Massenet’s Cendrillon premieres at the Met

Massenet’s Cendrillon, which made its Metropolitan Opera premiere last week, is an enchantingly lovely opera, full of the delicate magic of a fairy tale. Laurent Pelly’s production (he also designs the costumes) is both understated and over the top: the grays, drab greens and shadows augment Cendrillon’s introversion, loneliness, and misery…it’s how more or less the world looks and sounds when you’re down, so I’m told…in contrast to the brilliant reds, purples, and other bright colors ramping up the nervous extraversion of the shallow courtiers, all of this intersected at various times with the nervous scurry of servants and family, primarily Cendrillon’s horrid dragon stepmother Madame de la Haltière and her two flaky daughters Noémie and Dorothée. At two points in the evening it seems the entire kingdom is out of the asylum where the gowns apparently are made.

  Stephanie Blythe, flanked by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang: the 'steps' in full outfit and coiff...

Stephanie Blythe, flanked by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang: the 'steps' in full outfit and coiff...

Massenet’s score is also bipolar in this regard: Cendrillon’s music is for the most part hauntingly inward, soft, whispering, only gaining energy, hope and joy, at first through the intervention of the Fairy Godmother and then through Cendrillon’s meeting with the equally lonely Prince Charming. This mood is set in sharp contrast to the pomp, circumstance, brilliance (and volume) of the courtly music surrounding the preparation for the ball and the fallout thereafter. Though nowhere nearly as complex as in a score by Wagner, meaningful musical/vocal motifs flit through the score, as in, for instance, Cendrillon’s dreamy and longing for love and companionship, Vous êtes mon Prince Charmont, which is repeated either when she is remembering, dreaming and longing for him or when she is actually conversing with him, maybe reminding him of the crucial role he'll play in her psychological wellness. There are motifs linked with the Fairy Godmother (her vocals primarily), the oppressive step family, the pompous dandified court, etc. Wagner it’s not, nor really is the story his fach, which is probably why he didn’t write an Aschenputtel.

  Alice Coote as Prince Charming and Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon

Alice Coote as Prince Charming and Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon

So, as operas go, the Met’s new Cendrillon is indeed a wonderful, refined creation. Enjoy it. One suspects its deeper beauties are elusive at first exposure. All in good time.

There are ample more obvious opportunities to entertain here, and, comme d’habitude, Pelly does not miss a trick: for starters, he demands a tight and constant choreographic approach to most moments in the opera, entertainingly realized by Laura Scozzi. Dancing, yes, particularly in the Ballroom Scene (Act II as written, the second scene of Act I as performed here), but more often simply as tightly coordinated movements, patterns, and synchronized gestures by collections of people (the servants, courtiers, fairies, etc.). You’ve seen the soldiers in the first Act of his La fille du régiment, oui? For contrast, compare the Met’s chorus in Luisa Miller, who basically enter, sing, then exit a scene in packs, to this: Cendrillon is in constant flux.

  Joyce DiDonato as Cinderella and   Laurent Naouri as her father Pandolfe

Joyce DiDonato as Cinderella and Laurent Naouri as her father Pandolfe

The stage itself and the props are constantly changing, such as chairs, doorways, stairways, entrances and exits. Barbara de Limburg’s unit set, sporting excerpts on the walls from the original text of the Charles Perrault’s classic (published in the collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé aka Contes de ma mère l’Oye in 1697*), is a stage wide set of high hinged panels with doorways and hiding places, augmented by separate smaller sections which can be wheeled in and out without much ado. Add an elegant gate, it becomes a ballroom at court, wheel in brick rooftops and chimneys, it’s the top of the palace, or add a door, bed and chimney, it’s Cendrillon’s dirty ragged bed. Her gentle father comes to comfort her in her misery.

The singers are first rate, totally up for the challenges. Joyce DiDonato is a sensitive Cendrillon who softly mopes and wishes for happiness, but who, along the way, runs a gamut of emotions from helplessness to a cautious ecstasy. I sure feel happy for the royal couple at the end. Laurent Naouri is her defeated, hangdog** father Pandolfe. Stephanie Blythe’s Madame de la Haltière is an outrageously funny creation, totally in her element. One wonders how she can do it without herself breaking into a fit of laughter! Blythe’s vocal range is astounding. Kathleen Kim, at the other end of the keyboard, is a high flying and silvery Fairy Godmother, also astounding.

Alice Coote, is, as written, Prince Charming, soft and lonely himself, but equally ecstatic at finding Cendrillon, who, because she’s probably frightened that the dream shall end when he learns her true identity, says, at first, Pour vous je serai l’Inconnue, unknown among all of the other dross, in spite of being oh so conspicuous in her oh so white, in contrast to everyone else’s oh so red. Ying Fang as Noémi and Maya Lahyani as Dorothée are to be praised for their coordinated movements and uncoordinated colors. Other characters scurrying about include David Leigh as the Master of Ceremonies, Petr Nekoranec as the Dean of the Faculty, Jeongcheol Cha as The Prime Minister, and Yohan Belmin as the Herald.

Betrand de Billy has been frequently associated with this score and with this production. He and the Metropolitan Orchestra create magic.

  Cendrillon, in white, approaches the Prince, to stage right, as the Fairy Godmother, also in white, but well read it seems, oversees all

Cendrillon, in white, approaches the Prince, to stage right, as the Fairy Godmother, also in white, but well read it seems, oversees all

May the mood never end. Cendrillon is not to be missed. Enjoy!

*Apparently in the Perrault original, Lucette was dubbed “Cinderwench,” so called because her hair always had ashes in it from her sleeping on the floor by the fireside to keep warm. The younger kinder stepsister softened it to Cinderella.

**By the way, please don’t miss in the art gallery on the left wing of the main lobby William Wegman’s dogs doing Cendrillon…love those dogs! The Weimaraners. I mean, even if you’re a cat person…ya gotta love those dogs!

Reviewed performance, the Met’s 2nd: April 17, 2018.

Photos: Ken Howard.

Ciao, J.

Luisa Miller at the Met

Luisa Miller is one of the more satisfying transitional operas in Giuseppe Verdi’s long trajectory toward his late grand masterpieces. In addition to being more consistent in style and mood than early works, such as Nabucco and I Lombardi, it has more emotional depth, more soul than those operas in the years before Rigoletto, save, of course, Macbeth. One hears in Luisa Miller brief sound bites, teasers of things to come in Simon Boccanegra, La Forza del Destino, even Aïda.*

A recurrent theme in Verdi’s operas is the father-child relationship, a little more often father-daughter than father-son. Here Miller’s daughter Luisa is in love with “Carlo,” who is in reality Rodolfo, the son of Count Walter. The Count wants his son to marry Federica, a widowed duchess. The Count has Miller imprisoned. Wurm, a real worm, also a villain and by day Count Walter’s retainer, pressures Luisa to write a letter forswearing Rodolfo, admitting she’s au fond just a gold digger, and claiming that she loves Wurm instead, all this if she ever wants her father to leave prison alive.

  Luisa Miller (Sonya Yoncheva) and 'Carlo,' the Count's son Rodolfo   (Piotr   Beczała) in disguise

Luisa Miller (Sonya Yoncheva) and 'Carlo,' the Count's son Rodolfo (Piotr Beczała) in disguise

She does so. Rodolfo, letter revealed, is distraught, so he takes poison and offers her some; dying, she reveals Wurm’s treachery and swears her devotion to Rodolfo. The latter stabs Wurm in his ebbing strength. Both young lovers die in the presence of their fathers.

  Luisa Miller (Sonya Yoncheva) and Rodolfo (Piotr   Beczała)   have taken poison in Act III

Luisa Miller (Sonya Yoncheva) and Rodolfo (Piotr Beczała) have taken poison in Act III

The Met’s cast for Luisa Miller is strong from top to bottom. Sonya Yoncheva, in this her third HD telecast of the season, is a very fine Luisa. Her voice soars to the top, but remains rich on the bottom. The role of Luisa is a challenge, at times requiring spinto metal in contrast to airy coloratura. From her lighter opening scene in Act I to her ever darkening situations in the later scenes, Luisa Miller is a multifaceted character. Her dramatic aria in the first scene of Act II Tu puniscimi, o Signore is a case in point. It’s been Yoncheva’s season, certainly. Brava!

Rodolfo, aka Carlo, also has a wide range of emotions throughout the drama. The role fits Piotr Beczała like a glove: he is soulfully passionate throughout. His aria Quando le sere al placido, later in Act II, probably the best known excerpt from the opera, is another highlight of the evening. Bravo Beczała!

  Miller (Placido Domingo) and Luisa (Sonya Yoncheva) in the village

Miller (Placido Domingo) and Luisa (Sonya Yoncheva) in the village

Like Simon Boccanegra, Luisa Miller has three dark voices, which, with a darker orchestral sound and the dark sets, make for a fitting end to a cold gray winter this year. Miller is the latest of Plácido Domingo’s forays into the baritone repertory. He does not disappoint, well deserving of the ovation he received at the performance’s final curtain. Wurm is taken by Dmitry Belosselskiy, a fine singer performing a repulsive character. Lastly Alexander Vinogradov essays Count Walter. These are unformly robust performances and fine singing.

Duchess Federica is solidly sung by Olesya Petrova; Laura, Luisa’s young friend, is taken by Rihab Chaieb.

Bertrand de Billy conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with fire and elegance; the Metropolitan Opera Chorus complements the cast.

  Village set for  Luisa Miller , Act I

Village set for Luisa Miller, Act I

Elijah Moshinsky’s production relocates and updates the plot from the Tyrol in the 1600s to industrial England in the 1850s, happily taking advantage of the chance to enhance the claustrophobic atmospheres a tiny village and a dark estate. Santo Loquasto’s sets and costumes and Duane Schuler’s lighting work well to convey the peoples’ plight.

This production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller was new in 2001-2002. Welcome back! Don’t miss it.

*This is not to say keep your ears open for a tune from the Triumphal Scene…

Reviewed performance: April 9, 2018, looking for sun...

Photos: Chris Lee.

Ciao, J.

Elektra thunders at the Met

And a thunderous Monday night it was, save for the sudden indisposition of Christine Goerke: she was to have sung the title role. For me it was to be the ‘coming out’ party for our next Brünnhilde, a great American hope. Those who saw the impressive Ms. Goerke previously as the Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten a few seasons ago know that feeling of “Wow! I’ll bet she could do...” I and the entire rest of the house last night for sure were eager to hear her take on Elektra.

  Christine Goerke and Elza van den Heever in the Met's  Elektra

Christine Goerke and Elza van den Heever in the Met's Elektra

And so Sabine Hogrefe, her replacement, made her Metropolitan Opera debut. Hogrefe clearly knows the role from performances in Germany: her solid mastery is evidenced as much by her spot-on delivery of the text and her singer-smart pacing as by her attention to the details of the late director Patrice Chéreau’s staging. She was soundly applauded and cheered for. Welcome! No photos were available of Ms. Hogrefe.

With the title role well covered, as abundantly clear from Hogrefe’s opening monologue, all settled in to one of the more gripping performances of this most unsettling opera. From the pit, Yannick Nézet-Séquin continued his run of revelations and discoveries in scores we thought we knew well. Here, as in Act II particularly of this season’s revival of Wagner’s Parsifal, Nézet-Séquin articulates inner thematic voices and rhythms; he widens, as well, the dynamic range of the orchestra, at times coaxing the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to a proper fff fortissimo, but then at other times, as written, he envelopes us in the sound of that all familiar 3 a.m. nightmare. Again, all in good hands. The Met Orchestra played splendidly.

  Elza van den Heever as Chrysothemis in  Elektra

Elza van den Heever as Chrysothemis in Elektra

Soprano Elza van den Heever told OperaMetro in an interview after last season’s Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo that the role of Chrysothemis was on the horizon for her. Like Elettra and her Elizabeth I in Anna Bolena, she brings that same riveting intensity to this new role, the complete package of drama and emotion every moment she is on stage. Not to say that she sounds like the great Leonie Rysanek…to be fair, NO one sounds like Leonie Rysanek…stop! Let me finish: I’m saying rather that, like the great Leonie Rysanek, van den Heever is 100% in her character’s skin a hundred percent of the time on stage. Van den Heever portrays conflicting sides of a character when others in some past performances seem content to sing just loud enough to be heard.

Point in fact: during the final tumultuous moments of Elektra, Chrysothemis enters to celebrate the return of Orest and the end of the terrible oppression wrought by her mother Klytämnestra and the lover Aegisth. But she is clearly confused by Elektra’s reticence to join in the more extraverted festivities, implying, what’s wrong with you? Haven’t we achieved what we had hoped for all night?! Elektra simply says “Quiet. And dance,” beckoning all around to join her (at least in the published stage directions). Chrysothemis is further confused by Orest’s indifference to her and to her sister (in this production he coldly walks away without so much as looking back); Chrysothemis seems, at one point, as in "what shall I do?" to accept briefly the advances of a young man. Bottom line: Van den Heever deserved the grand ovation she received at the evening’s end. And yes, it's a thrill to hear her ride vocally over Strauss's large orchestra. Mille bravi!

  Michaela Schuster and Christine Goerke in a Mother and Daughter chat

Michaela Schuster and Christine Goerke in a Mother and Daughter chat

But then Michaela Schuster’s Klytämnestra was also excellently depraved and troubled. Here, in her debut role this season, she plays a more grave, perhaps older, less corporate lady type Klytämnestra than did Waltraud Meier in the opening run in spring of 2016. None the less, Schuster’s character is also nuanced, multifaceted and well sung.

Mikhail Peternko’s Orest is young and virile, but in Chéreau’s conception, on and off connected with his family. Kevin Short is the personal Guardian who offs Aegisth with a few jabs to the back. Jay Hunter Morris, who saved the day by taking on heroic role of Siegfried for the Met’s new productions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, sounded strained, perhaps out of sorts.

Save James Courtney as An Old Servant and Scott Scully as A Young Servant, the rest of the cast are women in various roles. Maids from First to Fifth are Tichina Vaughn, Maya Lahyani, Andrea Hill, Kelly Cae Hogan, and Lisa Gwyn Daltirus. Susan Neves takes two key roles as the Overseer of the Servants and Klytämnestra’s Confidante; Andrea Hill stood out as Maid 3 and Klytämnestra’s Trainbearer. Both of Klytämnestra’s attendants feed her fears and neuroses, like gnats in her ear day and night. No wonder she's a mess.

Elektra is so big vocally, orchestrally and emotionally that a good evening with a great cast and great orchestra in concert will do the trick. It was, of course, intended to be staged, hence praise to Patrice Chéreau for highlighting aspects of the characters and their interactions. But he also misses some opportunities and, sorely, one still misses the hysterics at the end, though I suppose Elektra’s muscular paralysis fits within the definition of a hysterical reaction, if not quite fitting the frenetic dance music Strauss penned. Richard Peduzzi’s set is functional but uninteresting; Dominique Bruguière’s lighting is still too bright for the overall mood of the piece. I thought so last time. It is what it is. And Elektra is what it is: one of the great operas of all time…admittedly of a style. By all means catch the live radio broadcast on March 17!!!

OM’s interview with Elza van den Heever, posted two days fewer than exactly a year ago, is on the page Interviews, sandwiched in between those of Isabel Leonard and Diana Damrau. Next time van den Heever says she’s “tentatively” considering a role, just smile and say, sure Elza, I’ll be there. And I was.

Reviewed performance: March 12, 2018, and guess what, another storm blowing wet outside at the final curtain, just in time for the joy ride home…the third in 10 days.

Photos: Karen Almond.

And yet, as I write this, the storm has fizzled out (at least here). May it be so in your world too. All the best. J.

OperaMetro’s take on Rossini’s Semiramide

No, sadly, OM did not attend a performance of Rossini’s epic Semiramide this season, time being at a premium these days, also scheduling issues in the way. But below are a bit of personal history and some random thoughts about this wonderful opera. I’m sorry I’m missing it up front and personal, especially with the stellar cast it sports, but there is always the HD. Take the opportunity: you never know when they’ll do this one again!

  Angela Meade as Semiramide in the Met's current production

Angela Meade as Semiramide in the Met's current production

My relationship with Semiramide (the opera, I mean, not the Queen of Babylon herself) evolved in a manner I’m sort of proud of. Though Rossini’s operas had established themselves in the family household, thanks to the perspicacity of my dear younger sister, the real musician in the family, they were of the buffa style exclusively. Now that I’m thinking about it, the ‘they’ was more likely an ‘it,’ only Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the Callas/Gobbi album on Angel LPs, though maybe she had L’Italiana in Algeri and La Cenerentola as well on her shelves upstairs…I don’t remember, I was most likely out of the house by the time they arrived. And out there, a student on my own where a tight budget was the rule, if I were to purchase a recording or lay down the price of a ticket and make the long trek to Lincoln Center from the various distal sites I dwelled at, I always sought heavier, more substantial fare at the Met: Walküre, Götterdämmerung, Otello, Aïda, Forza, Salome, Elektra, Frau, etc.

Consequently, my first Rossini opera in the House was Il Barbiere di Siviglia in the winter of ’82. The good news? The great Marilyn Horne was Rosina, una bella voce for sure! The bad news? As the lights came on after the finale of Act II, my soon-to-be wife confessed that if it had gone on even a minute longer, she would have jumped from the Balcony, adding that, however small the likelihood, if we ever found ourselves ordering tickets for Barbiere again, I better just make sure we get the seats with seatbelts. Fair enough, my love, but you know how hard those seats are to get!

  Angela Meade in the title role

Angela Meade in the title role

Fast forward to December 3, 1990: by this time it’s the fifth season I’d been reviewing opera for the local paper. Comes the day when the Met premieres its new production of Semiramide, not heard here since the good old days of Nellie Melba in 1894. My cast is Lella Cuberli, Marilyn Horne, Samuel Ramey, Chris Merritt, Youngok Shin, and John Cheek, James Conlon conducting. Hey, not too shabby! The colorful production was by John Copley, sets by John Conklin. June Anderson would take on the title role when the opera was telecast over PBS later that season (this performance is available on DVD, possibly also accessible through Met On Demand); the Copley production has been revived this 2017-2018 season with a star cast.  

I already knew well and liked very much the overture and Semiramide’s aria Bel raggio lusinghier in Act I, Scene II (my first exposure to this was sung by Anna Moffo), but I remember starting my review of the performance by saying that, when all is said and done, I wasn’t much of a fan of the style, sort of “opera pseudo-seria,” as opposed to his livelier comic fare, both shorter and fun. In fact this 1990 performance was my first exposure to the whole blessed thing…and yet, and yet I had to admit that all sections of the music and especially the singing had a very positive impact.

  Ildar Abdrazakov as the evil Assur conspires with Semiramide

Ildar Abdrazakov as the evil Assur conspires with Semiramide

I’m proud to say that between then and now I’ve operatically matured, some would say "at last!" I’ve grown to admire Semiramide greatly, first through the major complete recording on Decca (3 CDs with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Samuel Ramey, conducted by Richard Bonynge) and only recently through greater familiarity with the DVD. But also between then and now I’ve grown into a healthy appreciation and respect for the full four centuries of opera, adding Monteverdi, Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Gluck, and heaven knows how many others outside the boundaries of the standard repertory. In context of these, Rossini’s Semiramide certainly holds its own.

In Rossini’s compositional history, Semiramide, premiering in Venice in 1823, is an important work, being both the last of his operas composed in Italy and ultimately the impetus for his departure for Paris. The Italians thought it too ‘German,’ and indeed the horns in the score and the sheer size of Semiramide are conspicuous. But it’s a bigger, more political issue than just the sound. Recall that the Austrians occupied northern Italy at the time, that Austrian composers such as the young Mozart sought commissions in Milan. To "sound German” was not to "sound Italian.” To be fair, even many of the Austrians resisted: Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail had too many notes and, after the demise of Emperor Joseph II, the Empress Maria Luisa allegedly called Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, commissioned for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in 1791, as una porcheria tedesca, loosely translated as “German rubbish,” this slander perhaps not so surprising as it seems: Leopold II’s court openly preferred Il matrimonio segreto by Cimarosa to anything Mozart wrote. So whose side was Rossini on?

  Elizabeth DeShong is the hero Arbace

Elizabeth DeShong is the hero Arbace

Well, he certainly sided with his mistress Isabella Colbran, the famous fiery coloratura mezzosoprano, for whom he had written many previous starring roles. Now she was his wife; this Semiramide would be her great showcase, a bel canto orgy if ever there was one, the first act lasting two and a half hours, the second an hour and a half.* But sadly la Colbran’s voice had been in decline since ’15, therefore disappointing. The Italians snubbed it and felt let down by her. Rossini sensed it was time to move on and out, the next stop was Paris.

The plot, based on Voltaire's Sémiramis from 1748, is simple: the Queen Semiramide plots with Assur to assassinate her husband the King of Babylon. This is carried out before the drama begins. Assur now seeks her hand in marriage, but the gods are angry. Worse, not completely on board with the plan, Semiramide's eyes stray toward the returning young military hero named Arsace, who turns out to be her son. Arsace unknowingly kills Semiramide in the darkness of the tombs. I gave away the ending. My bad.

Semiramide has many treasures: in Act I, the big duet between Semiramide and Arsace, beginning with her sweet thoughts in anticipation of his arrival (Dolce pensiero di queli' instante), is vocal fire, bel canto at its best, as is Semiramide’s famous scene and aria Bel raggio lusinghier just before the big duet. It truly is a grand opera seria.

But lately there comes a more personal reason for me to embrace Semiramide: my Maria Malibran project, scripted for, one can only hope, the silver screen, will hopefully be completed this summer. Malibran, a great diva if ever there was one, is fascinating creature, psychologically speaking. One can only imagine what she was like vocally and on stage. The script includes her pivotal debut at the ripe age of 20 as Semiramide at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris in 1828. She would later also sing the mezzo role of Arbace. More on this later.

So, enjoy Semiramide! The Met’s stellar cast includes the great Angela Meade** in the title role, Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace, Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur, Javier Camareno as Idreno, and Ryan Speedo Green as the High Priest Oroe. Maurizio Benini conducts.

To repeat, this is not a review, rather a ramble. For the record, our favorite Rossini operas in the family are Cenerentola, Le Comte Ory, and Guillaume Tell

Photos: Ken Howard.

*Lest your dear heart skips another beat after reading the times listed for the first performances, please note that it was subsequently cut; the running times of Decca’s complete recording are Act I = 95 minutes, Act II = 74 minutes. It's similar in length to Bellini's Norma, which opened the season this year, reviewed here below on this very same page.

**The great Angela Meade was interviewed by OM last summer as part of a preview of her upcoming Imogene in Bellini's Il Pirata at Caramoor under the baton of Will Crutchfield. This can be found on the OperaMetro website lower down on the page Regional Seventeen Eighteen.

See, personal growth is possible, even later in life. Enjoy Semiramide!

Next stop: Elektra!! Ciao, J.

Parsifal at the Met

The François Girard production of Wagner’s Parsifal is making waves again, this time not so much for the splash party in blood on the stage but for the lifeblood on the podium waving the baton: Yannick Nézet-Séquin serves up a passionate reading of the score that ranks among the great ones I’ve heard since my first two Parsifals as a standee in the very last season of the Old Met.

  Yannick Nézet-Séquin rehearses  Parsifal  with the Met Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séquin rehearses Parsifal with the Met Orchestra

In the outer, more contemplative acts, Nézet-Séquin unobtrusively calls our attention to thematic layers of sound often submerged by the strings and horns. Throughout he creates a pulse in the score that never flags. But in the seduction scene in Act II, the centerpiece of the opera, he brings out the intricately woven fabric of the musical phrases with an unrelenting forward propulsion. It was electric! Bravo!

  Herlitzius in blood, Act II  

Herlitzius in blood, Act II 

Add to this scene the tormented, passion driven Kundry of Evelyn Herlitzius. She projects Kundry’s agonies with her body language as much as with voice in the outer acts, in which she strives to serve others. But in Act II she, succubus-like, is driven by Klingsor’s magic to seduce Parsifal, as she had done years ago with Amfortas, ruler of the Knights of the Holy Grail. She brought about his moral downfall, which led to his grievous wounding. In Act II she strives to do the same for Parsifal. It’s a tour-de-force performance. Nice way to make one’s Met debut, eh?

Returning to this production, which was new in winter of 2013, are Peter Mattei as an Amfortas tortured by pain and René Pape as the steadfast Gurnemanz. Just as Herlitzius as Kundry invites us to experience her bipolarity of desires and emotions, Mattei, as Amfortas, cuts right to the quick: he doesn’t merely sing “Oh my side hurts,” or something to that effect, but rather he invites us to experience his suffering. And all this in perfect voice. Rene Pape’s Gurnemanz is again solid and richly sung. Bravi!!

  Parsifal returns to heal Amfortas, who lies wounded in the foreground

Parsifal returns to heal Amfortas, who lies wounded in the foreground

Evgeny Nikitin, also in that opening season, repeats his role as the twisted rebel knight Klingsor, whose magic garden, with its beautiful Flower Maidens and Kundry, serves as a sexual sand trap for the chaste and unsuspecting Knights of the Holy Grail, Amfortas being to date its prize conquest. Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt is not a newcomer to the Met, but this is his first Parsifal here. Vogt combines an essentially lyric voice with a youthful stage persona.

In order, the four sentries were Katherine Whyte, Sarah Larsen, Scott Scully, and Ian Koziara; the solo Knights of the Grail in order were Mark Schowalter and Richard Bernstein. Both voices from the ceiling of the Met, a ghostly Titurel was Alfred Walker and a Voice was Karolina Pilou. The lovely Flower Maidens were Haeran Hong, Deanna Breiwick, Renée Tatum, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Katherine Whyte, and Augusta Caso. The Maidens especially were excellent.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under Donald Palumbo, sang with great gusto and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played Wagner’s long score superbly.

  The women stand isolated to the left whilst the met pray on the right.  Parsifal  Act I

The women stand isolated to the left whilst the met pray on the right. Parsifal Act I

François Girard’s conception of Wagner’s tale is, as I said in my review of the 2013 then new production, very touching in many ways. During the prelude to Act I, as the increasing light behind the scrim allows us to see a large chorus stage front, the men in black doff their jackets and shoes while the women in black retreat to the left side of the stage, shunned, separated for the eternity of the performance by a small running stream. On the right side of the stage the men in white shirts have circled like covered wagons under attack. They bob and weave in mindless religious rituals; only Gurnemanz, the two Knights and the four Sentries given any individuality until Amfortas breaks out in pain. The wonderful most interesting cloud formations, though often dark, billow and blossom in the breeze. However, the stage is essentially a mud flat, dull gray brown in color.

The serious problems with the production in Acts I & III are, first, that the scenic transformations are nothing more than new projections on the back screen. Not much transformation on stage in other words. The glorious clouds change into relatively meaningless and irrelevant images. Even the dusty old Met production last seen in 1966, mostly sung on a bare stage as if to mimic Wieland Wagner’s revolutionary 1951 production at Bayreuth, did it much better. One can, of course, close one’s eyes.

  Kundry looks on as Parsifal is annointed by Gurnemanz. The Holy Spear is behind him  

Kundry looks on as Parsifal is annointed by Gurnemanz. The Holy Spear is behind him 

Not surprising here that the text for the Good Friday Spell in Act III is similarly ignored: Parsifal raptures about the bursting out of green and flowers, while the mud flats here are just as dull as ever. Talk about a buzz kill!

But the second problem in Acts I and III is that there are dead areas on stage such that the chorus to the rear of the set is muted and singers, even the great Pape, on the right rear side are at times practically inaudible. Perhaps the empty area above the stage but behind the proscenium eats the sound. To be fair I sat upstairs.

However, the voices in the probably by now famous Act II pool of blood staging are clearly aided by a tall V shaped wall. No problem hearing Kundry, Klingsor, the Flower Maidens or Parsifal in this Act!

Production aside, musically this Parsifal is so strong for the reasons mentioned above. When in Act III Parsifal draws Kundry to his side, across the meandering little stream that separates the men from the women, it is indeed a transfiguring moment. The men and women actually mingle. Is not the union of opposites to some extent evidence of cosmic change?

This Parsifal is a musical experience not to be missed. Don’t miss it.

Reviewed performance: February 17, 2018, a beautiful sunny day, that is, until the snow came.

Photos: Ken Howard.

As I write this, a chipmunk emerges from his den under my front lawn covered by six inches of newly fallen snow. He sees his shadow. Not sure what this means. He's actually posing for a photo, but my camera is downstairs.

Peace. Ciao, J.

A charming L’Elisir d’Amore at the Met

The gentle shades of color on the scrim curtain greeting the audience entering the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera bode well for a delightful evening with Donizetti’s gentle L’Elisir d’Amore. Bartlett Sher’s production captures the laziness of a farm in southern Italy, the yellow hue of the hot sun is pervasive throughout the first act. Cold outside on the Plaza, but beautiful here inside!

  Adina reads about Tristan and Isotta; Nemorino and Giannetta listen...

Adina reads about Tristan and Isotta; Nemorino and Giannetta listen...

Adina, the owner, seems to have a nice relationship with the gathered villagers and her farmhands, but she, intelligent and clearly in charge of her life, is still above the lot of ‘em, one might even say haughty but nice. Nemorino, a young man more aimless and without a profession, has a love-at-first-sight crush on her. Adina tells him not to waste time chasing her, that her affections, like fruitflies, live briefly but quickly expire.

Maybe not fruitflies, I don't know, the line goes by quickly.

Soprano Pretty Yende warms our hearts vocally and dramatically as Adina struggles over the course of the evening with the truth ever-growing from a kernel that she has affections for Nemorino. At times she leaps into Lucia’s upper register, as if to give us something to look forward to later this season.

  Nemorino with the elixir of love...actually claret wine...seems to be working!

Nemorino with the elixir of love...actually claret wine...seems to be working!

The simple Nemorino is intelligently crafted by Matthew Polenzani. He has been with this production from its premiere in 2012. Even then, but to my eyes and ears even more so this season, he’s honed a rewarding character: sincere, sympathetic, yet comic of course, but from within, not ridiculous with random funny bits. He sings the role marvelously too. In all capacities, I'd rank Polenzani quite highly among the Nemorinos I've seen at the Met.*  Bravo!

It’s the game of love they play, Adina and Nemorino. The various moves they make to advance or defend themselves and the sources they draw on in this game are the stuff of the drama.

  Dulcamara woos the villagers with fabulous benefits of his elixirs

Dulcamara woos the villagers with fabulous benefits of his elixirs

One obvious game changer is the elixir from the quack Dr. Dulcamara, who is sung with gusto by basso Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. Quack perhaps, a cheat too, but he also is not shy on giving his advice to the lovers, in separate sessions of course. He helps to bring about Adina's thaw. Enjoy his freewheeling antics, his lightness of foot and his patter!

Sgt. Belcore, not really a good heart, is solidly etched by baritone Davide Luciano. Though a force to be dealt with, to be sure, Belcore is really just a pawn. Giannetta is sung by a charming but busy Ashley Emerson.

  Belcore becomes a pawn in Adina's game plan

Belcore becomes a pawn in Adina's game plan

Domingo Hindoyan, making his debut with this season's L’Elisir, never rushes Donizetti’s simple but intelligent score. This, I feel, is the way it should be. Though the text to L’Elisir was adapted from a French libretto, the characters are drawn from the age-old types of the Italian Commedia del’Arte. We know who they are, we know how the plot will play out, and wise is he at the helm who lets it happen. Eternal plots and characters should bubble along, they shouldn’t be rushed.

Michael Yeargan’s sets, as I said, are appropriately colorful in the daytime of Act I, and also in the late evening of Act II. Though there was a long pause between the two scenes of Act I, the set changes in Act II were smooth and not disruptive to the flow of the action. Sher’s extra characters, fully costumed, are often the agents here. Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting totally works.  

As Donizetti's three major comedies go, L’Elisir d’Amore is neither as tight nor as slick as Don Pasquale, but neither as loose nor as variable as La Fille du régiment. It’s consistently pleasing: the plot is simple, the characters are well defined, and the music flows along at a pace that never hurries. Of course it’s not Lucia di Lammermoor, it’s not Anna Bolena…it is what it is: simply lovely. Don’t miss L’Elisir!

Reviewed performance: January 24, 2018, actually not so bad for a Wednesday in late January.

Photos: Karen Almond.

* My first L'Elisir d'Amore, in the winter of 1972, starred Carlo Bergonzi, Renata Scotto, Mario Sereni, and Fernando Corena. It was as fabulous as the cast sounds. Luciano Pavarotti owned the role of Nemorino here: we saw him first with Judith Blegen in 1980, the second two times in the new production with Kathleen Battle, one earlier in the 91-92 season and the second later.

*More recently, there were performances with Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu and the late Dimitri Hvorostovsky; another with Gheorghiu, but Rolando Villazón canceled; of course Juan Diego Flórez, Diana Damrau, Mariusz Kwiecien, and Simone Alaimo (my whole family went to this one!). And then the current production, first run with Polenzani, Anna Netrebko, Kwiecien again, and Ambrogio Maestri, this production three times at least.

*I list these only to say that Matthew Polenzani belongs in this set. My grandmother-in-law saw Enrico Caruso several times, probably as Nemorino, since it was one of his favorite roles. Ever wonder what he was like on stage...

I feel blessed to have seen these casts. L'Elisir is a special opera in my world, certainly among my top 150 favorites. Easily entertained, remember? 

You ask: why so early a start time for the matinee performance of such a short opera? Just a guess: the stage crew at the Met needs the time to put the sets of Wagner’s Parsifal in place for the evening performance. Beast of a production that one, remember?

Ciao, J.

A new Tosca at the Met

Safe bet that Sir David McVicar’s new production of Tosca, which premiered New Year’s Eve, will be remembered and cherished long after it’s been replaced by yet another new Tosca, set next time perhaps in an airplane hanger or backstage in a theater with lots of chairs or in a cardboard box for a church, as did the Met’s previous production, my god was that ever awful! Or, who knows, maybe in a submarine or on a newly discovered planet. I mean, hey, why not?

The answer to why not is obvious when Tosca is done right, as is this current new one. Sir David’s production of Tosca doesn’t hold back on the brutality or sexual aggressiveness of the drama but, unlike the previous production, it does not overwhelm or offend one with egregious lewdness or graphic body parts. John Macfarlane’s sets and costumes create reasonably realistic settings, fine in the overall creation of the actual locations in Rome, if taking a bit of artistic license here and there; David Finn’s lighting is atmospheric; Leah Hausman’s direction of the larger movements is mostly fine.

  Sant'Andrea della Valle, Act I of Sir David McVicar's new  Tosca

Sant'Andrea della Valle, Act I of Sir David McVicar's new Tosca

Sonya Yoncheva is, overall, a convincing Tosca. As in my two previous encounters with her performance art (Verdi’s Desdemona and Violetta), she seems to get to the core of her character at times and is very much in the moment of the drama, but at other times the core seems to slip away or she is taking a short break or the direction doesn’t adequately cover these moments.* Yoncheva’s luxurious voice is always ample and pleasing, consistently so, ideal for the role actually. From a purely vocal standpoint all is well. Brava!

  Vittorio Grigolo and Sonya Yoncheva in  Tosca

Vittorio Grigolo and Sonya Yoncheva in Tosca

Vittorio Grigolo brought on his customary dramatic sincerity and passion. I so admire this singer. Bravo! He is in every moment of the role on stage, vocally, dramatically, and emotionally. One feels the man’s many states, as for instance in Act III on the upper platform of Castel Sant’Angelo, overlooking Rome at dawn. Cavaradossi is flooded with memories of Tosca’s passion and laments his impending execution. When she informs him of her ordeal to get the mock execution order and safe passage from Rome he kisses her and kisses her with such passion as if to say a hundred times over thank you for saving my life. How could he know that, unfortunately, these will be his last moments on earth?

Look, though the plight of Floria Tosca is obviously central to the story, let us not forget that Cavaradossi is also a victim: in less than 24 hours (the time span of the plot) he goes from a cheery portrait painter with admittedly liberal leanings to arrest, interrogation under torture, imprisonment, ending up by the final curtain a cadaver full of bullet holes. There are no winners in this opera, but Tosca is not the only loser.

  Tosca closes the deal in a manner different from Scarpia's expectations

Tosca closes the deal in a manner different from Scarpia's expectations

Though his first Scarpia at the Met, Željko Lučić is apparently no stranger to the role. Yet on this chilly night, or perhaps because of it, Lučić was not warm vocally at his entrance and he seemed at other times to let drop the intensity of the dramatic moment both in voice and in body language. It might be the pacing of the stage direction. More on this below.

Christian Zaremba was an anxious Angelotti; Patrick Carfizzi was a nervous Sacristan; Brenton Ryan was a stolid Spoletta; Christopher Job was Sciarrone. The Shepherd Boy was Jesse Schopflocher and the Jailer was Richard Bernstein.

Summary statement: Tosca is a great opera, newly and nicely executed at the Met. Don’t miss it!

Now for nit picking details: my performance, only the second in the run, was not perfect, but not for reasons that cannot be fixed. Or, without the negatives, it’ll sure work better with a few tweaks.

As the gentle reader is aware, this new Tosca had been cursed with cancelations and withdrawals, enough to drive a director, the costume shop, even the photographers and the printers of the programs nuts. High praise to those principals and staff who stepped up their game, rearranged their performance schedules, and put in the extra effort to make it work.

Sonya Yoncheva was on board for the title role early enough to make the cover of the Met’s 2017-2018 Season Book, as were Vittorio Grigolo, Sir Bryn Terfel, and James Levine. But Baron Scarpia and the Conductor in the pit, two very prime movers in the total drama played out in the theater, more recently departed and had to be replaced. There were bound to be glitches.

Particularly in Act I for starters: conductor Emmanuel Villaume, whose work I greatly admire, seemed here to unduly accentuate the boundaries between the lush lyric moments, the wonderful arias and duets, and the more everyday give-and-take play-like dialogue. With the latter the singers sometimes seemed unsure of their timing, like wait, who goes next, I or the orchestra? It’s all about the forward momentum of score, it should flow, not be halting. Villaume’s orchestral articulation is certainly enlightening; the bigger moments, especially the Te Deum at the end of Act I, were built well and quite effective.

  Cavaradossi is executed

Cavaradossi is executed

The stage direction has thoughtful little touches, such as the fumblings of the Sacristan or Spoletta’s wariness of Scarpia’s wrath or the coup de grace for the first prisoner executed in Act III, withheld for Cavaradossi. But in Act II, Scarpia’s headquarters in Palazzo Farnese is a large space. It is fine for the comings and goings of the players, but Scarpia and Tosca, left alone, seem either miles apart or more or less one on top of the other. The distance diffuses much of the tension built by the dramatic situation, though, on the other hand, the close proximity of the two for the entire act would be equally damaging. Then at the end of Act III: after Cavaradossi’s execution, Spoletta, Sciarrone, the guards rush from below to arrest Tosca for the murder of Scarpia, but rather than dash to escape their clutches she seems to meander to the parapet. Tosca’s frantic desperation for immolation rather than fall into the hands of her captors, so graphically voiced by the orchestra, seems less desperate.

Hopefully in this run they’ll tidy up the above.

* Tosca is a complex character with mercurial changes of emotional states. For perspective, check out the Diva display down left below Orchestra level in the hallway leading to List Hall, you know, the auditorium used for intermission broadcast features. Called Diva Moments in Tosca it has photos of great sopranos who have essayed the role at the Met. If you know the opera well you can most likely recite, maybe even sing the lines of the Diva Moments verbatim. To name a few of the greats: Olive Fremstad, Claudia Muzio, Maria Jeritza (who notoriously sang Vissi d’arte lying on her stomach on the stage floor), but more recently Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas (of course), Leontyne Price, Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Hildegard Behrens and others. Seen a bunch of ‘em, I have. Each was special in her own way, yet few have it all. Do you really think Price would think of singing Vissi d'arte on her stomach? Or that Caballé dashed to the parapet? Point is: Yoncheva is special in her own way too. Cherish the past, but be in the moment today.

Reviewed performance: January 3, 2018, the evening before the bomb cyclone.

Photos: Ken Howard

Happy winter! Post another soon!

Thaïs at the Metropolitan Opera

Here at the Met Jules Massenet’s Thaïs is the third in line, after his much more popular Manon and wonderfully gloomy Werther, but soon to be followed by a fourth with the premiere of  the delicate Cendrillon this spring. Alas, after these, not counting the one-season stand of a massive Esclarmonde in ’76, the prolific French composer is sadly underrepresented. Oh well, at least we have the four.

Thaïs was and remains a vehicle for an attractive soprano with a solid high top of the voice. The by all accounts beautiful American soprano Sibyl Sanderson struck Massenet’s creative fancy, probably more than just that, but certainly it was enough for him to write the role for her; Geraldine Farrar and Maria Jeritza were two at the Old Met before our time; Beverly Sills and Renée Fleming are two within memory, and now we have Ailyn Pérez.

  Ailyn Pérez as Thaïs reflecting on beauty

Ailyn Pérez as Thaïs reflecting on beauty

Pérez is sexy and engaging as Thaïs, yet her inner torments about eternity are well portrayed. These at first are more or less will she be lookin’ this hot forever, but later concerns well up about her soul in the afterlife. Though Pérez has the vocal range and can summon a volume enough to curl your hair, she also gives a sense of the subtle aspects of the role. Nicely done. Brava! Standing, I cheered thus night during her curtain calls.

  Gerald Finley as  Athanaël, a Cenobite monk

Gerald Finley as  Athanaël, a Cenobite monk

The trigger for her crisis is Athanaël, a Cenobite monk who, as a young man in Alexandria, fell under her spell. He fled from her arms and retreated to the desert to renounce all the pleasures in life. But he is alarmed that Alexandria seems now to be descending into an abyss of sin and, worse yet, his peace of mind is disrupted by night visions and arousing, seductive dreams of Thaïs. Baritone Gerald Finley pours out a luxurious vocal line, rich with nuances, particularly in his words of wonder about Alexandria upon his return. One admires the sustained intensity of his character. Athanaël is very much an evening long role: bravo also just for his endurance!

  Athanaël dreams of Thaïs, realizing that even the desert is not safe from her charms

Athanaël dreams of Thaïs, realizing that even the desert is not safe from her charms

On Team Righteous, David Pittsinger is spiritual advisor Palémon, who cautions Athanael about the pitfalls of trying to rescue and reform the fallen Thaïs. Said caution is, of course, to no avail, else the opera would be only one scene. On the other end of the evening Sara Couden is Albine, the Abbess of the convent at which Thaïs is reconditioned and absolved.

On Team Decadent, Nicias is a friend from Athanaël’s misspent youth, naturally someone to look up when seeking a good time in Alexandria, but, big question, will he be on board about the 'rescue Thaïs' thing? Ultimately 'yes' since Thaïs, it turns out, is Nicias’s lover, but for a steep price. He can't afford her. Tenor Jean-François Borras has the high range and expression to make him a foil for Athanaël’s goodness and dark desperation. Nicias is surrounded by his personal Guard (Jeongcheol Cha), other beauties, including Crobyle (France Bellemare) and Myrtale (Megan Marino), and a crowd of actresses, actors, and philosophers. Deanna Breiwick is La Charmeuse; Syrena Nikole is the solo dancer. Most of the ballet music Massenet wrote for Thaïs is cut here.

  Athanaël leads Thaïs into the desert for her salvation

Athanaël leads Thaïs into the desert for her salvation

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume is a master of Massenet, in my opinion, first with Manon a few seasons back and now this season with Thaïs. Conspicuous are the energy and pulse of the music, combined with the orchestral articulation he coaxes from the pit. Met Orchestra Concertmaster David Chan played the haunting Meditation; Susan Jolles contributed on the harp.

I said in a previous review (when la Fleming brought it here in 2008) that, more or less, except for the vibrant colors, the Thaïs by John Cox reminds one of the productions from back in the days of the Old Met: not quite filling the stage, static, clunky, and, here’s the point, slow and noisy to change. The pause between Scene I in the Thebaid desert in Egypt and Scene II at Nicias’s den of sin was interminable, speaking of eternity, a real buzz kill, trumped only by the length of the first intermission. Though this production was originally created for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, it was constructed by, among others, the Metropolitan Opera Shops. Surely they could have put in some structural revisions to adapt it to the Met’s famous scene change gadgets, the turntables and elevators.

This said, the evening had its full share of Massenet’s magical touch. Don’t miss it, catch it while you can.

Reviewed performance: November 15, 2017

Photos: Chris Lee

Wishing all a happy Thanksgiving. J

Met premiere of Adès’s The Exterminating Angel

The world has pretty much been going to pieces since it began, though just why depends on your historical perspective, closely tied up today, of course, to your age, sex, culture, station in society, what the Kardashians are up to and who’s running the country. Or was.

That said, when you think about it, state of the world today, Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel should be, just fancying a guess here, much less of a shocker to audiences these days than Verdi’s Rigoletto or La Traviata was to folks way back when.

But it is pretty shocking…and, more to the point, great opera theater too. Angel leaves one with a sort of healthy confusion, as perhaps did your first encounter with Lulu: there is so much going on, more than the attention can grasp at one sitting, and without a recording to consult now and again and again there’s no easy way to prepare for Angel this time around as there was for the three other operas mentioned so far. Well, you could watch the film and buy lamb chops for dinner.

The Exterminating Angel is based on the acclaimed 1962 Luis Buñuel film El Ángel Exterminador. The libretto (in English) by Tom Cairns, in collaboration with the composer, is based to a great extent on the screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza, but there are important differences. Though certainly good preparation, the point of watching the film is not to evaluate how well Cairns and Adès copy Buñuel, but rather it is so you can build basic set of organizing schema with which to process the unfolding plot on stage. Each "wait, what?" blocks the next moment.

The production, also by Tom Cairns, has sets and costumes designed by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting design by Jon Clark, projections designed by Tal Yarden. Amir Hosseinpour choreographs.

  Lucia de Nobile chats with Silvia as her brother Francisco looks on, Leticia behind him  

Lucia de Nobile chats with Silvia as her brother Francisco looks on, Leticia behind him 

The characters include the gracious hosts Lucia and Edmundo de Nobile (sung well by Amanda Echalaz and Joseph Kaiser). They have invited friends and acquaintances over for a supper party after a night at the opera, Mexico City in the ‘60s. Among the party guests are the soprano Leticia Maynar (high soprano, also excellent Audrey Luna), the newly engaged Beatriz and Eduardo (the passionate pair taken by Sophie Bevan and David Portillo), Silvia de Ávila, a widow, along with her petulant young brother Francisco de Ávila (Sally Matthews and Iestyn Davies), the terminal and hallucinating presage Leonora Palma (Alice Coote), the pianist Blanca Delgado (Christine Rice), her husband Alberto Roc (Rod Gilfry), Raúl Yebenes, an explorer (Frédéric Antoun), the retired Col. Álvaro Gómez (David Adam Moore), the elderly Señor Russell (Kevin Burdette), Dr. Carlos Conde, the attending physician (the venerable John Tomlinson) and Julio (Christian Van Horn), the only one left of the house staff during the great confinement. There are nine other characters. The players are all eager to perform and well rehearsed to carry off the intricacies of the vocal writing and stage action. If you complain about standard repertory opera often being “phoned in” these days, The Exterminating Angel will be a welcome relief.  

  Beatriz and Eduardo before sneaking away for some privacy

Beatriz and Eduardo before sneaking away for some privacy

Of the story, briefly, the guests enter the stage, back to the de Nobile’s for a post-opera dinner. The scene is repeated, mirroring the first time loop as in the original Buñuel film: the guests enter again, which tells us right away that something in their universe is going awry.

For some bizarre reason, they at first do not, but later cannot exit the room! Stuck, they work through their interpersonal issues, the facades of tuxedos and gowns, roles and personas falling away into more raw primitive ways of life. They are starving, they can’t clean themselves, they resort to eating the sheep intended originally as a clever entertainment. Who knows how long it will be before they begin eating themselves? Fortunately it’s a short opera.

There are three deaths over the course of their confinement, one by a sudden illness, the other two are suicides of passion, and a fourth, due to illness, is soon to happen. So, no, Exterminating Angel is not an ‘and then there were none’ kind of plot.

  Silvia embraces what is left of a sheep

Silvia embraces what is left of a sheep

By the way, we meet the sheep, who are on stage as you walk into the auditorium before the opera begins. Don’t be alarmed, the real sheep have long since gone home to bed before the feast on stage in Act II: no animals were harmed in the Met’s new Exterminating Angel.

At the end, a takeover or coup by the military outside threatens the end of the gentile society as known by the imprisoned opera lovers. Is this what awaits civilization? Are we the next sheep?

The plot is simple as a screenplay logline, but underneath psychologically complex and intricate. The relationships between the players are worked out amidst the desperation of their situation. Yes, it’s complex, hard to grasp beyond the logline without a little help from your friends, but it is fathomable, after reading this and the Met’s various program notes.

Adès’s score covers a broad and deep canvas as well. His inclusion in the orchestra of an ondes Martenot creates an eerie sometimes ironic sound, coming just to let you know that things really aren’t good, in spite of what the characters believe. It’s a score that rewards listening several times. One hopes the Met plans to release it on DVD. The composer himself conducts.

  Leonora Palma notices that Mr. Russell is not well of late; Doc Conde is in the background.

Leonora Palma notices that Mr. Russell is not well of late; Doc Conde is in the background.

The set and costumes are designed by Hildegard Bechtler. Though the bulk of the action takes place in the room of the mansion, scenes shift to the outside world where the confinement of the guests has become a news item and also where the military seems to be in revolt. The shifts in scenes are seamless; at times a black curtain falls like the dark of night to transition to the next morning.

This is prime opera theater, perfect, I say, for HD where the subtitles are easy to read without shifting your gaze, where likely closeups allow better for facial recognition and therefore better character identification, and where the facial expressions, central to grasping the layers of meaning in their utterances, are right there, in your face. True, closeups exclude surrounding action, but, fearing that, catch it first @ the Met itself. Don’t miss it. This production is a thrill that hopefully only gets better with more exposure.    

Reviewed performance: October 30, 2017, the Met’s second!

Photos: Ken Howard

Not a happy opera, not a happy Halloween either…going to pieces.

Hang in there. J.

********

Bellini’s Norma opens Met season

The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2017-2018 season with Bellini’s Norma, arguably one of the grandest operas in the standard repertory. No, it’s not scenically grand like Verdi’s Aïda or Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, though this new production by Sir David McVicar counts as barbarically grand I guess, a crude lot roaming about the moonlit forest in dark fur costumes brandishing swords, pikes, torches and firing up a funeral pyre to light up the finale, not much different really from your basic national, religious, racial good guy/bad guy conflicts in other grand operas, Aïda and Huguenots, for two.

  Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma sings  Casta Diva

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma sings Casta Diva

But regardless of the sets, the costumes, the arsenal, and the FX, Norma, the opera itself, is emotionally grand, this new one in particular. It’s all you’d want in a Norma and more.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky gives a complete Norma through her voice and body language, lending emotional truth to the many temperaments her character passes through over the course of the drama. Norma vascillates, wow! does she ever: She swings mercurially from one decisive extreme, loves ‘im, to another, hates ‘im, then back, loves ‘im again as long as he takes the high road, let’s make peace with the Romans, no way, slaughter ‘em all, no, wait, achieve peace in our time. She is not alone: Pollione, a Roman cad, also a proconsul, actually the cause of all the turmoil, and sweet Adalgisa, a sometime virgin, are no better. Norma’s father, too, a real softy, flip flops always in the right direction.

An obvious approach for any newcomer to Norma, reinforced by scads of highlight discs and complete recordings, is to luxuriate in the exquisite bel canto vocal writing Bellini has given us. A Norma done well is a tour de force of great singing, a daunting challenge to any singers who undertake it. The new Met production scores very highly on the vocal dimension, as detailed below.

  Norma and Adalgisa bond. Joyce DiDonato is Adalgisa

Norma and Adalgisa bond. Joyce DiDonato is Adalgisa

But the plot is equally important: Norma, like Puccini’s Tosca or Wagner’s Brünnhilde, is caught in an ever-tightening vice due to shifting allegiances. The long beginning, like the opening of a chess match, is leisurely in its development: the Druids wish to rid their land of the occupying Romans, but it’s too early for a victory. Norma, the actually not so chaste diva, the lovely aria Casta diva notwithstanding, is revered in her position of High Priestess of the Druids; she is quietly supported, in this production, by a cautious Adalgisa in the opening ceremony. As an aside (Ah! bello a me ritorna), Norma wishes for the return of Pollione, the Roman, the father of her twin boys. Prior to this, Pollione himself speaks of his dream of love for Adalgisa, who, we learn, has longings for him, but also misgivings. He promises to take her back to Rome. Adalgisa reveals her fall from grace to Norma, who, remembering her own love, is at first sympathetic, but understandably shocked to discover it’s the very same Pollione at fault.

In Act II, Norma could have pulled a Medea number here: kill the children, also the unfaithful Giasone, and burn down the house, but she relents, whew! because Adalgisa claims that Pollione realizes his love for Norma. Adalgisa and Norma make a sisterly bond in one of the more heavenly duets in all opera. Of course this doesn’t last.

  Norma tragically assumes responsibility for her actions

Norma tragically assumes responsibility for her actions

Suffice it to say that as Act II progresses, as the vice around her tightens, Norma is faced with a number of hard choices. She might betray Adalgisa to the cruel Druids who seek revenge for the violation of their alter. Pollione offers to kill himself to save the young priestess. Pressured, but doing the right thing, Norma reveals it is she who has sinned, that she deserves a fiery death on the pyre.* Pollione, realizing his deeper love for her, accompanies her hand in hand on this final journey, which begins only after Norma’s father, Oroveso, promises to take care of her children.

Why so much plot here? Because the impact of the opera is far greater if the Norma sings beautifully and dramatically, but also visibly suffers this ever tightening vice before our eyes. Sondra Radvanovsky sings and suffers to great effect. Whereas my previous sopranos** in Norma were marvelous to listen to, this season brings the total package. Brava!

Equally affecting is the Adalgisa of Joyce DiDonato. She is a softer character, but sincere in every aspect of the role. Her uncertainty with Pollione’s plan to return to Rome, her confusion on learning that Pollione and Norma were a ‘thing’ once, and her sisterly bonding with Norma are all done well, and as these involve duets and trios, DiDonato makes for a strong vocal partner as always. Joseph Calleja is Pollione, tall and strong, not particularly subtle dramatically, but always in fine voice. Matthew Rose is a fine Oroveso, Chief of the Cicambri and Father of Norma (just FYI). Adam Diegel is Flavio and Michelle Bradley is Clothilde.

Carlo Rizzi conducts the score with, I thought, a fine vigor, soft when necessary, but big and grand when needed. Musically this Norma is first rate, ranking on my list of great performances at the Met.

  Norma rages against Pollione. Pollione is Joseph Calleja

Norma rages against Pollione. Pollione is Joseph Calleja

The McVicar production reminds one of several of his previous successes: straightforward, atmospheric, mood appropriate scenic effects, no nonsense distractions and in general with direction as taut as can be expected in this genre of opera. Most telling are the interactions of the main characters, but the choral scenes are animated by action. Robert Jones’s sets are moonlit dark, though with good shadows, lit by Paule Constable; Norma’s hut wherein lie her children, the only other scene, is effective, if very large. The Met’s stage elevator is put to good use.

Reviewed performance: October 3, 2017

Photos: Ken Howard

*Arthur Schopenhauer found truth in Norma, and Richard Wagner, who conducted Norma several times in his early career, found inspiration in Norma, later confirmed by his reading of Schopenhauer during the composition of the Ring and Tristan und Isolde. In Volume II of Die Welt als Wille und Forstellung, Schopenhauer writes: “It should here be mentioned that the genuinely tragic effect of the catastrophe, the hero’s resignation and spiritual exaltation produced by it, seldom appear so purely motivated and distinctly expressed as in the opera Norma, where it comes in the duet Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdisti [between Norma and Pollione in the final scene of Act II]. Here the conversion of the will is clearly indicated by the quietness suddenly introduced into the music. Quite apart from its excellent music, and from the diction that can only be that of a libretto, and considered only according to its motives and to its interior economy, this piece is in general a tragedy of extreme perfection, a true model of the tragic disposition of the motives, of the tragic progress of the action, and of tragic development, together with the effect of these on the frame of mind of the heroes, which surmounts the world. This effect then passes on to the spectator; in fact the effect reached here is more natural and simple and the more characteristic of the true nature of tragedy, as no Christians or even Christian sentiments appear in it.” (The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, Vol. II, p. 435-436, Dover publications, 1966).

**My previous casts for Norma at the Met sported Joan Sutherland (with Marilyn Horne, John Alexander, and Ivo Vinco) in 1970, Montserrat Caballé (with Shirley Verrett and Bernabé Martí) in 1976, and last, in 1979 with Shirley Verrett as Norma (with Elena Obraztova, Carlo Cossutta, and Paul Plishka). All three performances, particularly the women, were musically thrilling, but not particularly insightful, dramatically speaking; all three were staged in the then new 1970 production (now, with the Met’s 2017 new production, twice replaced). I wouldn’t trade the memories of these three for anything, but this season will complement the set nicely and more.

I love this opera, a relationship that has been growing since my first recording of the opera in stereo with Maria Callas. Nice beginning of a new season! Don’t miss it. Prep for it.

  Bust of Maria Callas as Elisabetta in  Don Carlos  in OperaMetro's main hall

Bust of Maria Callas as Elisabetta in Don Carlos in OperaMetro's main hall

J.

The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD’s 2017-18 Season!

Dig it! Here we go again!

The Met’s 2017-2018 Live in HD season will feature ten transmissions, each live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. All dates listed below are those of the source, the live Saturday afternoon matinee performance; all times are p.m. ET. However, though they can’t be any earlier, the dates and times of the HD showing in your neighborhood theater may differ. Always check local listings for dates, times, and encores.

  Sondra Radvanovsky stars in Bellini's  Norma

Sondra Radvanovsky stars in Bellini's Norma

A new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma opens the HD telecast season with a stellar cast on October 7, 2017 at 12:55 p.m. ET. This noble opera occupies a special spot in the hearts and minds of many opera lovers. It marks the pinnacle of the 19th century bel canto style, along with Bellini’s I Puritani, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and a handful of other super star vehicles. Sondra Radvanovsky is Norma, a role she sang to great acclaim at the Met in 2013, as well as at leading opera houses around the world. Bel Canto mezzo Joyce DiDonato co-stars as Adalgisa, Norma’s colleague and rival, with tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione and basso Matthew Rose as Oroveso. Carlo Rizzi conducts. Sir David McVicar directs the new production, with sets designed by Robert Jones, costumes by Moritz Junge, and lighting by Paule Constable. Norma is an IPO (Infrequently Performed Opera). Don’t miss it this time around. Best preparation for those who do not already know and love Norma: check out one or more of the complete recordings on CD starring, in the title role, Cecilia Bartoli or Maria Callas (stereo) or Joan Sutherland (either) or Montserrat Caballé. Live with this opera. You won't regret it.

The full-out Julie Taymor production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is telecast in HD for the first time complete and in German on October 14, 2017 at 12:55. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is led by James Levine, who conducted the production’s premiere several years back. Soprano Golda Schultz, in her Met debut, sings Pamina, Kathryn Lewek is her evil mother, the Queen of the Night, tenor Charles Castronovo is the noble Prince Tamino, Markus Werba is the everyman birdcatcher Papageno, Christian Van Horn gives gravity to the wise Speaker, and basso René Pape is Sarastro. Set design for the Taymor production is by George Tsypin, costumes are by Julie Taymor, lighting by Donald Holder, puppet designers are Julie Taymor and Michael Curry, the choreographer is Mark Dendy.

   The Exterminating Angel  at Salzburg in 2016

The Exterminating Angel at Salzburg in 2016

In its Metropolitan Opera premiere, Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel appears on the HD screen on November 18 at 12:55, in a performance conducted by the composer himself. The Exterminating Angel is a co-commission and co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Royal Danish Theatre; and Salzburg Festival, where the production premiered in 2016. The libretto is based on the screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza for the acclaimed 1962 Buñuel film El Ángel Exterminador. The libretto (in English) is by Tom Cairns, in collaboration with the composer, the production is also by Tom Cairns, sets and costumes are designed by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting design by Jon Clark, projections designed by Finn Ross. The cast includes Audrey Luna as Leticia Maynar, Amanda Echalaz as Lucia de Nobile, Sally Matthews as Silvia de Ávila, Sophie Bevan as Beatriz, Alice Coote as Leonora Palma, Christine Rice as Blanca Delgado, Iestyn Davies as Francisco de Ávila, Joseph Kaiser as Edmundo de Nobile, Frédéric Antoun as Raúl Yebenes, David Portillo as Eduardo, David Adam Moore as Col. Álvaro Gómez, Rod Gilfry as Alberto Roc, Kevin Burdette as Señor Russell, Christian Van Horn as Julio, John Tomlinson as Dr. Carlos Conde, and Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde.

Certainly an IPO. Suggested best preparation for this one: study the Buñuel film for plot and characters, and motives; study Met’s premiere performance of The Tempest for Adès’s general sound picture. Both are easily available on DVD. I do not know of a DVD of the Salzburg production of the opera. I could be mistaken about Flagstad…

Looking ahead to 2018 in HD, there will be a new production, thank heaven!, of Puccini’s Tosca starring Kristine Opolais and Vittorio Grigolo as the heroine Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi, with Bryn Terfel as the villainous Baron Scarpia. Andris Nelsons conducts this new staging of Puccini’s dramatic tragedy, directed by Sir David McVicar, with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane, lighting designed by David Finn, and choreography by Leah Hausman. Tosca is telecast on January 27, 2018 at 12:55.

Donizetti’s comic gem L’Elisir d’Amore, staged by Bartlett Sher and conducted by Domingo Hindoyan, stars Pretty Yende as the spirited Adina, with Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino, the simple peasant who falls in love with her. Davide Luciano makes his Met debut as the role of Adina’s arrogant fiancé, Belcore and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo sings the role of the magic potion-peddling Doctor Dulcamara. Domingo Hindoyan makes his company debut conducting. L’Elisir d’Amore is telecast on February 10, 2018 at 12:00.

A familiar HD event is Puccini’s La Bohème, the most-performed opera in Met history, coming on February 24, 2018 at 12:30. An exciting young cast stars in Franco Zeffirelli’s classic production, which was new in 1982. Sonya Yoncheva stars as Mimì opposite Michael Fabiano as the passionate writer Rodolfo. Susanna Phillips reprises the role of the flirtatious Musetta and Lucas Meachem sings the role of her lover, the painter Marcello. The cast also features Alexey Lavrov and Matthew Rose as Rodolfo and Marcello’s friends Schaunard and Colline and Paul Plishka as Benoit and Alcindoro in this performance, led by Marco Armiliato.

Rossini’s grand opera seria Semiramide is telecast for the first time in HD on March 10, 2018 at 12:55; Angela Meade makes her Met role debut as Semiramide, with Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace, the Commander of the Assyrian army, Javier Camarena as Idreno, an Indian king, Ildar Abdrazakov as the conspiring prince Assur, and Ryan Speedo Green as the high priest Oroe. The performance is conducted by Maurizio Benini. A bel canto pinnacle of its own, Semiramide was Rossini’s farewell gift to his country and arguably his grandest Italian opera. It’s also an IPO. Don’t miss it this time around. Good preparation is either the DVD from the 1990 telecast from the Met with June Anderson, Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey or the 1966 Decca recording on CD with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, conducted by Richard Bonynge. The good news: the DVD has the same Met production and also English subtitles (but my copy had no cast list, performance history or tracking information included); the CD set has complete libretto, track menu, and program notes.

  A warm and cozy Coney Island for Mozart's complex comedy at ENO

A warm and cozy Coney Island for Mozart's complex comedy at ENO

A brand new Così fan tutte, Mozart, of course, arrives in HD on March 31, 2018 at 12:55. Phelim McDermott returns to the Met with a staging of Mozart’s sublime comedy on cozy colorful Coney Island in the 1950s. The cast features Amanda Majeski as the conflicted Fiordiligi; Serena Malfi as her sister, Dorabella; Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara as their feisty maid, Despina; Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka as the sisters’ fiancés, Ferrando and Guglielmo; and Christopher Maltman as the cynical Don Alfonso. Sets are by Tom Pye, costumes by Laura Hopkins, lighting designed by Paule Constable; Così fan tutte is a co-production with the English National Opera.

A first time in HD is Verdi’s Luisa Miller on April 14, 2018 at 12:30. Met Music Director Emeritus James Levine conducts; the opera stars Sonya Yoncheva as a peasant girl Luisa opposite Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo in Verdi’s tragedy about a young woman who sacrifices her own happiness in an attempt to save her father’s life. The cast also stars Plácido Domingo as Miller, Luisa’s father, with Olesya Petrova as Federica, Alexander Vinogradov (in his Met debut) as Walter,  and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Wurm, they being the ruthless men determined to tear Luisa and Rodolfo apart. The production is by Elijah Moshinsky, sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Duane Schuler. Luisa Miller has not been seen at the Met since 2006.

  Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon has waved for a cab to the ball in Massenet's opera at Santa Fe

Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon has waved for a cab to the ball in Massenet's opera at Santa Fe

Lastly, Massenet’s magical Cendrillon, which makes its Metropolitan Opera premiere this season, is telecast on April 28, 2018 at 12:55. It’s a Cinderella story… Joyce DiDonato adds another role to her Met repertory as the title character, a role she has sung to acclaim at the Grand Teatre del Liceu, Santa Fe Opera, and Royal Opera, Covent Garden. The cast also stars Alice Coote as Prince Charmant, Stephanie Blythe as the evil stepmother Madame de la Haltière, Kathleen Kim as the fairy Fée, and Laurent Naouri as Pandolfe. The conductor is Bertrand de Billy. The famous Laurent Pelly, whose credits at the Metropolitan Opera include Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment and Massenet’s Manon, directs this new production and also designed the costumes. Sets are designed by Barbara de Limburg, lighting is designed by Duane Schuler. Massenet’s Cendrillon is produced in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona; Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie, Brussels; and Opéra de Lille. This production, incidentally, was first performed at The Santa Fe Opera. Cendrillon is an IPO, as are many other quite respectable Massenet operas. Don’t miss it this time around! Best preparation: A Virgin Classics DVD of the Covent Garden production with DiDonato and Coote is easily available; a CD version of the complete opera stars Met favorite Frederica von Stade. A soft dreamy introspective opera, it is. Looking forward to it immensely.

Photos: Paola Kudaki (Norma), Monika Rittershaus (Exterminating Angel), Martin Smith (Cosi) and Ken Howard (Cendrillon)

Tickets for the 10 transmissions in the 2017-18 Live in HD season will go on sale on July 19, 2017 in the U.S. and Canada. Met Members are given priority seating before tickets are made available to the general public. For local start times and rebroadcast information, please visit www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/.  Traveling? Or friends abroad? International ticket sales dates and details on ordering tickets for the 2017-18 Live in HD series vary from country to country and will be announced separately by individual distributors.

The tingle hasn’t ceased from the last Rosenkavalier, and here I am writing this…wonderful, the whole thing is just wonderful.

Have a  lovely festive summer. Stay cool!