The six men were, in order of vocal appearance, Salvatore Licitra, Marcello Giordani, James Morris, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Robert Lloyd, and of course the silent James Levine. (The distaff side of the roster was, perhaps as not to upstage the honoree, represented solely by Mignon's song from almost-gone-from-the-house local favorite Frederica von Stade, whose instrument I'm afraid has seen fresher days.) All more or less did the occasion justice.
Licitra sang the Improvviso from Andrea Chenier and, later, partnered Freni in the Act I duet from Adriana Lecouvreur. He is a frustrating singer, like many tenors these days -- sometimes, as in a Carnegie Hall Forza two years ago, sounding like a born superstar; elsewhere, as in last year's run of Forza in London, inspiring some pretty ugly epithets. Sunday he combined both in one go: what he did well was so fetching that the lapses, most noticably in pitch, were all the uglier. (Who knows what next season's Forzas will bring?)
Giordani is another up-and-down tenor with an apparently spotty technique. I hadn't heard him sound really good since a Lensky some three seasons ago. But after starting off with that ugly hoarseness in the middle that's been all-too-common of late, his "Cielo e mar" was the day's vocal highlight. Later, as the day's only encore, he combined with Freni to do a wrenchingly communicative "Non ti scordar di me".
Morris, with the Met chorus, sang the Prologue to Mefistofile. Powerful sound, though the vibrato's become more noticable.
Finally, as the end of the announced program, came Hvorostovsky and Lloyd -- himself probably now gone from the Met stage -- to assist Freni in Act III of Onegin. Both sounded superb. With this act's concerns (loss, rediscovery, and the impossible demands of desire) everywhere in the air beforehand, the sum wasn't entirely dramatic -- on this day, with this occasion, the conclusion was even more foregone than usual -- but memorable, touching... and appropriate.
Levine and the orchestra, who led things off with the Bartered Bride overture, sounded vigorous, but less refined than usual. (How much rehearsal did this get?)
Interspersed were a number of solo efforts by the 40/50th anniversary honoree herself, Mirella Freni. She sang "Adieu, notre petite table" from Manon, "Io son l'umile ancella" from Adriana, and Joan's farewell to her home from the Maid of Orleans (in which Freni has just completed a full run).
Three years ago, I'd have said the voice was pretty much all still there. Sunday showed a certain drying of tone and a difficult top, but there's an awful lot left after fifty years of, as Joe Volpe noted in his concluding presentation, the difficult and demanding work of opera. Enough certainly remained of her voice's expressive middle to carry the emotional honesty she could hardly have lost... Most of all in the one thing she sang in her own character, that encore with the humble and moved Giordani, where it wasn't only her sound that wasn't dry.
She might be back, though, you know.