the old Countess who is said to know the secret of "the three cards" which if known could lead to great riches. He becomes obsessed by the need to learn this secret. Through Lisa, he gains access to the Countess's chambers where he accosts her and demands to know the secret. When he threatens her with a pistol, the Countess dies of fright. Later on, Ghermann is visited by the Countess' ghost who tells him that the three cards will be "three, seven and ace." Ghermann refuses the entreaties of Lisa to leave telling her that he is on his way to the gambling house to play these cards. Realizing she has lost him, Lisa drowns herself. Ghermann goes to play the cards, bets a huge amount of rubles and has success with the first two cards. Instead of an ace, the last card turns out to be the Queen of Spades. Imagining the Countess' face staring at him from the card, Ghermann stabs himself.
Those are the facts. What the facts do not convey is the increasing tension building up in the opera arising out of this obsession on the part of Ghermann. There is a struggle within him between the love for Lisa and the obsession to learn and reap the rewards of the secret of the three cards. The secret of the cards soon takes hold and prevails. The struggle is dramatized externally with the pull towards the relationship with Lisa and the conflicting pull towards the Countess and her secret. In truth, the only semblance of virtue in the drama is the commenting by the other characters on the strange behavior on the part of Ghermann. Ghermann appears sociopathic in his obsession. The casualties of his obsession do not seem to register on him. Lisa leaves her fiance for Ghermann and then persists with Ghermann even when knowing he is the cause of her grandmother's death. Any introspection on her part seems to be lacking.
From a contemporary viewpoint, this opera affords us an opportunity to think about sociopathic greed and the casualties that it causes. Even though as the audience we watch things unfold, we are still left not understanding why there is this obsession or what prompts the actions being taken. Maybe that is the point. We can watch, but we can't understand. Maybe one cannot understand the sociopathic mind.
We are joined in our observations by the other characters who comment: "Our Ghermann looks glum....He is under the spell of..the hope of discovering those three cards....He really is an odd fellow!...He is one of those men who will stick (sic) at nothing once his mind is made up. Poor devil! Poor devil!"
Lest we fall into the doldrums over the fate of humanity, we at least had enjoyable singing in this opera. There was certainly a fine cast: Ben Heppner, Maria Guleghina, Paul Plishka, Felcity Palmer. I was delighted to see the familiar head of hair up there at the conductor's podium in the personage of Seiji Ozawa formerly of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One could say that the opera was a little slow moving, but I tend to see it as Tchaikovsky's way of dramatizing this growing obsession as perhaps only a Russian author or composer could portray it.
Cavalleria Rusticana and Paglicacci
Roberto Alagna sang both of the lead tenor roles in this week's performances of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacciat the Met. These two one act operas which always seem to be paired together are by two different composers. Cavalleria Rusticana was composed by Pietra Mascagni, Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo.
Cavalleria Rusticana is the story of Turiddu, a man back from the war who finding Lola, his lady love now married to someone else seduces Santuzza and maintains a relationship with her. Apparently, the town did not take too highly to this unconventional relationshp because Santuzza has been excommunicated. Turiddu returns to the arms of his former love, Lola, much to the chagrin of his current paramour and of Lola's husband. The opera ends with a duel between Turiddu and Lola's husband in which Turiddu is killed.
I found the opera very slow moving as drama. This is partly due to the long orchestral introduction and long orchestral interludes as the opera continues. The words that are sung seem to be sparse and seem to describe more basic actions. I guess the phrase "soap opera" might apply here. There is none of the finely nuanced tension building that one finds in Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades." There are some lovely orchestra pieces and at least one or two really lovely arias or choral pieces. In my opinion, the real value of this opera derives from these few musical selections.
Pagliacci is the opposite of Cavalleria Rusticana. It is Shakespearean in its sophistication. It features a play within a play. There is an intermingling of the plot of the play which the traveling acting troupe presents with the events that occur in real life. There is a comment on both by the clown, Tonio, who steps out outside of the curtain before it opens. Pagliacci does a far better job in dramatizing passion that did Cavalleria Rusticana. Pagliacci dramatizes the passion of fear between Canio and his wife, Nedda; the romantic passion between Nedda and her lover, Silvio; and the passions of unrequited love and humiliation between Nedda and Tonio. The passion that ultimately results in Canio killing Nedda and Silvio is built throughout the opera. Given the opera's one act length, this is no mean achievement. The opera features the famous aria "Vesti la giubba" in which Canio bitterly reflects that he must play the clown while his heart is breaking. Alagna was superb in dramatizing all of the emotions of the jilted and revenging husband and in carrying the part. To my ears, he rendered an engaging vocal performance.
My own personal opera season ended with Saturday night's performance of Donezetti's L'Elisir D'Amore at the Metropolitan Opera. The last time I had seen this opera performed was with Pavarotti singing the lead tenor role also in a Met performance. This time around, the vocal leads were supposed to be Angela Gheorghiu as Adina and Rolando Villazon as Nemorino. Unfortunately, Mr. Villazon was indisposed and did not sing. His replacement was Dimitri Pittas who I had never heard of. Ms. Gheorghiu was her usual captivating self. Watching her expressive portrayal is half the fun. She seemed relaxed and exacting in her vocal performance. Mr. Pittas was also actually quite good and rendered a nuanced performance. During one aria which he sings alone at the front of the stage, you could hear the proverbial pin drop. At that moment, I felt pulled inside the character of Nemorino.
L'Elisir D'Amore is a humorous and very up-beat opera. It tells the tale of a love potion that Nemorino and Adina both need in order to realize that they are in love with each other. First, Nemorino pursues Adina and then Adina pursues Nemorino until they catch each other. I guess that is what a love potion is supposed to do.
Brahms German Requiem
OK, well it's not opera and it's not the winter opera season anymore, but last weekend, I did experience a performance of Brahms German Requiem at Tanglewood conducted by James Levine. The experience started for me while having lunch outside at a cafe in downtown Lenox. I saw Maestro Levine walk into the grocery store/deli across the street and emerge with various items. I doffed my Red Sox cap to him as he drove away. He waved in response. As for the performance, it is difficult for me to say anything less than glowing regarding the BSO. There was a great deal of power in the performance and one can see the Romantic in Brahms. It's interesting for me to compare the Brahms Requiem with the Mozart Requiem. The Brahms seems to move in waves that pick you up and carry you along till the current wave crests, there is a lull and then the next wave comes along, builds and crests. Mozart is more orderly. The power stays within the individual section of the Mass. Tanglewood has installed screens that provide close up views during the performance. It was interesting to see the individual members of the chorus articulating the words and to see various members caught up in the power of the Requiem. Maestro Levine, himself, exuded much of the same passion in his facial expressions. Unlike other conductors, e.g. Bernstein whose entire body reflects the emotion of the piece, Levine now conducts sitting down and his hand motions have a small, but powerful range. During the middle of the Requiem one could hear the thunder of storms moving across the Berkshire hills. That added another dimension to the performance.