Met's thrilling Elektra

A brand new Elektra by the late Patrice Chéreau at the Met

Richard Strauss’s Elektra is one of my favorite operas, which, I suppose, says a lot about me. It says that I very much love complex operas (no pun intended), intricately yet swiftly plotted, set to emotionally charged music intimately wedded to an insightful text, thus strong characters who, hopefully, in performance, are matched by strong interpreters both on stage (and on the podium).

I found all this last night at the premiere performance of the Met’s new Elektra, our local realization of the late Patrice Chéreau’s production, which also resides in five other major opera houses. For the Met, it follows Chéreau’s iconic staging of Janáček’s Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) in 2009, also the occasion of the Met debut of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted last night.

  Nina Stemme as the crazed Elektra

Nina Stemme as the crazed Elektra

Musically, this new Elektra is a hands-down winner. The title role is solidly essayed by the dare I say great Nina Stemme, who continues to impress in the most challenging roles in the soprano repertory. Her commitment to the extremes of the character, which, believe me, lie on the outer fringe of sanity, are met with both musicianship and abandon. In this Stemme always wins the championship-level contest between her and Strauss’s exceptionally large orchestra, cranked up to the max when necessary by Mr. Salonen.

She is ‘mothered’ by the great Waltraud Meier, who brings, under Chéreau’s conception, a softer, more reconciliatory, though basically no less troubled Klytämnestra. Meier has a way of bringing many extra things to all of her interpretations, even to roles such as Venus, Fricka and Waltraute. I cherish her Kundry and Isolde as exquisites portraits.

  A little motherly advice for the needy Elektra

A little motherly advice for the needy Elektra

Meier’s Klytämnestra, like a CEO, is still always in control of the world around her, but willing to break the silence between her and her justifiably estranged and enraged daughter Elektra. As staged, theirs are not just stand and deliver performances, but rather a nuanced discourse between troubled souls. Subtitles projected onto the rear side walls facilitate comprehension of their issues.

Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis is ably sung by Adrianne Pieczonka, whose bright soprano also rises above the din.

Eric Owens gives a richly sung, deeply intoned Orest, the long awaited sibling-avenger, but dramatically on the stiff side. He is, as directed I guess, emotionally detached from virtually everything else but the ‘deed,’ which, not to give anything away, is to murder his mother Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth for their ambush of Agamemnon, her husband, with an axe to the head while he’s taking a bath (not shown, thankfully). He was just freshening up after his return from the Trojan War.

I guess I gave it away.

Burkhard Ulrich makes his Met debut as Aegisth. Many of the Maids have traveled about with the production. Standouts are Roberta Alexander (welcome back), Andrea Hill, and Bonita Hyman. Susan Neves, as the Overseer is also significant.

  Elektra still not happy, even after the revenge is carried out

Elektra still not happy, even after the revenge is carried out

I have heard many fine conductors (Schippers, Böhm, Leinsdorf, Levine, to name four) lead the forces of Elektra at the Met (several others on recording too). Esa-Pekka Salonen is now a welcome addition to that list. Salonen is not willing to sacrifice volume, and goodness knows it gets loud, or slow the propulsion at the expense of orchestral detail, phrases, nuances which kept my ear intrigued throughout. And the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is as excellent as ever. This is a powerful, dynamic performance of a very powerful score. Bravi!

Chéreau passed away in soon after this production was launched in 2013, but from the playbook it’s directed here by Vincent Huguet in his Met debut. Chéreau brings to this opera a sort of stylized naturalism, such as he brought to his controversial centenary Ring production at Bayreuth, his Lulu in Paris, and From the House of the Dead here. These are ones I’ve seen either on video or in the house. His singers are constantly moving. Elektra’s intention that Klytämnestra’s blood shall be that which must flow is visually realized by her mother’s body dragged out to be displayed on a slab. Not all went loose and natural last night. Perhaps things will tighten as the team gets into the run.

And perhaps the technical flaws will be worked out too. When the curtain opened I thought oh dear these sets are just as ugly as that awful cardboard brown Tosca, which, you’ll recall, the Met replaced the sumptuous and much loved Franco Zeffirelli production with. Lo and behold, the cardboard brown sets for this new Elektra are by Richard Peduzzi, same fellow responsible for the Tosca. Right then and there I regretted caving into the impulse to purchase the DVD Chéreau Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera Shop prior to the performance (same production of course, lighting by Dominique Bruguière and costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise, filmed at Aix de Provence in 2013). But as the evening played out, Salonen’s gripping conducting, Meier and Pieczonka in their roles, plus others, convinced me to keep it. Funny thing though: Peduzzi also designed the sets for Janáček’s From the House of the Dead that season (2009) which, I remember, were perfectly apt in every way musically and dramatically for that opera.

Herein lies the rub: the color scheme of the Elektra sets are a nightmare for a synesthetic. The music is emphatically not shades of beige under bright lights. Viewing the DVD of the filmed performance of Chéreau's Elektra, which I did the next morning, one sees a much darker, grayish hue to the scenery, far more in line with the color of the music, suggesting that Peduzzi’s sets for the Janáček work in large measure because of the lighting. The mood of the Met’s Elektra is compromised by the brightness of the lighting.

Also, for the record, the amplified chorus of courtiers heard from behind the walls at the end of the opera is too loud.

Otherwise it this is an Elektra you will not soon forget. Happily I say again: Run, do not walk!

Reviewed performance date: April 14, 2016, Opening night of the new production.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Elektra is performed here in one act. The running time of the HD performance is just about one and three quarter hours; there is no intermission.

Enjoy! No overcoat on the walk to the car last night…heaven!

JRS

Roberto Devereux first time at the Met

Roberto Devereux is a must-see at the Met

There are six good reasons to run (not walk) to the Met to catch the new production of Donizetti’s infrequently performed drama Roberto Devereux.

First of all, it represents the Met at its best, which in my mind is always a good thing. Sir David McVicar’s direction is taut and engaged; his setting is elegant but at the same time to a degree foreboding. Though dark, the sets nicely frame the royals and courtiers, all regally costumed by Moritz Junge and tastefully accented by lighting designer Paule Constable. The musical and dramatic contributions by the principals are often spectacular, never the least bit routine, while the courtiers are interestingly, sometimes casually omnipresent throughout, coming together as needed for their choral contributions as the events unfold.

  Elegant sets for new  Roberto Devereux

Elegant sets for new Roberto Devereux

Then second, from the opening curtain mezzo Elīna Garanča (as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham) is vocally on fire. Always a fan, I find her voice here to have a new richness and freedom, added to which she is convincingly torn in several directions as the plot twists and turns. Her duet with Matthew Polenzani at the end of Act I (as written) is exquisite. Brava! Don’t miss Garanča.

  Sara, rival of Queen Elizabeth in  Roberto Devereux

Sara, rival of Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux

Third: Garanča is matched dramatically by Sondra Radvanovsky (as Elisabetta, Queen of England), who, this season, a first for the Met, completed Donizetti’s ‘Tudor Trilogy’ (the other operas are Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda). In Devereux one is struck by the totality of Radvanovsky’s commitment to creating a believable aged monarch who foolishly dotes on a younger man, yet who becomes vengeful when the most probable outcome of this relationship, namely that he loves another woman much younger than she, is revealed. Elisabetta’s gradual mental and physical collapse is well portrayed: I found Radvanovsky often gripping to watch on stage, especially at the opera’s conclusion. And she is able to span the significant vocal range of her role with relative ease. Don’t miss Radvanovsky.

  Elizabeth and Roberto

Elizabeth and Roberto

Fourth, always important, the guys are great too: Matthew Polenzani is the unfortunate Roberto, unfortunate because by the end of the opera he has compromised his former love (Sara), betrayed his friend (Nottingham), and more than disappointed his Queen (Elisabetta). He probably also has credit card debt. So for all this he is beheaded (happily not shown here). Polenzani’s essay of the Tower of London Scene is eloquent and a lesson in bel canto. It’s the long solo in the second part of the evening, though not indicated by any big change of sets. Likewise Marius Kwiecien, as Nottingham, Sara’s husband, veers from being Roberto’s true friend to his worst enemy. Kwiecien’s transformation is effective: he is truly menacing in the second part.

  Elizabeth awaits death as Roberto is executed

Elizabeth awaits death as Roberto is executed

Others in the cast include Brian Downen as Cecil, Yohan Yi as a Page, and Paul Corona as Nottingham’s servant.

The fifth reason is that the new Roberto Devereux is under the masterful musical direction of Maurizio Benini. Yes it’s Donizetti, not Verdi, but by this point in his career, 1837, two years after Lucia, but before La favorite and his other Paris operas, he was composing with a sure hand. Kudos to the Met for bringing the Tudor trilogy back to New York.

The sixth reason? Well, as my dear friend Dick often remarks, “You never know when you’ll see this one again!” On that note, seize the moment! T'is the season!

Review performance date: March 28, 2016, the second performance in the Met’s history.

Photos: Ken Howard

Roberto Devereux is performed here in two parts: Act I and Act II together, then Act III follows a single intermission.Enjoy! April showers bring May flowers!

JRS

Madama Butterfly at the Met

Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera to be telecast in HD

Firsts are memorable: first adult tooth, first kiss, first paycheck…it’s a long list. For me, Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is memorable not only because it is memorable in and of itself but because, in 2006, it also was the first offering of the Peter Gelb era, which brought us the Met in HD, now in its tenth season.

  The Met's magnificent  Madama Butterfly

The Met's magnificent Madama Butterfly

This to-be-telecast Butterfly stars Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais who, of late, has had newsworthy moments in Puccini’s arena: two seasons ago she stepped in at the very last minute to sing Mimi for a matinee telecast of La Bohème after singing Madama Butterfly the evening before; this season she starred in a mostly sizzling new Manon Lescaut with Roberto Alagna, who stepped in at the very last minute to sing Des Grieux. He appears with her again here as Pinkerton (as scheduled).

  Kristine Opolais as Butterfly

Kristine Opolais as Butterfly

Opolais is a wonderful singer, vocally perfect, I would say, for Butterfly. I very much look forward to her Rusalka next season. She is an attractive singer too, perfect, I would say, for Mimi and Manon Lescaut and countless other operas in which it’s important to be young and attractive. But the HD Manon Lescaut made one aware that Opolais does not often relax the intensity of her gaze nor make frequent eye contact. In other words, she does not give the look one expects from one in love. This and the Minghella production as well give the relationship between Butterfly and Pinkerton a certain chill from the very beginning. The music of the extended love duet in Act I is passionate but tender: a very vulnerable and trusting Butterfly is surrendering out of love her childhood to him in what looks, at least to her, like a good arrangement. But through much of this scene the direction has her wandering around the stage.

Opolais adds some interesting touches which may or may not have been in the playbook from the first seasons. She clutches her stomach at times, doubles down, perhaps reflecting a lingering hysterical reaction from the trauma of her father’s suicide, as played out in a dream sequence during the interlude that precedes Act III. She faces her own terminal moments with a mix of resolve, determination and honor. Opolais admirably rises to the big moments of the score, particularly at the ends of the later Acts. Only a psychologist would nitpick the eye contact thing. All in all one walks away impressed.

  Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton

Roberto Alagna again, as in Manon Lescaut, sings with a youthful ring. His Pinkerton is not, as sometimes staged, the sloppy American navy man on shore for a good time, but rather more of a gentleman, later clearly, in Act III, struck down by the ramifications of his short sighted and selfish actions.

Dwayne Croft essays the role of Sharpless in fine voice. His reactions to the events guide our own. Maria Zifchak is a supportive and strong Suzuki; Stefan Szkafarowsky’s Bonze is threatening and forceful; Tony Stevenson’s Goro is more or less omnipresent; Yunpeng Wang’s noble and sensitive Yamadori would have been a good catch. Edyta Kulczak is Kate Pinkerton.

Karel Mark Chichon gives Puccini’s marvelous score both detail and ample room to breathe.

Madama Butterfly is high up on my list of the top 25 operas. It never ceases to move me. For the record, Renata Scotto's Butterfly in 1977 was one of the most intense performances I'd ever seen, as is her EMI recording from 1966.

Reviewed performance date: March 17, 2016.

Photos: 2006 production by Ken Howard; 2016 soloists by Marty Sohl.

Madama Butterfly is performed here in three acts; the running time of the HD performance is just about three and a quarter hours, including two intermissions.

 Enjoy! Spring arrived today. Ignore the snow!

JRS

Met has a hot Manon Lescaut

The Met’s new Manon Lescaut is hot!!!

Most of the time.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which premiered earlier this February, is conceived by Sir Richard Eyre as a tale of frustrated love in the dark days following the fall of France in the Second World War.

Edgy German soldiers are a constant presence; the French citizens, students, ladies and gentlemen try as best they can to go about their business. Particularly evocative of the period is the grand railroad station of Amiens (Act I) at which stops the train carrying the beautiful Manon Lescaut, still young and a bit uncertain, but sexy and alluring nonetheless.

The sets too evoke the period in other ways. The station’s interior wall, proscenium-high, forms the backdrop to a lower street level. Its light grey shade gives the scene the tint of a black and white war film, Casablanca comes to mind for reasons set forth below, its effect enhanced by period costumes of Fotini Dimou and lighting by Peter Mumford. A long staircase leads down from the walkways above the tracks, which are hidden from our view; at stage level bubbles the local color: a small outdoor café to the left, crowded with students and other sorts milling about, and a tall swanky hotel to the right. It’s a cool effect. More on the sets later.

 Des Grieux meets the maybe not so innocent Manon

Des Grieux meets the maybe not so innocent Manon

Kristine Opolais, as Manon, does not disappoint in any relevant category: she is attractive, supple in movement, a perceptive, extraverted actor and, important in opera, a fine singer. Her character runs the gamut from a to some degree shy and uncertain young lady to a woman in full control of her ‘powers’ as a beauty queen (though not in the literal sense of a Miss Universe, thank goodness). Perhaps she is a film star or a model: Sir Richard’s production has what appears to be a photo shoot arranged by Geronte in Act II. But from this glitzy peak it’s all downhill. Opolais gives an exquisite rendition of Manon’s final scene. Brava!!

  Manon alone, lost and abandoned in the wasteland

Manon alone, lost and abandoned in the wasteland

Newsworthy for this new production is that tenor Roberto Alagna saved the day, filling the vacancy caused by Jonas Kaufmann’s very last minute cancelation. Alagna re-studied the part of Des Grieux (he had more or less learned it in 2006, but the production (in Italy) was withdrawn); in a remarkably brief period of time, two weeks and change, he brought it triumphantly to the Met’s stage, the first in his long career. Alagna remains in excellent shape both vocally and physically, in fact I’d venture to say his Des Grieux recalled his best artistry from years ago. He sings well, bright, youthful, expressive, believable, and, as is always his gold standard, he acts the part of a young Des Grieux sincerely.

  Des Grieux and Manon rendezvous in her bedroom

Des Grieux and Manon rendezvous in her bedroom

As a heads up: the Le Havre scene (Act III, Scene I here) is particularly treacherous and taxing for the tenor: the singing must be loud, the vocal line is high, and the dramatic situation is desperate. Keep your fingers crossed.

Also in the cast are Massimo Cavalletti as Manon’s brother Lescaut, Zach Borichevsky as Edmondo, a student in Act I (I’ll bet he’s also a member of the crowd in Act III, Scene I) and Brindley Sherratt as Geronte de Ravoir, Manon’s sugar daddy in Act II. Sherratt is chilling, actually: Geronte seems to be to some extent in bed with the Nazis. One wonders if this is intentionally so.

Fabio Luisi continues to impress as a conductor of broad style and intricate detail.

Back to Rob Howell’s sets. Unlike Sir Richard’s Carmen and Le Nozze di Figaro, also designed by Howell, the larger structures in Manon Lescaut don’t morph into new settings so easily or for the final scene so quickly. Sometimes, Act I particularly, the structure works well both scenically and atmospherically, but Manon’s boudoir, bed and dressing table (Act II), are enclosed in the same wall, albeit in a different orientation. It’s a darker color scheme; golden stairs descend from a different doorway high above. She resides at stage-level. It looks cold: can this really be where Manon sleeps and makes love? Even if it is not love being made?

And at Le Havre, from which Manon and the other fallen women are to be deported, the designers could have evoked a heavy Channel fog blowing past the visible bow of the freighter, the mid-ship and stern not seen, enshrouded in the mist. This truly would look and feel like the end of Casablanca, which, like Manon Lescaut, is full of tense of goings, comings, and narrow escapes…but the wall is still there, clearly visible, completely destroying the illusion.

Finally, the projection on the darkened screen before the curtain rises for Act III, Scene II, says ‘Wasteland,’ fair enough, but it’s the wall again. Okay, it’s severely damaged, enclosing a partly destroyed grand structure, ceiling collapsed, windows with shell holes, debris everywhere, probably from bombardment…is it a cathedral? Is it a university lecture hall or a library building? Really doesn't matter. Much of Europe was a wasteland by the end of the war, but I'll bet you're thinking, as I say this, "hey wait, aren't they transported to Louisiana?" Yes, so the libretto and source novel say. But both the structure and its condition beg the questions: to where were they, Manon and Des Grieux, transported to by freighter (i.e., over deep water) and how would they end up in a crumbling formerly elegant structure like this in what must be a war zone? Am I missing something about Louisiana?

Just quibbling. The general mood is right, even if the details compromise the totality of the effect. On the musical side the Met's new Manon Lescaut is a winner, hands down.

And for the record, this is NOT the same production as that from Covent Garden in June of 2014, starring Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann, captured on SONY Classical DVD.

Review performance date at the Met: February 18, 2016.

Photos: Ken Howard

Check out the page Projects here on OperaMetro: though Massenet and Puccini begin their operas with the same scene, and end in more or less the same place, they (and their librettists) tackle different parts of the source novel. Find out the real story of the Chevalier Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut!!

Manon Lescaut is performed at the Met in three acts (Act I, Act II, then Acts III & IV in a single sitting). The running time of the HD performance is just about three and a quarter hours, including two intermissions.

Enjoy! February is more than half over…this past Saturday one could smell spring in the air! And that's not just wishful thinking!!

JRS

Puccini's fairy tale Turandot

Puccini’s grand Turandot with Nina Stemme to be telecast in HD

Trying not to appear to disrespect my experience of Birgit Nilsson at the Met way back in my standing days on Broadway and 39th Street, I’ll say unequivocally that last night Nina Stemme gave one of the best performances of Turandot I’ve ever seen.

  Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot

Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot

Nilsson, right? You had to be there: a typical Nilsson night, live in the house, was a performance of maximum vocal impact, not only as Turandot, but also as any of the Brünnhildes, Isolde, Salome or Elektra. It wasn’t just her endless stamina and the sheer size of her voice, but also its sweet spot, bright, clean, accurate and effortless, cut through a full orchestra and chorus like a hot knife through a stick of butter, this so at least into the mid-1970s. Hildegard Behrens, for most of us Nilsson’s successor in the German repertory, couldn’t quite match that power or, with ease, the volume, and yet I felt that Behrens always added a deeper soul to her characters than La Nilsson, thus making them much more emotionally touching. Her Elektra at the Met from 1994 (captured on DVD) is the total package.

Likewise Nina Stemme. In Turandot’s big scene in Act II, Stemme mostly won the battle, she versus the full Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, entrenched between her and the audience and cranked up to the max by conductor Carlo Carignani. But the scene doesn’t allow much variation in character. Actually, being heard at all is the primary challenge.

Stemme’s Act III, however, was to a degree entrancing: Yes, Turandot’s ice melts at Calaf’s kiss but the warming begins already at Liu’s self-sacrifice and continues later from his sincere professions of love and again with his willingness to reveal his name, thus making himself vulnerable and at her mercy. One feels the warming because Stemme reacts: she makes believable the transformation from a closed, cruel, defensive, emotionally scarred woman to one more accepting, human, possibly loving, not just by singing more softly at times but also by…well, acting softly. It was a beautiful scene and when she announced to all assembled that “His name is Love,” one felt as if the fairy tale had resolved and they lived happily ever after.

  Calaf melts Turandot's icy heart

Calaf melts Turandot's icy heart

This said, one cannot wait to see her as Richard Strauss’s Elektra later this season (spoiler alert: not a happy ending in this one) and, just around the corner, Wagner’s Isolde. Stemme is a genuine dramatic soprano. We welcome her return to the Met.

Stemme was surrounded by a solid cast. Anita Hartig, as Liu, has that bright, clean, accurate Nilssonic edge to an otherwise sweet and expressive voice. Her Liu was both assertive and submissive, genuine in each.

Marco Berti’s Calaf was ringing solidly throughout the first act, certainly holding his own in the second, then early in the third he seemed to tire a bit, but rallied and gave a strong finish. A young Alexander Tsymbalyuk gave solid voice to the ancient Timur, Calaf’s father; Ronald Naldi was the considerably more ancient Emperor Altoum.

Conspicuous in this performance was the elegant Ping of Dwayne Croft, partnered by Tony Stevenson’s Pang and Eduardo Valdes’ Pong. Croft brought a fine vocal line to a role often handed off to the second stringers. The three ruminate and reflect on happier days, Act II, Scene I, which brings genuine repose before the vocal roar to come in Scene II. See the page Addenda for more on the three Ps.

Conductor Paolo Carignani started the opera in a rush, exciting, but rushed, though later settling down to allow Puccini’s aural atmospheres to rise with the moon. He favored volume, but not at the expense of orchestral details; the chorus rose mightily to their considerable opportunities to impress.

  ...happily ever after

...happily ever after

As Metropolitan Opera productions go these days, the opulent Turandot production by Franco Zeffirelli is something of a fossil. No, it’s not quite as old as Zeffirelli’s treasured La Bohème (1982), indeed I’ve heard some fans swear that if the Met puts this Bohème out to pasture, so go they (without specifying exactly where that pasture is). But the Turandot, which was new in the spring of 1987 (and reviewed even back then by yours truly), always was and remains today an impact piece both by the size of its sights and by the size of its sounds.

It is still a really good show today as it has been ever since then, and even better with Nina Stemme in the title role. Don’t miss it!

Reviewed performance date: January 11, 2016, again the dead of winter, but no snow.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Turandot is performed here in three acts. The running time of the HD performance is just about three and a half hours, including two intermissions.

Enjoy! Make it special! Think big!

JRS

Rarely performed Pearl Fishers at the Met

A new production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles launches 2016!

Conjure this truth: Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), rarely performed completely but quite well known in tidbits and pieces, will have tallied by the end of its run this 2015-2016 season a tad more than three times the number of performances it had in its first landing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in November of 1916. For the record, it scored a total of three, count ‘em, three complete performances, actually four if, splitting hairs, one counts a matinee in 1896 when only Acts I and II were given as more or less a curtain raiser for Massenet’s verismo short La Navaraisse. Your call on this one.

It was an all-star cast at least at the opening night in ‘16: Enrico Caruso, Frieda Hempel, Giuseppe De Luca, and Léon Rothier. Happily it is an all-star cast in this ’16 too: Matthew Polenzani, Diana Damrau, Marius Kwiecien, and Nicolas Testé, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda.

  Zurga and Nadir sing the famous duet from  The Pearl Fishers

Zurga and Nadir sing the famous duet from The Pearl Fishers

The well known tidbits and pieces of Pêcheurs include one of the more famous bromance duets in all opera: Nadir and Zurga’s Au fond du temple saint, well known and fetching enough for a woman a few seats to my right to be vocalizing along last night, and the heavenly tenor aria Je crois entendre encore, both in Act I. Mum this time, she apparently didn’t know the aria as well. Today’s stars face stiff competition in these selections: the likes of Caruso, McCormack, Gigli, Bjoerling, Gedda, Vanzo, and Kraus have recorded the aria, to name a few I can find quickly on my shelves, some pairing with equally famous baritones for the duet. Bjoerling and Merrill were my first on LP (originally released on 45s I think). For the record, there are other numbers of merit in Pêcheurs which, for various reasons, don’t seem to make their way into recital recordings by today’s singers.

Still, though productions of Les Pêcheurs de Perles have popped up over the years here (both the New York City Opera and the Chicago Lyric spring to mind) and abroad, France certainly, and though the complete opera has been well recorded commercially on easily available major labels, a good bit of advice for the well seasoned devotee is to grab this one while you can at the Met or in HD. It’s a long way to 2116.

The new production at hand is by Penny Woolcock, a cooperative effort by the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera. The time of the action is not ancient times, rather only yesterday on the shore of a country on the Indian Ocean. A billboard, corrugated metal huts, bottled beer from the icebox, a television…totally civilized in other words.

But it really doesn’t matter. The social dynamic is relatively eternal: the populace obeys their leader Zurga who, with the help of Nourabad, a religious leader, retains a veiled virgin (Leïla) who, with her rituals and chants, protects the pearl fishers (they are led to believe) from storms, and thus from terrible economic disasters threatened by a wild sea. The rub here is that said virgin is none other than Zurga’s former love, an emotion unfortunately shared by Nadir, at one time Zurga’s best friend before he, Nadir, opted to leave town to chill out because of the intensity of the rivalry. Now, early Act I, Nadir has returned, let’s let bygones be bygones (hence the famous bromance duet) and move on.

  Diana Damrau is Leila in  The Pearl Fishers

Diana Damrau is Leila in The Pearl Fishers

Neither recognizes Leïla through her veils, not, that is, until Nadir, who clearly has better vocal recognition than his bud, discovers the awful truth, awful because Leïla, as part of her sacred role, is sworn to celibacy and emotional impartiality. In the aforementioned heavenly tenor aria Nadir expresses his vivid memory of the sweetness of her voice. I tell you this because it’s approximately the whole first act, up to the only intermission. For a short opera the story does not move quickly.

  Leila loves Nadir

Leila loves Nadir

Set designer Dick Bird, with lighting by Jen Schriever, projections designed by 59 Productions, and movement directed by Andrew Dawson create a plausible seaside shanty town with high rise apartments, perhaps resorts, tough to say, in the background. The effects this team has conjured are pretty cool too: during the short prelude to Act I, pearl divers swim gracefully to the ocean floor with a scenic magic missing from the Met’s new Rheingold; Zurga was right: the sea takes revenge when Leïla and Nadir transgress, an effect not comforting if you’re prone to anxiety dreams about tsunamis; when Zurga sets the village on fire at the opera’s finale, as a ‘distraction’ so that he, good guy underneath the unforgiving façade, can allow Leïla and Nadir to escape certain death, there is fire on stage and the orchestra pit fills with smoke.

  But Zurga is not happy about this!

But Zurga is not happy about this!

Gianandrea Noseda whips the Met Orchestra up to a more energetic reading of the score than usually found on recordings. In fact, the confrontation between Leïla and Zurga even offers hints of the final confrontation between Carmen and Don José: Leïla’s Eh, bien, va, venge-toi donc, cruel! rings a familiar note.

Matthew Polenzani floats the high vocal lines of Nadir with ease; Marius Kwiecien rises to levels of jealous passion and revenge; Diana Damrau shows her inner tigress when pleading with Zurga for Nadir’s life; Nicolas Testé is a forceful Nourabad. Four characters. That’s it.

It's a lovely opera. And dare I, in this brief, nearly final paragraph, point out that the same cast, with an additional voice or two, could quite easily pull off Delibes’ lovely Lakmé? That certainly would be nice. And as long as we’ll consider reviving long buried neglected gems from the French repertory with plots in which West confronts East and the heroines, after saving the hero from certain death, expire by sitting beneath trees one ought not sit under, I’d put my oar in for Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. We have the singers today.

Performance date: January 4, 2016, suddenly the dead of winter.

Photos: Ken Howard

Les Pêcheurs de Perles is performed here in two acts. The running time of the HD performance is just about 2 and a half hours, including one long intermission between (as written) Act I and Acts II and III.

Incredibly cold, subzero wind chill out there the other night! Wow! The backlash from a warm Christmas. 

JRS

Met's new LULU coming to HD

Metropolitan Opera’s new Lulu to be telecast in HD

Don’t take this the wrong way: loving Lulu is not easy. But unfathomable as the title character, indeed the whole opera, may be, the Met’s new Lulu rewards.

No, Lulu herself is not at all easy: she’s like the child you realize you haven’t known very well, and now she’s moved out of your house for good and rarely calls. Simple, often she was disarmingly simple, like an open book, and sometimes she was inappropriate, perhaps innocently so, nothing serious. But in other ways, you become aware much later, she’s complex, mysterious, and ultimately fascinating.

  Marliss Petersen as Lulu

Marliss Petersen as Lulu

Or maybe she’s just really messed up in the head, your fault of course, in desperate need of intensive psychotherapy or, as Woody Allen suggests in Manhattan Murder Mystery nothing that can’t be cured by “a little Prozac and a large polo mallet.”

But for now stick with complex, mysterious, and fascinating.

William Kentridge, who picked Shostakovich’s Nose for his Met debut a few seasons back, brings us a new Lulu with the aid of his team Co-Director Luc De Wit, Projection Designer Catherine Meyburgh, Set Designer Sabine Theunissen, Costume Designer Greta Goiris, and Lighting Designer Urs Schönebaum. It is a co-production with the Dutch National Opera and the English National Opera.

The experience of Kentridge’s (and Berg’s) Lulu is what psychologists call information overload or, in everyday parlance TMI. At three hours of music, Berg’s long score is possibly the most complex in the standard repertory (here assuming you’ll finally agree that Lulu belongs in the standard repertory). The text is not only dense sometimes, but often rapid fire: the subtitles cover about 75% of it. Adjusting for average reading speed, what choice do they have? At least the titles are projected onto the base of the set so you’re not ‘eyes off’ the stage action by looking down at the text screens in front of you.

  Lulu Ignores Dr. Schon's plea for an end of the affair  

Lulu Ignores Dr. Schon's plea for an end of the affair 

The visual production is a dizzying bombardment of images, mostly complementing the stage drama. The faces of artists, composers, and others flit by: appropriately, when Alwa muses about the possibility of writing an opera about Lulu, it is the face of Alban Berg behind him. Mercifully, many of the images are repetitious for long stretches so that one can get a focus on the drama played out on stage. Visual bombardment may be less of an issue with camera close ups on the characters in the HD telecast.

Whereas many modern productions of Lulu give license to nudity and indecency, Kentridge tastefully gives us jiggling black brush images of our heroine and head shots on the blank unit set. Far more real flesh in Bartlett Sher’s Hoffmann, in other words. In the first half of Lulu I thought all of this projected business would trump the power of a film interlude bridging the halves of Act II, but, well done, Kentridge et al. have assembled striking and touching footage of actual humans.

Of course Lulu doesn’t get off the ground or more aptly out of bed without a real star in the title role. The marvelous Marlis Petersen brings it all together, guiding her character though her rise and fall, rags to riches to rags.

Petersen introduces a Lulu who is at the onset youthful, perky and coy, as if it comes as a surprise to her that Schwarz, the Painter, makes a move on her. Nor is she upset for long that Dr. Goll, her aged husband, has dropped dead in front of their eyes. But when she converses with Dr. Schön, her ‘guardian,’ or with his son Alwa she tightens into a more serious appetitive creature, yet still without the hard intent found in other productions. She is caring, comfortable and familiar with old Schigolch.

Johan Reuter, as Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper, is effective in his desperation as Lulu’s net tightens around him. Daniel Brenna, in his Met debut, plays Alwa. He is a soft, sensitive, more creative young man, no match for the more calculating Lulu in the later acts. Paul Groves plays The Painter as another innocent victim. Alan Oke is The Prince as well as The Marquis.

  Lulu and Schigolch get cozy

Lulu and Schigolch get cozy

Franz Grundheber creates a multifaceted Schigolch, a survivor from the gutter and possibly Lulu’s father or pimp (or both or neither). We’re never sure. Martin Winkler gives amusing color and animation to The Animal Trainer/Rodrigo, The Acrobat. Elizabeth DeShong excels as The Schoolboy.

The excellent Susan Graham makes Countess Geschwitz a more sympathetic character, less of a shadowy presence. She is certainly the most loyal of Lulu’s circle.

The direction of the players is crisp, never on pause. All good on stage in other words.

In many ways though, the co-stars of the evening are in the pit: Lothar Koenigs and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The aural fabric they weave is complex, engrossing and gripping. The total package, concept, production, the players, the score and its execution make this Lulu a triumph. Don’t miss it.

Performance date: November 5, 2015: the Metropolitan Opera premiere of the new production.

Photos: Ken Howard

Be advised: Lulu is performed here in three acts, each approximately one hour; the running time of the whole thing is 4 hours, 15 minutes, including two intermissions.

Lulu is a trip! Worth getting to know, more rewarding each time. Should be a part of our standard repertory. Enjoy!

JRS

Wagner's noble Tannhauser

The Met to telecast Wagner’s Tannhäuser in HD

Toward the end of his life, Richard Wagner felt he owed the world a Tannhäuser, implying that he was still dissatisfied with it even after all of the tinkering he had done. The two major versions (the Dresden Tannhäuser, more or less the original score from the Dresden premiere in 1845, and the Paris Tannhäuser, more or less the significant revisions of the original for Wagner’s artistic but ultimately disastrous foray into Paris in 1861) have become a musicologist’s goldmine for uncovering bits and pieces here and there from this version to that revision.

Intuitive genius that he was, Wagner was right: his operas after Tannhäuser have a formal necessity, a sort of inevitability: each bar of music, each note seems to fit perfectly into his grand conception, as if it simply couldn’t be otherwise or anywhere else. Tannhäuser more or less approximates this ‘necessity’ in the last two acts, but the first act remains…unfinished? Dresden, Paris, it just doesn’t flow right.

 The Venusberg scene in Act I

The Venusberg scene in Act I

This said, the Met’s current revival of the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Tannhäuser is strong. New in 1977, the once evocative sets look a bit tired, which is fine, they’re old, but the costumes, lighting and the mood are fitting to the tale; the extended choral pageantries are still moving.

Tenor Johan Botha has the winning combination of the ideal voice for Tannhäuser and, most important, the stamina to remain fresh until the final curtain. Musically he is quite remarkable. If dramatically he never quite works himself into a lather, meaning he doesn’t get as wild as the man Tannhäuser becomes in late Act III as Venus (vocally anyway) tugs at his britches once again, at least Botha is still, well, sitting.

  Johan Botha delivers his contest song to an horrified crowd in Act II

Johan Botha delivers his contest song to an horrified crowd in Act II

Regardless, he deserves our applause: his is no small feat. Most tenors are lucky enough to get through it and the sensible majority never try. Tannhäuser, like Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco, is a fiendishly difficult role, a notorious ‘voice-eater.’ Unlike either Tristan or Siegfried, both also long and taxing, the tessitura for Tannhäuser is, like Wagner’s earlier Rienzi, comparatively high, especially in Acts I & II, which is not surprising considering that Wagner wrote both Rienzi and Tannhäuser for the same tenor, Joseph Tichatschek, at one time thought of as Europe's greatest dramatic tenor. Over my years in the audience at the Met, I’ve witnessed three, yes, three renowned tenors lose their voices during a performance of Tannhäuser. Each was forced to continue painfully through to the bitter end or to call in the cover. Believe me, Botha is the real deal here. Savor his sound. It doesn’t come around frequently.

The other main men in this Tannhäuser are also remarkable. As the Landgraf of Thuringia, Elisabeth's Uncle Hermann, bass Günther Groissböck has an attractive mellowness to his voice, soothing as a protective uncle should be, but authoritative when necessary. Very pleasing! Bravo!

And Peter Mattei is completely winning in voice and character as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Tannhäuser’s cool, confident friend. How pleasant it is to hear the Evening Star sung so effortlessly.

Biterolf, Tannhäuser’s nemesis of sorts, is forcefully taken by Ryan McKinny; Walther von der Vogelweide is brightly sung by Noah Baetge; Adam Klein is Heinrich der Schreiber and Ricardo Lugo is Reinmar von Zweter. The Young Shepherd is lovely: Ying Fang brings back the youthful memories of a young Kathleen Battle. Vocally, I mean.

  Elisabeth's prayer in Act III

Elisabeth's prayer in Act III

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Elisabeth begins Act II joyfully and exuberantly with a Dich, teure Halle in want of vocal focus. But she quickly reins it in and ultimately makes a strong statement for her character, particularly in the long choral finale of the Act. Westbroek’s Elisabeth in Act III suffers in a way that allows one to connect with the degree of sacrifice she makes for Tannhäuser’s soul. She, too, is the real deal. As they should, many still talk about Westbroek’s Sieglinde in the Met’s (then) new Walküre in 2011. It’s Wagner’s fault that Elisabeth isn’t as pithy or as passionate.

Venus is the naughty counterpart to the saintly Elisabeth: before the opera starts she has lured the bored, disenfranchised Tannhauser away from the Minnesingers in the first place. Michelle DeYoung fights the uphill battle Wagner created for her character with both courage and strength.

The Venusberg scene in the original 1845 Dresden version, not performed by the Met since the days of the Old Met on Broadway and 39th, is shorter, shallow on Venus’s character and without much, if any, of a Bacchanal, the old word for a dance party. The very long part of the new Venusberg scene is the ballet Wagner was advised to expand for his 1861 Paris version so the local dandies of the Jockey Club could watch their ballerinas wiggle on stage before bedding them later backstage or elsewhere. Wagner, obviously out tune with the aristocratic customs of Paris, put his new ballet in Act I (!) before the dandy buggers even finished dining.

Wagner was always the artist but often a social loser.

For Paris he also took the opportunity to give more depth to Venus’s character, Musically and dramatically the new scene foreshadows, to some extent, his Kundry in Act II of Parsifal.

Though it’s true that Wagner’s revisions for the Paris version create a better balance for Act I with respect to the other acts, it comes at the cost of belaboring both the eroticism of the lengthy ballet section (let’s be real: how many times do we need to see couples, lovely as they are, flailing, humping and running around?) and a relationship which, in the long run, we don’t much care about because the music, foreshadowing Parsifal notwithstanding, goes relatively nowhere.

It’s a no-win situation. Wagner knew it still wasn’t right, and I’ll bet you will too as you’re sitting through it. In this performance it also becomes an issue because the artists are for the most part static. If only he could fix it...one can wish Wagner were still composing. Sadly he's doing the opposite.

James Levine conducts the score, as he does with everything he touches, as if it were the best music in the world. And the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under Donald Palumbo, is given several chances to shine.

I leave you with two very good reasons to catch the Met's Tannhäuser this season: first, it is very well sung and musically top shelf, as the opera goes, and second, it is a safe bet, knowing how things go, that this will be our last chance to see the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen production of Tannhäuser. Enjoy it, Wartburg, warts and all.

Performance date: October 12, 2015.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Be advised: Tannhäuser is performed here in three acts, with an early curtain. The running time is 4 hours, 40 minutes, including two intermissions.

Enjoy the fall color! Folks travel miles to see it. Live it here.

JRS

Verdi's Otello opens the Met season

Verdi’s Otello opens the Met’s new season

The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, arguably one of the greatest operas of all time. Certainly my favorite…Always has been.

This new production is by Bartlett Sher, who, at least at the Met, has delivered delightful comedies (L’Elisir d’AmoreLe Comte OryIl Barbiere di Siviglia, to name three) or small dramas (Two Boys) or works lurking somewhere in between (his dark Les Contes d’Hoffmann). But Otello is the real deal, a heavyweight champion by any comparison.

Sher and his collaborators Es Devlin (set designer), Catherine Zuber (costume designer), Donald Holder (lighting designer) and Luke Halls (projection designer) create an ambiguous performance space for the new Otello, an empty stage enclosed by two tall mirrored walls at more or less a right angle to one another, the apex pointing backstage. Victorious warships returning in a stormy sea to relieved onlookers on a quayside on the island of Cyprus it ain’t, in other words.

  Opening storm in the Met's new  Otello

Opening storm in the Met's new Otello

But the walled space serves to amplify both voices and the music such that the terrifying storm for soloists, chorus and orchestra, which is the opening of Act I, knocks you back into your seat. Luke Halls’ projections of waves undulate with the ripples of sound emanating from the pit and an amplified low frequency roar simulates the howling wind. It’s really big. The walls will serve the same amplifying function when the big chorus regroups for the end of Act III (as written).

Variations to the space, a few props here and there, some different projections all contrive to create the scene changes. For instance, the inn on the quayside specified in the original stage design is here suggested by long tables, which are rolled out through tall doors in the mirrored walls after the storm subsides. That’s where they all get the goblets of wine for the victory celebration. The projections on the walls and the colors of the celestial canopy change appropriately, blood red, for instance, when Otello cries Sangue! See-through white glass (probably plastic) mobile three dimensional facades of buildings with doorways through them and stairways inside emerge through the tall openings in the mirrored walls at various times and in various configurations as the drama progresses, sometimes two or more at once. These too will change color at times.

But when all is said and done, overall, scenically speaking, there is an air of aimlessness to it. Perhaps the production just hasn’t quite clicked yet as to what should be where under which projection and in what color. It needs tinkering.

And the strobe lightning effects in Act I should emanate from behind the walls, or at least from the wings, not be placed at the foot of the stage directly in the eyes of the audience. For now it’s just bright lights right in your eyes, not even remotely lightning. It too needs tinkering.

Dramatically Sher makes the motives of the characters mostly clear: during the opening storm, Cassio (sung by Dimitri Pittas) kindly comforts his dear friend Desdemona (sung by a beautiful Sonya Yoncheva) without any suggestion of anything inappropriate. He is quite crushed by her death at the end. Yes, Otello is an outsider, but an older man and a Moor only in the text. The time is probably mid nineteenth century, judging from the uniforms and gowns. Does it matter really?

   Ora e per sempre addio : Otello and Iago in Act II

Ora e per sempre addio: Otello and Iago in Act II

Iago (sung by Željko Lucic), like Boito’s other spoilers (Barnaba, Mefistofeles, Falstaff, and Nero), is more complex an individual than just a thug. He even nods and bows sometimes to the audience like a jester who has just finished his spiel, one time about a cruel god, whatever. But make no mistake: Sher gives Iago a quite nasty edge. Emilia (sung by Jennifer Johnson Cano) is strong and supportive; Lodovico (sung by Günther Groissböck) is strong and authoritative. Characters firmly etched.

Less well conceived (or maybe just less well executed) is the title character himself. Aleksandrs Antonenko has the requisite volume and heavy metal in the voice for the role of Otello (though at times even these lose their focus). But he doesn’t seem to have connected completely with the possibilities and nuances of the role, nor do his actions spring from within. Otello’s introspective rambling Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali in Act III is a case in point. On the whole the total package is variable, rather a bit of a letdown for a performance that should become increasingly wrenching emotionally as the evening wears on.

To be fair there are genuinely gripping moments when I wished I had tissues: it gets pretty raw with Otello’s harsh insults to Desdemona, along with his harping on and on about the handkerchief, while she fatally continues to plead Cassio’s suit. Talk about a ‘death wish.’ So too is his cruel behavior toward her in front of the aforementioned assembly of all the Cypriots for Lodovico’s greetings and communiques (both in Act III as written). All good, but these shouldn’t be isolated moments.

  Sonya Yoncheva is Desdemona in new  Otello

Sonya Yoncheva is Desdemona in new Otello

Yoncheva’s Desdemona is nicely sung with a clear, shining voice, particularly in the Willow Song and Ave Maria. There is not a lot of sadness in her intonation though. Lučić is in good shape vocally, revealing the darker sides of Iago rather than, say, that of a more suave, schemer, such as Thomas Hampson did for me and my family in a previous season. Dimitri Pittas as Cassio is young and bright in voice; Günther Groissböck matches the gravity of Lodovico with a gravity in voice; Chad Shelton’s Rodrigo and Jeff Mattsey’s Montano are younger, more vibrant than typically portrayed.

Okay, some aspects of the new Otello are a letdown. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séquin’s conception of Verdi’s mighty score, as realized by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, was unequivocally superb. It never lacked the forward propulsion toward the tragic conclusion, yet at the same time it allowed inner voices of the orchestra to emerge naturally, all without drawing undue attention to itself, as if to say “hey folks, listen to this!” A talented and remarkable young fellow, he! I look forward to hearing the HD performance.

It is fitting that the Met chose to dedicate the Opening Night performance of Otello to the memory of the great Jon Vickers. His was an Otello who suffered deeply the seeming loss of Desdemona’s love based on the word of someone he foolishly trusted. And then she was no more.

On the page In Memory Of OperaMetro celebrates Jon Vickers through the memory of fans who saw him on stage and who knew his recordings.

I have to say this though: my first two Otellos, Jon Vickers, and James McCracken, were magnificent artists. A performance with either of them was memorable (but for completely different reasons). Yet to stop the journey of discovery then and there would have blinded me (and the rest of us) to a young Placido Domingo, whose Otello (with Sherrill Milnes live at the Met in 1979 and also on recording) was epic, soon to be the stuff of legends as well. Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior were great too. My mother saw them in Tristan und Isolde in 1935, and on her word, I found their recordings. They were great. But then came Birgit Nilsson…

But it’s 2015. Revere the past, cherish the recorded documents we have. But seek and be open to the best in today. Don’t ignore greatness because it’s not your era.  

Photos: Ken Howard.

Review performance date: September 28, 2015.

Be advised: the performance’s running time is about 3 hours, including one long intermission between (as written) Acts I, II and III, IV.

Beginning of my reviews of the new HD season!! Warm evening sun streaming across the plaza. It’s always a special time of the year!

JRS

Met's Trovatore is first HD telecast

The Metropolitan Opera’s Il Trovatore is the first HD telecast this season.

OperaMetro was NOT at one of the two live performances of Il Trovatore this season prior to the Met’s October 3 live in HD telecast. Here, rather, are excerpts from my review of the David McVicar production of Il Trovatore when it premiered in 2009. Two artists this season repeat their roles from the (then) new production; singers new to their roles at the Met are familiar to audiences from other operas. 

In 2009, I wrote that the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore is at once a psychologically penetrating drama yet at the same time a great night at the opera. Hats off to David McVicar for pulling this one off!

McVicar’s keen dramatic insights and taut direction have transformed a work which, over the years, has come to epitomize ridiculous opera plots. On top of the story’s improbabilities and coincidences, Verdi and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano chose to put on stage only the highly emotional confrontations between the principal characters, leaving the many background details to narratives, one-liners or simply to our imagination. Not a problem with great singers on stage: most fans just sit back and enjoy the ride.

But McVicar is not content to let his singers merely stand and deliver Verdi’s glorious vocal lines. By his direction, even at the opera’s beginning, Leonora is tormented by her love for Manrico, the mysterious knight who, we learn, appeared to her once in a jousting contest and who now, as the troubadour, sings to her at night. Whereas most Leonoras I’ve seen merely clasp their hands in mild despair and rustle their hoop dresses a little, McVicar’s Leonora is already out of her hoops and on the floor in a rush of emotion. As her love for Manrico becomes increasingly desperate and extreme, so do Leonora’s decisions and actions.

  Anna Netrebko as Leonora below Manrico's prison cell

Anna Netrebko as Leonora below Manrico's prison cell

Manrico is caught between two women (Leonora, his love, and Azucena, his gypsy mother), but he also experiences conflicting emotions: he wants the blood of his rival, the Count di Luna, yet when he has the opportunity to thrust a blade into di Luna’s heart, a strange pity stays his hand. McVicar highlights Manrico’s conflicts without resorting to the ridiculous or the inane, as Graham Vick frequently did in the Met’s embarrassing previous Il Trovatore production.

This season the great Anna Netrebko brings her take on Leonora to the Met stage. Netrebko’s Lady Macbeth thrilled audiences last season (the telecast of which is now available on DVD). It shall be interesting to see what she does in this psychologically and dramatically different role.

  Yonghoon Lee as Manrico rallies his men

Yonghoon Lee as Manrico rallies his men

Manrico will be sung this season by tenor Yonghoon Lee, who stepped in at a moment’s notice for an ailing Jonas Kaufmann in last season’s Carmen. I can attest to his dramatic commitment and often exciting upper register. Manrico, like Don José, is a passionate character, but also more sensitive, more complex than the cardboard portrayals we sometimes find on the opera stage. McVicar’s direction allows for these other sides: The Castellor scene has a brief moment of repose (Ah, si, ben mio) where one feels that Manrico and Leonora, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, might finally find some peace together.

 Dimitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna

Dimitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna

Russian baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky repeats his essay of the Count di Luna this season. Di Luna is often your stereotypical opera villain who also loves the soprano. But again, here his character is given additional dramatic dimensions, especially during his face-to-face encounters with Manrico. I recall Hvorostovsky’s rich voice filling the role’s noble bel canto demands. Fans pray for his good health.

Dolora’s Zajick’s also returns as Azucena. Zajick owns this role: she’s a more familiar quantity to Met audiences, indeed it was the role of her Met debut in 1988. Her mad scene in the gypsy camp is central to the drama: Azucena lets it drop that she, in a frenzied state, mistakenly threw her own son into the fire instead of the kidnapped son of the old Count di Luna. Now there’s a whoops! In every performance Zajick delivers this delirium with aplomb and throughout the course of the opera keeps Azucena’s revenge completely in her sights. The marvelous basso Štefan Koćan sings Ferrando.

Marco Armiliato will conduct Il Trovatore this season.

McVicar’s sound dramatic sense here is matched by an effective mise en scene: the evocative sets are designed by Charles Edwards, the colorful costumes are by Brigitte Reiffensteul and the intelligent lighting is designed by Jennifer Tipton. Mr. Edwards has created a tall multidimensional wall that is rotated to create the many scenes; the vaulted background and the costumes evoke the troubled moods of the Spanish painter Goya. The famous Anvil Chorus is given a very visceral edge by large anvils struck by large sledge hammers. All in all it is an exciting production.

Il Trovatore is performed here in two large acts; the scenic transitions are swift and smooth, thus giving the drama forward propulsion without undue pauses.

Performance date: no, I didn’t see Trovatore this season. Above is relevant inserts into extended excerpts of my 2009 review of the David McVicar production of Il Trovatore when it was new.

Photos: Marty Sohl, from this season.

Beginning of a new season!! Wow! Enjoy!

JRS

Preview of Met's HD Season

Preview of the 2015-2016 Metropolitan Opera season of telecasts in HD

Hard to believe this is the 10th season of the Met in HD! But it is, and once again it’s a dandy.

As last year, OperaMetro lists the operas, the dates and curtain times of the Saturday afternoon matinees, performed live on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. These are the source performances for the HD telecasts, though the actual telecast times may vary from venue to venue. Many venues have encores of the telecasts in the evening of the same day and, in the summer, reruns of selected telecasts from this and from previous seasons…bottom line here: check your local listings. Casts are up to date, as per the latest press releases from the Met.

The Met’s HD season opens with Sir David McVicar’s colorful production of Verdi’s fiery Il Trovatore on Saturday, October 3 at 1:00 p.m. Leonora is another new role at the Metropolitan Opera for superstar Anna Netrebko. Recall that Ms. Netrebko rocked us with her spectacular Lady Macbeth last fall. Leonora’s love, the troubador Manrico, is sung by the young Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee; the Conte di Luna, who also vies for her affections, is still listed as baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky. Dolora Zajick sings again Azucena; Ferrando is basso Stefan Kocán. Marco Armiliato conducts. Il Trovatore ranks among Verdi’s very best and most popular operas. It’s a great way to start the season, but also, for neophytes, a great first opera.

An FAQ in my world is ‘so, what, after all these years, is your favorite opera?’ to which I reply that I have at least 150 favorites, and, naked truth here, this is actually a gross underestimation. And they call me ‘easily entertained’…But when pressed to name the one on the top of my list I invariably answer Verdi’s Otello. Still there on top after all these years.

A new production of Otello graces the satellites on October 17, at 1:00 p.m. In the title role is Aleksandrs Antonenko, his bride Desdemona is sung by soprano Sonya Yoncheva, the evil Iago is taken by Željko Lučić. This new Otello is directed by Bartlett Sher, with sets by Es Devlin and costumes by Catherine Zuber. The production designer is Luke Halls. Yannick Nézet-Séquin conducts.

However, though Otello totally grabbed me early on, in reality the overture to Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser was my first doorway from the foyer of musical theater and operetta into the vast salon of opera. I remember the moment when it ‘spoke to me.’ My first performance at the Old Met was scenically disappointing, as was Wolfgang Windgassen’s absence, but the Met got it right the next time.

Returning to the Met’s stage this fall after a long absence is the revered Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Tannhäuser. It stars today’s reigning Heldentenor Johan Botha, whose stamina and vocal timbre are well fitted for the title role. Eva-Maria Westbroek essays Elisabeth, his saintly patron; Peter Mattei takes on the role of Wolfram, Tannhäuser’s patron from the Minnesingers. Michelle DeYoung is Venus, the seductive goddess of love. Günther Groissböck is the Landgraf. Tannhäuser is conducted by James Levine. The telecast performance is Saturday, October 31, at 12:00 p.m.

  Marliss Petersen essays Lulu

Marliss Petersen essays Lulu

It’s remarkable, when one thinks about it: this season’s new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu, to be telecast in HD on November 21 at 12:30 p.m. is only the second production in the Met’s history. On second thought, maybe not: the completed three act version was new only as recently as 1979…I take it back. The new one this season is by William Kentridge, whose production of Shostakovich’s The Nose raised some eyebrows, furrowed others. To my mind, Lulu is fitting and fair game for his style; it’s in good hands in the orchestra pit too: James Levine has proved himself a master of the 20th century repertory. The title role is sung by Marlis Petersen: her spunky Susanna brightened our HD worlds last October. Paul Groves sings the Painter, Alwa is taken by tenor Daniel Brenna; his father Dr. Schön is sung by Johan Reuter; the Countess Geschwitz is taken by Susan Graham; the mysterious old man Schigolch is Franz Grundheber. While not a recommended ‘first opera’ for the new comer, certainly not a ‘date opera’ in the traditional sense of a casual musical afternoon of smiles together, Lulu will very likely play well on the HD big screen with subtitles. In my mind, it’s the best way to approach the intricacies of this masterpiece.

  Diana Damrau stars in  The Pearl Fishers

Diana Damrau stars in The Pearl Fishers

2016 brings a “new” old opera to the Met: Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, which hasn’t been performed at the Met since the days of Caruso, di Luca, and Frieda Hempel in 1916. Why the neglect? Well, apart from one of the most famous duets in all of opera and a hauntingly beautiful tenor aria, both in Act I, it, like all of Bizet’s operas save Carmen, seems to have suffered from the gross neglect of French opera over the late 20th century. Have you ever seen Delibes’ Lakmé fully staged at the Met? Last time was 1947. Or Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, for that matter? Last time was 1934. Each has pleasing music, strong arias, duets and choral work.

But like these, Les Pêcheurs de Perles is pleasing. A lovely Diana Damrau sings the role of the Priestess Leila; Matthew Polenzani is Nadir and Mariusz Kwiecien is Zurga. Both are rivals for Leila’s love. The production is by Penny Woolcock; Gianandrea Noseda conducts. The telecast performance is January 16 at 1:00 p.m. Catch this one if you can: 2116 is a long way off.

On January 30 at 1:00 p.m. Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production of Puccini’s most opulent operaTurandot is performed at the Met. Dramatic soprano Nina Stemme essays her first Turandot at the Met. Anita Hartig is Liu, Marco Berti sings Calaf, Alexander Tsymbalyuk is Timur. Paolo Carignani conducts.

  Kristine Opolais is the sexy Manon Lescaut in Puccini's opera

Kristine Opolais is the sexy Manon Lescaut in Puccini's opera

A new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is performed on March 5 at 1:00 p.m. Fabio Luisi conducts. Kristine Opolais is the alluring Manon, Jonas Kaufmann is the smitten Chevalier Des Grieux, Massimo Cavalletti is the wiley Lescaut, and Brindley Sherratt is the old roué Geronte. The production, updated to the film noir era of the 1940s, is designed by Rob Howell and conceived and directed by Sir Richard Eyre, who brought us last season’s Figaro and before that Massenet’s Werther and Carmen, all telecast in 2014.

Incidentally, watch later this February, 2016, for OperaMetro’s feature piece entitled “The Manon Project.”

Celebrating the first telecast under the agis of Peter Gelb in 2006, Ms. Opolais appears again in the iconic Anthony Minghella production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly along with Maria Zifchak Suzuki, Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton, and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless, conducted by Karel Mark Chichon. Telecast performance is April 2; curtain time is 1:00.

April 16 at 1:00 p.m. brings us the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, starring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta. Radvanovsky by this time in the season will have sung the other two Queens (Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda), thus being the first soprano in the Met’s history to sing all three in Donizetti’s “Tudor trilogy.” Elīna Garanča sings Sara, the queen’s unwitting rival in love; Matthew Polanzani sings Devereux, the man in the middle, and Mariusz Kwiecien sings Nottingham, Sara’s husband. The new production is directed and designed by Sir David McVicar; Maurizio Benini conducts.

  Nina Stemme as Elektra, backed into a corner by circumstances

Nina Stemme as Elektra, backed into a corner by circumstances

Lastly, on April 30 at 1:00 p.m. the late Patrice Chéreau’s new production of Richard Strauss’s massive Elektra ends the HD season. Nina Stemme essays her first Met Elektra with Adrianne Pieczonka as her compliant sister Chrysothemis, Waltraud Meier as their wicked mother Klytämnestra, and Eric Owens as their brother Orest. Richard Peduzzi is set designer; Eka-Pekka Salonen conducts. Fans wooed by Chéreau’s take on Janáček’s From the House of the Dead production in 2009 won’t want to miss this one. Elektra is very high on my all-time favorite list…my whole family will be to this one!

All Metropolitan Opera photos: Kristian Schuller

As was the case last season, OperaMetro will review most, if not all of the operas to-be-telecast in HD with the actual casts, barring last minute cancelations. The performances reviewed are, of course, prior to the telecast performance so my review can be written and posted by the time you’re heading to your favorite theater.

Information about HD venues, operas, dates, times, casts, and tickets can be found on the Metropolitan Opera website www.metopera.org.

Make it special. It’s in your own backyard…well, for my local readers that’s true. But everyone has a ‘backyard,’ operatically speaking.

JRS