Highlights of the Met's 2008-09 Season

By Raymond Beegle

Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera


Don Giovanni


Don Giovanni, which Kierkegaard says  “…takes the highest place among all classical works,”  written by Mozart, whom Kierkegaard says “…stands highest among the immortals”. was given an impressive performance by a brilliant cast this Saturday afternoon. In spite of the inevitable first night push and pull of tempos in the ensembles, and little effects going awry, such as Donna Elvira’s fan rolling upstage, and part of Leporello’s notorious catalogue sliding into the orchestra pit, there was much to evoke our respect and admiration.

This drama giocoso, more widely discussed than any other opera by thinkers not   primarily of the musical world, contains characters not as clearly drawn as the ones in Figaro or Zauberflöte.  They have been analyzed – and performed – in wide dramatic range, and Donna Elvira is perhaps the most enigmatic of them all. The legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf used to play the part sporting a red wig, in a comic almost histrionic manner, and Susan Graham followed suit here, eliciting laughter during some of her most sublime phrases. It was odd to hear Donna Anna and Don Ottavio remark, after her outburst in the first act quartet, “…what noble aspect, what sweet majesty!” Susan Graham is a very fine mezzo-soprano but in spite of her beautiful voice, solid technique and sense of style, she could not sustain the soprano tessitura as the evening progressed.  The tops, which of course need to float and bloom, tended to narrow and lose clarity. There was some near-perfect singing however in the balcony scene where she spun many beautiful pianissimo phrases and set the clowning aside.


Krassimira Stoyanova sang Or sai chi l’onore, perhaps the most difficult of all Mozart arias, carefully and creditably, but did not quite make her dramatic mark. The second act aria, Non mi dir, suited her voice and temperament better. Birgit Nilson of course sang the first aria superbly, but couldn’t negotiate the second act fioratura as graciously as Stoyanova. One wonders what kind of singers Mozart worked with, what kind of freak vocal accessories they possessed that prompted him to write such arias as these, or Come scoglio, or Ich baue ganz.  Perhaps no soprano, since the advent of recording at least, has been able to sing both Donna Anna’s arias to equal perfection.  Matthew Polenzani who made a great impression last season as David in Die Meistersinger, sang Ottavio’s two arias with remarkable ease and simplicity.  Although I preferred his tone as David to the brighter quality heard in Don Giovanni, the often colorless character of Ottavio was made vibrant through purely vocal means. With a minimum of physical gesture, he seemed to represent the unrealizable ideal, a powerless figure in the midst of all the fuss and flurry of the aristocracy and all the toss and tumble of the common folk.
Both Massetto and Zerlina were beautifully and nobly sung, reminiscent of the earlier portrayals of Marie McGlaughlin and Julian Robbins. Often one’s heart goes out to Mozart’s common folk more readily than to his aristocrats. Their music, reflecting something wholesome and truly generous of heart, generally over shadows the ostentatious show of the highly born.

Leporello is cast as a second romantic male roué in this production. Unlike the traditional basso buffos like Otto Edelmann or Fernando Corena, he appears as a peasant Adonis version, and even a rival of, the Don. Although Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s lustrous and stylish singing was first rate, this portrayal considerably upsets the fine balance of the opera’s serious/comic nature.  The Don himself Erwin Schrott, displayed remarkable control over his attractive voice, although he has a chronic tendency to slow tempos and sing entrances slightly behind the beat.  His many seductive passages were urbane and convincing, but he lacks the bravura necessary to give his role - and the entire work - its strong dramatic peaks.  For example, Fin ch’han dal vino was effortlessly sung but lacked the high pitched energy needed in this almost hysterical recitation of the Don’s credo.


As well, conductor Louis Langrée, who’s conducting was elegant and polished, did not sufficiently deliver the necessary dramatic high points. Speed seems to be his major dramatic tool. The molto presto in the overture was just a bit faster than the superlative orchestra could articulate. The allegro and subsequent piú stretto in the first act finale lost traction and consequently dramatic energy. As too much of the performance was too fast, and too much of the performance was too loud, allegro and forte lost their effects at the climaxes, eroding the emotional contours of the work. To be fair however, it should be said that being tucked under the balcony of that cavernous theater, one loses much of the acoustical range and the articulation of the orchestra.

The sets, basically massive dark inner or outer walls were rather oppressive. One longed for an open meadow and trees as a contrast in the third scene of act one designated in the program “open country.” Also the Hollywood touches of a shirtless Don, a trendy night club peasant dance, and Zerlina suggestively striding the battered Massetto during her charming  Vedrai carono, detracted from to the music, and trivialized the characters. The cast was so outstanding, and the singing so superb, however that these were minor distractions in a first class production.


Queen of Spades

have heard that of all languages, our own English language contains the greatest number of words.  Even so, the most complete dictionary has only a small garrison of adjectives to describe music. We can say a tone is beautiful, or sweet, or opulent, or plangent, etc., but it is uncomfortable, as reviews proliferate, for a writer to apply the same little tags to a host of formidable and very individual artists. One feels they deserve more. One word, however, is rarely used to describe a performance, and that word is “great.” I don’t think I have ever used it in this context before, but tonight’s performance of The Queen of Spades seemed just that. After encountering so many trendy, affected, and mannered singers touted as stars, it was a joy to hear artists of depth and vocal power taking risks and singing with sincerity and passion about all of those feelings and ultimate life questions that draw thoughtful people into the opera house.

Maria Guleghina has one of the most beautiful, most abundant soprano voices on stage today. It fills the cavernous hall, and carries a powerful emotional message. She is not an entertainer; she is an artist, and one of high stature. Her charm in the first act scene with her school friends, her subsequent portrayal of awakening love, her first duet with Gherman, and finally her despair and resignation in the last act aria, all made a sum total of ingenuousness and skill, delivered with beauty of tone and magnificent phrasing.  Hearing a performance such as this, one cannot help but wonder at the mysterious ability of music to sound the depths of the human heart.

Ben Happner’s most striking virtue is simplicity, and there seems to be no artifice in him as well. One believes his every word and gesture, and is deeply moved by the sense of vulnerability he conveys both as the character, and as the artist. Tchaikovsky’s compassion for the character of Gherman, (unshared by Pushkin), was underscored by these remarkable traits.


Felicity Palmer gave a brilliant portrayal of the old countess. She is a superb actress and sings with the control and accuracy of pitch that many fresh young artists might well envy and emulate.

Apparently reserved in temperament as a stage personality, Vladimir Stoyanov presented the perfect Prince Yeletsky, singing his rather formal, rather stilted, profession of love to Lisa with polished artistry and elegant phrasing.

Tomsky, an American from New Jersey seemed the prototypical aristocratic bon vivant, fearlessly displaying generously proportioned voice and an expert comic flare.

Ekaterina Semenchuk sang the parts of Pauline and Daphnis with grace and style. Her attractive well produced voice and accuracy of pitch made her duet with Lisa, and later, during the pastoral, with Chloë a special delight. Although her aria, podrugii mihlihya seems simple enough, it is one of the most treacherous in the repertoire and was sung exquisitely.

                                                          Queen of Spades, Act II

                                                          Queen of Spades, Act II

                                                               Queen of Spades, Act III

                                                               Queen of Spades, Act III

Tchaikovsky, who uses the chorus as a counterpoise to the murky and sordid events of the story gave the Metropolitan Opera Chorus the opportunity to display its brilliant best. The opening ensemble of promenaders, the charming children’s march, the chorus of greeting to Empress Catherine, the drinking chorus in the last act, shone like stars.

Handsome imaginative sets supported, rather than upstaged the production. The monolithic granite walls used throughout evoked the suffocating winter atmosphere of Tsarist Petersburg, and skillful use of elegant columns, brilliantly lit chandeliers, and silhouettes of ice covered trees in the opening scene were employed to stunning effect.

Seiji Ozawa’s conducting was visionary, muscular, and graceful as he carried the audience and musicians through the dramatic landscape of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

To date, this was the season’s finest achievement. I must confess to having seen it four more times. It was opera at its deepest and best: truthful, beautiful, disturbing, and – indeed – great.


La Traviata

Conductor Paolo Carigiani made an impressive debut tonight, bringing muscular tempos and solid ensemble to support the flawless singing of Anja Harteros as she presented her first Violetta at the Metropolitan. Last year, when I heard her as the countess in Le Nozze di Figaro I knew that this was a superlative talent, and hoped to hear much more of her in the coming seasons. She has a profound sense of style, and one believes her. She is impeccable vocally and whatever the extremities: fortissimo, pianissimo, high, low, fioratura, slow sustained passages; she delivers them all with ravishing tone and dramatic commitment. Her stage gestures are economical, making subtler movements palpably more powerful, and her transformation from brilliant independent courtesan to faithful lover, just holding to a thread of life was beautifully developed without the least hint of artifice. There was no sense of her using music to glorify herself, but rather the using of her gifts to glorify the music.

It was unfortunate that the rest of the cast did not meet her standard. The handsome tenor Massimo Giordano has a fine voice and sings with style, but he seemed either vocally insecure because of his nervousness, or nervous because of his vocal insecurity and dampened the effect of the powerful first act duet which Harteros sang with astonishing brilliance.

Andrzej Dobber, the elder Germont was also rather constrained vocally and did not project the air of distinguished authority essential to the success of his initial confrontation with Violetta..

Zefferelli’s formidable and sumptuous sets often dwarf the singers, diminishing rather supporting them, but he makes his mark in the ballroom scene, where the immensity of the rooms, the lighting, the interaction of the party attendees, and, of course the inevitable torrent of confetti elicited the greatest ovation of the evening.


Tristan und Isolde

Daniel Barenboim reveres Wilhelm Furtwängler, as a host of people, including myself do. If anything has come close to that great conductor’s vision of Germanic music and Geist, it was the marvelous, oceanic phrasing and tone that came from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra this evening. From the fist note, one felt the cut of the moorings and the pull toward the final destination of the last chord.

It was a great pity that the two lead singers, making the musical voyage with Maestro Barenboim were sorely, embarrassingly inadequate. Neither Tristan nor Isolde begins to have the vocal dimensions for their roles. When singers try to sing louder than they can, two things generally happen. Either the sound grows husky and loses focus, or a slow oscillating wobble sets in. We had examples of both consequences, with Katarina Dalayman pushing her breathy middle register and shouting the top fortes as if they had nothing to do with the rest of her voice. The treacherous closing note of the Liebestodt, tired, flat, mispronounced seemed a sorry summation of all the vocal mistakes she made throughout evening.                        

Peter Seiffert maintained the luster of his attractive voice, but the wavering, amounting to almost a half step below the pitch and then up again, was lamentable.

As well, Michelle De Young didn’t have a voice of sufficient amplitude for Brangäne, at least in this theater, but she was wise enough to do as best she could with what she had, allowing one to adjust to her limitations and focus on the music.

Even the redoubtable René Pape did not bring his best to the performance. The usual supple flow of  sound was not always evident, and some of the higher notes lost clarity. Still King Mark is a role consummately suitable to him both vocally and dramatically, and the impression he made was powerful. .

We heard some solid, burly singing from Gerd Gorchowski, making his Metropolitan Opera debut as Kurwenal, and Stephen Gaertner gave us the most convincing and vocally satisfying performance of the evening as Melot.

The angular sets, standing in stark contrast to the undulating music, did not help to evoke the Cornwall sea or the waves of passion endlessly reflected in the score, and the palace of King Mark, which looks like a chimney from the Weimar Republic, with its little unfurnished box at its base is still, after many seasons, a mystery to me.

In spite of these immense drawbacks, the orchestra and conductor cast an irresistible spell and brought us the most profound orchestral performance of Tristan that has been heard here in many years.


La Damnation de Faust

e Russians have a proverb: “Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you say!” We might alter this a bit and say of La Damnation de Faust that sometimes the action spoke so loudly I couldn’t hear the music. It is puzzling, however, considering all the ingenuity displayed in the visual production, that producer Robert Lepage was not able, or willing to take into consideration the text. For example Faust sings about how beautiful the spring seems to him while we see no visual representation at all, but a small cubicle, one of many, looking like a modern prison block except for the fact that each cell is crammed with books. As well, on his wild ride to hell Faust exclaims “I see all around me an infinite line of dancing skeletons! They salute with horrible laughter as we pass!”  Lepage and set designer Carl Fillion show us no skeletons. Throughout the performance my mind was at a tug of war with itself between the sumptuous music - and no less sumptuous performance - and the dazzling visual effects that came with the regularity of a fireworks display finale.

When I closed my eyes during the Ronde des Paysans chorus the musical impression was dazzling, but lost much of its power when I opened them again. As my duties require me to review the whole event, I resolved to keep my eyes open, but go again, and with closed eyes, listen only to the music.

The work was perfectly cast. Marcello Giordano, ably conveyed the young and the old Faust both vocally and dramatically. Susan Graham was a disarming Marguerite, who’s impeccably controlled voice allowed her to create convincing impressions of an innocent girl, a possessed lover, and finally a broken repentant. John Relyea sang Devant la maison, a perfect foil for his voice, with a balance of aggressiveness and poise. His agile, cat-like movements mirrored the grace and ease of the vocal line, evoking a palpable sense that the demonic can be both alluring and hazardous. Perhaps  this aria was the highlight of the evening.                               

Maestro Levine is also perfectly cast as conductor of this extravagant, glittering, virtuosic work. I recall Pierre Bernac’s famous comparison of German and French genius.”…it is easier for performers to give themselves up to the sentimental outpourings of German music and poetry, than to re-create the subtle poetic climate, the intellectual refinement and the controlled profundity of French music and poetry.” Although I do not agree with Bernac’s allusion that German music has less intellectual refinement and controlled profundity, I see his view of French music underscored in Levine’s performance. He certainly does not display what Bruno Walter observed about Mahler’s conducting. “I suddenly realized the essential nature of opera. Mahler was not just conducting an orchestral accompaniment to an aria: he was with the character in spirit: he was the character; he was transporting both orchestra and singer into the heart of a deeply humiliated human.” One never gets such an impression from Levine, who seems to control from afar, a translator rather than a participant in the unfolding of this Legende Dramatique. Sometimes one suspects that his principal motive is to show off the virtuosity of the orchestra rather than the spirit of the music. For example, the famous R ákóczi March in the first act was certainly a stunning piece of technical display, but when one considers the marking Allegro marcato, it seemed to rush along so quickly that the necessarily strong rhythmic punctuation was glossed over, and the military spirit considerably diminished.

As is often the case, the greatest moments of the evening were delivered by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Especially memorable were Christ vient de ressusciter, the drinking song in Auerbach’s cellar and the closing Apotheose de Marguerite which made the theater ring like a great dark bell.      
Although this concert work was not adapted for the operatic stage until thirteen years after the composer’s death, one can’t deny its inherent visual potential. It was certainly realized in force tonight, and even taking into account some upstaging on the part of the director and set designer, the brilliant music of Hector Berlioz was given deserved honor.


Lucia di Lammermoor

Diana Damrau possesses a technique that allows her admirable musicianship, dramatic commitment, and depth of imagination free flight. Her only obstacle seemed to be Mary Zimmermann’s staging, which often runs counter to, and trivializes the character of Lucia. The heroine, as conceived by Walter Scott, Donizetti, and his librettist, Salvatore Commarano, is a fragile child of the nobility, still in her teens, and in the devastating thrall of two great passions: grief over her mother’s recent death, and the awakening of first love. She is consumed by them. The coloratura passages in “Quando rapita in estasi” which occur when neither melodic line nor words are sufficient to convey her rapture, reflect the overwhelming power that love has over her. They are not the light hearted, girlish giggles that Zimmermann makes them out to be. This is Lucia di Lammermoor, not Laurie in Oklahoma!, confiding to Aunt Eller that she’s met the cutest guy and she’s head over heels in love, and they’re goin’ to Oklahoma. The imposing Diana Damrau is required to pirouette around the stage, perform a kittenish balancing act on a ledge, and playfully poke her stern companion into a friskier mood. The “Shssh"’s by Alisa during the rests marked in the cadenza were in the lower regions of poor taste. This vaudevillian caper, evoking a ripple of titters from the audience, considerably diminished the dramatic significance of the entire scene. Nevertheless, Damrau, who did most of the acting with her voice, transcended these breeches of good sense. This was true as well in the mad scene where her phenomenal vocal feats, seemingly effortless, were employed in absolute service to the drama.

An equally auspicious performance was given by tenor Piotr Beczala, whose singing, and acting in the old manner brought much to bear in a role often overshadowed by his soprano counterpart. His is a wonderful, free voice, and he is capable of carrying the listener to the farthest dramatic limits of the music, while never trespassing into the histrionic.

It was difficult to see how the rather diminutive, slightly caricatured appearance of Lord Ashton could intimidate the much more substantial Lucia. One might say this in regard to voice as well. Vladimir Stoyanov makes a much finer impression as Prince Yeletsky in this season’s  Queen of Spades,, where his elegant reserve, something which seems intrinsic to his personality, served him well Although he is technically solid, he is not quite able to convince when threatening his sister or raging at Edgardo.

Ildbar Abdrazakov brought dignity and eloquence to the role of Raimondo, Lucia’s tutor. The bass has a wonderful presence on stage, and uses his beautiful dark voice with intelligence.

The sets, designed by Daniel Ostling, sometimes seemed crowded by heavy XIXth century papier-mâché bridges, fountains, and hills, but were at other times forceful and imaginative. Most impressive was the surrealistic stair case which Lucia descends in her madness, moving noiselessly and swiftly to become the centerpiece for the reception hall, behind which is seen the sinister heavens. It was used as well for Lucia’s exit, as she is carried away by three servants. Perhaps it was a little manipulative of them to move upward a few steps at a time, and pausing, thus lengthening the applause, but this was an extended ovation that was very well deserved.


Eugene Onegin
(Евгений Онегин)

Tchaikovsky once remarked that the greatest honor ever given him was in the form of tears shed by a gentleman seated by his side during a performance of the first string quartet. These were the tears of Leo Tolstoy. Ultimately, the critic we must all attend to is our own tear ducts, and mine had quite a busy evening at this exquisite performance of Eugene Onegin.        

One is constantly amazed at how the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra reflects the personality, and, for better or for worse, the skill, of the individual conductor, and tonight, from the opening phrase, one knew that something significant was taking place. The orchestra’s intonation was flawless, the entrances sharp, and the ensemble superb. The very profound maestro Bĕlohlávek favors broad tempos, allowing the swift undercurrent of inner voices a chance to be heard and support the flow of the melodic line – a broad river with swifter undercurrents. These tempos were used to great effect in the opening peasant chorus, for example which is usually taken at whirlwind speed although the score specifies moderato assai. It was exuberant, but not without traction, and had a ring of authenticity – that is –  the ring of an authentic folk song rather than a showy opera chorus. Also Triquet’s charming serenade blossomed by this means, allowing the horns before the refrain to be heard in all their brilliance, and the melodic line following to move with unhurried grace. The Mazurka, as well, rather a chestnut, was given great care, and moved more circumspectly than one often hears, but it is, after all a stately mazurka, and this pace, bringing  all the wonderful texture and orchestral coloring to come alive made one think ‘what a marvelous piece'.   Although this conductor knows how to broaden, he also knows how – and when - to move, as in the finale of the first scene of act II, “In your House!” and the end of the letter scene. The overall dramatic shape of the score was brought to wonderful life in this manner.

After hearing many performances for many years, one learns to minimize the use of the phrase that begins “I remember when I heard…” However in times to come I will be happy to say “I remember when I heard Beczala.” I will say it with the same enthusiasm as the phrase “I remember when I heard Gedda,” as the two are of the same caliber, sharing a golden timbre and flawless technique. There is a perfect proportion between, voice, head, and heart in this young artist. One believes him, and it seemed as if Lensky himself were on stage, and that, skillful and committed as they were, Mattila and Hampson were only pretending to be Tatiana and Onegin. The Russians can refer to an artist as “talantlihvihy,” “talented,” or “odaryonnihy,” which means, when literally translated, “gifted,” but the Russian word really expresses more than this, and implies a heavenly origin. This is the manner in which Beczala is gifted.

Although everyone delivered a strong performance, the rest of the cast was a little more of this world. Olga, a rather earth bound character to begin with, was sung to perfection by the charming Ukranian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk who, earlier this season had given excellent portrayals of Paulina in Queen of Spades. Her graceful movements were at one with her graceful phrasing, and the simple affection she showed Lenski was as clear as her naive expectation of an inevitably comfortable and happy life.

It is not as easy for a western European or an American to put his mind and heart around the Russian sensibility, which was essentially eastern until Peter the Great violently superimposed western culture upon it approximately a century before Pushkin’s hero was conceived. Thomas Hampson has admirably portrayed Simone Boccanegra, Wolfram, and Don Giovanni, but Onegin, whom Dostoyevsky called “one of the pilgrims of the Russian land,” does not yet seem to be his own. Hampson’s singing was controlled and elegant, but the overall impression was rather pastel and his beautiful voice comes uncomfortably close to crooning in many of the quieter passages. As well, dramatic zeniths seem somewhat beyond his reach vocally, and one is not convinced by the broad gestures or agitated movements in his final interview with Tatiana. 

Karita Mattila’s impressive voice is produced by a technical means that does not seem to align itself with any vocal school I have ever encountered.  She gives the impression of singing from the neck upwards and of being more of a popular entertainer than a prima donna in the mold of earlier Tatianas such as Freni and Vishneveskaya. There is a marked difference between her lower voice, her tentative, husky, middle voice, and the higher register which still rings at times with considerable beauty before approaching the final extremities. Her unsupported pianissimos tend to flutter in a note to note succession without creating a flowing line, and the series of forte A’s and the final B in the last scene, which  absolutely demand legitimate singing, were cried out and not really sung at all. In regard to style, one generally had the sense of being given a glossy Hollywood reading of the character. Stage director, Peter McClintock, did Mattila no favors when he required her to prance around an imaginary landscape strewing autumn leaves, and rolling downstage in her night shirt following the letter scene. It shattered the illusion of her being a mere teenager, and distracted one from the music, which needs no help from a stage director in displaying Tatiana’s great innocent passion. As well, McClintock is guilty of rewriting the score, something unthinkable for a musician, but open field for producer-directors. Tchaikovsky specifies that Tatiana is sitting on the ground when Onegin meets her to return her letter. Instead of this, Tatiana rises when hearing his approach, looks expectantly to stage left, and abruptly encounters him while retreating to stage right, weakening the sense of her shame and helplessness. It is only fair to say in regard to these negative words that I believe myself to be in a minority, as Mattila received resounding ovations from an enthusiastic audience.

Triquet sweet couplets, usually sung by a fading comprimario, were given to the noble voiced young tenor Tony Stevenson, who soared with the expansive tempo set by the conductor and made the aria a high point of the evening.

Michael Levine’s beautiful set and costume design was a strong ally to both music and musicians. Plain flats were used for the background, evoking the height and breadth of the Russian sky which hovers so conspicuously over the broad steppe. These flats were wonderfully lighted by Jean Kalman to create, along with the carefully researched costumes and furniture, the tone of Russian genre painters like Konstantin Savitsky and Repin.

The first performance of Eugene Onegin was a school production, where one often finds a freshness and ardor not always present on the professional stage. This was not the case tonight. One had the impression that everyone, conductor, musicians, producer, director gave his all and his best. Somewhere in Virginia Woolf’s diary she asks herself the question ‘what makes a work of art great?’ Her answer is a simple one: ‘When it leaves you with the impression of being added to.’ Both the work itself and the privileged artists that brought it to life gave such an impression.


Il Trovatore

st as Verdi had originally intended the title of Aida to be Amneris, one might argue that Azucena would be a justifiable name for Il Trovatore after hearing tonight’s performance. This was the singer, the character, and the drama that reached the greatest heights this evening due to the superlative performance of Dolores Zajick It might be said that the mezzo-soprano makes a more convincing gypsy Azucena than princess Amneris, but whatever she sings, she sings with absolute assurance and brilliant, trumpet-like sonority. Her large personality seemed to dwarf the theater and bring us very close indeed to the raw passion of this character whose conflicts as a mother as well as a daughter first tempted Verdi to create this work

Gianandrea Noseda, who bares many of the fine qualities of his earlier namesake Gianandrea Gavezenni, possesses the prerequisite for early and middle Verdi operas: an illusive admixture of blood and thunder with virtuoso elegance. Tempos were solid, the orchestra’s rhythmic texture was sharp and articulate, and the phrasing graceful. Even when some of the singers found themselves unable to produce quite enough sound or quite enough dramatic substance, both conductor and orchestra consistently supplied the wherewithal to hold the audience in the spirit of the work. 

As beautiful as his singing may be, D’mitri Hvorostovsky does not have the vocal dimensions to deliver a stunning portrayal of Count di Luna in the vast Metropolitan Opera House. However his artistic integrity and thorough commitment to the role were compelling. Certainly he is the most aristocratic di Luna I know, and is unquestionably a singer who seems to invariably give his all as a human being and an artist.

Sondra Radvanovsky has been unfairly or unwisely miscast as Leonora. Hers is by no means a Verdi voice. Earlier Leonoras such as Ponselle, Milanov, Price, or Teresa Zyllis-Gara set a high standard of vocal beauty, grace of line, and dramatic scope.  Radvanovsky’s ungenerous and wiry voice is not in this tradition, nor is her rather desultory spelling out of notes that don’t always make phrases. With all the passionate support she received from the orchestra and her fellow cast members, her stage manner was generally aloof and perfunctory.

Although it was announced that Marcelo Alvarez was not well, he sang with warmth and authority. His beautiful cantilena was a pleasure to hear, and the notorious series of high C’s in di quella pira (even if they might have been transposed to high B’s) were sung fearlessly. As we all know, ‘loud and high’ is what brings the house down – and down the house came!

Charles Edwards’ sets were relentlessly dark and stark, very much like the previous Trovatore productions. Certainly there were possibilities for contrast, as Verdi specifies a garden, and clouds passing over the moon in Leonora’s first act aria, as well as a view of mountains at sunrise at the gypsy camp, but these sights do not appear

The magnificent Metropolitan Opera Chorus was a highlight of the evening. Although the stage director asked for some rather lurid goings-on at stage right during the Anvil Chorus, no one missed a beat or sang out of tune.

It is staggering to think of the thousands and thousands of elements that must come together to create a fine performance of a great work. Though some of these elements were absent, the ones present produced an admirable result.


La Rondine

This very flimsy little opera, with its Broadway musical introduction of brass and accented off beats, seems to be like a Christmas tree supplied for one beautiful ornament, the ornament being Magda’s wonderful first act aria di Doretta.. Everything else hangs on this, and perhaps another charming tune or two.

Fortunately Magda, Angela Georghieu, surrounded by a litter of fluttering Yvettes and Lisettes, sang her sweet song with absolutely ravishing beauty, her lines flowing, and her heart, so it seemed, on her sleeve. It was a wondrous moment, early on in the first act.  After this, the plot, as well as the musical lines, tend to meander, leading us through a complex series of events reminiscent of a Schnitzler short story. A few high points seemed to burst on the scene, as the wonderful – and wonderfully sung –  chorus at Chez Boullier, and the charming duet of Magda and Rambaldo. Apart from these passages, the opera seemed to unravel leisurely until  reaching  Magda’s final “Ah!” (there is no final aria, unfortunately), just before the curtain falls. This last beautiful sound sets one thinking about the many musical elements at a singer’s disposal to affect emotion: There is, of course, loud and soft, fast and slow, legato, staccato, crescendo, decrescendo, etc., but hearing Angela Georghieu sing her last note convinces us that tone is the greatest among them. It was so perfectly beautiful, so earnest, and it so acutely conveyed the feeling, that we have all experienced at  “the end of an affair,” that it was worth the whole evening just to have heard this.

Everything possible was done to buoy up and breathe life into this frail work. The sets, extravagantly art deco were a delight to the eye, the situation comedy style acting was highly polished, and Marco Armiliato’s conducting brought its usual luster to the orchestra. Although no one began to match Mlle. Georghieu, the singing was quite attractive. Lisette, played by Lisette Oropesa, sang winningly and acted with comic flair. Giuseppe Filianote produced some beautiful sounds, even if he did not give a clear dramatic impression of Rugerro. Perhaps Marius Brenciu, in the not so romantic role of Prunier, had the more romantic sounding, and technically polished voice of these two tenors. Samuel Ramey as Rambaldo cut a strong and distinguished figure, but it was a pity that his still beautiful voice wavers so uncontrollably.

Throughout the evening, the central focus never seemed to wander far from Angela Gherghieu. Although Puccini designates this work a “lyric comedy,” leading one to expect only entertainment, the prima donna gave us much more than that. Perhaps she brought more depth to the work and more cause for heart searching than the composer had any grounds to anticipate.


L'Elisir d'Amore

This production of L’Elisir is by no means new to the Metropolitan Opera, but this reviewer hopes it will be on the roster for many years to come. It is one of the Company’s most successful endeavors and is a pleasure in every way. The rainbow colored scenery appears to be made of candy and popsicles, giving the impression of a large mechanical toy complete with turning mill wheel and cardboard horses. The sunny singing and felicitous acting however was the highlight of this jolly event, especially in the case of Nicole Cabell, the last minute substitute for Angela Gheorghiu in the role of Adina. Gheorghiu’s shoes are two very formidable objects to fill, but Cabell proved herself one of the happiest surprises of the season. Besides having an exceptionally beautiful voice, Cabell shares many other virtues with her ailing colleague: Her acting is graceful, her phrasing flawless, and her ability to appear both vulnerable and absolutely dauntless is quite winning. Most of all, she shares with Gheorghiu a transparency which allows one to look behind the characteristic sweetness and good humor of Adina and her music, and find a mysterious, vulnerable and absolutely authentic human heart positioned in its depths.

Her country hero of the evening, Dimitri Pittas, as Nemorino, was also endearing. Pittas seems to have solved vocal issues in a simple, practicable manner, aiming his sound toward the nose, and keeping it there, no matter how high, how low, how soft, how loud, how sweet, or how declamatory he sang. Perhaps this added some charm to this very simple minded character, as did his innocent, almost childlike stage manner. Pittas is also an astute musician, and even when the stage director had him twenty feet away from Dulcimara during their famous Obligato duet, which approached the speed of light, he demonstrated a deep sense of phrasing and ensemble which made the conductor and the stage director look better than they might have deserved at that moment.

The baritones, Franco Vassallo as Belcore, and Simone Alaimo as Dulcamara were convincing and entertaining. They sang a bit louder than was really warranted – perhapsa bit louder than was healthy for their voices - giving the impression of children blowing a series of overly large soap bubbles from their pipes, which tend wobble and waver a bit, but still manage to stay afloat.

The conducting was supple and muscular although the ensemble and intonation in the brass and winds was not as impeccable as when their boss, Maestro Levine is holding the baton. My guess is that the fault in this case lies with the players not with the conductor.

All of the humor, all of the virtuosity, all of the beautiful sights and sounds were more than entertaining. They provided the listener with a gentle means of looking at his own life histories of love and foolishness, with smiles and forgiveness for everyone involved.


Das Rheingold

Napoleon’s extravagant comment about the small step separating the sublime from the ridiculous might be quite off the mark in regard to moral issues of right and wrong, but in artistic matters, what could be more true? The magic of a ravishing pianissimo spun to perfection in the Nile scene, for example, is instantly dispelled when Aida strays to the sharp or the flat side of her final high C. One is rudely transported from the banks of the Nile into the precincts of the theater, no longer seeing Aida, but rather a costumed and painted soprano in technical difficulty. When dealing with Wagner’s larger than life characters,  grandiose inappearance and gesture, often puerile in thought and deed, the demands of sustaining the sublime are all the more treacherous, and a shift into the ridiculous all the more jarring.

Tonight’s audience was given a taste of both in this performance of Das Rheingold with Rene Pape’s formidable singing and acting in the role of Fasolt; Wendy White’s brilliant delivery of Erde’s apotheosis to her own wisdom; and Charles Taylor’s declamation as Donner, brandishing his immense hammer while revealing the vision of Valhalla across a rainbow bridge. In these cases one forgot the assortment of nuts and bolts that comprise the art of singing and acting, and succumbed to the enchantment of the drama and the truth of the characters.

James Morris as well brought much magic to the stage as Wotan although his voice has lost some of its luster, and the ends of phrases sometimes seemed tenuous.

Less convincing, and occasionally moving into the regions of the ridiculous were the Rhinemaidens, each one with a maverick vibrato that made their ensemble singing, intended, one supposes, to reflect the clarity and flow of their river habitation, a murky and amorphous affair. Their exchanges with the sinister Nibelung, Alberich, and his caricatured responses brought to an end the wonderful spell cast in the orchestral introduction.

Neutral ground was held by Kim Bagley, as Loge, John Dennis Petersen as Mime, and Garret Sorenson as Fro, who delivered sturdy, professional performances but were unable to make one forget they were highly competent singers rather than Teutonic heroes.

Maestro James Levine, who was taken ill at the last moment, was replaced by John Keenan who dutifully reproduced the glossy orchestral sound, and vaulting phrases characteristic of his ailing colleague.

Raymond Beegle is Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, has written for Fanfare Magazine, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.