Saturday, October 21, 2006

The morning line becomes the afternoon line

One thing ticketing changes at this year's Met have done is effectively eliminate the weekly standing room ticket ritual. Standing room is now sold on a day-of basis, and the rezoning (on weekdays) of much of Family Circle as $15 seats has made them less important.

Anyway, except for galas and the like the standing room line had already become less important -- with the drop in sell-outs of late, one could usually get whatever standing place one wanted without going to the Saturday morning ritual, and often on the evening of the performance.

But what would an opera house be without endless queues? Maybe it was for this that Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman bankrolled the Met's new rush ticket program. The 200 spots that took over an hour to sell out on the offer's first night now seem to generate a line that begins in the early afternoon and is full-blown -- if not necessarily full -- well before these tickets actually go on sale (two hours before the evening's curtain). Note that last I checked this early line is, like the now-defunct standing room edition, not by the box office but down on the concourse level beginning just off the staircase to the box office.

I haven't tried it enough to say which orchestra balance tickets end up being offered in the program (some are much better than others), nor when the last person to get a ticket will get in line, but line length may make it a bit of a waste unless you're a student or otherwise unoccupied tourist. It's an experience, though, I'm sure.

Friday, October 20, 2006


A poisonous if well-trafficked site that doesn't need my hits reports the rumor that Peter Gelb is clearing the roster of, well, pretty much every American principal singer not favored by PBS.

Now I wouldn't be surprised at this happening, but the information seems neither complete nor necessarily reliable. So we'll see.

I am fairly sure, though, that Gelb has less catholic tastes in opera than his predecessor. This is unfortunate. The Met is too large to be a one-aesthetic house.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Speedy and complete recovery (I hope) to follow

A commenter pointed out this unhappy news item: Ruth Ann Swenson's imminent breast cancer surgery. (How odd that it's so public! -- but it seems a hardly-avoidable part of being famous.) As per the title, I wish her a quick and thorough return to health.

Note that she plans to be back singing here -- as scheduled -- this March.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Happy happy

It's not that I didn't see La Gioconda -- I've been to the revival, twice in fact, and rather liked it each time. It's that for all the enjoyment there is in the opera -- and with this cast, there's a lot -- I twice felt I'd finished digesting the thing before the performance was actually over. You know, somewhere in the last act, when the whole Romeo-meets-Trovatore-meets-Ballo-meets-Tosca (which, yes, hadn't been written yet, but never mind) plot finishes banging itself out, one's mind starts to drift, and tote up what it all adds up to... which, despite any clever glossing, isn't much.

But that's a silly knock (even on a silly opera) when the evening before that brings more honest opera content than some whole weeks. Bertrand de Billy -- for his willingness to be wholeheartedly serious with iffy material, perhaps the second most valuable conducting asset at the Met -- may exaggerate when he says Gioconda needs six of the best singers in the world, but only a little. (As proverbially with Trovatore, four should suffice.) At any rate, while the men here may just be (pretty good) stand-ins for that title, the women seem actually to deserve it: Borodina typically flawless, Mishura richer than I'd remembered, and Urmana maybe too vocally impressive to ever sound desperate. The piece -- moment-to-moment a succession of great operatic sounds and situations -- gives them all plenty to work with. Isn't that enough?

Judging by the applause, of course, you might actually only need one of the best dancers in the world. But not even the debut of young Danny Tidwell is going to get me to the house next Wednesday to find out...*

(*No knock on White, Machado et al. intended; this is mostly a shout-out to Maury.)

One word about the production: Act 3 features the most blatantly (and amusingly) obscene curtain arrangement I've seen on the Met stage. If anyone can dig up a picture, I'd be grateful.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Once more, with feeling

I took my own advice and caught the Met's revival of Faust. Despite the mixed success of the original, this was an unqualified success, where everything one hoped went right and nothing one feared went wrong. Go see it.

Perhaps most surprising therein is Ruth Ann Swenson. Once the greatest of Three Name Soubrettes, she's had a number of iffy years in transitioning from the stratrospheric to the classic lyric soprano range. Her spring success in Elisir may have signaled renewed vocal comfort, but she's ever been the same sort of performer: remarkable sound, not much else of note (beyond, naturally, superb soubrette-isms). Easy to knock, but I've always been a fan.

But Marguerite turns out to be almost as ideal a role for her as, say, Adina: she outshines her predecessors in this production in nearly every way. Vocally, after a bout of uneasy pitch to start (through the Thule song, as I recall), it was as one would've expected. Clear, resonant top notes and no trace of tiredness even in dominating the closing trio. The surprise is that she makes far more dramatic sense of the whole character arc.

Part of it is that the production (Andrei Serban's, as edited by -- it appears -- Stephen Pickover) now gets in her way rather less than it did Isokoski and Villaroel's. Act 2's nihilistic excess is total, and the women in what look like abayas still jar in the soldier's chorus, but on the whole this incarnation of the Faust looks almost spare. (Perhaps it was lowered expectations, as with Flimm's Fidelio). The premiere's biggest laughingstock -- the devil's white, codpiece-bearing bodysuit worn in the Cathedral scene -- seems to have been reduced, spray-painted in darker shades, and generally de-emphasized (less crawling, climbing, and writhing). There's actually room for Marguerite to make an impression now, and she does.

And Swenson appears to make a virtue of necessity in tracing Marguerite's development. She lacks the acting chops to make much of particular dramatic moments, so she doesn't much try, instead showing a near-continuous line from innocence to madness. Her Jewel Song, for example, is neither calamitous nor fulfilling for Marguerite: it's just the song of an innocent girl with no idea what shadow is entering her life. Her vocal ease sells it, of course (though I suppose I should mention that the trills aren't as well-defined as they once were), and the choice pays dramatic dividends when her equally straightforward love, horror, sorrow, and madness appear in similar style. All the elements connect -- on the scene-to-scene level on which Gounod and his librettists devised it.

*     *     *

But enough on Swenson. The men are at least as much the stars of this revival. Ildar Abdrazakov, best-known so far as Mr. Olga Borodina, satisfies as Méphistophélès in a way that Rene Pape (for all his plaudits) really didn't. Abdrazakov is a more Gallic devil, ironic and amused, trusting his firm and surprisingly spacious bass to carry the dramatic elements without forcing. Over the course of his evening Pape wore himself and the audience out with generalized Germanic intensity, while Abdrazakov's worldly appeal won all over here. As with Swenson, of course, the sound itself had a lot to do with it...

In the title role Ramón Vargas sings well, but his voice is smaller than, say, Roberto Alagna's (the predecessor in this production) and he consequently works within a narrower dynamic and coloristic compass in the part. That said, it's a pleasure, and he and Swenson make a natural pair.

Two singers made their Met debuts at this Tuesday performance. Finnish baritone Tommi Hakala (Valentin) has an impressive enough instrument and presence that one easily forgives him for letting histrionics interrupt his natural flow of sound. He'll be back, I think. Meanwhile French mezzo Karine Deshayes was as good as Siébels tend to be during this great mezzo glut.

Bertrand de Billy took an act and a half to really warm things up, but was afterwards admirable.

*     *     *

This is, of course, just the sort of thing in which the Met is supposed to excel: deluxe casting in grand romantic fare. For once, it does -- for the ear and even for the heart. It would be a pity if the season's string of non-sellouts continued through this.