After a brief hiatus to finish work on my book about Brazil’s Fat Lady, I’m back in business and more than willing to discuss the slimmed-down Metropolitan Opera radio season. In this post, we’ll look at broadcast and streaming performances of works from the recent past that, to the untrained ear, bear little resemblance to what has normally been categorized as your average “standard repertoire.”
Although one can hardly consider such titles as Giordano’s Fedora or Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta as routine matters, they and other like productions are representative of an operatic mind-set that has taken the term “restoration” to new and impressive heights. Other works, such as Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Puccini’s perennial Tosca, revealed heretofore unexpected nuances for this confirmed opera lover.
But let’s start with the latest bulletin: Namely, the announcement a few weeks ago that Met Opera musicians finally agreed to the company’s terms in receiving their long-delayed paychecks. I, for one, greeted the news with mixed feelings. Several news outlets, including the online New York Times, reported on March 17 that the terms included a return to the bargaining table, “where the company is seeking lasting pay cuts it says are needed to survive the pandemic.”
To this, we say: Caveat emptor! It’s nothing but a Pyrrhic victory — no more, no less. If you’re not up on your ancient history, a “Pyrrhic victory” happens to be one where you win the battle but lose the war. In this instance, the toll is so great that it basically negates any gains achieved in the conflict. I’m afraid that going forward (or backward, if you prefer), this may mean the end of large-scale opera production as we know it. Why, the cost factor alone would seem to preclude many gargantuan works, not to mention star singers and musicians.
But let’s not grumble too much about the cost, lest we troll away this win into virtual nothingness. We begin our survey of the latest noteworthy performances:
War and Peace (2002) – One such rarely-heard item is Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s homage to wartime heroics and youth-filled fervor. Despite its four+-hours length, for all intents and purposes War and Peace is a bona fide masterwork. The composer’s treatment of Tolstoy’s massive tome, devoted to Napoleon’s invasion of Mother Russia, is nothing less than monumental and more than mere bombast.
True, there are patriotic anthems galore, with the concluding paean the most moving of all, albeit anticlimactic. Its similarity to the main theme from film director Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), which Prokofiev scored and later re-purposed as a cantata, will not escape listeners’ notice. Nor did it escape that of American composer James Horner, who used a portion of that theme in his Oscar-nominated score for Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), a Civil War epic about the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Prokofiev fretted over his magnum opus. A performance of Part I was staged in 1946, however the “nationalistic” second half was aborted during rehearsals, no doubt due to Chairman Josef Stalin’s heavy-handed interference. The post-war purges of “rogue” artists and their work had begun, with fellow composer Dimitri Shostakovich and theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold among the prime targets.
Prokofiev, like his friend Shostakovich, managed to avoid being dragged to the dreaded gulag. Instead, he and others like him suffered mental anguish. Considering the circumstances his colleagues found themselves in, psychological suffering may have turned out to be a fate worse than death. Admittedly, there was no pleasing Uncle Joe (the nickname FDR gave the Soviet dictator). Not even after Prokofiev’s claim that Stalin was a stand-in for Marshal Kutuzov, the savior of the Russian homeland (much as Eisenstein had treated the historical Nevsky); juxtaposed against the Hitler-like aggressor, Napoleon Bonaparte, and his Grand Army forces (that is, the German war machine).
Ironically, both Prokofiev and Stalin passed away on the same day: March 6, 1953. Joined with another musician, the Frenchman Hector Berlioz, whose own efforts in the epic realm, Les Troyens, met a similar fate (and remained unperformed during his lifetime), Prokofiev never witnessed a complete version of his work. With cuts and re-arrangements, the present “complete” edition is the one the Met Opera utilized for its premier outing.
Lacking the essentials of traditional Russian opera in his earlier stage pieces (the absence of lyricism among the most obvious), Prokofiev triumphed nevertheless with a score that captured him at his inspirational best. One can cite three major examples that rise to the heights of what Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky had achieved with Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin, respectively. The ones that come to mind are that lusciously jagged waltz theme (which reappears at Prince Andrei’s death and follows a path Prokofiev first took with his ballet, Romeo and Juliet); the opening arietta for the embittered widower Andrei; followed by Natasha and Cousin Sonia’s harmonious balcony duet (so similar in style and atmosphere to the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakmé).
We could add a fourth example: the aforementioned death scene, with its repetitive “piti, piti, piti” background vocalism (sung by the chorus), Andrei’s heart-breaking reunion with lost-love Natasha, and his final moments where we sense the prince’s life ebbing away — bit by sorrowful bit. How about that rousing chorus that closes the mammoth epic? As a lead in, Andrei sings the first few bars of this tune just before Natasha’s entrance in Part II. Few numbers in opera, let alone of the Russian variety, can match its fervent emotionality, with echoes of the Russian Orthodox liturgy — an ode to the embattled nation.
The March 2, 2002 performance of War and Peace (the opera premiered on February 14, 2002) was re-broadcast, for the first time in nearly two decades, on Saturday, December 5, 2020 — the opening item of the Met’s 2020-21 radio season now that live performances were banished from the airwaves due to the continuing coronavirus situation. It marked the 89th consecutive season of Saturday afternoon opera, as well as commemorated the on-air debut of Russian lyric Anna Netrebko, a then-fast-rising star in the Met’s operatic firmament, as the petulant Natasha Rostova.
Her counterpart was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the brooding Andrei Bolkonsky, as handsome a leading man as they come. Among the large and we do mean LARGE cast (68 parts sung by 50 or more artists) were tenor Gegam Grigorian as Pierre Bezukhov, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Sonia, mezzo Elena Obraztsova as Mme. Akhrosimova, contralto Victoria Livengood as Helene Kuragina, tenor Oleg Balashov as Anatole Kuragin, bass Vladimir Ognovenko as Prince Bolkonsky, baritone Vassily Gerello as Napoleon, and bass-baritone Samuel Ramey as Marshall Kutuzov, with baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Dolohov and bass John Cheek as Rostov.
Valery Gergiev, a past exponent of his country’s repertoire, presided over the sturdy Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a production from the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Theater in St. Petersburg. The whole affair was shaped by some formidable forces, to include those of Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky, set designer George Tsypin, costume designer Tatiana Noginova, lighting designer James Ingalls, and projectionist Elaine McCarthy.
The relative absence of set pieces took a backseat to Kutuzov’s lengthy discourse in Part II, most memorably delivered (in his then-current wobbly state) by the potent Mr. Ramey. Ms. Obraztsova exuded star power in her brief turn as Natasha’s great aunt who berates her niece for betraying Prince Andrei with that no-account womanizer, Anatole Kuragin. Mr. Grigorian proved a stentorian Pierre, searing in his most ardent moments and red-faced with fury at his brother-in-law’s offenses. And, yes, there were layers upon layers of plot. So much so that, much like what Tchaikovsky did with Eugene Onegin, Prokofiev had to keep the sheer volume of episodes down to a minimum. Notably, he sliced several scenes out of the finished product, preserving but the barest outlines of the winding story line.
This places War and Peace (in Russian, Voyna y Mir) in a category by itself. An uniquely individual piece, which should have been labeled “Peace and War,” its brassy sonorities can be tricky to fathom. Those military marches and endless parade sequences may be out of style (truth be told, they were already passé when the visiting Bolshoi Opera premiered it at the Met in the mid-1970s), yet the work is most accessible vocally.
As long as Ms. Netrebko stayed front and center before the microphones, we were guaranteed a first-rate hearing. Her young soprano rang out thrillingly in the house. Even better, she and Dmitri made for a marvelous romantic couple: He, with fire in his eyes and ice in his veins; she, with passionate intensity and tenderness in her tone. The essential allure and strength of both Netrebko and Hvorostovsky’s authentic Russian accents were enough to carry the day. They certainly won all hearts, and that’s what counts.
How much have live audiences and their radio counterparts missed with live opera? Quite a lot, I’m afraid. On a personal note, what have we ALL missed of late? For one, Hvorostovsky’s raw outpourings toward the end of Prince Andrei’s suffering brought to mind his own untimely passing, a little over three years ago, on November 17, 2017.
In one of the Met’s Live in HD presentations, specifically of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, “Dima,” as he was known to friends and colleagues, was presented with bouquets of flowers upon his return from surgery. Among the greeters onstage was Anna Netrebko, his Natasha in that long-ago War and Peace performance of 15 years prior. As Dima took in the ovation, the camera caught Netrebko wiping away tears from her eyes. She knew, instinctively, that her prince’s days were numbered.
Ariadne auf Naxos (1988) – Not a work that I would have counted as among my favorites, this live transmission of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera-within-an-opera (from March 12, 1988) is one that completely bowled me over. How so? Well, this so-so Bogo Igesz production, with sets by legendary designer Oliver Messel, and conducted by the estimable James Levine, took me down a path with Strauss that I have rarely ventured.
Originally intended as a two-part, evening’s-length entertainment, which was to have encompassed a German-language rendering of Molière’s overly talky Le bourgeois gentilhomme or “The Middle-Class Gentleman,” adapted by Hofmannsthal himself (which made for an extremely long evening), the idea of separating the two works into (1) an expository Prologue; and (2) a combination of opera seria with commedia dell’arte antics, proved not only desirable but perfectly suitable for aural consumption.
In the revised Prologue, the unheralded star of the proceedings was American mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as the Composer. Hers was a deeply committed interpretation, full of youthful vigor and optimism one minute, and downright horrified in the next by what was happening to “his” classical creation. Note that Strauss’ Composer is another of those so-called “trouser” roles, where a female artist takes on the aspects of a daring young man. Much as Strauss and Hofmannsthal had done with the fiery nobleman Octavian (from Der Rosenkavalier), here the nameless Composer is portrayed as a highly charged, emotionally unbending artist of integrity and resolve.
The conflict, in the main, revolves around a princely aristocrat’s request, no, order (after all, he is the young Composer’s benefactor) to perform his heroic Greek tragedy and the comic interlude to come (a mad Harlequinade, if you’re interested) together as one piece. The reason behind his request: There’s a fireworks display at the end. But the prince is unwilling to wait that long for the fireworks. Egad! What fools these impatient princes be!
The Composer is all for putting the burlesque off as long as possible, while the comedic players, including the flirtatious Zerbinetta, could care less: for them, it’s just another payday. Still, the fired-up Composer longs to have his heroine Ariadne fall into the arms of the god Bacchus (a classic combination of the Dionysian and Apollonian elements in art, placed symbolically into one perfectly acceptable union). He rebels at this mockery of his life’s work, which will resound with audience members who remember Mozart’s escapades at the court of Emperor Joseph II and the battles the composer waged with Salieri, his Italian counterpart, in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.
Troyanos’ impassioned delivery of her lines (described as her “burning intensity”) and the wearing of her anguished heart on her flowing white sleeve won the plaudits of both critics and fans. This was as authentic a depiction of her artistry as any, a role most congenial to the mezzo’s fiery temperament. At that point in her Met career, Troyanos had Strauss (ahem) firmly under her belt, having appeared innumerable times as Octavian and as the bouncy Cherubino (another of those “pants parts”) in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
It’s by no means unreasonable to assume — and, we daresay, quite logical — that playwright Shaffer may have modeled his Mozart characterization on Strauss’ idealistic musician, who, in Hofmannsthal’s writing, doesn’t even get the benefit of a name. He’s known as the Composer. Thus, he’s stands for all musicians with bruised egos. The petulance, the impatience of youth, the righteous indignation — all of them attributable to “Wolfie.” Those traits come together in Strauss’ opera proper, a veritable free-for-all, where the commedia dell’arte troupe prances about the stage in counterpoint to Zerbinetta’s warbling.
In the meantime, an opera seria straight out of Gluck is taking shape, a snail’s-paced opus that neither resembles his Orfeo ed Euridice nor his Iphigenia operas, both of which thrived on classical structures. This latter portion of Ariadne, i.e., the auf Naxos (“from the Isle of Naxos”) part, pleases me less than the Prologue. Portentous and soporific, the opening numbers are inert, that is until the fun sections take command.
When the god Bacchus arrives to claim Ariadne for his bride, he’s voiced by the estimable James King, a heldentenor of yore in his twilight years. King hurled his high notes to the winds. An effective Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walküre, he enjoyed a brief run in the Prologue as the befuddled Tenor (also nameless). But here, one half expected King to be in his element. And, indeed, the voice was impressive for a 63 year old (at the time). Its major defect, however, was its lack of suppleness and flexibility, while the tenor’s deportment was stiff and unyielding to match. King creaked along dutifully, though his words had little snap or verve.
On the opposite front, soprano Jessye Norman as the Prima Donna/Ariadne outdid herself. She opened the floodgates with her soaring tones, an ocean of depth and impressive size. Truly, a one-of-a-kind voice that hit the listener between the eyes with the force of a gale wind (she was all of 43). Like her partner King, Ms. Norman showed a lighter side to her talents. She had one of her funniest moments when she went into a swoon in Act I, which drew a hefty guffaw from the audience. Norman landed, full-force, on a conveniently placed armchair. Indeed, she timed it to perfection.
Bass-baritone Franz Ferdinand Nentwig as the Music Master was acceptable, but no more. Hardly memorable as well was Joseph Frank’s Dancing Master, who sounded underpowered. High praise is reserved for commedia dell’arte performers Stephen Dickson (Harlekin), Allan Glassman (Scaramuccio), Artur Korn (Truffaldin), and Anthony Laciura (Brighella). In fact, a more diverting bunch would be hard to find. That old standby, tenor Charles Anthony, had a brief cameo as the Officer, who woos the always accommodating Zerbinetta. He all-but stole the show, the voice remaining firm and forceful throughout his long Met career.
And speaking of Zerbinetta, former Met coloratura Kathleen Battle mopped the floor with the role’s requirements. The aptly-named Battle managed this highwire act with aplomb, and was especially outstanding in the Prologue where she joined Troyanos in quite possibly the loveliest unforced moment on stage, where the two artists merged their separate thoughts into a single duet. We cannot praise Ms. Battle enough for her pert and frothy Zerbinetta in that character’s lengthy scena later on. High notes or low notes, neither held any terror for this artist.
In retrospect, Zerbinetta is a frivolous individual. However, her obsessive compulsion with the opposite sex (a reversal of the usual girl-crazy youth) grates on the nerves after a while. Does she think of nothing else? We could say that Strauss and his librettist invented a modern-day liberated character, very much ahead of its time. Zerbinetta may be two-dimensional, but those stratospheric notes are to die for.
In our estimation, the one outstanding performer — another in a long-line of Met Opera and NYCO comprimarios — was tenor Nico Castel as the self-important Major Domo. Strictly a non-singing part, the Lisbon-born Castel, whose given name was Naftali Chaim Castel Kalinhoff, brought professional flair to this and many other assignments. His crystal-clear diction and superb enunciation of the text were a constant wonder and source of inspiration. He brought a lifetime of experience as a voice teacher and interpreter, a language expert, a diction coach, and a translator to everything he did. At the Met, he was known as the Professor Henry Higgins of opera. Raised in Venezuela, Castel attained fluency in six languages, the knowledge of which he shared with all his colleagues.
With such an outstanding array of artists, a perfect sendoff would be to pay homage to all the above participants. In particular, to two of the finest performers that have ever graced the Met stage: the aforementioned Hvorostovsky and Troyanos. Coincidentally or not, both Dima and Tatiana passed away at the same age 55. Ars longa, vita brevis.
End of Part Four
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes