Monday, March 23, 2009

The birthday

Metropolitan Opera 125th Anniversary Gala -- 3/15/09
many many singers / Levine

All-star potpourri galas like last Sunday's tend to cruise comfortably along until a solo performer drops the hammer with some outrageously great performance that inflames audience attention and both inspires and challenges those who come after.

In the 2006 Volpe gala, it was Natalie Dessay's electrifying "Ah! non credea" (a triumph retrospectively tarnished by what she's had a hand in putting on stage for it this month) -- which came reasonably early in that show's first half. At Sunday's anniversary bash, the stakes didn't so rise until Joseph Calleja's golden "Che gelida manina" arrived... well into the second half of the evening. This kicked off a truly memorable gala close after much that was worthy and pleasant but nonetheless unexceptional.

*     *     *

It began with a missed opportunity: an evocation of the company's very first night -- Gounod's Faust. Donald Palumbo's Met chorus sang well in the Act II opening number, but despite their recreated 1883 costumes and projected retro frame, the garish blue-violet tinge to the lighting made clear that efforts to induce true time-bridging double vision would be spotty at best. Ditto John Relyea, who in similar lighting sang Mephistopheles' aria from that act wearing, interestingly, a replica of the original costume on which his Damnation of Faust devil outfit this season was based.

It was not their fault, of course. But the next number highlighted a performer's sort of anachronism, for it turns out that it's impossible to imagine Angela Gheorghiu's art at a point before WWII, much less all the way back in 1883 before the dawn of verismo. Of course diva acts and shaped dramatic artistry have been around forever, but Gheorghiu's particular method -- the concatenation of small, disparate, audibly discrete gestures -- and the appreciation thereof is in the postwar modernist vein kicked off by Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf -- and, yes, Callas. Even Gheorghiu's out-of-character diva business seems assembled in this manner. In any case, Marguerite's famous Jewel Song was not the best showcase for her talents, requiring more bel canto ease than she's ever really commanded.

The Faust sequence ended with a much more satisfying bit: Relyea, Gheorghiu husband Roberto Alagna, and Sondra Radvanovsky in the opera's closing trio. The men did well enough, but the whole was dominated by Radvanovsky's stunning voice as Marguerite. Hearing her in this context was a double thrill: of course for the sound itself, but not less for what it represented -- the thread of palpably significant vocal sound that, whatever the vagaries of performance fashion, has always been strong (and particularly strong at the Met) from the very beginning of opera.

The projection for this trio had the painting (if I'm not mistaken, it's of the Met's first night and it's on display in the cabinet near List Hall) of an audience watching the final scene from Faust zoom in until the performers in the image were congruent to the performers onstage. A neat effect. Even closer to the "time-bridging double vision" mentioned above was the scene for the next selection, from Puccini's Fanciulla del West: all the miners gathered around and over Dick Johnson, about to hang him but paused as he sings his great aria "Ch'ella mi creda". This was patterned after a photo (which, having Minnie in it, was actually of a moment somewhat later in this last act) from the 1910 world premiere here with Caruso. The visual did in fact link our day and Puccini's -- but only for an instant. With the start of the music the spell was broken, for Placido Domingo sang this aria quite poorly -- not only nothing like Caruso, but nothing like his former self. It was dry, undistinguished, and old-sounding (and not merely from the transposition). Not knowing that he'd improve later, I was shocked.

Stephanie Blythe was -- as always of late -- an excellent antidote. She will, it seems, be the next in the line of excellent Amnerises the Met has boasted. Maria Guleghina's typically forceful but blunt singing wasn't on the same level.

His other parts were filled by singers already in the gala, but the lately much-canceling Rene Pape allowed (by his absence) John Tomlinson to take part. The English bass sang Boris Godunov's death scene -- and quite well, too -- with a bit of help from boy soprano Jesse Burnside Murray.

The Aida (1908-09) and Boris (1913) costumes were lovely attempts to recapture the magic of ancient detailed originals, shown off here in front of fairly abstract ahistorical sets, but the next number -- "Va pensiero" from Nabucco -- signaled a change. The chorus wore the costumes from the 2001 production (the most recent thing referenced on the evening) and sat on a series of risers evoking the general shape (but not color) of the original set. Unfortunately the black risers and backdrop made the somewhat abstracted costumes look shabby. The chorus sang well, but not well enough to consider the famous encore...

There followed a number of evocations of productions from around 1950 (with costumes from various eras). These came off quite well -- the clean lines and spaces of that day is clearly closer to director Phelim McDermott and associate director/set designer Julian Crouch's sensibilities than 19th century stuff. First, the finale of Carmen, with Waltraud Meier wearing a version of the amazing (and totally un-Zeffirellian) bullfighter-inspired high-fashion outfit Valentina made for Rosa Ponselle's 1935 attempt. Ponselle, for all her vocal glory, was -- as we can hear -- a poor choice for Carmen, and Waltraud Meier isn't much better. Meier can sing the part, but why? It was an odd gala choice, given the flop she made as Carmen in 1996. The temperament still eludes her.

Not Alagna, who was the Don Jose here. His voice -- often variable -- sounds like it's seen better days (a Rondine I caught had him in noticeably better sound), but he had all the guts, passion, and agonized fire of an ideal Don Jose. Hope he's as impressive next season.

Juan Diego Florez followed with "La donna e mobile", dressed as Enrico Caruso circa 1903. Of course, Florez is about as far opposite of the golden-voiced baritonal tenor legend as any excellent tenor can get, but he made a big stir in this showpiece with his endlessly held final C. I'd hate to see him wear out his voice competing with orchestra and larger-voiced singers in complete performances as the Duke, though.

The 1950 sequence closed with another Verdi aria: James Morris singing Philip II's lament from Don Carlo, in a 1950 costume and inside a small study evoking the 1950 production. He too sang well.

The Rosenkavalier trio was less happily done. Though wearing outfits based on the 1913 US premiere, Deborah Voigt and Susanne Mentzer were awfully miscast as the Marschallin and Octavian. Voigt's loud but unrefined post-weight-loss voice is just the opposite of what the Marschallin demands, while Mentzer's charming lyric mezzo at this point lacks the force to be heard as Octavian. Lisette Oropesa did well as Sophie, but Strauss was not well served (Levine has never done well with Rosenkavalier either).

Probably the low point of the entire gala was during Mariusz Kwiecien's number -- Don Giovanni's drinking song from his eponymous opera. His actual singing was entirely overshadowed by portrait photos projected onto the back wall of these women: Albanese, Marian Anderson, Caballe, Callas, Flagstad, Freni, Melba, Milanov, Moffo, Nilsson, Pons, Price, Rysanek, Sills, Stevens, Sutherland, Tebaldi, and Te Kanawa. As one can see, it is an odd mix of those indelibly associated with the house and famous names who were barely Met artists at all -- a list more about which singers two British guys had heard of growing up some decades ago than celebrating the greatest stars (e.g. Farrar, Jeritza, Ponselle, Bori) of the Metropolitan Opera's 125 years. Naturally, the aria ended with all the photos darkened except for one, and that of... who else? A soprano who sang parts of just three seasons at the Met, but on whom it's often socially safe to lay even the most absurdly hyperbolic praise. Yes, Maria Callas got pride of place despite being a blip in actual Met annals, and though I wasn't looking at the exact moment I believe her picture may have winked as Kwiecien turned around to offer her a toast. Ha ha. Give me a break from this all-purpose Callas monomania already! Here it was just disgraceful non sequitur.

The first half did end on a better note: specifically the final scene of Wagner's Parsifal. For some reason Wagner inspired much more historically evocative treatments by the gala's production team than his Italian colleagues. The costumes, and the projected Grail-castle interior (on both -- for some reason -- backdrop and the drop curtain) designs -- both from the non-Bayreuth premiere of the piece in 1903 -- were stunning, really suggesting a prior era. Thomas Hampson was a terrific, movingly human Amfortas in 2006, and he was similarly good here. Unfortunately Domingo -- his Parsifal here -- was not, though he did sing better than in Fanciulla.

*     *     *

The second half began with a very clever animation of the various elements in Chagall's prominent Grand-Tier level mural ("The Triumph of Music") to the orchestra's zippy account of the Magic Flute overture. But this celebration of the new house preceded a long return to the past. First was an aria from the other Puccini world premiere at the Met: 1918's Trittico. The current Met staging does it no great favors, but it's rather better than the swaying furniture cutouts (from, apparently, no particular production at all) that did their best to distract from Maija Kovalevska's charming and graceful "O mio babbino caro".

I've defended Dmitri Hvorostovsky as recently as last month from the claim that he's singing roles too big for him, but his version of a piece actually associated with him -- Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades -- had me wondering. While his handling of words and music was remarkable, his sound seemed for the first time overblown and overly driven. Perhaps he's in transition, or perhaps it was just me. I had similar reservations when I went back to Trovatore after this. (The audience still loved him as di Luna, as they had in this gala bit.) Odd.

Domingo, of course, "isn't a Verdi baritone" either -- yet. He previewed next season's foray into Simon Boccanegra with the recognition duet from that opera. Here Domingo sang yet better than before, though the character seemed half-formed. It was his Amelia here, though, who really shone -- Gheorghiu, in fact, here put in a 1932-ish set and costume. The longer phrases Verdi demands got her to use more of that aching dark sound that I always enjoy in her singing, and reminded me happily of her work in the wonderful Boccanegra revival two years back.

The last real duet of the night followed: again Wagner, evoking the very first American Ring from 1889. Neither Voigt nor Ben Heppner were in best voice for the great final-act duet from Siegfried, but the visual of it made the singing almost impossible to register anyway. As for the Faust bits the projected old proscenium framed them, but this time in ancient (and still somehow primally familiar) Wagner costumes and before a projected sepia-ish (photo-based?) backdrop the pair of long-famous Wagnerians seemed transformed, or the audience transported into the past. The two singers' essentially stand-and-sing body language, familiar but a bit disappointing in current shows, there became something different -- something absolutely right and fitting and perhaps indispensable. Amazing.

Then came three tenors, in interestingly minimalist recreations of famous Zeffirelli sets (with his drawings for them projected behind) -- the only current-house material of this half. Joseph Calleja was Rodolfo, and though I've made much of him since hearing his 2006 debut Dukes of Mantua (he returns to the part when Rigoletto begins again in a week or so), I suspect most of the audience had not yet heard him in person. His voice is a lyric one, but the strongest sense one gets is of its expansive, enveloping presence wrapping around all one's senses -- an unmistakable standout even in an all-star lineup. "Che gelida manina" was an aural feast from beginning to end, with a remarkable (and I think untransposed) C at the end. I feel like I'm jinxing him by saying this, but at this point I can't not: if he doesn't crash, Calleja is the next Bjoerling, the next Pavarotti.

Aleksandrs Antonenko, an impressive debutant this month in Rusalka, sang "E lucevan le stelle" well and strongly, if perhaps a bit too heartily. Marcello Giordani followed with his usual workmanlike job, here in "Nessun dorma" -- he does have occasional great moments, but this wasn't one.

The next set was of chandeliers -- I'm not sure if they represented the old house or the new. In any case, they brightly backdropped Natalie Dessay in Bidu Sayao's 1930s costume as Violetta. She sang La Traviata's Act I finale ("Ah, fors'e lui... Sempre libera") with her usual control and flexibility -- and, of course, a big interpolated high note at the end. Very good, though not the huge triumph of her Sonnambula bit at the last gala. Calleja sang Alfredo's offstage part.

And at last it turned out that Domingo's voice hadn't disappeared. He came out to sing Otello's death scene, in 1909-based costumes and set (and was that Radvanovsky playing Desdemona's corpse?), and somehow himself turned back the clock, sounding not only a different singer from the one who'd sounded finished in the first half, but different from (and noticably stronger and better than) the Domingo who had appeared to sing Otello complete a decade ago. Here he had power, focus, squillo, and dramatic presence: the things that made him a star before his unflagging professionalism and endurance made him ubiquitous. We heard an unqualifiedly great singer for the scene's duration.

Finally, despite any worries her Rusalka may have inspired, Renee Fleming too can still summon a great vocal performance. She sang "Gl├╝ck, das mir verblieb", the big tune of Korngold's late-late-late-Romantic opera Die Tote Stadt. As Kiri te Kanawa did at the Volpe gala, Fleming sang both parts of what's in the opera a tenor-soprano duet (you can hear the 1924 Tauber-Lehmann recording of it here) herself. The music is overripe and somehow both full-blooded and melancholy at the same time: ideal material for both her voice and temperament. Fleming came out in a copy of Mizzi Jeritza's 1921 Met premiere costume, and in front of a plain lit curtain gave one of her best Met performances, fully delivering both sonic glamor and a moving, heartfelt connection to the moment and audience. If Rusalka is no longer an ideal fit, maybe -- as the Wellsungs suggested -- we'll get a full Tote Stadt (with, if Gelb has any sense at all, Klaus Florian Vogt as Paul) as compensation.

One last scene -- the end of Das Rheingold, of course, as the gods enter their new home. Again we were taken back to 1889 for the first American Ring, but even more strongly. For the first and only time of the night, it seemed that the singers -- Garret Sorenson as Froh, Yvonne Naef as Fricka, Kim Begley as Loge, and (quite appropriately) James Morris once more as Wotan -- had not only been dressed in historic costumes but trained in an alien plastique (a sort of flexible but decidedly rooted version of stand&sing) evoking those long-gone days. The effect (and I admit not knowing how much, if any, historical basis there was for this) was even more stunning than in the earlier Wagner bits, and definitely made one wish it had been seen at the beginning of the show. Still, it was a fitting (and nicely sung) close, and as the orchestra played the last measures the projections became the faces of dozens and dozens of Met artists filling the entire curtained space. Then endless applause and curtain calls.

*     *     *

My apologies for a report that may have lasted nearly as long in the reading as the gala itself. As Pascal put it, I didn't have the time for a shorter one.

Incidentally, why on earth were people grabbing up piles of programs? There actually ended up being a shortage.


  1. Nice review. But can you please elaborate on how exactly did James Morris "sing well"? I mean, his singing was a major disaster in uppercase, a major embarrassment. He did not belong there that night. Pure and simple. Neither did Voigt and Giordani but that's a topic for another day. That said, I really missed hearing other singers long associated with the Met. How about you?

  2. You either like the Morris-isms or you don't. I do, though in Italian rep he's clearly no Furlanetto.

    The roll-call of old names who may or may not have anything left is my least favorite part of the gala format, though it's great when it works. In this case the "then and now" format of the occasion would particularly have suffered from loading up any more end-of-career folks. I thought it was brave and smart of Gelb to highlight potential cornerstones of coming years -- Kovalevska, Calleja, Antonenko, etc. -- because it gives a much truer picture of where the talent is now. When we look back, it will be with a different nostalgia anyway.

    I did miss Vargas, Borodina & husband, and folks like that, but you can't have everyone.

  3. I did not think the review over-long at all. As I wasn't there and didn't hear it, I very much appreciated your detail and analysis. Thanks!

  4. I could have done without the Maria Callas moment, too. Highlighting Maria Callas would be fine at a ROH or La Scala gala, but it felt weird in this instance for the reasons you cited. But I thought the recreation of the Parsifal and the Fanciulla sets were great, and J. Calleja's Che Gelida Manina was stunning.

    Also, if Gelb didn't go to Klaus Florian Vogt's performances of Lohengrin, and he just relies on reports from that tin-eared critic of the Financial Times, maybe there should be a petition drive for KFV's return to the Met.

  5. Great review. Calleja was a highlight, perhaps even the highlight, of this performance. It was a sort of rediscovery for me after his duke in 06 which left me with mixed feelings. In Macbeth he was much better but its a too short role to judge but che gelida encompasses the whole spectrum of the voice so there is nowhere to hide especially when sung in key like in this case.
    Great night at the opera!


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.