Monday, March 30, 2015

The suitors

I've been absent for a while, so let's go backwards.

Ernani - Metropolitan Opera, 3/20/2015
Meli, Meade, Domingo, Belosselskiy / Levine

The presence of superstar tenor turned embarrassingly amateur conductor turned hit-and-miss baritone Placido Domingo is no longer the most notable thing about a production. But perhaps he catalyzed what struck me so strongly on this night: the palpable attention, long familiar here but absent from shows I've seen this season, of the Met audience that recognized itself as such. The sounds and silences (and you can sense it best in the quiet) of a crowd sure in its tastes getting the excellent performance it craves and appreciates... that's something.

The excellence of the opera (and the straightforward & handsome production) was no surprise. But the drama enacted this time wasn't the same as in that memorable 2008 revival. There, all the singers shared the youthfully pessimistic spirit of this first Verdi/Piave collaboration. Here, the cast split perspectives. Angela Meade, whose fateful Met debut came while covering Sondra Radvanovsky in that run, doesn't actually do much with Elvira's tour-de-force opening solo. In fact, Meade seemed uncomfortable: not only with the vocal-technical hurdles -- though the coloratura was hardly clean and she had some noticeable dropped notes -- but even more with the range and unequivocal force of the emotional expression. But the rest of the night didn't put Elvira so front-and-center, and Meade did very well therein as an ensemble instrument for Levine. As such she doesn't (as Radvanovsky did) vocally rush forward with her suitors towards fate but provides the opposite sentiment: caution, (justified) fear of disaster, and the pain of one who values happiness. Meade is the bright, audible sound of normalcy that her suitors can't help but disrupt.

This time, it's the tenor who carries the main dark emotional charge of the piece. I wrote in the season preview that the revival's success would "largely depend on tenor Francesco's Meli's ability to survive the punishing title part", and so it's proved: for not only did he survive the revival opener, his plangent sound and go-for-broke Italianate expressiveness ensured the show's success. Meli has been moving deliberately into these middle-weight Verdi roles from the lighter end, and on this evidence the voice and spirit are already perfect fits.

Dmitry Belosselskiy was an excellent firm low-voiced counterpoint to Meli, matching the tenor in fire and giving an even darker contrast to Meade. Sadly, the most famous of the ensemble offered the least: whether from lack of practice in the part or lack of breath control due to age, Domingo couldn't navigate or string together Carlo's phrases with any musicality. Nor does his timbre now sound particularly familiar or individual, whether one recalls his tenor or prior baritone incarnations. His fame did assist his assumption of his character's (initially hidden) fame and command, but that's about it.

James Levine conducted this and the final night of Hoffmann back-to-back with no sign of mental overwork. In fact, this month's shows have been the closest to classic Levine I've seen since his return. This Ernani is probably the show of the season so far, and though after Friday's dress I expect much from Don Carlo tonight... well, the more Verdi the better.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.