Met’s new Rosenkavalier is exquisite!

Exquisite! Mostly so. Musically so certainly, vocally so as well, and the colors of the sets, the reds particularly, are so rich and vibrant, as in the first season of Downton Abbey. Robert Carsen and his team do for Der Rosenkavalier what they did for Verdi’s Falstaff a few years ago. As back then, it mostly works here.

For starters they update the action from the 1740s in Imperial Vienna to 1911, the year Rosenkavalier premiered in Dresden, but also just before the onset of the Great War. The clouds were gathering. Portraits of Emperor Franz-Josef adorn the walls, soon to be history. The update vastly increases the costume opportunities, for one thing: the various folks gaining a morning audience with the Marschallin in Act I sport a wide variety of threads, as do the gleeful girls at work in Act III. But the time shift also opens the door for a greater military presence on stage, both in heavy metal, weapons and gray attire. Baron Ochs is in uniform, Leopold, billed here as Ochs’s bastard son, is in uniform; the officers dancing at Faninal’s are in their dress whites, the foot soldiers in the finale of Act III are suited up for battle. The powder in this Rosenkavalier is gun powder, not wig powder or snuff.

Baron Ochs and his troop in Act II of  Der Rosenkavalier

Baron Ochs and his troop in Act II of Der Rosenkavalier

Günther Groissböck’s Baron Ochs is wonderful. Couldn’t take my eyes off him and always cocked my ears for him. Ochs is still a monied swine in Carsen’s production, but we detect also in this lack of class an unhealthy dose of the barracks. Groissböck’s Ochs is battle-fit, not a manatee with a wig in tails. He may be socially glib and flippant in the quite long give-and-take with the Marschallin in Act I, but au fond he’s a sexual predator, agile, sly, with light coat of yellow orange fur on his head. Like a fox. He wounds easily and retreats to the safety of his mates when the going gets rough. On top of all this, Groissböck is vocally as solid as they come, giving lie to the assertion that weight in voice comes with weight in frame.

Sophie is attended to by Octavian in Act II

Sophie is attended to by Octavian in Act II

Poor Sophie! I mean, how could her father let this arrangement happen? Erin Morley sings timidly in girlish anticipation of meeting the man she’s intended for, poignantly as she remembers her deceased mother, and heavenly as she returns Octavian’s ardent glance. She is as resistant and responsive as she needs to be, depending on whom she’s interacting with. Reticent at first, Morley grows in voice as her character grows in stature and in the courage to shape her own destiny.

Octavian as Mariandel flirts with Ochs in Act I

Octavian as Mariandel flirts with Ochs in Act I

Sophie is particularly responsive to the magnificent Octavian of Elïna Garanča. Though later in Rosenkavalier’s creative process Strauss became increasingly smitten with his Marschallin, the title character of the opera is in fact Octavian, aka the Cavalier of the Rose who bears the silvered stemmed blossom to Sophie. Yes, the Marschallin is perceptive and wise and has an introspective depth rivaling Wotan in Act II of Die Walküre, and yes, the character is often sung by a seasoned, savvy soprano who is as comfortable on stage as the Marschallin is in her mature, not to say ‘old’ skin. But introspection is not action: Octavian is the agent of change in this opera. Garanča’s Octavian is a young man here, certain of what he wants, if not so certain how each ensuing moment will pan out. Disguised as Marandel, the skirt in Acts I and III, Garanča swoops and wobbles, brazen, not shy. As Octavian, she never shys away from coupling with the women. Garanča’s every moment, dramatically and vocally, is memorable, even given the sometime excessiveness of Carsen’s direction.

Renee Fleming as the Marschallin

Renee Fleming as the Marschallin

Renée Fleming ranks very close to the top of my list of Marschallins, a list which includes Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Felicity Lott. In this, her farewell performances at the Metropolitan Opera (can this be even true!?), Fleming adds to her wealth of experience a degree of mellow. Her Marschallin converses with Ochs in Act I as if it were an everyday chat; her partnering with Octavian was physical and passionate. Mostly conversational or otherwise engaged, Act I really doesn’t give Fleming a chance to let loose. Happily her contribution to the trio in Act III with Garanča and Morley met all expectations. Thank you for the thrill, thank you for the memories and best wishes, my dear Renée.

There are twenty-eight, count ‘em, twenty-eight other vocal characters in this opera. Some highlights include: Matthew Polanzani is the elegant Italian Singer in Act I, looking like Caruso and autographing a 78; throughout are Alan Oke as the oily Valzacchi, and his equally so accomplice Annina, taken by Helene Schneiderman; Sophie’s Papa, the wealthy, recently ennobled Herr von Faninal, is given to spells of anxiety, all with big voice by Markus Brück; Sophie’s Duenna Marianne Leitmetzerin is also given big voice by Susan Neves. I mean, wow!

Intriguing as well is conductor Sebastian Weigle, whose Fidelio struck me quite positively earlier this spring. Though certainly not shying away from the big orchestral moments, particularly the Introductions to Acts I and III, Weigle weaves out of Strauss’s many notes a subtle orchestral fabric that intrigues almost subliminally, never shouting “hey, listen to this!” The intricate complexities of this detail-heavy score are not lost, but rather woven together seamlessly. I’m very much looking forward to hearing it again. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is in top form throughout.

Robert Carsen’s team includes Paul Steinberg, Set Designer, Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Costumes, Carsen and Peter Van Praet, Lighting Design, and Philippe Giraudeau, Choreography. Like Carsen’s recent Falstaff at the Met, the costumes and colors are brilliant, the characters are well defined, if sometimes over the top, the sets are fluid, the direction is taut, and the comic asides are real chucklers. Remember the random horse calmly eating the hay in the final Act of Carsen’s Falstaff? Here in Act III we have a topless tart chatting on the (whore) house phone amidst a lot of comings, also goings; a john wanders in semi-clad from an adjoining room to retrieve his watch. Leopold is something of the voyeur, hiding under the bed much like Bardolph (or Pistol, I don’t remember which one) in Falstaff’s room at the Inn. Many of the interactions are physical and explicit here, not the sort one imagines Frieda Hempel or the great Lotte Lehmann putting up with. I’ll go on record by saying there is too much groin-groping, even for this administration. Effective, yes, but also overdone.

The playing spaces point back to the rear of the stage but the floor space is large. A drop wall with doors, sometimes furniture in front as well makes for a wide but shallow playing space. It’s effectively used for entrances and exits and when the drop wall is lifted, the larger interior space is revealed…all good. As at the end of Carsen’s Falstaff, the angled walls open in back. Here a squad of soldiers does a ready, aim, fire and all fall down. The Great War is just around the corner. Unfortunately the magical end of Rosenkavalier is a first casualty.

This said, you still have to see this one and, especially, hear it. 

Reviewed performance: April 24, 2017

Photos: Ken Howard and Kristian Schuller

I love this opera. Don’t miss it.


Mozart’s noble Idomeneo honors the Metropolitan Opera

Idomeneo is a wonder, arguably Mozart’s grandest, richest score, written for, at the time, one of the more remarkable orchestras in the world. How liberating it must have been for the young genius, knowing that the band could play whatever notes he put on the sheets.

It was Mozart’s most important commission to date, the festival centerpiece of the 1781 Carnival season in Munich. In fact the world premiere almost occurred on his twenty-fifth birthday, but delays were caused by a lot of last minute trimming, rewriting, and also troubles with the singers, particularly with the old tenor selected for the title role. The trill was gone.

Idomeneo’s labor and painful birth pangs are well documented in Mozart’s letters to his father. Its positive reception and the confidence and experience Mozart gained from this all prompted his decision to move up to the major musical league in Vienna. There he would spend the last ten years of his life composing four of the finest operas ever written, plus two other full length ones quite well received at the time, and his major symphonies, and the concerti…you know the rest.

Idomeneo is opera seria in style, not an opera buffa like his earlier La finta giardiniera. Serious opera, in other words, not a buffoonery. It contains predictable seria themes: internal conflict within a royal family, a king and/or a queen under duress, a love triangle, but in the end all resolves in ways to some degree rational and good, demonstrating the ruler’s inner strength, wisdom, nobility of character and forgiveness. These operas were funded by royalty and power and therefore had to please and massage egos, but the characters on stage also provided role models for the members of the audience.

The presence of the sea god Neptune dominates  Idomeneo

The presence of the sea god Neptune dominates Idomeneo

Idomeneo, the King of Crete, has made a bargain with Neptune: if the sea god saves the King’s ship from certain destruction, the King will have to sacrifice the first person he meets, which, it so happens, is Idamante, Idomeneo’s own devoted son, who is out on the shore looking for evidence of his father’s return.

Knowing what he must do and knowing the terrible consequences of coming up short on his end of the bargain, Idomeneo cannot even look Idamante in the eye. Plus, Idamante loves Ilia, a Trojan princess captured during the war, though another princess, Elettra by name, lays claim to Idamante’s hand. Well, it’s enough to make for a full evening of glorious singing and all ends well for everyone, except for Elettra, who has one of the great hissy fits in all opera.

Idomeneo at the Met this season is wonderfully cast, all under the baton of James Levine. Levine is responsible for bringing Idomeneo to the Met (the production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle premiered in 1982); his reading of the score is both inspired and reverential, as if he were making an offering to the gods of music. The balance of the instruments in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is conspicuous, as is the overall shape of the larger numbers, particularly the ensemble singing in twos, threes and in that glorious quartet Andrò ramingo e solo early in Act III. If at times Levine’s devotion is expressed by dwelling on sections of the score, particularly those sections underlying the more solemn events toward the opera’s conclusion, he also rises to the frenzy of Elettra’s psychotic episode and to the ensuing joyous celebration of Idamante’s ascension to the throne and his union in marriage with Ilia.

Matthew Polenzani is Idomeneo

Matthew Polenzani is Idomeneo

The singers are particularly apt for their parts. Matthew Polenzani’s Idomeneo is characterized by a long, even vocal line and sweet, pleasing tones. He communicates his grief in expression and posture. Idamante is taken by Alice Coote, who continues to demonstrate her grasp and execution of fine bel canto singing. New to me is soprano Nadine Sierra as Ilia: she too portrays her grief as a prisoner, but also shows the joy she feels when she and all of the Trojan prisoners are released and the unambiguous love she shares with Idamante. All nicely done.

Nadine Sierra is Ilia, the Trojan Princess

Nadine Sierra is Ilia, the Trojan Princess

With an evening full of such gentle characters, Elza van den Heever’s Elettra is especially electric, certainly in the aforementioned frenzy D’Oreste, d’Aiace ho in seno i tormenti in Act III in which she implores vipers and serpents to tear out her heart, the creatures politely taking turns of course. Vipers must be role models too.

But van den Heever is a psychological presence whenever she is on stage, singing or not, and her participation in the ensembles is always conspicuous. The ovation she received at the final curtain was well deserved. Welcome back; mille bravi!

Elza van den Heever as Elettra in  Idomeneo

Elza van den Heever as Elettra in Idomeneo

Others in the cast include Alan Opie as Arbace, Noah Baetge as the forceful High Priest, and Eric Owens as the voice of Neptune.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production is as heavy as one imagines the real columns for these structures to be, but to me it complements the opera perfectly. Scene changes, minimal mostly, are effected by scrims lowered in back, an occasional new piece of furniture, and the assertion and retreat of the large stone mask of Neptune, such as one might find on a water fountain at a seaside park, only much bigger (see first photo above). But the drama is all in the music and the text. At least the production is not busy and distractingly silly just to compensate for the stately pace of it all. Mozart’s Idomeneo is a magnificent opera. Opera seria, 1781. Catch it if you can.

Reviewed performance: March 13, 2017

Photos: Marty Sohl.

See OperaMetro’s exclusive interview with Elza van den Heever on the page Interviews.

Of course the first person Idomeneo sees is his beloved son Idamante, heir to the throne! Seriously, were it a commoner out clam digging on that shore, whack! The opera’d be over in 20 minutes!

Thank heaven it’s Mozart.

Enjoy! My Monday was the serious quiet before the on-the-whole not so perfect storm…spring is on the way, one hopes!


Willy Decker’s stark take on La Traviata at the Met

Giving lie to the assertion that the old ‘Metro only stops at great performances at the Met or that a certain critical acumen has been lost over these many many seasons, let’s start by saying that the Willy Decker production of La Traviata should move on to the next station of its life, wherever that may be. Oblivion perhaps?

Recovering from repair work in the winter of 2011 and not even riding the ‘Metro at that time, I missed reviewing the opening run of this current Traviata, thinking to myself, but also out loud to anyone who’d listen, well, I have the DG DVD of the production’s premiere at Salzburg in 2005, it’s an impact production, Oh surely you've seen it and probably remember all of the surrounding hype...It was Anna Netrebko’s ‘a star is born’ moment. She was hot!

Finally this season in the house I was impacted. Decker’s Traviata heightens our awareness that a wealth-and-power driven male dominated society chews up beautiful young women for pleasure but then spits out what’s left of them and moves on to the next delicious morsel.* Once discarded, thrown back down to the disadvantaged layers of society, in which living conditions are poor, heat and food scarce, adequate health care denied, they will suffer greatly. Some things never change I guess. Okay, so Decker’s production touches on current politics.

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta

Sonya Yoncheva is the beautiful young soprano this season in La Traviata, following in a long line of the other beautiful young sopranos who have essayed the role at the Met since 2011. Yoncheva’s Violetta is solidly sung, full out, even thrilling at times. She moves well on stage, deserving of the spotlight and the center of our attention.

Gone are the days of the lace frills, the hooped skirts and that ‘Zeffirelli’ attention to scenic and costume detail: Violetta is either in a form-fitting red dress or, alternatively, wearing the white slip beneath, the former when she’s being social with (and therefore oppressed by) her men friends (and women) in tuxedo black. They paw at her, lift her, pass her around. The white slip is when she is intimate with Alfredo or on her death bed, which actually is not a part of this production. The bed, I mean.

Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva as Alfredo and Violetta in Act II

Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva as Alfredo and Violetta in Act II

Somewhat sad and touching is the moment when, in the last scene during the Carnival music, the men and women, formal attire in disarray, masks askew, carry in a new beautiful young woman in a red dress. The ailing Violetta knows the truth. Her time is up.

Tenor Michael Fabiano is a committed Alfredo Germont: passionate, caring, supportive, angry and repenting. But what are we to make of the fact that he is not by Violetta’s bedside at the end, or, actually the is bed missing, see above, at least supporting her or sprawled out beside her on the floor? Has he now become detached, suddenly without a soul?

And his father Giorgio Germont, sung by veteran baritone Thomas Hampson (who also sang Germont in that 2005 Salzburg premiere) makes no bones about the fact that he sincerely supports the status quo and will most likely hasten Violetta’s death. He too is uncaring and passive at the end, as is Annina (sung by Jane Bunnell).

James Courtney is the omnipresent Doctor Grenvil, insistent on Violetta’s awareness that her time is running out (hence the big Clock). Dwayne Croft is the Baron. The guests and other sycophants include Jeff Mattsey as the Marquis, Rebecca Jo Loeb as Flora, Scott Scully as Gastone and so on.

Nicola Luisotti acquitted himself well with Verdi’s wonderful score. The Met’s Chorus seemed game for anything and everything, playing their roles with gusto and joie..

Violetta must leave Alfredo, thus ending her happiness

Violetta must leave Alfredo, thus ending her happiness

But back to the production. Though the aforementioned DVD from Salzburg 2005 accurately “sets the stage” for the Decker Traviata in the house, it also distracts from its faults. Yes, there is a callous energy to the chorus of gawkers, something usually lost in productions cluttered with fancy props and pillars. But in person I found the playing area of this stage most of the time far too big and too brightly lit for any intimacy. the chorus mainly doing variations on a behavioral theme. Further, depending on where the singers are placed (and where you’re sitting) the curved wall surrounding the rear of the stage does funny things with the voices. Frequent close ups and microphones in an HD telecast will correct for this, but be prepared in the house.

As to the sociological take on Traviata, the issues staged here are certainly not lost beneath a hooped skirt in a traditional staging. One admires the impact of Decker’s energetic conception…once.

Soprano Carmen Giannattasio joins the cast as Violetta on March 22.

Reviewed performance: March 4, 2017

Photos: Marty Sohl.

*Thinking about this more: paradoxically, the Decker production itself chews up beautiful young sopranos for the central role of Violetta. Better grab it while you’re young! The demands of the staging most likely prevent sopranos past a certain age and size from essaying the physical part well on stage.

Enjoy! Saturday night was close to Arctic temperatures with the wind…ugh! But a warm night overall.



A passionate Werther at the Met

Sir Richard Eyre’s production of Massenet’s Werther, new in 2014, and its excellent cast this season represent the Metropolitan Opera at its best. The restrained but ever building tension between the characters, the passion unleashed but ultimately frustrated, and the ensuing despair are well crafted by Eyre, his cast, his conductor and his production team.

Especially effective is the inspired staging of the sudden and emotionally crushing death of Charlotte’s Mother at Christmas time. She, Charlotte and the younger children are out for an evening of caroling apparently. What should have been a bundled-up cozy warm night of good cheer is now empty, dark and grim: the snow is just cold, not seasonally joyful.

The pantomime occurs during the opening minutes of the somber prelude, but as the music brightens, so does the spring bloom on stage. The sets and costumes, designed by Rob Howell, transform the stage from whites and grays to greens and yellows before our eyes; videos by Wendall K. Harrington project budding trees, flowers, returning birds, a world transformed also by Peter Mumford’s lighting into the warmth of the summer sunlight. The Bailiff is already rehearsing his scampy children for next Christmas. Life goes on.

Mezzo Isabel Leonard is Charlotte in Massenet's  Werther

Mezzo Isabel Leonard is Charlotte in Massenet's Werther

But not really. Charlotte, his eldest daughter but still a young woman, is now the maternal figure in the family, with all of its household responsibilities. Further, it was one of her Mother’s last wishes that she marry the well-grounded, solid, but on-the-whole dull Albert. By the fall, Scene II of Act I as staged, she is three months married.

Eyre’s opening scenes highlight the pressures on poor Charlotte. She is unhappy and emotionally repressed for reasons she is unable to change. The lovely mezzo Isabel Leonard creates a complex Charlotte: the model of self-control, though her façade betrays a few cracks here and there, just enough to keep Werther’s hopes alive, just enough to drive him to despair and to his eventual suicide. Vocally, too, Leonard is controlled in the earlier scenes, but she lets her inner woman loose in the critical Scene One of the second Act (Act III as written). To Charlotte’s credit, she realizes instantly Werther’s intentions with the pistols, but, alas, she arrives too late to save him. Her façade now crumbling as she sees him dying, she declares her love for him and gives him comfort. Does she join him by taking her own life? Why does she pick up the pistol? Leonard’s Charlotte was wonderful. Brava!

Leonard and Vittorio Grigolo in the final scene

Leonard and Vittorio Grigolo in the final scene

Werther is unhappy too but emotionally expressive for reasons he too is unable to change: he loves Charlotte and now she's married. Vittorio Grigolo has, of late, made a run of the romantic tenor roles in the French repertory: Hoffmann, Massenet’s Des Grieux, this season Gounod’s Roméo and now Werther. As with every character, he brings his now customary passion to the stage, but here also I found a great degree of tenderness, elegance and refinement. One never doubts the sincerity behind his singing nor doubts his complete understanding of the emotions underlying the text. The aforementioned Scene One of Act II (as staged) is filled with his tension. They, Grigolo and Leonard, are a wonderful duo.

Vittorio Grigolo is Werther

Vittorio Grigolo is Werther

Soprano Anna Christy is Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister. Christy’s light silvery voice conveyed the cheerful positive nature of her character: life goes on. Maurizio Muraro is doting Daddy Bailiff: life goes on. Well, maybe this is because the old Bailiff has his two happy-go-lucky drinking buddies Johann (Philip Cokorinos) and Schmidt (Tony Stevenson), for whom life always goes on. David Bizic is the solid Albert, pleasing in voice at all times. Christopher Job is Brühlmann and Sarah Larsen is Käthchen: they’re a young couple in the village with relationship difficulties.

Conductor Edward Gardner accentuated the long introverted lines of the score, but did not shy away from giving substantial muscle to the larger emotional scenes. The tenderness of Werther and Charlotte’s dancing, followed by the sadness of her revelation of the engagement to Albert were articulated well both in volume and in pacing.

Charlotte and Werther reunite on Christmas Eve, Scene One, Act II

Charlotte and Werther reunite on Christmas Eve, Scene One, Act II

Massenet’s Werther is not a perfect opera, but, to be fair, not every opera in the standard repertory is perfect. Not surprisingly, the French found it too gloomy (it is in spots, as it should be, but its also warmly springlike and magical in other spots. “Mood appropriate” might be a nicer way to describe the score). Werther premiered in Vienna in 1892 after being turned down by the Opéra-Comique some years earlier. It lacks the concision, the complexity and the orchestral energy of Puccini’s masterpieces Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly, but then so do many other Italian operas from the period. This season’s Werther was close to perfect.

Review performance date: February 27, 2017.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Enjoy! It’s a soulfully emotional opera and the Met at its best!



Bellini’s I Puritani: true bel canto!

If Bellini wrote I Puritani for bel canto superstars, it follows that one needs a team of superstars to perform it. The Metropolitan Opera’s current cast is that, happily as much for their stage action and sincerity as for their beautiful and passionate singing.

Diana Damrau and Javier Camarena star in the Met's  I Puritani

Diana Damrau and Javier Camarena star in the Met's I Puritani

The lovers Arturo and Elvira are well taken by Javier Camarena and Diana Damrau and well suited for each other. Each has a clean vocal line, a pure bright tone, and a spectacular upper range. Elvira is a spirited young woman of the Puritan sect whose impending marriage to Arturo, a member of the enemy Royalists, is cause for great excitement and peace. If Damrau’s quick staccato movements are sometimes at odds with Bellini’s more leisurely music, they allow for the proper behavioral contrast between a joyful Elvira and the doleful Elvira after Arturo has inexplicably fled the castle. Her decomposition at this news at the end of Act I is well done; her Qui la voce sua soave in Act II captures the bipolarity of her “madness,” as does the contrast in Act III between her “Gee, I’m so glad you’re back” (at Arturo’s return to fetch her) to “Hey, wait, are you leaving me again?” He is understandably confused upon hearing this. Damrau is wonderful as Elvira.

Elvira's Mad Scene in Act II of  Puritani

Elvira's Mad Scene in Act II of Puritani

Camarena, too, was forthright and demonstrative in his expression of love for Elvira both in Acts I and III. The famous quartet in Act I A te, o cara, for me Bellini at his best, was Camarena at his best too: simply heavenly; the extended duets of Act III layer one exciting vocal display on top of another. It was an exhilarating evening of bel canto singing all together, not to be missed.

Luca Pisaroni and Alexey Markov in Act II of  I Puritani

Luca Pisaroni and Alexey Markov in Act II of I Puritani

But the lower voices are well taken too. Alexey Markov’s evenly ranged baritone provides richness to the role of Riccardo (Elvira’s intended before Arturo) and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni is a wise and comforting Giorgio (Elvira’s uncle). Their extended duet Il rival salvar tu dêi to end Act II brought the house down, as well it should.

Sir Bruno Robertson is sung by Eduardo Valdes; Gualtiero is sung by David Crawford; Enrichetta, the Queen, was sung by MaryAnn McCormick, replacing Virginie Verrez.

Maurizio Benini’s leadership of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra produced variable results. While at times he brought out that special movement to Bellini’s melodic lines, at other times the music seemed to lose its flow. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, is well served by Ming Cho Lee’s sets: their sound is focused and enriched. Bravi!

Sandro Sequi’s production, new in 1976…yes, just over 40 years ago, for Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti…has held up particularly well. The staging, realized by Sarah Ina Meyers, is what one calls ‘traditional’ these days. Elvira’s mercurial mood changes are well portrayed in conjunction with the text, as is Arturo’s unflagging devotion to her; Gil Wechsler’s lighting provides the proper atmospheres in every scene. Peter J. Hall’s costumes are rich and colorful.

Vincenzo Bellini wrote his last opera I Puritani di Scozia as the ultimate bel canto oeuvre for four of the greatest singers of their era: it premiered on January 24, 1835 at the Théâtre Italien with Giulia Grisi, tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (aka just Rubini), baritone Arturo Tamburini, and basso Luigi Lablache. They, soon known as ‘the Puritani Quartet,’ would create Donizetti’s Marin Faliero on March 12th and bring Puritani to London later that May. The ‘same’ cast, but this time with Mario instead of Rubini, premiered Don Pasquale in Paris in 1843. Bellini was the buzz though, the real deal. Sopranos fought over Norma, most notably Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran. Entranced by the dramatic and flamboyant Malibran, Bellini rewrote Elvira for her unique vocal timbre and technique, the new score to be delivered for her in Naples. Sadly, this version of Puritani did not reach Naples in time for her to perform it, the contract was cancelled, he died and she died. Son vergin vezzosa in Act I was especially written for Malibran; it’s now traditionally inserted into the score of the original Grisi version.

So today we have singers who are in all likelihood as fine as the ones mentioned just above. We missed them, through no fault of our own. But don’t miss this Puritani: it’s a vocal tour de force. What opera is all about, in other words.

Review performance date: February 22, 2017.

Photos: Marty Sohl

I Puritani is performed here in three acts with two intermissions; the running time is about three hours and 35 minutes.

I Puritani appears again on the Met stage on the evenings of February 25 and 28. Evening curtains are usually 7:30 p.m.; later on the 25th. For ticket information or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or by visiting

Enjoy! Sun screen in February?! Record high notes for I Puritani and also pretty close for a record high temperature today…can summer come so soon?



Met’s new Rusalka sparkles

They say an idle brain is the Devil’s playground, but an open mind is an at-risk vulnerable state as well. We at the Met have, over the past decade, witnessed director Mary Zimmerman’s takes on operas that range from the intermittently distracting (e.g., the Sextet in Lucia di Lammermoor) to cloyingly cute (Armida) to the downright ridiculous, actually dramatically destructive (La Sonnambula). Imagine then the sheer dread one felt following the announcement that she, of all people, was directing a new production of Rusalka, one which would replace the magical Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen creation for the opera’s premiere at the Met in 1993. Where’s that grimacing emoticon when you really need one?

But risking it, keeping the open mind, as I always do, I happily found Zimmerman’s new Rusalka both charming and delightful (importantly, mostly when Dvořák’s music is meant to be charming and delightful), but also quite moving and sad, which, au fond, the story really is.

It’s a package deal here: the success of this Rusalka is the cast, the conducting and playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the new production itself. Maybe the nice evening helped too.

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka sings the Song to the Moon

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka sings the Song to the Moon

Rusalka is a star vehicle for soprano Kristine Opolais, who brings to the title role her cool beauty and ravishing voice, combined with a keen dramatic instinct. Rusalka’s conflicting desires, evidenced in her inability to connect emotionally with the Prince, are played out unambiguously well in Act II. Plus, duh! can’t she even see the colors of her gown are, like, all wrong!?

The downhill tumble of her relationship with the Prince is not helped by the distracting intrusion of the Foreign Princess, whose heat is more alluring than Rusalka’s chill. Katarina Dalayman is brash, bold and hot, all the more captivating just now because alas poor Rusalka has traded her voice for her new earthly needs, a pair of legs, to name one of them. The Prince just knows her as ‘quiet.’

Brandon Jovanovich is the Prince

Brandon Jovanovich is the Prince

As the Prince, tenor Brandon Jovanovich was impressive, winning both in voice and virility. The music says he must ardently take his Rusalka in his arms, which he does, sweeping her off her feet. But though he is confused by Rusalka’s reticence, he is ultimately unsure of the Princess’s excesses and opts to follow his true love all the way to Act III, where, by the lakeside, he gladly gives himself to death in her arms. Jovanovich sings with heartfelt sincerity.

Eric Owens is Vodník, Rusalka’s father and a Water Gnome to boot. By Zimmerman’s direction, Owens’ character is maybe too much the mix of a fairy tale Alberich sort who plays with the Wood Sprites and the warm protective father figure who most of the time sighs for Rusalka’s unfortunate choices. Owens is always pleasing vocally.

Jamie Barton as   Ježibaba and her assistant

Jamie Barton as Ježibaba and her assistant

But then Jamie Barton is delightfully over-the-top as Ježibaba, the local witch hanging out in the woods. Mesmerizingly so, actually. That Barton’s rich mezzo/contralto voice is impressive is a well known fact by this time, but that she moves with a strong grace, communicates her thoughts and intentions with telling body language, particularly with her facial expressions and her hands…watch her hands…are all wonderful as well. Until Act III that is: Dvořák’s Rusalka is a finely tuned fairy tale, mixing fun for the young and sadness, loss and regret for those us adulterated elders who’ve been there, done that. Barton’s Ježibaba gets mean, demanding the Prince’s death…Nonetheless, I found myself smiling every moment Barton was on stage. Brava!!

Here in Zimmerman’s conception, far more so than in the previous production of Rusalka, the lighter elements of the story are played closer to the top of the pole: the three Wood Sprites, pleasingly sung by Hyesang Park, Megan Marino, and Cassandra Zoé Velasco, are joined by a whole troupe of Sprites, making for a lot of hopping and dancing. Alan Opie’s Gamekeeper is a crusty sort of comic character and Daniela Mack’s Kitchen Boy is a wonderful vignette, apple and all. Anthony Clark Evans is the Hunter who announces the Prince’s arrival in the forest in Act I.

Sir Mark Elder’s read of Dvořák’s rich score brought out the depth of Rusalka’s love and pain, but allowed for the lighter moments to sparkle. It is remarkable music, to be sure, and the Met Orchestra plays it so well.

Eric Owens as Vodnik appears to his daughter Rusalka at the Prince's fete

Eric Owens as Vodnik appears to his daughter Rusalka at the Prince's fete

An equally large part of the success of this new Rusalka is the mise-en-scène: sets by Daniel Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, and lighting by T. J. Gerckens, all three who, at the Met, designed for Zimmerman’s Lucia and Sonnambula. Unlike the Schneider-Siemssen Rusalka, the sets this time around are not strictly literal, but rather suggestive. Yet they convey each setting colorfully and emotionally. The forest scene is a comforting lush leafy green, Rusalka’s tree is there in the center, the Sprites dance about, Vodník emerges from below the river; a very large moon traverses the sky during the famous Song to the Moon, though Rusalka’s long costume “tail” seems a real nuisance for Opolais, hence distracting for the audience…but basically all is good. Ježibaba has assistants: a balletic mouse escaped from The Nutcracker probably, a black cat (of course) and a crow and a whole cabinet of spells and potions to transform Rusalka. It’s pretty silly, but played well. I liked the stage with yellow petals strewn about, the meadow in which the Prince first professes his love for his strange river creature. The second act is brilliantly red in décor and costumes, in contrast to Rusalka’s silver blue gown, and the ball, choreographed by Austin McCormick, worked very well. Forgot to mention that of course Rusalka can’t dance: she’s just learned to walk, for goodness sake! For Act III, the gentle woods have been hit by rough weather, foreshadowing the rough emotional weather we’re about to endure in the total collapse of Rusalka’s plans for happiness with humans.

The Met’s new Rusalka is a don’t-miss-this experience: open mind, remember.

It’s also one of the great operas in the repertory, certainly very high on my list. I’ve loved it forever.

Just a thought: am I wrong in suspecting that Mary Zimmerman is on the Met’s short list to direct the Company’s premiere of Janáček’s Příihody Lisky Bystroušky? (The Tale of Vixen Sharp-ears) (aka auf Deutsch Das schlaue Füchslein (thank you, Max!); in English The Cunning Little Vixen). Assuming, of course, the Met wants to patch that hole in their repertory…

Reviewed performance: February 6, 2017

Photos: Ken Howard

Enjoy! Trip home listening to Dvořák’s four Symphonic Poems, opus sequentially from Water Goblin, Golden Spinning Wheel, Noon Witch, and Wood Dove, these last two personal favorites. I would have added the New World Symphony, but maybe tomorrow. A cat must snooze sometime. Still, doesn’t get better than these!

Brave the coming storm; we're closer to the summer solstice and the shore every day!



Met’s Roméo et Juliette sizzles!

When Bartlett Sher nails it, he really nails it. The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is passionate with the urgency of youth, it’s sexy, short-tempered and quickly violent, a world parents, the caregivers and the pious view with alarm. Much like today. Yet the violence stems from lingering tribal wounds, the turf wars of the previous generations hanging like albatrosses around the necks of their offspring. Again, sound familiar?

The centerpieces of the cast of this Roméo et Juliette are Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau. Accomplished artists, they have scored high marks in other repertories, but, reminiscent of their hot Manon in the spring of 2015, the frisson is on stage at the Met once again in another French opera romance!

Vittorio Grigolo   as Roméo in  Roméo et Juliette   

Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo in Roméo et Juliette 

Critics may complain that Mr. Grigolo doesn’t have the requisite French timbre for Roméo, but, as in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Manon (and most likely in Massenet’s Werther yet to come in February), Grigolo has youth, ardor, and a total commitment to each moment of drama unfolding before our eyes and ears. Plus he is paired with Diana Damrau, a soprano who partners him with the same utter abandon. She, too, delivers an impassioned, youthful character. As I say, the frisson is back. Unlike Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which either Isolde or Tristan or both are on stage every curtain-up moment of the evening, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is more than just one long duet between the lovers. But when they’re on stage it should be convincing. I’m convinced. 

Vittorio Grigolo with Diana Damrau as Juliette

Vittorio Grigolo with Diana Damrau as Juliette

A typical Bartlett Sher production is perpetually moving, emotionally moving certainly, but also behaviorally. He likes flow. His Roméo and his Juliette have the flow, but so do all of the others on stage. On Team Montague, Mercutio is given a vivid portrait by Elliot Madore, Stéphano is portrayed in zesty voice by Virginie Verrez, and the supportive Benvolio is sung by Tony Stevenson. Mercutio just itches for the duel until his accidental death. I admire his boundless swagger.

But the fray is never far away: Team Capulet has the youthful hotheads Tybalt, sung by Diego Silva, and Grégorio, sung by Jeongcheol Cha. They push a lot of buttons too. The duels are fast and furious when they happen, well choreographed by B. H. Barry; Chase Brock has created colorful festivities and fluid dance sequences which seem to happen spontaneously and as quickly disperse.

Father Capulet himself, taken by the esteemed Lauren Naouri, is a kind, proud father to his Juliette, but he misses all of her nonverbal cues through the business of her marriage to the wannabe suitor Pâris, sung by David Crawford. On the support side of Juliette’s rebellion are the excellent mezzo Diana Montague as Gertrude (brava!) and Frère Laurant, portrayed by Mikhail Petrenko; the Duke of Verona is Oren Gradus.

I have admired everything Gianandrea Noseda has conducted at the Met; this Roméo is no exception. His pays attention to orchestra detail without any loss of momentum; he makes Gounod’s score prominent without overwhelming his singers. Quite admirable! Bravo!

The Balcony Scene from   Roméo et Juliette  

The Balcony Scene from  Roméo et Juliette 

Against the flow of the principals and the mob, Sher adds gravity by a slowly entering chorus during the solemn Prologue and by the various on-lookers surrounding subsequent events on the floor and on the balconies above. They remind us that beneath a veneer of merrymaking lies the weight of the human condition. The production gains much impact by the update to the 18th century, particularly with the wonderful costumes designed by Catherine Zuber, pleasing as much for their colors as for their style. Beautiful and effective.

Gravity is enhanced too by the towering dark unit set designed by Michael Yeargan with lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton. The Met’s staging of Sher’s Roméo et Juliette is closer to the production’s La Scala run, but the original conception (also Zuber, Yeargan, and Tipton) was in the Felsenreitschule at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. There a larger, especially wider stage forced a lot of directorial choices, especially with regard to the interior, intimate scenes, Frère Laurant’s Cell, the Bedroom and Tomb to name three. Here these are played on same city square, walled by the large balconied structures. There is an exit alley to the left. Hey, Juliette needs a balcony, right? At the Met, check! But not in Salzburg. Does the happy couple need a nuptial bed though? Apparently not! Yeargan appropriately creates these spaces with quickly inserted props, a crucifix here, a large white sheet floating down from above. The sheet will sow the confusion that leaves Mercutio vulnerable to Tybalt’s blade; the sheet also defines the lovers’ bed and serves as her shroud. Is this a problem?

The large white sheet interferes with Mercutio's duel

The large white sheet interferes with Mercutio's duel

Two points are appropriate: first, the music and the drama move seamlessly in Sher’s Roméo et Juliette, as they do in most of his other productions. This is a good thing: dimly lit curtain down “is this the intermission, dear?” pauses for scene changes in grand opera are a real buzz kill. What’s more, the solution here for Roméo is far better than the relatively weak sliding plexiglass walls for Sher/Yeargan’s Otello of last season. Roméo moves seamlessly, which is a good thing. Then second, one who is properly focused on the drama and the music will soon filter out the lack of interior sets, especially so with the aid of the narrow focus of a high definition telecast.

Feast on the singers; the opera is the thing, to borrow from Shakespeare.

The Tomb Scene

The Tomb Scene

Reviewed performance: January 10, 2017

Photos: Ken Howard; La Scala production photo by Brescia/Armisano.

It’s a must-see event. Enjoy! Brave the cold; get the new year off to a great start!



Verdi’s Nabucco opens at the Met

The year 1842 was a watershed year in the history of opera: a young Giuseppe Verdi scored a huge success at the famed Teatro alla Scala in Milan on March 9 with Nabucco, his third opera, and a young Richard Wagner scored a huge success at the Königlich Sächsisches Hoftheater in Dresden on October 20 with Rienzi, also his third opera.

Both are more or less loose baggy monsters, though Rienzi is arguably more loosier and baggier, easily clocking more than twice the running time as doth clock Nabucco; both operas have glimmers of the great things to come from each composer, but neither opera is a masterpiece: the writing in each rarely penetrates the souls of their characters.

To the point, Verdi’s Nabucco is mostly loud and raw…but it sure is exciting!

Certainly the role of Abigaille can slam you to the back of your seat. Indeed, finding a soprano who can successfully negotiate the peaks and valleys of the role and live to tell about it is part of the challenge of mounting this particular opera. More history: Verdi wrote it for the celebrated dynamic dramatic soprano Sofia Loewe, who, though she inconveniently dropped out before the first run of Nabucco, soon afterward created for Verdi Elvira in Ernani and Odabella, another vengeful warrior maiden type, in Attila.

Liudmyla Monastyrska is Abigaille

Liudmyla Monastyrska is Abigaille

In this season’s run of Nabucco, Liudmyla Monastyrska, a soprano from Kiev, Ukraine, soars over the orchestra in all of Abigaille’s big scenes, but she also manages some small degree of sorrow at usurping the throne, hobbling and imprisoning her father and ordering the execution of her sister. Compared to other Abigailles I have heard on stage, Monastyrska sings with a less edgy voice, is more focused and at times even sweet. She moves well, though the staging is relatively static. She is exciting and pleasing all around. Brava!

The title role is more three dimensional: Nabucco is arrogant, defiant, and vengeful, but later humbled to his knees by Abigaille, quickly remorseful, penitent, and...sad? At the opera’s close this time around Nabucco comforts his dying daughter Abigaille while all the others around celebrate their release from captivity and oppression. The gesture was not in the original run of this Moshinsky production. Hmmm. What does his last embrace and comforting signifiy? But wait, come to think of it, in the Met's DVD release of Nabucco from that 2001 run, Juan Pons has a tear steaming down his cheek in the final close up. Hmmm again.

Placido Domingo is Nabucco

Placido Domingo is Nabucco

Plácido Domingo continues his foray into the baritone repertory with a performance of Nabucco that, to my senses, portrayed many facets of his character. On this first night, however, especially during the extended three part duet with Abigaille in Act III (as written, Part II as performed, Donna, chi sei?; Oh, di qual’onta aggravasi; Ah, qual suon!), the big chunk of humble pie he chomps off seemed to compromise Domingo’s delivery, leaving one wondering if Nabucco il Re or the singer himself was experiencing the distress. If the former, Domingo found new emotional depth in the role of the tyrant of Babylon; if the latter, Domingo, seasoned veteran that he is, was able to cover it well. Bravo!

The third principal role is Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Hebrews, here admirably sung by Dmitry Belosselskiy, also from Ukraine. His rich basso voice soared over the orchestra and chorus, particularly in Act I. The nobility of character, depth of faith, and light of hope are evident at all times in his performance

Compared to, say, La Traviata, the romantic interest in Nabucco is scant, a sidebar, even though in fact a love triangle drives the plot. Ismaele, nephew to the King of Jerusalem and the Hebrew ambassador to Babylon, has fallen in love with Fenena, Nabucco’s natural daughter, but he’s also attracted the affections of Abigaille, who was once a slave, but, critical to the plot, is now Nabucco’s adopted older daughter. She also doesn’t cotton well to competition, has a short temper, and violent streak. Rising star Jamie Barton places the wholesome Fenena more to the center of the plot with a strong presence and solid voice; young tenor Russell Thomas is an urgent Ismaele; Danielle Talamantes is Anna, Zaccaria’s sister; Sava Vemić is the High Priest of Baal; Eduardo Valdes is Abdallo, Nabucco’s right hand man.

James Levine tendered Verdi’s robust music with the necessary energy, but found the soft touches in the score where necessary. Under Levine and Donald Palumbo the Metropolitan Opera Chorus was outstanding.

A remorseful Nabucco in Babylon

A remorseful Nabucco in Babylon

The current production of Nabucco, new in 2001 and only the second in the Met’s history, was created by Elijah Moshinsky, with set by John Napier. J. Knighten Smit directs this revival. The set is a rotating two sided cone with changeable structures on two faces. One, a predominantly rocky and blocky wall, is both the Temple of Solomon and the banks of Euphrates River, the other is the Babylonian royal palace, complete with exalted throne, and the dark apartment in which the fallen King Nabucco is imprisoned. Good news: the scenes can be “changed” with no long pauses and the wall also serves as a huge sounding board for the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. They open the opera magnificently as the chorus of Hebrews in the besieged Temple; they nearly close the opera as the chorus of Hebrews singing, also magnificently, the famous Va, pensiero sul l’ali dorato. But the arrangement, with its shallow flat playing space, also constrains the movement of the chorus and principals to mostly a lot of up and down or simply stasis. The long stairs leading to the throne are steep with no railing: Monastyrska tentatively ascended and descended these, stopping, getting balanced, assuming her stance, and singing. Not for the acrophobic, in other words.

Last asides: Verdi’s Nabucco is the first of a long line of epic baritone roles, including, in the composer's more immediate future, Macbeth and Rigoletto. Also, my first Abigaille on stage was Elena Suliotis, first in concert at Carnegie, later in costume in Philly, followed by Ghena Dimetrova in concert doing scenes, and, in the opening season of the current production, Maria Guleghina. Ms. Monastyrska is competitive with these singers. Enjoy the journey!

Reviewed performance date: December 12, 2016.

Photos: Marty Sohl.

Enjoy! Brave the cold; may your holidays be warm!


L’Amour de loin premieres at the Met

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, which premiered at the Met last week, posted a grand collaborative synergy between composer, conductor, orchestra, soloists, director/designer, tech staff, and, ultimately, all those present in the house.

L’Amour is an experience that plays out, for the most part, on the fuzzy border between waking and dreaming. The language, which should lean us more toward the former, is poetic, lyrical, repetitive, speculative, even aside or circling around the point.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho

But Saariaho’s music speaks volumes, fascinating complex polychromatic volumes of sound; conductor Susanna Mälkki, in her Met debut, draws magic from the marvelous Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Welcome! For long stretches one loses track of time, placing L’Amour in the same corner with Parsifal, Pelléas et Mélisande, Einstein on the Beach, and some other operas not as frequently performed as these. It's not musically equivalent, don't get me wrong, but phenomenally so. You get the drift.

Robert Lepage, whose Ring production, personal opinion, often clashed with Wagner’s orchestral colors and scenic demands, is on safer ground here: the main element is water, actually and metaphorically the gulf between the lovers, sometimes the shore, sometimes the open water of the Mediterranean Sea at night. This all works just fine because Lepage seems to love a black backdrop. His light show staging starts rather slowly, but gradually builds in emotional power in conjunction with the music and the drama. Particularly impressive is the opening scene of the second act (as staged, Act IV as written): the waves of the sea at night, as the dying Jaufré and the Pilgrim journey to the castle of Clémence, are very effective, indeed the entire second act is engaging visually to complement the final meeting of the “lovers.”

A dream image at sea at night in Robert Lepage's production of  L'Amour de Loin

A dream image at sea at night in Robert Lepage's production of L'Amour de Loin

Clémence, in French meaning clemency, compassion, forgiveness, is a name repeated by Jaufré over and over once the Pilgrim reveals it. He conjures her from afar, he writes poems, as if she is a psychological state he seeks to grasp. Or has she the attraction of a state of love and death? Susanna Phillips, in a clear and expressive voice, projects the complicated conflicts and doubts, the risks of an unknown love, ultimately the torment of losing Jaufré at their ultimate meeting. How could a good Lord allow this to happen to him? Or to her? Clémence’s calm is shattered and Phillips rises to the moment! Brava Phillips!

Susanna Phillips as Clémence, with female chorus below

Susanna Phillips as Clémence, with female chorus below

A buff Tamara Mumford is the Pilgrim, the go-between for the lovers. She, and the male chorus who pop up out of the lights for Jaufré, intrigues him about the existence of the perfect woman; she and the female chorus who pop up out of the lights for Clémence, then intrigues her about the troubadour who writes such lovely lyrics. The Pilgrim is a central role, and quite long actually. Mumford triumphs.

Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim

Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim

Eric Owens is Jaufré, the poet weary of frivolous delights who seeks a more contemplative, perfect love, even if never realized in the flesh. Owens’ rich baritone fills the house with Jaufre’s longing, doubts, griefs, and sadness at his impending death. Bravo!

Some of Lepage’s trompe l’oeil effects work: the bark on the distant sea appearing to be as far back as a dark night on 10th Avenue is one. But some do not: the sea gulls are really pretty lame and the green thing leaping out of the waves in Act II, as in "wait, what is that?" coming ever closer to stage front is…well, look, Jaufré is dreaming…never mind. By the time you realize what it is, the effect is clumsy, careful body handlers notwithstanding. Like Lepage's staging of Loge in Das Rheingold.

Kaija Saariaho’s fascinating score will linger with you; the Met’s new L’Amour de Loin is an aural/visual/emotional experience you’re not likely to soon forget. Don’t miss it.

For the record, or more correctly, for the DVD, the Salzburg world premiere video on DG is musically, vocally and dramatically competitive, but it’s essentially a count-the-molars and fillings kind of perspective. The sets aren't much to look at, so...Here’s hoping the Met’s HD telecast captures Lepage’s mise-en-scène in its fullest.

Reviewed performance date: December 6, 2016.

Photos: Ken Howard

Toujours L’Amour!


Rossini’s Guillaume Tell returns to the Met

Rather like Proust’s À la recherche de temps perdu, Rossini’s grand Guillaume Tell is lovely, lyrical, leisurely, and quite long. Also like the Proust, most folks know only a few, if any parts, save maybe the famous Overture. Like les petites madeleines, in other words.

The Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Guillaume Tell last night, only the 32nd performance and the first in the original French. Tell opened in Paris in 1829, made its House premiere here in 1884 in German; a subsequent new production in 1923 starring Giuseppe Danise, Rosa Ponselle and Giovanni Martinelli was sung in Italian. Now it’s back. Your time has come.

Gerald Finley as Tell convinces Bryan Hymel as Arnold to join the resistance

Gerald Finley as Tell convinces Bryan Hymel as Arnold to join the resistance

Musically this new Met Tell is a grand night at the opera. Like Don Giovanni, Tell is the centerpiece of the drama, but not given a lot of solo work. Gerald Finley is a no-nonsense patriot, dedicated to family, decency, justice, and the liberation of the Swiss folk from the oppressive Austrians. Finley’s clean baritone and intonation add layers of meaning to the role. His son Jemmy is soundly taken by upbeat mezzo Janai Brugger, Tell’s wife Hedwige is brought to life by Maria Zifchak. Melcthal is the community’s patriarch, also Arnold’s father. Kwangchul Youn brings gravity to this character.

More patriots here: Leuthold, sung by Michael Todd Simpson, is saved from capture by Tell’s quick action; Walter Furst is sung admirably by Marco Spotti; Ruodi is a young lover, taken by the sweet tenor Michele Angelini; these last two singers made the Metropolitan Opera debuts last night.

Marina Rebeka is Mathilde

Marina Rebeka is Mathilde

The love interest (and therefore a good reason for the extended duet in Act II) lies between Arnold, a Swiss solder who fought with the Austrian army, and Mathilde, an Austrian princess in Gesler’s court in the occupied territory. Arnold rescued her from an avalanche (already past, not shown on stage) but is understandably torn between loving an enemy and loving his country. Bryan Hymel essays Arnold with panache, boasting a clean, passionate high tenor sound executed without flaw. Bravo! Mathilde is sung by Marina Rebeka, whose upper register shines brightly, but whose lower register seems to avoid the depths of her part. Still, her Mathilde is a sincere, caring young woman who comes into the light, not a dark, conniving sort like, say, Marina in Boris Godunov or the Foreign Princess in Rusalka. Brava! Why the production team chose to cut Mathilde’s tender trio with Jemmy and Hedwige in the final act is beyond me.

Gesler is the bad guy, darkly sung by John Relyea; his henchperson is a snarling Rodolphe, sung by Sean Panikkar. Ross Benoliel is a Huntsman.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is under the intelligent leadership of Fabio Luisi. Luisi’s rendition of the famous overture garnered resounding applause, as did his total conception of the score. Donald Palumbo’s hand with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus is evidenced by their rich blend and tone. Praise too for the several solo dancers in the ballet section at the end of the long second Act, but also in the many brief, seemingly spontaneous spin-off moments throughout. In general, there is a very conspicuous motion to the various elements on the stage. Stagnant it is not. 

The grand finale, the hymn to liberation

The grand finale, the hymn to liberation

The new production is by Pierre Audi, with sets by George Tsypin, costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, lighting by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Kim Brandstrup.

Tsypin’s sets are a cyclorama backdrop with filler objects, rocks, suspended sheep in Act I, stags in Act II, framed structures without walls, the ribs of the hull of a large ship hung high above from the flies, and so on. The color scheme consists of mostly peaceful shades of blue, the Swiss mountain folk sport attire in rustic gray or linen white. The brilliant red of the Market Square (Act III as written) and the bright green/yellow for the grand hymn to liberty at the opera’s close contrast with former.

The musical pace of Tell is broad enough and the numbers certainly long enough that on-stage fillers are inevitable, like everyone running around for no apparent reason or climbing up and down stairs and rocks or even the oppressive Austrian lancers, men in black, a whole pack of ‘em, shuffling across the back of the stage in unison. Happily these are not in excess and, point made often, much of it supports the contrast between the peaceful cooperative Swiss mountain folk with good family values and the jittery, inwardly raging Austrian oppressors.

Need I say ‘you never know when they’ll do this one again.’

Reviewed performance date: October 18, 2016.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Enjoy! Record high for Tell and also close for the temperature today…can it be still summer? Heaven!


Tristan und Isolde at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s epic love story Tristan und Isolde raises questions about the balance of the benefits over the costs of a concept-driven updated interpretation of basically a simple medieval love story, to the extent that Wagner was ever capable of making anything simple.

The production is by Mariusz Treliński, the man who brought us Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartok’s nightmarish Bluebeard’s Castle in the winter of 2015. Again he is joined by set designer Boris Kudlička, lighting designer Marc Heinz, and projection artist Bartek Macias. OperaMetro called the double bill “the Met at its best,” and while the successful elements from that pair are here in the new Tristan, elements which make the story to a greater degree emotionally disturbing and also fascinating, they also at times push the whole thing far off the mark, such that it, well, misses the boat.

But first the good news: all around this Tristan und Isolde is magnificent musically. Sir Simon Rattle leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a gripping rendition of the score; the five principal singers are strong proponents of their roles, and the audience on my night, the evening of the third performance, energized them with applause mounting to rapture at the opera’s conclusion.

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme as Tristan and Isolde

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme as Tristan and Isolde

Nina Stemme, in excellent voice, is perhaps the most human, most warm Isolde I’ve seen, if not as ethereally sexy as Waltraud Meier was at Bayreuth years ago under Barenboim. Stemme’s anger, despair, and ecstasy give dimensions to her character not frequently encountered in the role. From the tone of Stuart Skelton’s opening lines in Act I one hoped he would continue in such good vocal estate throughout the entire evening. He did, and this even without the traditional cut in Act III. The role of Tristan is among the most grueling in the tenor repertory: it’s one thing to do it at all, quite another to do it as well as Skelton does. The soulful René Pape is König Marke, stately and ‘wounded’ as ever; Ekaterina Gubanova is a buttoned up Brangäne and Evgeny Nikitin is the loyal, caring Kurwenal. Alex Richardson is a forceful Shepherd; Neal Cooper is Melot; Tony Stevenson sings the offstage Sailor.

In Mariusz Treliński’s production we can’t miss the boat, try as one might, because it’s right in our faces, at least through Acts I and II. Tristan, deemed, as you know, a hero in the text, is the ship’s commanding officer, stiff, rule-bound, and strict. Isolde and Brangäne are more or less captives held below deck. Tristan executes another prisoner with a bullet to the head. Is this a flashback of his victory over Morold? Don’t know. Move on.

The ghost of Tristan's father appears to a wounded Tristan in Act II

The ghost of Tristan's father appears to a wounded Tristan in Act II

The Prelude to the opera, however, presents the backstory with film footage. It's a spin implicit in Wagner’s text, but, obviously, Treliński’s realization updates it here. We see a young boy, Tristan, comforted by his father, who was also an officer in the Navy, white uniform, medals. He apparently commits suicide and then torches the family house, leaving young Tristan to the safety of the surrounding property. Was the suicide because of some dishonorable behavior? Is Tristan, through his love for Isolde and betrayal of Marke, destined to repeat his father’s fate? The shade of his dead father appears at times in this production;Tristan’s fatal wound is in the same location as that of his father. The burned-out frame of the family house also appears. Young Tristan passes a lit match...

The deeply traumatic memory of that evening seems to weave the threads for Tristan’s long epic rant in Act III and also for directorial decisions along the way. When, delirious, he says, referring to the suffering he endures by Isolde’s absence, “This terrible yearning that sears me, this ravaging fire that consumes me…,” is he maybe equating the passionate yearning he feels for Isolde, who is not with him now, with the deep pain he feels over the loss of his father in the burning house? The link also accounts for the character of Young Tristan, acted by Jonathan O’Reilly.

The gain? Tristan is now much more than just a tenor who gets through the vocally brutal Act III: he’s a profoundly lonely, dying man, as already defined by the music, whose only chance at real passion through Isolde came at the price of his betrayal of the system, as defined by his relationship to its commander-in-chief King Marke. At least for me, the emotional impact of the opera is greatly enhanced, especially in this last Act.

Isolde joins Tristan in death during the Liebestod

Isolde joins Tristan in death during the Liebestod

These elements are lost in most productions, but they are not really an interpretive stretch: Wagner, given to loneliness and depression during this period, sharply felt the loss of his parents, as I’m sure most of us do. Interesting that Wagner left Siegfried wondering about his lost father and mother in Forest Murmurs of Act II when he first formed the conception of Tristan und Isolde; Parsifal, as well, lost his father before birth and his mother died alone, abandoned by her son. Tristan und Isolde is the sound picture of loss and loneliness. Think about it. Time and space forbid further expansion of these thematic links.

If the above is the benefit, what is the cost? The enormous multi-decked ship, a sub hunter probably, fills the stage to the proscenium in Act I. As in Iolanta/Bluebeard, closed spaces, here cabins and control rooms, compartmentalize the action; the spaces can be revealed, covered, altered; this arrangement forces a lot of travel up and down stairs, which, of course, keeps the action moving. One of the eternal obstacles in staging Tristan und Isolde is creating ‘action’ on essentially three unchanging sets with few characters. No marches and choral numbers in Tristan. Plus Isolde is on stage for all of the first two acts; Tristan is on stage for at least a third of Act I and almost all of Acts II and III. Little wonder what the great Birgit Nilsson revealed when asked her secret for getting through Tristan: wear comfortable shoes.

While the setting for Act I is tolerable to a degree, Act II sinks the ship. The love duet takes place on what appears to be the radar tower. To my ears the music begs for the moonlit moss in the shadows of the great forests surrounding the castle (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande gets it perfectly right musically too!). The signal for Tristan’s approach is some intense lights shined in your face (more than once). The tower turns and disappears during Brangäne’s Watch, which becomes a series of projected consciousness-altering swirls through this delicately shimmering, wonderful section of the score. It serves to mask a scene change to what appears to be the ship’s arsenal, depth charges, cannon shells, and the like. Tristan and Isolde, who have, I guess, decided to tour the ship from top to bottom, are discovered by Melot, King Marke, and other MPs. No reason this scene could not have been realized on shore, where the world is less angular, more green, and under the magic of a full moon.

The final Act is in a sterile hospital (?) room with monitors and a gurney, on which, at the end Isolde will take Tristan’s place, her Liebestod more on the Death side than the Love side here. The skirmish before Marke and Brangäne’s arrival is just lights flashing behind a black curtain: no one ever seems to get this part right.

I still haven’t figured out the red dress bit, and I’m not sure where Isolde comes and goes at the end of Act II. She is there when he sings to her, but could she be a hallucination? Or Tristan’s Oedipal dream, speaking of mothers?

Still, I count this Tristan und Isolde as among the best I’ve seen, certainly musically and dramatically, if not always conceptually or scenically. Treliński’s conception spins Tristan’s lonely tale in a way that adds to an already emotionally overwrought third Act It's a good thing. I’m off to the HD Saturday, for sure.

Reviewed performance date: October 3, 2016.

Photos: Ken Howard

Enjoy! No overcoat on the walk to the car last night…heaven! Complete road closure on the Hutch after midnight…not.



Preview of Met's 2016-2017 HD season

Metropolitan Opera’s 11th season of live HD telecasts announced!

While hoping that you live in the present moment and embrace it, rather than live a life of longing for the past or one of anticipation of the future, regardless, I’m thinking it’s timely here to reveal the lineup for the Met’s 2016-2017 season of live telecasts in High Definition. Then back to the present, which as I wrote this was windy, damp, grumpy, and gray, just May here, otherwise fine.

The upcoming season is marked by telecasts of four out of five of the Met’s exciting new productions and also several interesting revivals, some long past due. As before, OperaMetro will review most of the to-be-telecast performances from the Met’s stage prior to their telecast date to give readers a heads-up about what to expect, particularly what to look and listen for, useful, I trust, for making the most out of the experience. The few of the HD operas are not explicitly reviewed on OM are rather presented as timely informational alerts...seen the production recently, know the artists. Below the date and time (here in Eastern Standard) of the Saturday matinee live telecast performance are listed for each, but be aware, as I’m sure most are by this point, that the actual telecast date and time at your local theater may differ. Sometimes it’s not live, but rather an ‘encore,’ meaning a recording of the live matinee source performance. During this season, as last, OM posts both the time of the live telecast as well the actual telecast times for our local CT theaters.

Opening Night of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016-2017 season is a new production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. With a running time of four hours, it is arguably the longest love story in opera history. That night marks the Met debut of Sir Simon Rattle at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the first opening night for Nina Stemme, whose Elektra and Turandot were high points of the 2015-2016 season.

Nina Stemme as Isolde in the Met's  Tristan und Isolde

Nina Stemme as Isolde in the Met's Tristan und Isolde

Her Tristan is Stuart Skelton, with Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne, Evgeny Nikitin as Kurwenal, and the soulful René Pape as König Marke. The new production is by Mariusz Treliński, the man who brought us Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartok’s nightmarish Bluebeard’s Castle in 2015. The set designer is Boris Kudlička, lighting design is by Marc Heinz, with projections by Bartek Macias, each of whom worked with Treliński on the above double bill. The visual worlds they created for the duo were dark and foreboding: certainly Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde juxtaposes light and dark. We’ll see. The telecast date is Saturday, October 8, 2016, at 12:00 p.m. ET.

Next is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, showcased in the now-familiar Michael Grandage production, new in 2011. This revival stars Simon Keenlyside as the Don (his first at the Met), Rolando Villazón as Don Ottavio (welcome back! His first HD telecast performance), Adam Plachetka as Leporello, Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna, Malin Byström as Donna Elvira, and Serena Malfi as Zerlina. Fabio Luisi conducts. Don Giovanni is simply one of the world’s operatic treasures, as much as Mozart is himself. That’s all there is to it! The telecast date is Saturday, October 22, at 12:55 p.m.

The Metropolitan Opera premiere of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin is on December 1, followed by the HD telecast on Saturday, December 10, at 12:55 p.m. The production is by Robert Lepage, whose Ring Cycle currently holds sway on the Met’s stage, in collaboration with Ex Machina. Sets and costumes are by Michael Curry, lighting design by Kevin Adams, and, new category here, lighting image design by Lionel Arnould. Also making her Met debut is conductor Susanna Mälkki. L’Amour de Loin is a haunting, dreamy score, a world of darkness pierced by the light of the memory and longing that characterizes the relationship between the distant lovers Clémence, sung by Susanna Phillips, and Jaufré Rudel, sung by Eric Owens, each reflecting and conversing at times with the Pilgrim, sung by Tamara Mumford, who serves as a go-between. L’Amour de Loin will be sung in its original French; the opera had its world premiere at Salzburg in 2000; the 2004 production by the Finnish National Opera is captured on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD; the Met’s new production is co-produced by L’Opéra de Québec.

The New Year begins with Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco, his first successful opera, which, despite a few rough edges here and there, shows signs of his future greatness. You’ve seen Ernani and Macbeth, yes? Plácido Domingo essays another baritone role as the title character; the fiendishly difficult role of the harsh and ambitious Abigaille is sung by Liudmyla Monastyrska, and the prophet Zaccaria is taken by Dimitri Belosselskiy. The production, which was new in 2001, is by Elijah Moshinsky; James Levine, who led the production’s premiere back then, will be at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The telecast Saturday matinee is January 7, 2017, at 12:55 p.m.

Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo in  Romeo et Juliette

Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo in Romeo et Juliette

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is also one big long love duet, happily not as long as Tristan und Isolde, though, sadly, neither ends happily. You know the story. Bartlett Sher’s La Scala production, which originally appeared at Salzburg in 2008 (and is available on DG DVDs), is recreated for HD audiences on Saturday, January 21, at 12:55. Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau are at it again, following their hot collaboration in Massenet’s Manon in 2014. They are joined here by Elliot Madore as Mercutio and Mikhail Petrenko as Frère Laurent. Gianandrea Noseda conducts. The Salzburg production team is also from the original: sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, and choreography by Chase Brock.

The Met’s new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka showcases Kristine Opolais in the title role in the telecast of February 25, at 12:55 p.m. It’s the familiar tale of a water sprite longing to be human so as to experience the warmth of true love, only to find that we humans aren’t always so perfect, especially when the party is crashed by another woman. Relationship counseling being what it was in the once-upon-a-time of fairy tales, it’s little wonder this one doesn’t end happily either. The production is by Mary Zimmerman, with sets by Daniel Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, lighting by T. J. Gerckens, and choreography by Austin McCormick. Ms. Opolais is joined by Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince, Katarina Dalayman as the Foreign Princess, Eric Owens as the Water Sprite, and Jamie Barton as the witch Ježibaba. Rusalka is a beautiful opera.

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka

Verdi’s La Traviata comes around again in the iconic Willy Decker production, new at the Met in 2011, brought over here because it really rocked the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2005 with Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko (available on DG DVDs). Affectionately (or disparagingly) known as the ‘Clock Traviata,’ this revival stars the beautiful Sonya Yoncheva, who starred in last season’s telecast of Verdi’s Otello. Rising star tenor Michael Fabiano is her Alfredo; Thomas Hampson, who starred in that Salzburg premiere in ‘05, is Giorgio Germont. Nicola Luisotti, who is Music Director of the San Francisco Opera, conducts. The telecast date and time are Saturday, March 11, at 12:55 p.m.

Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo, which premiered at the Met back in 1982, returns to the stage for its first HD appearance on Saturday, March 27, at 12:55 p.m. The production, sets and costumes are by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, with lighting by Gil Wechsler. Matthew Polenzani essays the title role, with Alice Coote as his son Idamante, Nadine Sierra as Ilia, the Trojan Princess, Elza van den Heever as Elettra, Ilia’s rival for Idamante’s affection, and Alan Opie as Arbace. Idomeneo ends happily, thank goodness. Well, not for Elettra, who goes mad and storms off.

Tchaikovsky’s lovely Eugene Onegin, the Deborah Warner new production of which opened the 2013-2014 Metropolitan Opera season, is back with Anna Netrebko repeating her Tatiana, this time to the Onegin of Dimitri Hvorostovsky. Alexey Dolgov is Lenski, Elena Maximova is Tatiana’s sister Olga, and Štefan Kocán is Prince Gremin. Robin Ticciati, Music Director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, conducts.

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, one of her signature roles, Elina Garanča as Octavian

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, one of her signature roles, Elina Garanča as Octavian

Lastly, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier returns to the Met stage in a new production by Robert Carsen. James Levine, who collaborated with Carsen in the new production of Verdi’s Falstaff, conducts; Levine is a master with this score.

The cast includes Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, one of her signature roles, Elina Garanča as Octavian, Erin Morley as Sophie, Günther Groissböke as the Baron Ochs, Marcus Brück as Faninal, Sophie’s father, and Matthew Polenzani as the Italian Singer. The sets are designed by Paul Steinberg, with costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and lighting by Mr. Carsen and Peter Van Praet. The telecast date and time are Saturday, May 13, at 12:30 p.m.

There it is: next season!!

Photos: Kristian Schuller

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

July 14, 2016, is when series subscriptions for the Met’s 2016-2017 HD season go on sale at the Quick Center at Fairfield University. The season schedule will be posted in-mid June at, with details for ordering on the internet or by telephone. Tickets for the general public go on sale on Wednesday, July 20. The Ridgefield Playhouse sports another summer HD encore season as well as posting the Met’s fall HD season. Visit for details. Or one may call the Quick Center Box Office at 203-254-4010 or 1-877-278-7396 or the Ridgefield Playhouse at 203-438-5795. Please check for times and dates of all HD telecast performances! OM listed only the live source performance dates and times! Ample free parking is available at both venues; please check their websites for directions to theaters and suggestions for fine regional dining. and the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield

Make it special. Looking forward to the next season.

Now back to the present. Enjoy the summer. JRS