Friday, December 09, 2016

Shiny and chrome

Tristan und Isolde - Metropolitan Opera, 10/13/2016
Skelton, Stemme, Gubanova, Wittmoser, Pape, Cooper / Rattle

To be fair from the beginning: if one is to set a single part of this opera properly, it's probably best that it be the closing Liebestod, here rendered with an effective spotlighting of Isolde that was the main absence in the Dieter Dorn production that preceded this one. But the rest of Mariusz Trelinski's show is marred by precisely the opposite aesthetic: an overload of clutter that futhers the show's conceit but gets in the way of actual Wagnerian content. Too bad, since the musical side was quite good.

While the Ring, for example, was the product of many years and aesthetic impulses and looks it, Tristan is all of a piece. Romantic subjectivity and its conflict with more organized existence without are embodied to what was quickly recognized as an ultimate extent: in fact they're turned by Wagner into the organizing poles of the opera's music and story. At the beginning the order, obligation, and achieved peace of the public world is ascendant - though about to be tested by the dark star of Tristan and Isolde's original meeting (likely what is depicted by the prelude's initial bars), where she first chose personal connection over duty - but by the end the disorderly claims of their private selves have brought those all to ruin. This conflict of duty/necessity and love/self is of course a (the?) staple of Romantic opera. But where other operas characterize this rejection of public for private reality as pathetic - if compelling - madness, this one takes it seriously as an alternate perspective, one that grows to envelop audience and characters to the point where it's acknowledged, near the end, by the wronged King Marke himself.

Trelinski and his designers are at their best in the first act: here the conceit - a transposition of the action to a modern naval vessel - gives them room to elaborate impressively on the civilian order of Isolde's well-appointed suite and the harsher military order of the bowels and bridge. The realistic (if anachronistic) detail - unusual in the Gelb era - gives more weight and texture to the public world than productions of Tristan usually provide.

Where Trelinski's show fails is in presenting the other side - "das Wunderreich der Nacht" to which the couple commit themselves in the central love duet. Instead of setting out this second pole of the action, Act II of the production stays doggedly the ship (or is it another ship, belonging to Marke? - who knows). The lovers rendezvous on some sort of glass-paneled control deck and sing their duet in the bowels of the ship, apparently in a hazardous waste storage area. The pile-up of detail doesn't recede at all even at this peak of their solipsistic embrace, and the very simple visual that would have done this (put the stage in darkness except for the singers) is only brought out later on, when Tristan asks Isolde to follow him to this night-land - but only to cast this dialogue as hallucination, Isolde already having been escorted off the ship. By Act III we've at least gotten off the ship ourselves, but the projections continue to insist on the conceit with a recurring sonar/radar display... that fails even to pay off with a climactic blip when Isolde's ship arrives.

One could try coaxing out from all this some deep critique of romantic subjectivity, but it seems to me that a simpler explanation is best: Trelinski just isn't interested in it. He is interested in - and delivers - striking, slick, contemporary, and expensive-looking visuals. The inner story - as in last season's double-bill of Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle - seems not at all to be registered in its actual sense, and is therefore misunderstood into the movie-drama terms that generate more high-conflict situations and visuals.

(And so Trelinski, last season, turned Bartok and Balazs's melancholy masterpiece - which transforms the Bluebeard story, as Dukas and Maeterlinck less felicitously did before him, to explore the classic postromantic theme of human distance, specifically here the limits of intimacy, possession, and (Judith's!) jealousy - into an abominably imperceptive horror flick. I'm not sure which was worse, the nonsensical nature of this take or its uncritical reception.)

But the history of directors being engaged and re-engaged during Gelb's tenure suggests that Trelinski was hired simply on the basis of visual interest, with success (e.g. Minghella's now decade-old Butterfly) or utter failure (e.g. the Lepage Ring) in capturing the human threads of the opera irrelevant unless the latter (as with that Ring) results in bad publicity and discontent. This show should have had that effect, but perhaps didn't.

*     *     *

The reason was the musical performance: not the best Tristan of the last few decades in any single aspect, but lacking particular weaknesses either. Stuart Skelton, debuting in this run, was the biggest surprise, with a pleasing clear (for a heldentenor) sound that stood up reasonably well through the rigors of the part. Phrasing and interpretation were a bit square, so it was left to Rattle and soprano Nina Stemme (much better supported here than in the misguided Elektra of the spring) to convey most of the sentiment of the show. This they did well, with Stemme (voice unflagging) capping the night by with her own rapt success amidst the only successful part of the production.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The festival

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Glyndebourne Festival, 6/11/2016
Finley, Majeski, Hipp, Schade, Portillo, Kupfer, Miles / Güttler

After the audience's heartfelt 90th-birthday rendition of "God Save the Queen", when the curtain went up on the charming early-19th-century dress of the first scene's churchgoers, I began to hope that (Dürer painting notwithstanding) David McVicar had dared a grand bit of appropriation for Glyndebourne's first Meistersinger production (premiered five years back), moving the characters if not all the action across the Channel to Regency England. And why not? For the opera holds its central place neither for historical specificity nor historical influence, but for Wagner's final-act enactment of the festival ideal: a rightness covering all visible creation in that meadow, born of private harmony, art, and the public's recognition and celebration of those things and itself. If Glyndebourne has approached this glory it should be willing to hint at it... though perhaps that's my particularly American opinion.

In any case, after the tea-drinking of the Masters during and the Silly Walk of Jochen Kupfer's Beckmesser closing Act I, both the scenic and human space of the show turns unmistakably Catholic-German - and, despite some apparently obligatory interview talk about politics and whatnot, quite familiar to one used to traditional versions like the Met's. The one notable addition is the suggestion, as in McVicar's subsequent Cav, of the lurking potential of rivalrous group violence, here not just at the end of Act II but in fact at the start of the Act III procession between the various guild groups. (This actually does allude to the Wagner-politics stuff without giving the whole scene over to it.) The one notable subtraction is of the meadow and water prominent in Wagner's last-part scene-setting... and around Glyndebourne itself. Perhaps this is to fit all the people on the relatively small stage, perhaps to make the overall effect a bit more stark (there is no relief from the moods and actions of the people, whether in revelry, tension, or joy). Beckmesser does not leave the stage after his attempt but sits to the side, turned away, aghast at his failure - and is generally included in the Masters' solidarity when they are offended by Walther's rejection. As in the last Met revival, there's too much last-scene fiddling by Kothner and the other Masters with Walther's written text, which really needs to be put aside given that he changes (and improves) most of the words between composition and performance. In other words, there are some tweaks but it's the familiar Meistersinger story overall.

*     *     *

The success, therefore, was in the performers' hands, and they did terrifically. Gerald Finley has done Hans Sachs elsewhere (a few months ago in Paris) since his 2011 role debut with this production, but he probably shouldn't: even in the 1200-seat Glyndebourne house his essentially lyric bass-baritone showed some strain. Yet if his Sachs was never vocally dominant, his focused tragic characterization was the deep-felt heart of the final act. Before its action, we see him contemplate what seems to be a portrait of his dead wife, and all of his interactions with Eva are much more seriously taken than usual - through to his near-inconsolable loss of purpose after talking Walther into joining the Masters.

It helps that the other outstanding performance was that of American soprano Amanda Majeski (one of three alums/members of Chicago's Ryan Opera Center in the cast). Her Eva was exactly what her Met debut (on opening night 2014) seemed to promise: not forward and dominant but unmissably charming and eloquent, carrying in her expressive vibrato and attractive, emotionally transparent person all of Eva's glory and burden as the young bearer of all value within her social world. If the first phrase of "O Sachs! Mein Freund" was a bit shaky, the clarity of the subsequent Quintet opening/climax and the lovely trill after the Prize Song more than made up for it. I look forward to hearing much more of her in Strauss and lighter Wagner.

The weak link of the group was, as often happens, the Walther. Michael Schade was never a particular favorite of mine in his lyric tenor days - though reliable enough, he wasn't one to deliver the pure tonal pleasure one might get from others in that repertory. In the last few years the German-Canadian has transitioned to heavier parts - e.g. Florestan, Max, Walther - in which getting reliably through with a decent enough sound is much more valuable. Unfortunately Schade barely got through this brutal Wagnerian role, and his physical presence has become stiff and a bit lumpy. Nothing to ruin the show's pleasure, but not a plus either.

It was Texan (and second Ryan Center alum) David Portillo who actually took the tenor prize this time, singing David with a lyric ease and eloquence I hadn't expected to hear since Matthew Polenzani outgrew the part. No less impressive was the other half of the second couple, Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp. Her Lene was not only strongly sung but - with McVicar's help - a more youthful, sympathetic, and perky one than usual, fitting complement to Majeski's Eva as well as Portillo's David.

Replacing sharp character singer Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser was the new-to-Glyndebourne German baritone Jochen Kupfer. Unlike most of his predecessors in the part, Kupfer has striking height, physical presence, and a lead singer's instrument. So the character that comes out is not at all prissy or small, but eccentric and obliviously self-absorbed. The Silly Walks gag that's characteristic of his take (which recurs at the start of Act III) makes rather better sense of Beckmesser than any Meyerbeer nonsense. (After all, the main problem with Meyerbeer today is that Wagner too strongly adopted his ridiculous dramatic model.) He and Finley's Sachs were just the most extreme of the show's strongly-characterized set of Masters (which also included Alistair Miles' Pogner, much more English and uncertain than usual.) The third Ryan Center singer, incidentally, was 2014 Met Council winner Patrick Guetti as the Night-watchman, not as strikingly authoritative here as on that afternoon, but still showing much promise and strength.

*     *     *

The sound balance of the new theater at Glyndebourne is a bit like that of the Met's Balcony Boxes: the orchestra (here the London Philharmonic) is gloriously present - here particularly the mid-bass sound from the strings - while the singers aren't so strongly forward, at least against the full-sized Wagner orchestra. If you expect a more singer-prominent balance (such as that of the covered pit at Bayreuth) it may be an issue, but I didn't find it much of a detriment. German conductor Michael Güttler - a regular guest in St. Petersburg and Vienna, acting as late fill-in for ailing music director Robin Ticciati - gave a well-proportioned and well-felt account of Wagner's long masterpiece.

Every worthy Meistersinger is an awakening, so I hope this one opened some new eyes.

Friday, June 03, 2016

The heir is named

As predicted and hoped, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be the Met's next music director, though it will be "-designate" until the 2020 season. (Official video.) Interestingly, the thoroughest article is from Philadelphia, where he will stay on while dropping other more far-flung obligations.

The local press is, of course, flogging its usual "newer music" cause, but the core job of Nezet-Seguin's preliminary and early years will be to shape the company's own understanding of what it is and what it does. Despite the Gelb regime's apparent recent belief to the contrary, being comes before selling.

The best incidental reveal from all this? New Traviata in 2018-19! I look forward to being able to recommend the show again.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The (off-topic) new

It was relatively unheralded when it premiered, but Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy (playing tonight, tomorrow, and Monday in ABT's Met season) easily outshines anything else premiered at the Met this century. I suppose that's a fairly low bar, so let's leave comparisons aside and just call it significant. I'm still befuddled at how much better and more natural Ratmansky's story-telling is in non-story ballets like this set (or this week's premiere piece, the Serenade) than in his forthrightly narrative works. And as the moral degradation of the visible world continues, Shostakovich's attempts at order in his awful context seem ever more central.

More opera coverage soon and through next month.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The future

The other shoe dropped at the Metropolitan Opera last week, with James Levine now officially out (effective next month) as music director. At the moment, nothing is much different, with the only lineup change a year from now in the new Carsen Rosenkavalier, now to be conducted by the prolific TBA.

The change will come when a new man takes up the post. We approach the tenth anniversary of Peter Gelb's sole management of the house, and with the press alternately cheerleading and distracted by side issues and Levine hampered first by his Boston work and later by his much-discussed health problems, Met offerings have more and more reflected Gelb's and only Gelb's idea of the art. The general aesthetic stagnation has characterized most of the latter half of Gelb's tenure. (2013's Parsifal and Falstaff were stupendous exceptions... there has also been some glorious singing, but most of it's been by those Gelb did not himself prefer.)

Whether or not the new music director will have the experience or weight to much affect the course of the institution right away, his institutional presence and likely longevity in the post make it probable that this will be the single most important decision of the Gelb era. The most characteristic choice would have been Fabio Luisi - skilled, European, and interpretively chilly - but fortunately that's much less likely now. To me, the wonder is that the current obvious choice would be a good one: young French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who debuted here as the best part of the Eyre Carmen in 2009 and took over at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. Though his operatic repertoire is still limited, each of his Met runs has been electric, balancing a natural sense of the larger-scale shape with the dramatic urgency and fire too often missing in the house. He's also - and it seems to matter as far as getting the job - young, engaging, and easily marketable. Philadelphia offered an optimistic-sounding statement that didn't exactly answer the question (as indeed they couldn't).

I have, of course, heard complaints about Nezet-Seguin's imprecise technical stick work, which may be why we see a name like Gianandrea Noseda, a former Gergiev protege, also prominent in the rumor mill. Noseda wouldn't be a terrible choice for the same reason that he wouldn't be a particularly good choice: although he's proficient and certainly has been exciting at times, he's still a little musically faceless. If we're to look at recent guest conductors besides Yannick, Nicola Luisotti (currently at SFO) and Daniele Gatti (about to take over at the Concertgebouw) made much stronger impressions in recent years.

We'll see.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Elektra: a comedy for music

Elektra - Metropolitan Opera, 4/14/2016
Stemme, Pieczonka, Meier, Owens, Ulrich / Salonen

Though I came into the house thinking on previous Elektras (including, of course, Christine Goerke's epochal account at Carnegie Hall in October), the actual event looks more significantly back to Esa-Pekka Salonen's and Patrice Chereau's 2009 Met debuts in Janacek's setting of From the House of the Dead. Like that show we get supertitles projected onto stage walls near the characters (Met titles are disabled, though the onstage words must be illegible from far away) and a maximally drab, cheap-looking, and relatively featureless physical production. The echoes mark this as the third attempt by Gelb and the Met this season - after Lulu and Manon Lescaut to go back to the well from which they got a well-received production in the past. All made their directors' previous successes look worse in retrospect.

For while the subpar choices in Chereau's Dostoevsky/Janacek show were decorative ones that did not impede the course of the opera, here Chereau and Salonen's choices worked together to remove the bloody, compulsive, tragic, Dionysian character that defines this piece. Chereau himself is, of course, dead, and not having seen the original 2013 run of his version I leave some space for the possibility that the followers and adapters who've had their hands on this staging deserve some or much of the responsibility. But surely the drabness of not only the costumes but the allowed body language was largely his, as certainly was the literalizing dullness of having Aegisth's death (and Klytemnestra's body) onstage and Elektra's non-death end with her sitting down on a stone bench as Orest inexplicably walks out the front gate (a really silly re-explanation of Chrysothemis's final cries).

In any case Salonen's conducting indisputably drives the show. It is, in its way, incredibly accomplished. He draws out details and textures with a control and clarity that speak volumes of his skill both in conceiving the score and in obtaining a unity of purpose from the orchestra. And yet... that's all he seems to be interested in. In achieving these ends Salonen homogenizes the emotional extremity of the piece - Elektra's primal cry of loss and accusation, Chrysothemis's desire for desire, Klytemnestra's creepy, poisonous dreams and hangers-on - all are rendered within a narrow expressive range so as to make Strauss's explosive score into well-crafted film music that reflects these distinct impulses only indistinctly at a remove. Indeed, as I listened through the actually boring first half of the performance, I believed Salonen was too-cleverly extremely-slow-playing the buildup to the Recognition and subsequent series of climaxes, which in their frenzy would justify to most the non-tragic dramatic slackness of the initial scenes. No such luck: though Eric Owens and Nina Stemme did their best to make something of the Recognition, interest from the pit only really perked up during the later semi-comic scene with Aegisth. This was, in fact, rendered exquisitely, and I'd certainly be interested in hearing Salonen conduct a later Strauss opera (perhaps he could draw a proper civilized comedy out of Egyptian Helen?), but the main point of the opera is nevertheless missed. By a mile.

The main cast (particularly Waltraud Meier, whose Klytemnestra came closest to being distinct) seemed each to be working in the proper vein for his or her character, but again the orchestra limited their expressive range with a sound not only emotionally homogenized but too loudly so.

One closing jeer to whomever decided to pipe the (choral) shouts greeting Orest after the slayings into the house over speakers.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Two Puccinis

Manon Lescaut - Metropolitan Opera, 3/8/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Cavalletti, Sherratt / Luisi

Madama Butterfly - Metropolitan Opera, 4/2/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Zifchak, Croft / Chichon

The end of Manon Lescaut's run here was less awful than its beginning. No, the production didn't get any more palatable (and I should mention, as I didn't last time, that the couple ending up in a bombed-out version of their initial meeting spaces further misreads the linear progression of the story into a circular one), but Roberto Alagna had worked himself up to singing des Grieux more respectably. This, unfortunately, made Kristine Opolais's lack of success more evident. Her Manon won't even look at des Grieux, much less engage emotionally with him.

But her Butterfly works. Her interpersonal affect is still relatively chilly - not reserved, as would befit the young Japanese girl, but oddly disengaged - and so the first act is the least engaging. The next acts, however, play more to her strengths. Here Butterfly's emotional course is set - a full-throated longing reversed on itself - and backed up by pit and production. So the energy and full-force sound (most expressive in its middle) Opolais pretty easily maintains through this arc becomes an unmissable virtue, and the lack of expressive detail (musical or physical), fatal to her Manon Lescaut (who must fascinate), becomes secondary.

Alagna, too, is helped by the specifics of this later Puccini opera. Pinkerton just isn't as strenuous a sing as (Puccini's) des Grieux, nor is the relatively unvaried vocal color he shows even at his strongest these days particularly missed in this role. It's a bit odd for the American soldier to be significantly shorter than his Japanese teenage bride, but Alagna does convey Pinkerton's youthful carelessness quite well. (In fact, given Opolais's characteristically imprecise acting, he often seems younger than Butterfly!) Meanwhile, it seems like Dwayne Croft has been singing Sharpless forever, and his account is as admirably humane as always.

The main thing that changed since Manon Lescaut, though, is the quality of the production. There's really no such thing as a performer-proof show, but this first and only Met production of Anthony Minghella has proven pretty close. As long as the singers are working with the opera and not against it, the images and framing of the production tell its story in stark, powerful form. And whether the principals pay attention to detail or not, the setting's little touches are preserved in the character parts - and the odd but distinctive movements of the puppet son.

Debuting conductor Karel Mark Chichon kept everything moving in the right direction and with the right proportions, but wasn't particularly outstanding. The credit for this event's success seems principally to be Minghella's.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The old lady

Roberto Devereux - Metropolitan Opera, 3/24/2016
Polenzani, Radvanovsky, Garanca, Kwiecien / Benini

This premiere was an event, but not - as Maria Stuarda was (in the best way), a one-woman show. Polenzani, Garanca, and Kwiecien provided the first strong side cast of the trilogy, one that could hold attention even with the queen offstage. But, whether from nerves, indisposition, or something else, Radvanovsky's breath didn't have the effortless full-scale pop that usually rings the house - and the bodies of those listening within - like a bell. She powered through the night, and bore the drama and crowd adulation quite well, but we'll see what this week's performances bring.

David McVicar's staging brings an interesting conceit, perhaps building on his Cav/Pag: courtiers are always watching, whether from the ground (the more public scenes) or from the onstage rafters (the more private). Only at Devereux's final scene, as he expects human intervention that never arrives, are they wholly absent, making for a striking effect one might recall from an proper staging of Manon Lescaut. McVicar, acting as his own set designer, and costume collaborator Moritz Junge (who also worked on Cav/Pag) have made the most handsome of the Tudor productions without departing much from that period.

More on further viewing.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Met Council Finals 2016

A pretty well-developed group this year: though only a few stood out, none did anything really objectionable either. Keep that in mind as you read the comments below.

Brian Vu (baritone, 26)
The first of four (!) baritones gamely kicked the show off with an energetically phrased and acted Largo al factotum. His focused, dark lyric sound registered well in the house, but Valentin's aria showed the still-somewhat-basic state of his (non-comic) interpretations.

Emily D'Angelo (mezzo, 21)
The most notable voice of the afternoon was this young Canadian lyric mezzo's: just hearing her clear, slightly-rippling sound actually gave me gooseflesh. Comfortable on stage, D'Angelo registered both the comic contrasts of Rosina's music lesson and the overheated seriousness of Erika's question with equal aplomb. She's still young, and the extreme ends of her range might do with more development, but D'Angelo seems already to know (and communicate) - musically - who she is. Let's hope the magic in her tone remains as her career launches.

Sol Jin (baritone, 30)
The second baritone and first Merola singer was, as the only thirty-year-old in this young group, a bit of a ringer. The Korean hasn't wasted those years, either: his interpretive faculty is hugely developed. Actually, at the start it seemed perhaps to have been too developed, as Jin let his emotional-scenic conception of Di provenza get in the way of its musical shape (and even, at some phrase ends, pitches). But he did build to a magnificent climax, and eased any concerns with a barn-burner of a sing through Yeletsky's aria. Jin's sound, though not quite a match for, say, Peter Mattei's in 2011, is quite strong enough for his interpretive authority to cast its spell.

Lauren Feider (soprano, 23)
I like Feider's basic sound - medium-weight, focused, and (when finished) pretty versatile - but she's not a finished product. She negotiated the difficult hurdles of the Strauss pretty well (though not with perfect uniformity), and showed a bit of warmth in the Britten, but what Feider didn't manage was to show much of an interpretive perspective in the process. Also, she was one of the less comfortable on stage and in her physical presence.

Sean Michael Plumb (baritone, 24)
Plumb, a Curtis Institute student and the third baritone, had the most naturally expansive sound of the baritone group, making for an easy, well-sung account of the Donizetti. The Tchaikovsky was probably a bit too heroically aggressive for him at this point, though he may grow into it.

Jonas Hacker (tenor, 27)
Despite doing many things correctly and showing a nice breath, this AVA singer's instrument seemed, at this point, too small-scale to work properly at the Met. There was just too much effortfulness in Hacker's sound here, especially on top, and he was therefore unable to convey much overall shape or idea.

Theo Hoffmann (baritone, 22)
For this local (Juilliard) product and final baritone of the day, I had the same impression as for Hacker - insufficient vocal scale to make either the delicacy of the Korngold or the intensity of the Gluck really tell in the big house. Hoffmann is young, though, so who knows what may come.

Jakub Jozef Orlinski (countertenor, 25)
I found the Pole-by-way-of-Juilliard's singing rather monochrome, as countertenors characteristically are, but also surprisingly labored in the Handel's coloratura. Home-team enthusiasm from the crowd notwithstanding, I found Orlinski quite ordinary compared to 2012 winner Andrey Nemzer.

Yelena Dyachek (soprano, 24)
This Ukrainian by way of California was entirely trained in the USA, so I probably shouldn't call the wide vibrato that mars too many of her notes "Eastern European"... Dyachek, like Feider but unlike her fellow Merola singer Jin, is a work in progress. She has the largest-scale voice of the women (and perhaps of everyone here), and it's not really tamed - different sounds and productions came out at various points, especially in the Mozart. (Interestingly, the best parts of that for her were the tricky coloratura passages.) The Tchaikovsky, unsurprisingly, was much more natural, and showed her voice in the best light. There are still seams, though, and a long way to go before the voice is whole and wholly nice to hear.

*     *     *

The judges - six from the Met, three from other companies - picked D'Angelo, Jin, Plumb, Orlinski, and Dyachek as winners. A friend joked at intermission that Orlinski would win no matter what, as countertenor finalists always do... unfortunately, this was correct. The rest of the choices were fair. As in previous years, the obvious winner(s) - here D'Angelo and Jin - were kept in suspense until the end: after Plumb, Dyachek, and Orlinski were announced, hostess Deborah Voigt miscounted the remaining winners (saying one instead of two) before making Steve Harvey jokes with guest singer Eric Owens. Amusing, I suppose, unless you're waiting in the wings with your heart beating out of your chest!

Antony Walker accompanied admirably.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The rivals

Cavalleria Rusticana
Pagliacci - Metropolitan Opera, 2/6/2016
Urmana, Costa-Jackson, Lee, Maestri / Luisi
Frittoli, Berti, Gagnidze, Lavrov, Stevenson / Luisi

This David McVicar production, the under-recognized success of last season, returned with some cast changes in 2016. In its original run, George Gagnidze sang both baritone leads and Marcelo Alvarez sang both tenor leads, which was a neat but unrevealing stunt. Here there was no duplication, just two groups singing to strong effect.

McVicar's Cav is revelatory from its very start. The circle of chairs that form the initial scene suggest, as no literal staging has done, the mutual examination and ever-imminent rivalries of a one-square town. Everyone snoops, everyone is jealous... until the circle dissolves into daily bustle. Eventually the dangerous all-human circle is transformed in the Easter service into a pure, singing whole: the adoring ordered ranks facing the divine sign before them (in joy) instead of each other (in potential rivalry). But the fallen girl Santuzza's (self?) exclusion holds the tension of the setup just outside the church, and as she's reabsorbed into the scene it forms, in Mama Lucia's tavern, into small groups with that original danger now again close. And, rivalry now enflamed by Santuzza (carrying out her own, non-face-to-face rivalry with the walk-on Lola), the men circle again as Turridu's group faces Alfio's before their offstage duel.

The crowd shapes, all by themselves, reflect at every point the tension of the tale, and McVicar's minimalization of other visual elements (including the color palette) give this part of the double-bill a primal character.

The latter part - Pag - is quite different in style, and the meaning of the shift didn't become clear to me in the show's original run last season. In this revival, absent cast crossover between halves, it's obvious: the bare-bones human scene of the first part has acquired a self-reflective layer, the play-within-a-play that dominates the opera and production. It begins in the prologue, where Tonio appears as emcee (with mic) before what's later revealed to be the troupe's show curtain, and as the curtain rises on apparently the same town square a half-century after Cav we see more mess, more color... and the electrical and telephone wires that signal modernity. In this new world, the troupe's truck and its stage occupy and expand the Cav-era altarpiece's position in the community: center, focus, and maintainer of its peace.

This centerpiece, of course, moves. It reflects and makes light of the viewers' rivalries and frustrations rather than just dissolving them for a time. And perhaps because of this there's a more pervasive peace and relaxation in the town. The locals sit in orderly rows facing the performance, but before then even the troupe's arrival is enough for a festive welcome. (Of course, the performance is going on even during this welcome, as the silent members of the troupe, in a very nice addition by McVicar, help unload and unpack the truck Three Stooges-style.) But those who don't get to watch the show - primarily Canio and Tonio, more or less analogous in their rivalries to Alfio and Santuzza respectively - still feel the old poisons of jealousy and envy.

*     *     *

Roberto Alagna was originally scheduled to sing Canio in this run, before Kaufmann's cancellation from Manon Lescaut pulled him into that dud. His replacement was Marco Berti, whose work in the radio matinee seems to have elicited some negative responses. Now in Verdi his lopsided force-to-refinement ratio can certainly be faulted, but in the house, in this less orderly context, the huge unfettered sound of his despair made for a great and appreciated success. Call him "Barco Merti" if you like, but with affection.

The scale of Berti's work matched, as an Alagna success would have not, that of the night's most thorough success - spinto tenor Yonghoon Lee as Turridu in the double bill's opener. With veteran mezzo-turned-dramatic soprano Violeta Urmana now hindered by declining high notes as well as her characteristically deliberate, longer-time-scale approach that works better in Wagner, it's left to Lee to convey the urgency of the story. This he did magnificently, making the climax of the action - Turridu's farewell to his mother - the emotional and sonic climax as well.

All others did their bit effectively as well - not least Marty Keiser, Andy Sapora, and Joshua Wynter, who reprised their actual (silent) clowning in Pag from last season's original run.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The decorator

Manon Lescaut - Metropolitan Opera, 2/12/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Cavalletti, Sherratt / Luisi

It will perhaps be common opinion that this new production of Puccini's first great masterpiece fell apart with the late cancellation of tenor Jonas Kaufmann. But in fact I suspect it was doomed much earlier than that, specifically when director Richard Eyre came to the conclusion that
"Manon is not an innocent" at the beginning of the opera[...] "I've always thought that she's getting sent to the convent by her father, because she's been with too many boys in the village, and she's getting a reputation."
(From William Berger's preview piece in the current Playbill.) This choice, though reasonable as psychological extrapolation, led Eyre's production fatally astray in several different ways.

First, shifting Manon's nature at the start of the action to better account for what's later breaks the structure of the story. This opera, like all of Puccini's, is an artfully constructed work, perhaps his most profound. As I wrote at the previous Met staging:
Puccini's Manon Lescaut makes it not only over the sea but thereby, in the fourth act, beyond human society altogether. The effect is perhaps not even as "Italian" as it is modern -- at least as remarkably so as the Wagnerian influence on the score.

Puccini and his gaggle of librettists and script doctors -- who here assembled perhaps (along with La Forza del Destino) the most unfairly-maligned libretto in the canon -- set up the contrast of this "desert" finale with an extraordinary set of three preceding acts. They do not, of course, tell a thorough story (only Acts II and III straightforwardly follow each other, and it's in this least eventful gap that Puccini put the opera's intermezzo). But each enacts the characteristic action of the opera (and maybe of opera itself) -- Manon becoming, as she needs, the center of an attentive crowd -- in ever-less-innocent (and ever-more-striking) form. Puccini repeatedly and memorably juxtaposes the soloists' own expressions (particularly Manon's) with a watchful chorus' background. He of course used the chorus in other memorable ensembles later, but never as repeatedly and singlemindedly as for Manon Lescaut. When it's wholly gone, at the end, the absence is stunning, almost incomprehensible: in a sense, that's the true (and fatal) desert.
She must be innocent at the beginning, whether that would be likely in a real-life example or not, because Puccini calls back to that innocence as both immediate (in musical echo) and large-scale (in the progression of the acts) contrast. With Opolais's Manon bizarrely vamping even at the initial flight, there's no light to contrast with the greed, desperation, and death that follow.

Second, focusing on Manon's likely psychology ignores Des Grieux's -- and the audience's. He never sees her innocent first love, never witnesses flashes of it on later meetings (though she still sings about it, as the text and music haven't changed), so what keeps him attached to her even as everything else around her becomes wretched? Even worse, why should we in the audience feel sympathy for the comeuppance of a thorough narcissist? The production's only answer seems to be something along the lines of "she's hot".

Third, the lack of contrasting elements gives Kristine Opolais pitifully little to work with. Perhaps a different soprano might have come up with something else to play up, but deprived of her character's most obvious inner conflict Opolais ended up giving the same energetic but joyless one-note stage performance in every act.

*     *     *

Looking more closely at Eyre's direction of Opolais brings us to what may be the main issue: the overall conceit. What surprised me throughout this opening night was how a production that looked so tantalizing in the promotional glimpses could end up so lifeless. The problem, it turns out is that "film noir" is a fruitful conceit for set and costume design ideas, but an empty one for stage direction. You can dress your soprano as an old Hollywood femme fatale, but you can't in any useful way carry over physical presentation from film into an art where singers are seen from a fixed perspective at rather long distance while projecting their voices into a huge, if resonant, space. And yet the incoherent emptiness of the stage interaction suggests that Eyre and his associates were content to limit personal direction to some failed stabs in that direction.

Nor is the directorial failure merely one of doing too little: in the middle acts it's Eyre's additions that step on Puccini's story. The Act II dance lesson is given a hugely cynical treatment, with Manon's admirers, (non-textual) dance partner, the dance, and Geronte himself rendered as unsympathetic lechers. As with Eyre's cynical take on Manon, this is somewhat plausible psychological extrapolation that is contrary to both the opera's text and its sense. For this scene intentionally echoes the audience's own experience of the opera, and to have the viewers - and viewership itself! - therein shown as wholly contemptible and held by the heroine in contempt is pure poison. (In the 2008 run Mattila's irrepressible thrill in their admiration, as shallow as it and they may have been, contrarily made instant sense of Manon's tragedy and evergreen appeal.) Act III is a simpler failure. Here the team had apparently spent so much effort on the costumes and brazenness of the prostitutes that they allowed this business to hide and sideline the here-drab heroine.

We are a long, long way from the ultra-specific acuity of Eyre's Carmen and even Figaro. Perhaps it's just having fewer and less explicit events to work with than in those operas - most of the stuff we remember from Massenet's setting occurs between the acts. But the disparity in attention and achievement between the visual and human sides of the staging - opera as interior decoration - seems all too in line with the characteristic Gelb-era production, from the Lepage Ring to Kentridge's Lulu. There is a skeleton for a successful Manon Lescaut production here... But it would require a full overhaul of all the personenregie, probably without Eyre's involvement.

*     *     *

Musically, Luisi was excellent, as were singers in some of the smaller roles: Brandon Cedel as a Sargeant, Richard Bernstein as the Captain, and debuting 2015 Met Council winner Virginie Verrez, though debuting tenor Zach Borichevsky did not impress. Unfortunately the principals were less satisfying. Opolais was probably the best, but as strong as her well-grounded sound was through its bottom and middle, she went repeatedly flat on higher notes. Massimo Cavalletti was adequate but not particularly appealing, which leaves Roberto Alagna. Alagna's voice can more or less still sustain a weight sufficient for Puccini's Des Grieux, but only at the cost of a monochrome, ugly tone without steadiness or line. To be frank, he sounded finished, and though Gelb's decision to emergency sub Alagna in for the run after Kaufmann's cancellation might have prevented some pre-run ticket returns, it - barring some miracle after the opener - has done everyone a disservice.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The 2016-17 Met season announcement, annotated

Productions are in order; bold indicates a debut; I may have omitted some one-off cast combos. On the whole, there are some things to look forward to, but with Gelb going all in again on his favored Euro sopranos of a certain demeanor, it's a lot less appetizing than the current season. Good casts seem paired with poor productions and vice versa.

Tristan (new Mariusz Treliński production)
Stemme, Skelton, Gubanova, Nikitin, Pape / Rattle (September-October)
Stemme, Skelton, Gubanova, Nikitin, Pape / Fisch (October)
One of the successes of the late-Volpe era gets replaced by a director whose strength -- and, as this fits the Gelb director profile, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised -- is in wallpaper and whose insight/interest in the human side is vestigial. Stemme and Pape are major cornerstones, but Skelton hasn't been inspiring. Simon Rattle may do well, but when might Daniele Gatti return after his stupendously concentrated Parsifals?

Don Giovanni
Keenlyside, Plachetka, Gerzmava, Byström, Malfi, Villazon, Rose, Youn / Luisi (September-October)
Abdrazakov, Rose, Byström, Majeski, Sierra, Vargas, Plachetka, Youn / Luisi (November)
Kwiecien, Schrott, Meade, Rebeka, Leonard, Polenzani, Cha, Kocán / Domingo (April-May)
The November cast -- with longtime Leporello Ildar Abdrazakov finally swapping to the title role -- is probably the pick of these, although the October 15 performance with Paul Appleby as Ottavio is also an option. Schrott's fantastic Leporello could make something of the spring cast... but Domingo's awful conducting makes that exceedingly unlikely.

La Boheme
Yoncheva, Phillips, Popov, Bizic, Pogossov, Green, Del Carlo / Rizzi (September-October)
Opolais, Kele, Beczala, Cavaletti, Carfizzi, Green/TBA, Del Carlo / Armiliato (November-December)
Pérez, Phillips, Fabiano, Arduini, Lavrov, Van Horn, Del Carlo / Rizzi (January)
Carlo Rizzi is conducting again at the Met!? Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov and Romanian soprano Brigitta Kele debut in different casts. The most notable combo may be the last: Michael Fabiano's last Rodolfo here was not only great in itself, but seemed to take decades of age and cynicism off of Angela Gheorghiu as Mimi. Perhaps he can similarly inspire fellow Tucker winner Ailyn Perez.

L'Italiana in Algieri
DeShong, Barbera, Alaimo, Abdrazakov / Levine (October)
Elizabeth DeShong goes from bit parts to the title part in this Rossini revival, opposite veteran wonder Ildar Abdrazakov and 2008 Met Council winner Rene Barbera.

Guillaume Tell (new Pierre Audi production)
Rebeka, Brugger, Pizzolato, Hymel, Finley, Spotti, Youn, Relyea / Luisi (October-November)
The strong cast -- led by Bryan Hymel (except for one night, November 2, where it's John Osborn) finally again in his element as Arnold -- and rarity of this Rossini opera would make it an obvious highlight if not for the weakness of Audi's previous Met production. That Attila was at least watchable, however, so this show can probably survive.

Dyka, Mattila, Schwarz, Brenna, Kaiser / Robertson (October-November)
For a dozen years, Karita Mattila was the unacknowledged raison d'être of the Metropolitan Opera, returning year after year to repeatedly re-embody the secret of tragic opera -- the excess of life and spirit that pushes back against awful circumstance -- in runs that were as significant as they were (generally) under-promoted. This ended with spring 2012's run of The Makropulos Case. Four-plus years later, Mattila returns in an opera and production she triumphed in twice... but she's now in the older-woman role of the Kostelnička. (You can see Mattila in this new part in San Francisco this summer.) Interestingly, another long-absent singer -- Hanna Schwarz, once a regular with the house Ring company, who has in fact been gone since 2002 -- returns to sing the Grandmother. Unfortunately Jiri Bělohlávek, Mattila's great collaborator in the pit, does not return. But David Robertson will surely do better in Janacek than in Mozart... right?

Monastyrska, Gubanova, Berti, Delavan, Belosselskiy, Howard / Armiliato (November)
Moore, Gubanova, Berti, Delavan, Belosselskiy, Howard / Armiliato (November-December)
Stoyanova, Urmana, de Leon, Gagnidze, Morris, Howard / Rustioni (March-April)
Stoyanova/Moore, Urmana, Massi, Gagnidze, Morris, Howard / Rustioni (April)
Liudmyla Monastyrska and Latonia Moore have already sung the title part at the Met: the former did not impress but the latter apparently did. Marco Berti is probably miscast as Radames, though I know nothing about alternate tenors Riccardo Massi, who's sung one performance at the Met, and Jorge de Leon, who's sung none.

Manon Lescaut
Netrebko, Álvarez, Maltman, Sherratt / Armiliato (November-December)
Marcelo Alvarez should bring something to this stillborn production (full review soon), but I'd be surprised if Anna Netrebko could fix its many title-character-related issues.

L'Amour de Loin (Met premiere production by Robert Lepage)
Phillips, Mumford, Owens / Mälkki (December)
Excellent cast for an iffy opera and show.

Naglestad, Herrera, Siegel, Wang, Lučić / Debus (December)
German-based American soprano Catherine Naglestad has had success with the title part abroad and heads a promising cast. (Like many New Yorkers, though, what I'd really like to see is whether Gun-Brit Barkmin could repeat her recent triumph in a fully staged version). Greer Grimsley sings Jochanaan on the run's final night.

Monastyrska, Barton, Thomas, Domingo, Belosselskiy / Levine (December-January)
Melnychenko, Herrera, Diegel, Lučić, Belosselskiy / Levine (Dec 27)
Levine and the chorus have already made this show work with lesser principals. Lucic also has one show with the main cast on Dec 30.

Roméo et Juliette (new Bartlett Sher production)
Damrau, Verrez, Grigolo, Madore, Petrenko / Noseda (NYE-January)
Yende, Murrihy, Costello, Wang, Rose / Noseda (March)
As in this season's Pearl Fishers, Amanda Woodbury is scheduled for one night (Jan 25) with the initial cast. That night aside, the March cast looks on the whole more promising from top to bottom.

Magic Flute (family version in English)
Claire/Brugger, Pratt, Bliss/TBA, Maltman, Shenyang, Robinson / Walker (December-January)
Claire, Lewek, Bliss, Maltman, Shenyang, Robinson / Walker (December-January)
Kathryn Lewek is the best Queen of the Night I've ever heard. But of course I haven't heard Aussie (by way of England and Italy) soprano Jessica Pratt...

Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Yende, Camarena, Mattei, Muraro, Petrenko / Benini (January)
Yende, Korchak, Mattei, Muraro/Lanchas, Petrenko/Gradus / Benini (January-February)
It's characteristic of the Gelb regime's misallocation of roles and promotional opportunities that Peter Mattei, the definitive Don Giovanni and Onegin of our era (not to mention Amfortas or Wolfram), appears this season only in a part he's not particularly good at: Rossini's Figaro. And I'm sure he and Yende and Benini will provide some fun... but it's still a waste.

Koch, Agresta, Álvarez, Ketelsen / Ettinger (January)
Margaine, Agresta/Brugger, Álvarez, Ketelsen/Simpson / Ettinger/Langree (February)
Sophie Koch, nondescript in her debut as Massenet's Charlotte, alternates with another French mezzo, Clémentine Margaine, in the title part. Micaela is also the second scheduled part this season for Janai Brugger, standout winner of the 2012 Met Council Finals.

Lučić, Peretyatko, Volkova, Costello, Mastroni / Morandi (January-February)
Lučić, Peretyatko, Herrera, Calleja, Kocán / Morandi (April)
Solid revival of a solid show. Debuting conductor and former La Scala oboist Pier Giorgio Morandi seems to have a career primarily of traveling around conducting Italian operas, though that doesn't really indicate quality either way.

Rusalka (new Mary Zimmerman production)
Opolais, Dalayman, Barton, Jovanovich, Owens / Elder (February-March)
I have a rather sour opinion of Opolais from last week's poor Manon Lescaut, but the rest of this show looks quite good.

I Puritani
Damrau, Camarena, Markov, Pisaroni / Benini (February)
If you think Diana Damrau is a convincing fragile bel canto heroine, you'll love this. I've not, however, seen evidence to that effect.

Grigolo, Christy, Leonard, Bizic / Gardner (February-March)
Borras, Christy, Leonard, Pershall / Gardner (March 9)
Italian mezzo Veronica Simenoni debuts with a single performance as Charlotte on February 23. Perhaps she or Isabel Leonard can give this romance-novel daydream of an opera some spirit.

La Traviata
Yoncheva, Fabiano, Hampson / Luisotti (February-March)
Giannattasio, Fabiano, Hampson / Luisotti (March)
Giannattasio, Ayan, Petean / Luisotti (March-April)
Giannattasio, Ayan, Domingo / Luisotti (April)
With Michael Fabiano singing Alfredo and Nicola Luisotti back for the first time since his 2010 Fanciulla triumph, the musical side of this revival is pretty appetizing. It nevertheless remains the worst production in the Met's repertoire.

Polenzani, Sierra, van den Heever, Coote, Opie / Levine
Not hugely confident in the overall cast, but Levine in Mozart is pure magic when things work. Lindemann soprano Ying Fang sings one performance instead of Sierra on March 17.

Pieczonka, Müller, Vogt, Portillo, Grimsley, Struckmann, Groissböck/Morris / Weigle (March-April)
Klaus Florian Vogt had a Met debut that almost defied belief: a never-to-be-forgotten pair of Lohengrins... in 2006. Whether because of casting politics, the failure of the press, the unearthly character of his voice, or his own travel preferences, Vogt's second Met engagement will be almost eleven years later. I'm not sure Florestan is the best part for him; nor am I sure of the rest of the cast. But this revival is something of an event.

Eugene Onegin
Hvorostovsky, Netrebko, Maximova, Dolgov, Kocán / Ticciati (March-April)
Anna Netrebko was a sullen, blank failure in the 2013 premiere of this production, and Elena Maximova was the worse of the Olgas that season. Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Stefan Kocan have, on the other hand, excelled as Onegin and as Gremin respectively. Which will set the show's tone? I suppose I'd have a better guess if I'd seen Robin Ticciati's only Met outing to date, the 2011 holiday run of Hansel&Gretel.

Der Rosenkavalier (new Robert Carsen production)
Fleming, Garanča, Morley, Groissböck, Polenzani, Brück / Levine
The allure of another Robert Carsen production (he's 2-for-2 on masterpieces at the Met) is greatly offset by a topsy-turvy cast. The Marschallin should be cool and Octavian fiery, but Fleming and Garanca are the reverse... not to mention how past it Fleming sounded in her last Met show (2014-15's Merry Widow). Morley should be OK and Polenzani better, but Levine has never been a good fit for this opera's lightness.

Der Fliegende Holländer
Volle, Wagner, Zajick, Morris, Bliss, Selig / Nézet-Séguin (April-May)
One of the few unqualified must-sees. Amber Wagner scored big here some seasons ago in Verdi, but she finally, a decade after her 2007 Met Council Finals win, gets a run in one of the parts for which she was destined. Add Michael Volle as the Dutchman and Yannick Nezet-Seguin in the pit? Great.

Cyrano de Bergerac
Alagna, Racette, Ayan, Frontali / Armiliato (May)
Speaking of old, both Roberto Alagna and Patricia Racette are already 50 and will be more than a year older when this revival appears. Men don't have menopause, but Alagna was struggling mightily in Manon Lescaut this month. The show was great fun with Domingo and Sondra Radvanovsky (unaccountably missing from the 2016-17 schedule); expect less this time.

50th Anniversary Gala
I'm not too pleased by the current lineup for this celebration of the New Met, and Crouch's work for the company 125th had both brilliance and inanity, but it's probably obligatory.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Is that all there is?

Lulu - Metropolitan Opera, 11/17/2015
Petersen, Reuter, Brenna, Graham, Groves, Grundheber / Koenigs

I'm not sure what was more disappointing: having my operagoing last fall be interrupted by mild but persistent health troubles or coming back to this new production. William Kentridge's Lulu was as inert and obfuscatory as his Nose five-and-a-half years ago was alive and illuminating. It was so poorly judged, in fact, that the earlier success seems quite tarnished.

Many of the surface features from the Shostakovich triumph were repeated here: hand-animated film backgrounds, non-naturalistic foreground acting, and the overall visual construction of the experience carried over. But Lulu is absolutely not the Nose. Both are, of course, products of the interwar period and broadly classifiable as modernist. But Shostakovich's opera is (as one might expect from a piece written in and for a world that went from the courtly constriction and autocracy of Imperial Russia straight to the peer-enforced mass-delusional kakocracy that is Communism) a piece that shows social position and role to be supreme and values, personal feeling, and logic itself to be transient or hopeless. In this aesthetic world the flatness and literal cutout nature of the individual players -- brilliantly highlighted by Kentridge's visual design -- is and accentuates the joke. Alban Berg's Lulu, on the other hand, is in a much more familiar modernist vein: here (as in Shostakovich's other familiar opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) it's the compulsions within each man -- for domination, sex, and murder -- that are supreme. It demands, as it got at the last Met revival, vivid individuals.

What we got from Kentridge, of course, was the same flattening, de-individuating, and trivializing presentation of his last Met show. It's not clear whether this is because he's basically a one-trick pony or because he (like Ring-director Robert Lepage) was altogether uninterested in the nonvisual side of the production and left it to his colleague, here co-director Luc de Wit (a Belgian of seemingly run-of-the-mill Eurononsense inclinations). In either case, Lulu's tragedy thereby got presented as pure nihilistic comedy... a wretched fit for both text and music.

The wasted opportunity was tremendous, for Marlis Petersen -- who's apparently given up singing Lulu going forward -- was, if anything, an even greater exponent of the killer title role than in the great 2010 revival of John Dexter's now-superseded production. Even next to parodies of Lulu's appeal, Petersen's command of her character's moods and vocal lines was notable throughout. She lacked a foil, however, as Johan Reuter (so effective as Barak two seasons back) was here simply buried under the intentionally ugly outfits and deflating stage bits given to Dr. Schön. Perhaps James Morris (the unexpected star of the last revival) could have made an impression through and despite a production intent on making him ridiculous instead of Lulu's great adversary, but Reuter could not.

Lothar Koenigs deputized well on short notice after James Levine's cancellation, and Susan Graham made much of her opportunities as Geschwitz. (Incidentally, the ridiculous subtitle bowdlerization at the end remains.) More's the pity.

Pearls two ways

So I came back to the draft list and it's amazing how many reviews I have half-written in there. But first...

Pearl Fishers - Metropolitan Opera, 1/8/2016
Damrau, Polenzani, Kwiecien, Teste / Noseda

Pearl Fishers - Metropolitan Opera, 2/4/2016
Woodbury, Polenzani, Kwiecien, Teste / Walker

I'm sure anyone with an interest has gotten to see Penny Woolcock's new production on the screen if not in person, but it was a big factor in this show's commercial success. Woolcock offers both the striking and the detailed, but keeps them apart. The show begins in water (with a lovely rework of the "swimming" harnesses and moving projections from the early Gelb era), has scene transitions in water (more projections), and ends in fire (actual fires, a Met specialty). The action itself occurs on stable, textured, regular constructions, with only hints -- lights, a cigarette ad, a lovely wave effect on a cloth "sea" -- of the elemental forces that bracket it. There isn't deep meaning to it, but the effect bits are well done and the detailed, non-monolithic set bits are a welcome balm for much of the audience.

The original cast all delivered slightly different things. Tenor Matthew Polenzani was the only real exponent of the lyric side of the show, delivering a fine solo romance as well as a nice but still-warming-up half of the famous tenor-baritone duet. Mariusz Kwieicien, whose recent work here has been at best uninspiring, similarly took some warming up but was excellent in the confrontational rage of the latter acts -- a welcome success, though the acoustically friendly full-stage wall behind him in his confrontation with Leila certainly helped. As Leila, Diana Damrau's often too-clever fluency didn't -- as I feared -- get in the way of the show's romantic rapture, but neither did it really assist its flow. Nor was she in fact really that fluent: the hitches weren't enough to jar those there to experience a name, but neither did they allow the virtuosic pleasure in surmounting difficulty that was the original basis for her recognition. Still she and conductor Gianandrea Noseda, whose skill at excitement meshed poorly with the alternating oceanic-pastoral and rapture of the start, seemed to perk up in the clearer atmosphere of the last act's confrontation, and there combined with Kwiecien to deliver the charge of good opera.

*     *     *

The final night's two changes altered the whole dynamic. Two seasons ago, Amanda Woodbury was a Met Council winner. Last season, the young American soprano nearly stole the Don Carlo revival (one of the great ones, when Lee was able to sing and play off Frittoli, but more on that elsewhere I suppose) as Elisabetta's page Tebaldo. This season, she returned here as a cover-plus-one for Leila, and was pretty glorious.

Whatever Woodbury ends up singing (and so far her roles -- this, Konstanze, Donna Anna, Musetta -- seem to fit the lighter dramatic-coloratura I heard at the Council Finals), what should make her a star is the timbre of her upper-middle notes. Sure, she has other important prerequisites -- carrying power, vocal flexibility (with prepared and unprepared trills), stage presence, and, to be frank, looks -- but those are really the delivery vehicle for an unusually vivid and transparently emotion-bearing sound that stands out in the most pleasant way. The very top notes are big and by now nicely integrated, but aren't the main course... and Woodbury currently has the habit, common among (too?) well-schooled young Americans, of not using chest tones at all, leaving no low notes to really speak of. But what's in between is as striking in this full show as it was in her short sing last season.

At least as importantly for this event (and, I suppose, her future prospects), Woodbury seems much more naturally attuned to the ebb and flow of rapt feeling demanded here (and in most romantic opera leads) than her more famous predecessor. The emotional shapes sat as well in her phrases as in her voice, finally allowing the first-act tension with the crowd and the tenor to cohere into an eloquent story. The latter acts were, in this new whole, more poignant as well, not merely exciting (though they were that).

That's not to discount the importance of the last night's other change. Australian conductor Antony Walker, who'd already done one performance in this run, conveyed a firmer sense of the underlying beat than Noseda, thereby giving the performers more room to stray without losing the overall continuity. His work, and Woodbury's, and that of Polenzani -- now suddenly not alone in foregrounding the lyric-pastoral-romantic strain in the piece -- made for a memorable night of sensibility... and perhaps as auspicious an unheralded lead-role-debut as Sondra Radvanovsky's Luisa Miller triumph fifteen years back.