For an out-of-towner, the opportunity to attend a performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera is always a cherished boon, no matter the artistic quality of the performance at hand. There is a charged atmosphere inherent in the ambience of any of the world’s most important opera houses even when the resident company is not at its best, and an assemblage of ‘star’ singers generally manages to raise the collective expectations of an audience. Much has been made among opera aficionados (though, tellingly, not as much has been made in the musical press as should have been the case) about the steadily declining artistic standards at the MET, notably since the start of Peter Gelb’s management of the Company. The Company may have lacked forward-looking artistic imagination during the administration of Mr. Gelb’s predecessor, Joseph Volpe, it is argued, but MET performances under Mr. Volpe’s watch rarely lacked precision, forthrightness, and adherence to a certain level of artistic grace.
The Metropolitan Opera and its dedicated audience are equal contributors to a growing conundrum. Situated in one of the most vibrant, ever-changing cities in the world, the MET is nonetheless a bastion of musical conservatism by which allegedly ‘progressive’ production values with social agendas, applauded and even loved in Europe or San Francisco, are often received with scorn and suspicion. What could be attributed to an imbalance in power between older and younger opera-goers at the MET is actually symptomatic of a more complex issue. Increasingly, the MET is managed like a struggling Hollywood studio: artistic standards are discernibly sacrificed in pursuit of a bolstered bottom line. Economic viability is absolutely necessary for any opera company that does not enjoy the government subsidization standard in Europe, but balance sheets now often seem more prevalent at the MET than scores. This has led to productions that generate much-sought publicity in the New York and national press at the expense of waning audience support for expensive but cheap productions that, in a nod to the greatest debate about the art form, strive to make opera ‘relevant.’
It was disappointingly ironic, then, that the Laurent Pelly production of Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment – first seen at the Wiener Staatsoper and also put on at Covent Garden, en route to the MET – made every musical aspect of the performance (singers, chorus, conductor, orchestra, even Donizetti himself) irrelevant. His countrymen’s contributions to literature, theatre, and opera being so influential, a Frenchman such as Monsieur Pelly should understand and respect that the distance between comedy and farce is measured not by laughter but by tears. The essence of comedy is that all that goes wrong, and in going wrong amuses, is perched on the cusp of catastrophe. Musically, it would be difficult to deny that, among Donizetti’s comedies, La Fille du régiment is a weaker score than L’Elisir d’Amore, but Pelly’s production so obscures the heart of Fille du régiment – another touching if tired story of lovers facing obstacles – that even the most expert cardiologist would be hard-pressed to discern its rhythm. There is life in the piece, however, and in Marie’s ‘Il faut partir’ in the first act (in which, discovered by her presumed long-lost aunt and directed to rejoin her family, she bids farewell to her beloved regiment) and Tonio’s ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ in the second act (in which he pleads with the Marquise, Marie’s would-be aunt but actually her mother, to grant him Marie’s hand in marriage) it possesses two of those glorious moments in frothy bel canto in which true, life-altering emotions break through the surface, moments like Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ in L’Elisir d’Amore when even the casual listener, rather bored by all that has gone on thus far, suddenly realizes that all the silliness has masked a seriousness that threatens to upset the required happy ending. To Pelly’s credit, he seemingly recognized the pathos at the core of Marie’s ‘Il faut partir,’ allowing Marie a pensive respite as she touchingly collects souvenirs from each of her regimental comrades, but the aria is so consumed by stage business (including Pelly’s fondness for portraying Marie as the mistress of dozens of undergarments on clotheslines) that Marie’s sorrow is only partially conveyed. ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ is treated more directly but is also played for laughs, Tonio seeming more pathetic than heartfelt. Whatever criticisms Donizetti’s score invites and deserves, Fille du régiment is more than crumpled maps, laundry hung out to dry, potatoes needing peeling, and doors that lead nowhere. Even a failsafe comedy cannot entertain when the element of danger is removed, and Pelly’s Fille du régiment suggested that the loves between Tonio and Marie and Marie and her regiment mattered not a jot. How does an audience feel the pangs of an unexpected loss and take joy in a predictable but imperiled restoration when there is so obviously nothing of value to lose?
Musically, the performance [seen on the evening of Friday, 19 February] was on sound footing. German soprano Diana Damrau, bringing to her task a beautiful and well-schooled coloratura voice, did with Marie everything that the production would allow. Brilliant displays of vocal prowess were less than they might have been in a production that allowed her to focus on singing rather than acting her role, but Ms. Damrau proved an alert, willing participant. In general, when anything even slightly moving happened in the performance, she was the source of it. It was announced prior to the first curtain that Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez was suffering from a slight indisposition but had agreed to sing anyway. Whether or not any malady jeopardized his vocal production, Mr. Flórez sang well. Much as his many admirers wish to ignore or deny it, Mr. Flórez’s voice is small, somewhat nasal, and rather metallic, not unlike many Latin tenors who specialize in bel canto repertory (significantly, Mr. Flórez studied with his celebrated Peruvian predecessor, Ernesto Palacio). This is not to imply that Mr. Flórez is not an excellent singer in possession of a beautiful voice. In this performance, he was a very good Tonio who entered into the overwrought comedy handily enough. Perhaps because of his indisposition, one of the famous top C’s in ‘Ah, mes amis’ was aborted, but the eight remaining C’s were produced firmly and with evident ease. Mr. Flórez brought genuine eloquence to ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie,’ but even his impressive rendering of the aria’s cantilena could not overcome his surroundings. Mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady, a handsome young woman, managed despite the production’s best efforts at making the Marquise ridiculous to be both imperious and genuinely funny. Bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro was vocally impressive as Sulpice though he, too, was disserved by the production. Returning to the comprimario role of Hortentius that, remarkably, has been his only MET role to date and the vehicle of his 2008 house debut, Scottish baritone Donald Maxwell – director of the British Arts Council’s National Opera Studio – was charmingly bumbling. Smaller roles were capably sung by Roger Andrews (Corporal) and Jeffrey Mosher (Peasant), but actor Jack Wetherall was over-the-top (but right in character with the production, it must be admitted) as the Notary. Maestro Marco Armiliato conducted with idiomatic aplomb, and the chorus sang with chest-thumping vigor. The MET Orchestra were slightly off form, however, with sloppy playing and wrong entrances.
The evening’s coup was the performance of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as the Duchesse de Krakentorp. Devised by Donizetti and his librettists as a spoken role, Dame Kiri’s Duchesse made her entrance joining the orchestra in the melody of the annoying waltz that recurs throughout the second act. In her subsequent scene, Dame Kiri anachronistically interpolated Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s ‘Canción al Árbol del Olvido,’ a charming song that Dame Kiri delivered delightfully. She delivered her dialogue (in a mélange of Donizetti’s French and improvised English) with haughtiness worthy of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell. Obviously enjoying herself immensely, Dame Kiri held the audience in the palm of her hand and proved despite the production in which she appeared that nonsense is not required to inspire laughter.
The 20 February matinee performance of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, first seen at the MET in the 1992 – 93 season, could not have been more different. Many Moshinsky productions are noted for their use of bold colors and striking geometrical patterns, and his Ariadne is no exception, but his approach contrasted tellingly with Pelly’s Fille du régiment. Though seventeen years old, virtually every element of the Ariadne production seemed fresh, a quality that results only from the production having tapped the lifeblood of the opera. Even the broad comedy of Zerbinetta’s troupe of commedia dell’arte players was more thoughtful than anything in Pelly’s Fille du régiment. Not unlike its somewhat grander sister Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne is an opera of which an ideal production is all but unimaginable, but the Moshinsky production knows where it wants to go and takes the audience there without overinflating or interfering with the drama.
It was immediately evident when Maestro Kirill Petrenko started to conduct that the MET Orchestra were returned to their usual excellent form. The thirty-seven players required for Ariadne played superbly, both highlighting the gossamer, chamber-like textures of certain scenes and producing a gloriously full, Wagnerian sound during the closing duet for Ariadne and Bacchus. More than a third of Maestro Petrenko’s MET appearances have been at the helm of Ariadne, and his conducting displayed complete mastery of the score. ‘Purple’ passages were never allowed to wallow, and lines were sustained in ways that allowed the singers to reach impressive climaxes without strain.
Among singers in smaller roles, American tenor Sean Panikkar as Brighella (a member of Zerbinetta’s troupe) was a stand-out, singing with lovely, strong tone. Altogether splendid were the Nymphs who attend to Ariadne in the opera-proper: soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (Najade), mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (Dryade), and soprano Erin Morley (Echo). Bringing an uncommonly euphonious blend to their ensemble singing, this trio of ladies made unusually beautiful things of their important utterances. Korean soprano Kathleen Kim encountered few difficulties in Zerbinetta’s complex coloratura, but she remains in the formative stages of developing as a stage creature.
A pair of baritones, both making their MET debuts in this season’s Ariadne revival, contributed effectively to the performance. Jochen Schmeckenbecher was a genial Music Master, by turns blustering and cajoling. His efforts at reconciling the highly-strung Composer with the fate his opera was to suffer seemed genuinely kind, and Mr. Schmeckenbecher avoided caricature in portraying his much-put-upon role. The young Austrian Markus Werba was perfect as the philandering but irrepressibly good-hearted Harlekin, the voice bright and on the breath like the best German baritones of previous generations (Hermann Prey comes to mind, particularly) but precisely projected into the cavernous auditorium. Dramatically, Mr. Werba’s lithe antics and expressive face made the role seem far more than a coy comedian with a good top F: in Mr. Werba’s performance, Harlekin’s little aria that attempts to comfort the despondent Ariadne even managed to be touching, as was his calm resignation when his efforts failed to make an effect. Both playful and sincere, Mr. Werba gave a memorable performance in a role that is all too often forgettable.
Also introducing himself to MET audiences in this revival was Canadian tenor Lance Ryan, singing the notoriously difficult role of Bacchus. As noted for its brevity as for its dangerously high tessitura, Bacchus is a role that has brought many excellent tenors to grief. Mr. Ryan sang the arduous role admirably: there was enough effort evident in his singing to remind the audience of the treachery of the role but also enough sheen to dispel the hoary myth that Strauss hated the tenor voice. If not a triumph of the standard upon which operatic legends are made, Mr. Ryan’s performance was satisfying in a role in which mere survival is appreciable.
Known in Europe and especially her native Britain for her sterling performances in the operas of Händel and Purcell (last year, for the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, she both triumphed at Covent Garden and made a widely-acclaimed recording of Dido), mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, CBE, is expanding her repertory to include heavier, more dramatic roles. Though first performed by Lotte Lehmann and most frequently sung until the middle of the Twentieth Century by sopranos (not least Irmgard Seefried and Sena Jurinac), the Composer is now most often sung by lyric mezzo-sopranos. The danger in this is that the voice will lack the ease in the upper register, always important in the music of Strauss, to make an impact in large houses. It is undeniable that Ms. Connolly’s voice is small for the Composer, especially in a house of the MET’s size, but like Mr. Werba she projected effectively without forcing. The moving restraint that Ms. Connolly brings to a role like Purcell’s Dido could scarcely have even suggested the depths of passion that she brought to her performance as the Composer. In her increasingly desperate paeans to the divine art of Music, her singing was compellingly nuanced, and Ms. Connolly made the Composer’s brief infatuation with Zerbinetta almost painfully real. Her performance gaining strength from its dramatic vividness, it was nonetheless Ms. Connolly’s singing that was the true wonder. Ascending to climactic top notes that rang out through the house, Ms. Connolly’s voice was under complete control and often ravishingly beautiful. The extent to which Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, considered the Composer a study in parody is debatable, but Ms. Connolly took the Composer’s situation completely seriously and, with committed and subtly-hued singing, seemingly convinced the appreciative audience that her approach was correct.
Especially celebrated in Europe for her portrayal of Isolde, brilliantly performed at Glyndebourne and recorded for EMI opposite the Tristan of Plácido Domingo, Swedish soprano Nina Steeme returned to the MET for Ariadne after an absence of nine years (her house debut was on 24.11.2000, as Senta in Wagner’s Fliegende Holländer). If not quite the Prima Donna she portrays in the Prologue of Ariadne, she is an important singer in what would seem to be the ‘primetime’ of a major career. As the petty, preening Prima Donna in the Prologue, in which there are limited opportunities for vocal display, Ms. Stemme was every inch the diva, relishing her endless complaints about every aspect of the shabby entertainment in which she was preparing to take part. As Ariadne in the opera, however, Ms. Stemme was transformed: wallowing in her sorrow after having been cast off by Theseus, Ms. Stemme’s Ariadne welcomed death with exuberance. Bacchus’ miraculous appearance and rescue of Ariadne from her own melancholy is one of those operatic denouements that must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt (it is, as Zerbinetta says, that we all are rather dumbstruck when a new god unexpectedly appears), but nothing had to be taken on faith in Ms. Stemme’s performance. Her voice is one of the very few heard in recent years that is fully worthy of the house, the lower register as full and capable of carrying into the large space as the trumpeting upper register. As the voice expanded into the high-lying climaxes of ‘Ein Schönes war,’ ‘Es gibt ein Reich,’ and the final duet with Bacchus, the visceral energy of Ms. Stemme’s singing was electrifying. All told, Ms. Stemme’s dramatically spot-on and thrillingly-sung Ariadne was a performance of which even the MET’s first Ariadne, the great Leonie Rysanek, could have been proud.
The 20 February evening performance was the season’s first showing of the familiar Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s La Bohème. Perhaps the MET’s most famous and frequently-performed production [the author attended another performance of the production on 28.12.2001, when Mimì was sung beautifully by American soprano Pamela Armstrong], the Zeffirelli Bohème has all the opulence (or, depending upon one’s point-of-view, decadence) one expects from a Zeffirelli production. It is at times too much of a good thing: the split-level set and busy stage goings-on in the second act distract the audience from what, even amid the crowded streets of Paris on Christmas Eve, is essentially a very intimate drama, and the principal singers can be difficult to discern in such a tumult. Still, few stage pictures are as lovely or suggestive of fragile tragedy as the opening of the third act, with snow falling on the gates of Paris. What Zeffirelli does well he often does very well indeed, and even when its grand realism dwarfs the story it is meant to convey Zeffirelli’s Bohème, unveiled in December 1981, remains one of the truly great productions in the MET’s history.
This performance found the chorus and orchestra on representative form and again under the baton of Marco Armiliato, who conducted the score with idiomatic acquaintance. Secondary roles were mostly in capable hands, with MET veteran Paul Plishka wobbling merrily as Benoit and Alcindoro. Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang, winner of the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, was a suitably philosophical Colline who resisted the temptation to make ‘Vecchia zimarra’ something more than a farewell to an old coat. Making his MET debut, Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti sang well as Schaunard, recounting with glee his success in the arrangement with the English Milord.
His performance as Marcello marked a welcome return to a standard-repertory role by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who was last heard at the MET in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. Mr. Finley is among the most gifted male singers of his generation, and he brought his characteristic dedication to his performance as Marcello. Marcello is not a role that is thought of as a big sing for a ‘star’ baritone, but it is significant to note the extent to which a performance of Bohème can fall flat with an inattentive, uninvolved singer as Marcello. Never needing to force his voice in an attempt to impress the audience, Mr. Finley presented Marcello as an opinionated but deeply loving man, and his easy camaraderie with his Rive Gauche brethren facilitated the development of a genuine ensemble. In both Marcello’s scene with Mimì at the beginning of the third act and his duet with Rodolfo in the final act, Mr. Finley was quite touching. His would-be consort, Musetta, was sung by American soprano Nicole Cabell, another Cardiff winner. Musetta has been something of a calling-card role for Ms. Cabell since her success at Cardiff, and the role suits her better than several others that she regularly sings. The famous Waltz was slightly too diffident, the effort at off-hand brilliance putting an edge on the voice. Ms. Cabell is a lovely woman who seems completely comfortable on stage, but the voice seems smaller and less glamorous than the personality. As a result, her Musetta was more than usually a part of the ensemble, which is thoroughly respectable in itself but not the mark for which Ms. Cabell aimed. In time, and with caution in choices of repertory, perhaps the technique will grow to match the charisma.
As in virtually any performance of La Bohème, however, primary focus was on the central couple. After all, everyone goes to a performance of Bohème in order to hear the tenor’s account of ‘Che gelida manina’ and to guiltily shed tears, thankfully hidden by the darkness of the house, for poor Mimì. Rodolfo was sung in this performance – for the first time at the MET – by Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, an engaging young artist who has enjoyed warm receptions in many of the world’s most important opera houses. His previous MET assignments were the Duca in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Lenski in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, but Rodolfo is a role in which any young tenor with serious ambitions of becoming an household name among opera cognoscenti feels that he must make his mark. Unlike many ambitious young tenors, Mr. Beczala possesses the vocal richness to stake his claim to a prime spot among the ranks of today’s finest singers, and his performance as Rodolfo rivaled the best performances of the role heard in the house in recent years. Bringing youthful exuberance to the conversational exchanges, Mr. Beczala’s Rodolfo was very much the down-on-his-luck poet, his faith in himself shaken by his lack of success. With the entrance of Mimì, however, this Rodolfo was changed in an instant from a poet on paper to a poet in deeds. Mr. Beczala’s performance of ‘Che gelida manina’ was ardent, the climax ringing but sweet if slightly rushed. This Rodolfo was convincingly in love not merely with the notion of being in love but particularly, dotingly, with his Mimì. There was devastation in the third act when he realized that Mimì had overheard him telling Marcello that she is dying, and his reunion with Mimì at the close of the third act was quietly comforting. Mr. Beczala’s Rodolfo was the rare figure for whom tragedy, looming since Mimì’s first cough when she entered with her candle, was unexpected. If Mr. Beczala offered nothing decidedly new from a dramatic perspective in one of the most frequently-sung roles in the tenor repertory, he gave a musical performance that left no doubt about the quality of his voice.
It was very interesting to hear the beautiful Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Mimì, a role to which she returned after focusing much of her attention on forays into bel canto repertory. Essentially a lyric soprano with a dark timbre, Ms. Netrebko’s voice has not always responded attractively to the pressure of bel canto, with its long lines, intricate technical requirements, and expected (though mostly interpolated) flights above top C. The basic tonal quality is often lovely, however, and the role of Mimì provides a tessitura that is near-ideal for Ms. Netrebko’s natural abilities. Ms. Netrebko’s tone sometimes takes on a dull quality that impedes enjoyment of her work, but this was largely absent from this performance. Her first entrance, if not quite the ray of light into the darkness that Rodolfo’s poetic response suggests, was unpretentious and simple, a rather shy young woman in search of reassurance and refuge. Ms. Netrebko’s performance of the aria ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ benefited from carefully-sculpted lines and ascents to piano top notes, rare for this singer. As with Mr. Beczala, Ms. Netrebko brought no exceptional insights to her performance, but her sincerity in the encounters with Marcello and Rodolfo in the final acts counted for much. This performance gave evidence of the fine singing of which Ms. Netrebko is so capable when allowed to pursue appropriate repertory. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Ms. Netrebko’s performance was seeing a celebrity singer set aside any attempt at having a star turn in order to become an integral part of a team dedicated to giving a moving account of Puccini’s evergreen score.
There are few movements more damaging to opera than that to somehow make the art form ‘relevant’ to contemporary audiences. Opera is not relevant and was no more relevant to audiences of the time when Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo than when Donizetti composed La Fille du régiment. As in literature, the visual arts, and cinema, relevance is determined by the observer. Only one’s own perceptions shape the degree to which one responds to specific artistic stimuli, and vague attempts to alter a work’s basic structure or emotional core in order to bend its values to coincide with an audience’s presumed collective sensibilities not only damage the work but deny the audience the vital element of discovery. The relevance of opera is in its power to appeal to individuals of different generations, different races, different creeds, different sexual preferences, and different social statuses, to tell implausible, even impossible stories about people whose struggles reach the hearts of those who hear them. Young African-American men are moved to tears by the untimely death of an ordinary Parisian seamstress; blue-haired ladies who have heard her story a hundred times before weep anew for a former geisha betrayed by her own love; gay couples hold hands in the dark as they watch an unflappable wife disguise herself as a man in order to save her husband – and not because they have found themselves in similar situations or find these fairy-tale circumstances relevant to their own lives, but because there are singers giving of their lives in service to their art and convincing them that these strange, unlikely things are not just important but immortal. Above all, there is music, and if music needs external assistance to be relevant much of nature collapses on itself: birdsong and ocean surf are merely noise, and those that hear them merely soulless organisms. What is relevant is a night out with a loved one or sharing a heated discussion with a perfect stranger about whether this or that soprano was better. It is discouraging to watch as an opera company as important to the cultural life of a nation as the MET loses sight of the infallible relevance of music and the relationships it builds among people. Thankfully, even in these parlous times, there are singers who know that, whether or not their work is ‘relevant,’ they are meant to sing and let that stand on its own merits. A string of eight top C’s, a pair of uniquely great performances, and an account of a warhorse opera that reminds one why it has been so popular for more than a century do not return an opera company to the right course. But they are forever relevant to those who heard them.