Guleghina, Swann, Dunn, Alagna, Almaguer / Garanča, Alagna, Savage, Abdrazakov / Veronesi
Though Cori Ellison's program notes rightly note the Carmen/verisimo lineage of Massenet's now-obscure "La Navarraise", its particular Spain may remind more operagoers of Verdi's: not the courtly world of Don Carlo(s) (at the Met again next month), but the site of madness and ever-recurring battle we see in Il Trovatore (at the Met again tonight) and La Forza del Destino. (Battle sounds and effects are a prominent, elaborately-orchestrated feature of Massenet's opera.) But while in the earlier Verdi masterpieces we see madness and extremity run wild when the protective father is killed at the start, it is here the father (and the alternate father figure of the general) who not-quite-knowingly command the monstrosity. It seems to me amusingly characteristic of the worldly and very French Massenet to have chosen and made of this wild Spanish stuff a tale about, of all things, class distinction (and a woman's extreme reaction thereto). It's a good and very interesting opera, but I can see why it's not as popular as its Italian verisimo contemporaries: Massenet was neither modernist nor proto-modernist, and so presents the themes of sexual compulsion and murder (which underlie the proto-modernist verisimo of "Cav" and "Pag" as much as the high modernist Wozzeck or Lulu) with an unsettling sort of po-faced irony rather than zealous true belief.
In last night's performance the Massenet was preceded by Mascagni's more straightforwardly veristic "Cav", done here well in a straightforwardly veristic manner. Maria Guleghina, good to say, seems more or less to have recovered from the wretched state she showed in last season's Turandot: the top has been reconstructed and dialed back a bit, but it has renewed force, and as here as Santuzza she even showed some nice soft singing. She wasn't perfect -- the space between loud and soft has some audible gear-shifting, and as a soprano she lacks the easy low notes to make Santuzza's duets tell -- but Guleghina was solid enough, and more effective than I remember from her last Met Cavs.
The entire cast was making OONY debuts, but Guleghina and Roberto Alagna are of course more-than-familiar to New York audiences. Mexican baritone Carlos Almaguer (who seems to be a regular in German houses), on the other hand, is new -- and welcome. Though in other repertoire his intense, hyper-virile singing might be a bit much (perhaps he can also do subtle -- we never found out), it made for a gripping Alfio. Mamma Lucia was Met old-timer Mignon Dunn, and Lola was her student Krysty Swann, who packs a not-quite-finished but impressively-scaled dramatic mezzo voice into a rather-less-than-Zajick/Blythe-sized frame.
Alagna has his ups and downs, but yesterday was mostly up, climaxing with an electrifying farewell to his mother -- just the sort of melancholy he's best at.
After the break, Massenet's opera was given the straightforwardly all-star treatment one might hope for from the Met. The tenor lead (Araquil) doesn't have as much self-awareness/self-loathing for Alagna to sink his chops into (character-wise, it's more of a Filianoti role, consumed by his own emotional reaction), but he again sang well, and Ildar Abdrazakov was as usual commanding as Araquil's commanding General (Garrido). Without props or staging, mezzo star Elina Garanca (last seen, of course, opposite Alagna in Carmen) didn't really hit the closing madness of her eponymous girl from Navarre, but she certainly sang the heck out of the part.
Finally, Eve Queler got NEA honors last Friday, but it was new conductor and "music director designate" Alberto Veronesi who took her long-familiar place before the OONY forces last night (Queler was, of course, in the Carnegie Hall audience). She wasn't, at least in the last decade or so, as bad a conductor as some detractors used to claim, and as the recent Tsar's Bride well showed, she had a nice sense of orchestral color. One issue OONY performances did have was that tempo transitions tended toward the ungainly: Veronesi does better at this, but the approach and virtues are (so far) otherwise the same straightforward singer-supportive ones we saw under Queler.