Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The best of times, the...

2008 turned out to be a grim year for opera companies, but a very good one for the New York operagoer. From the Valkyrie and Manon Lescaut at its start to the second run of La Boheme continuing now, 2008's two half-seasons never went long without some memorable success, despite one company retiring from the field early. (In between was a fairly barren summer, though in fairness I missed July's imported highlight.) What might we remember? Enough that a bit-by-bit post seemed too much of a laundry list.

In the pit, Wagner and Puccini -- and Massenet. Lorin Maazel in Walküre last January, his return to the Met after a 45 year (!) absence. (Maazel's work in this Wagner opera was a real success, though I won't be hearing any more of his performances after his revolting comments a month or so later.) Daniel Barenboim's much praised Met debut -- conducting Tristan in November and December, after Levine's own Tristans in March. Both seemed energized by fortuitous turns of cast -- Waltraud Meier singing her first Met Isolde for Barenboim, and Ben Heppner and Deborah Voight finally appearing together as originally scheduled for Levine -- with Levine's approach, setting out the opera as if three unbroken fiery breaths, more to my way of experiencing music.

Puccini gave us two Nicola Luisotti's triumphant debut in the March-April performances of La Boheme. Massenet? David Chan's playing of the Méditation from Thaïs stole the show from two huge stars and put an orchestra member at last on stage for a well-deserved bow.

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Singers? The chorus first: under Donald Palumbo's new leadership it did well in many scenes, but none so unforgettable as Puccini's early dramatic masterstroke -- Act III (the deportation scene) of Manon Lescaut.

Among the men, things both short -- two pure displays of song, and one impressive stunt -- and long. Were tenor Joseph Calleja's Golden Age singing in his Macbeth bit part or Rene Pape's ever-great King Marke (in the first two Barenboim performances of Tristan) the year's peaks? Or perhaps it was Juan Diego Florez encoring "Ah mes amis" in La Fille du Régiment... Though I'm afraid the overall disappointment of that production weighs down the memory of Florez (and has basically already effaced from my mind Natalie Dessay's success there too). Of course, others impressed headlining successful revivals: Johan Botha with his first, nearly effortlessly sung Otellos here, and Ramon Vargas -- unscheduled -- showing all the essential élan of Gustavo in Ballo. And most of all Ben Heppner, for two nights Tristan in both voice and character -- in a rendition so clear and convincing that it ruined my enjoyment of his not bad successor Seiffert.

Among the women, Karita Mattila repeated her 2004 triumph in Salome, with somewhat less voice (and body) but more shading and ease of character. But we knew it would succeed, though a success like the October 7 performance perhaps can't be foreseen. Similarly, we knew Renee Fleming's Desdemona would be an event. Both memorably debuted roles this year as well, Mattila an apt attention magnet as Manon Lescaut and Fleming a vocally luxe Thaïs. Meanwhile Natalie Dessay continued her debut season here as Lucia, but as in Fille, the spring revival of this Donizetti piece was less of a production than it could have been (and, in the particular case, was -- in 2007). But it was two other house role debuts that really showed their singers' possibilities: Susan Graham's tortured Sesto (in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito) had Met audiences actually going wild for opera seria, while the unorthodox portrayal of Anja Harteros as Violetta (in La Traviata) shed rare new light on Verdi's sometimes too-familiar masterpiece.

The Harteros success reminds me of two other things I was glad to have seen. First, Ruth Ann Swenson made an impressive farewell of sorts in a March performance of Traviata. Swenson seems already set to return to the Met, and no matter how much of that day's emotion was in the occasion, I hope she can recapture what she found her way into doing. Second -- and, of dozens and dozens of performances, I think this (specifically December 22, though I also saw others) may have been the highlight -- Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska illuminated and refreshed La Boheme in some of the same way Harteros did for La Traviata, letting us hear and see Mimi (and therefore the piece) anew and more vividly than ever. (The not-quite-awake matinee transmission that began 2009's Saturday broadcast season didn't much convey the flavor: there was a Sirius broadcast of that December 22 performance which even Close Miking Syndrome shouldn't be able to ruin.)

Kovalevska's 2008 work was, it seems, mostly seen by tourists and operatic newcomers. And why not? I doubt any who saw it will long resist returning to the opera. Over the years they'll learn that Boheme is not always like this: that sometimes it's a story of constricted horizons and not inner spaces; that showoffs and clods and routiniers can make some success -- and even Big Points! -- in this near-unkillable piece; that most don't expect or even want any more; and that if they themselves want the sorts of pleasures in this run, the casts to provide them are rare and far between.

(Or perhaps every other season or so will henceforth bring a Kovalevska Boheme.)


  1. I have been wondering why there were only four performances of "La Clemenza di Tito", and no radio or HD broadcast. Wouldn't that seem not very cost-effective?

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Sorry for not responding earlier. Opera seria has been a tough sell at the Met, particularly without the novelty value of a new production or piece. Graham herself is of course well known and liked, but I'm not sure what her butts-in-seats rating actually is (or was perceived to be at scheduling time).

    The house has traditionally given good-for-you but not good-box-office pieces short spring airings, and this seems to fit that pattern. In retrospect a HD broadcast would have made sense, but remember that the moviecasts are still a work in progress, involve large expenditures by the house each time, and started out very limited in number.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.