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.