Mussorgsky in the Raw: The Met’s ‘Boris Godunov’ — An Opera for Our Time

A scene from Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’ with Rene Pape as the title role (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

A Matter of Authenticity

Watching the online streaming of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (given at the Metropolitan Opera on October 23, 2010), I was bombarded with thoughts of this country’s current struggles: an out-of-control pandemic, political conflict and upheaval, governance at a standstill, a suffering populace, and a divided nation facing mounting pressures from within and without. How much of a comparison, really, can one draw from a mid-19th century operatic work written by a minor government functionary and confirmed alcoholic? To be honest, quite a few.  

Mussorgsky, the “minor functionary” and alcoholic in question, took as his source a play by famed poet Alexander Pushkin. Setting his opera to the unwieldy spoken drama of Pushkin’s text, Mussorgsky revolutionized Russian opera by implementing his own ideas about how to replicate natural speech in song. While there’s a kernel of truth to the notion that he adapted existing folk material for some of the numbers (the most obvious being the Prelude and the Innkeeper’s little ditty in Act II), Mussorgsky went on to employ a technique whereby he was able to convey his characters’ thoughts and moods through shifting rhythms and bold harmonics.

If, in 1870, the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg had rejected Boris Godunov for its lack of a female lead and, to put it bluntly, its bold unconventionality, the composer’s 1872 revision (which the Met brought to the fore back in 1974) settled the matter once and for all where the original was concerned.              

Most people (yours truly included) have been seduced by the luxuriousness of the version set by Mussorgsky’s younger colleague, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who completely recomposed and re-orchestrated the work. Granted, the result was exotic, lush and pleasing to the ear, brilliantly sonorous, and regrettably termed “correct.” A teacher of composition and a strict academician down to his toes, Rimsky lamented his friend’s “obstinate, bumptious amateurishness.”

The Holy Fool (Andrey Popov) refuses to pray for Tsar Boris (Rene Pape) (Photo: Met Opera)

Years after Mussorgsky’s 1881 passing, Rimsky the perfectionist went about readjusting the score to his particular musical style, basically eliminating what he deemed were “impractical difficulties, fragmentary musical phrases, clumsy vocal writing, harsh harmonies and modulations, faulty counterpoint, poverty of instrumentation, and general weakness from a technical point of view.”        

For years, this drastically altered edition toured the world’s theaters, which, if truth be told, certainly contributed to its acceptance as a major addition to the standard repertoire. Such artists as the great Fyodor Chaliapin, Adamo Didur, Ezio Pinza, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela made a specialty out of the title role. After the rediscovery of Mussorgsky’s original manuscript (occurring sometime in the mid-1960s), a slow and steady encroachment took hold in that what had been deemed as amateurish and unperformable was now looked upon as worthwhile.

In our opinion, the only authentic version, then, is that of Mussorgsky, sans the optional Polish scenes. Its stark, angular, primal, and primarily string- and woodwind-based instrumentation, with lower vocal lines for Boris and a spare orchestral palette overall are emblematic both of Russian nationalism intermingled with emerging modernist tendencies.

In contrast, Rimsky’s romanticized rewriting was the result of a conventionally-minded pedant obsessed with rectifying (or “improving,” if you will) his contemporary’s vision, as sincere and ultimately wrongheaded as his motives may have been. History, as relentless a force as this opera has shown it to be, has vindicated the original’s standing as a unique and ultimately revolutionary masterwork.

The ‘Time of Troubles’

Tsar Boris (Rene Pape) contemplates his fate in a scene from ‘Boris Godunov’ (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan’s 2010 production had been plagued with its own troubles from the start. The original director, the feisty 72-year-old German theater titan Peter Stein, came up with a viable adaptation that incorporated Mussorgsky’s 1872 revision, along with the St. Basil scene from the 1869 original. Contributing to his vision were set designer Ferdinand Wögerbauer and costume designer Moidele Bickel.

About mid-July of that year, Stein groused to Met Opera officials about the stodginess of the proceedings, how he regarded the company as a “factory,” amid myriad problems with the U.S. Sate Department in obtaining a proper work visa. One thing led to another, until Stein abruptly quit the production. In response, the Met’s management summoned director Stephen Wadsworth, whose previous efforts at the company included Handel’s Rodelinda and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, to pick up where Stein had left off. 

This resulted in a hodgepodge of stylistic components, some of which melded seamlessly into the framework, while others stuck out or stretched authenticity to a noticeable degree. In sum, though, this newest Boris can be considered a triumph, due principally to several factors: one, to the magnificence of the Met Opera’s Chorus (kudos, as always, to chorus master Donald Palumbo); two, to Wadsworth’s last-minute salvage job; three, to the suppleness of the Met Opera Orchestra, under Russian maestro Valery Gergiev’s leadership; and last, but not least, to the magnificence of German basso René Pape as Boris.

Lasting nearly five hours in performance (with two intermissions), this latest excursion down the treacherous path of Russian history (Mussorgsky’s other historical epic, the never-completed Khovanshchina, was last given at the Met in 2012 in the Shostakovich edition, with the final scene orchestrated by Stravinsky) featured a large and varied cast of singing actors.

The Holy Fool (Popov) prays for Mother Russia (Photo: Met Opera)

The time is the mid-17th century. The oppressive police state, manned by soldiers, boyars (rich landowners), guards and other malcontents, is omnipresent. The system of serfdom had also recently been implemented. Repression and beatings were commonplace. The Holy Fool (tenor Andrey Popov), sometimes called the Idiot or the Simpleton, is the first character we see. He is an outcast, a constant symbol albeit of a lowly person of little distinction, yet filled with a higher wisdom and insight into Mother Russia’s fate. He’s a prophet in disguise, and, much like John the Baptist, unheralded in his own land.

The opera begins and ends with the Holy Fool. The uncrowned Boris (the aforementioned Pape) rushes forth from his palace to confront this disheveled soul. The Fool presents him with a stone. Boris looks at the object, a token of the simple life, of home and hearth, and of a country in peril. The mood changes with the entrance of the populace. Whips are cracked (as well as heads). Violence, as stated, is the predominant way of life. The people cross themselves repeatedly (in the Eastern Orthodox manner from right to left), praying for deliverance from evil, from pain and suffering, and from the guards’ brutality.

Responding to the crowd’s pleas for aid, the Secretary of the Duma (the Russian ruling body), the noble Shchelkalov (baritone Alexey Markov), informs the peasants that the regent Boris Godunov has again refused take up the title of Tsar. (Note: See Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where the titular “noblest Roman of them all” thrice refused the laurels). He asks for prayers to the Almighty so that Boris will relent.

Secretary of the Duma, Shchelkalov (Alexey Markov) asks the crowd’s prayers for Boris (Photo: Met Opera)

The scene changes to Boris’ coronation before the Kremlin in Moscow. In the original Mussorgsky arrangement, the orchestral sound is thinner and leaner, the harmony skewed, rising and falling steeply, while searching for tonal consistency. A factor of Russian music is the repeated ostinato marking, a stubbornly insistent phrase so characteristic of this work in general and Mussorgsky specifically. Bells and trumpets herald the pronouncement by the duplicitous Prince Shuisky (tenor Oleg Balashov) that “Boris Feodorovich is to be hailed as Tsar” of all the Russias.    

Concentrating the drama on characterizations (as the composer preferred), René Pape’s towering portrayal of Boris, a flawed leader brought low by past atrocities, dominates his various scenes. Already, we sense his unwillingness to rule. He’s accompanied by his daughter Xenia and his young son Fyodor. Boris’ soul is grieving, his heart heavy with remorse and responsibility. Still, onward he trudges. The crowd hails his decision to accept the crown: “Slava! Slava!” they shout in glee. “Glory! Glory!” 

The Russian people maintain their presence throughout, either out front or in the background; on the sidelines of history or as vital participants. They are the true protagonists of the drama. The Pretender Dimitri (the novice monk Grigory in disguise) is the second most prominent character, with Boris, the newly crowned Tsar, the third in line. And why is that? In Mussorgsky’s vision, Boris is the symbol of flawed authority, a reluctant ruler burdened by the duties of his office (Tsar Nicholas II would be his closest historical counterpart, although Nicholas was but six years old at the time the opera premiered in 1874).

The tremendous guilt that Boris feels involved the crime of butchering the young heir Dimitri, son of his father-in-law, the late Tsar Ivan IV, dubbed “the Terrible” (in Russian, Ivan Grozny) — often mentioned but never seen. Historians and revisionist scholars have absolved the real Boris of his crimes. Nevertheless, Mussorgsky preserved the play’s conclusion that Boris was indeed to blame for the heir’s death.

The scene shifts to the Chudov Monastery in Moscow, where the aged monk Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko) serves as the chronicler of Russia’s turbulent past. Tellingly, Boris looms in the background, sitting on his throne and lifting his scepter in the air. Pimen is also filled with sorrow, his eyes show dark lines beneath them. Yet, he is sleepless and ever-mindful of the heavy task before him. “Still one more story to tell,” the monk muses. His languorous theme underscores the endless notations. Pimen sits atop an enormous volume of Russia’s history, the “great book,” as we like to call it. He labors over this ever-present image that occupies practically every scene — a reminder of past misdeeds and the as-yet-to-be-written tale.

The old monk Pimen (Mikhail Petrenko) contemplates his next entry into the great book of Russia’s history (Photo: Met Opera)

There are many individual vignettes throughout this work. Mussorgsky was astute enough to capture this and other moments in short, descriptive passages: the greediness of the Innkeeper, the raunchiness of the rogue friars Varlaam and Missail, the traitorous aspects of Prince Shuisky, the idealism of the politician Shchelkalov. They push the dramatic arc along its solemn course: from top to bottom, a parable of political and moral failings.  

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Grigory/Dimitri is a revelation, an authentic Slavic voice in the grand Russian manner. Although he’s a native of Latvia, “Sasha” Antonenko made his mark at the Met as the Prince in the 2009 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Sturdy of tone and of timbre, the novice Grigory fantasizes about a life outside the monastery. Pimen instructs him on the brutal record of Ivan the Terrible’s reign (whom he praises to the rafters), contrasted with that of Boris’ murderous rise.

When he learns from Pimen that the murdered heir to the throne, the infant Prince Dimitri, would be about the same age as himself (had he lived, of course), Grigory hits upon a scheme of impersonating the deceased heir as the Pretender. Inspired by his dream, Grigory leaves the monastery in disguise.

Immediately, we are taken to the frontier border between Russia and Lithuania. The lusty Innkeeper (mezzo Olga Savova) warbles a sprightly theme to herself. She is interrupted by the arrival of two boisterous friars, Varlaam (bass Vladimir Ognovenko) and Missail (tenor Nikolai Gassiev), who force themselves on their hostess. All they ask is for good wine and a good night’s rest. The friars spot the fugitive Grigory in disguise. They ponder his moody aspect and the fact that he’s sullen and withdrawn. Varlaam goes into a rowdy screed about Ivan the Terrible’s bloody siege of Kazan. After a few more cups of wine, the friar is sufficiently calmed. He places his head on the Innkeeper’s lap while singing himself to sleep.

Taking advantage of the lull, Grigory inquires about the safest route out of Russia, but the Innkeeper warns him of guards at every check point. Paying for her advice, Grigory learns of an alternate route, which interests him. Everyone is awakened by soldiers hot on the trail of an escaped fugitive named Grishka (a nickname for Grigory). But the Police Officer (Gennady Bezzubenkov) is illiterate and cannot read the warrant for Grishka’s arrest. In fact, he suspects that Varlaam is the man he seeks — especially after Grigory changes the fugitive’s description to match that of the drunken friar. Incensed, Varlaam barely manages to make out the correct description: It’s Grigory, the very person he is staring at! The novice then makes a run for it, with the soldiers and Police Officer in pursuit.        

The drunken Varlaam (Vladimir Ognovenko) reads the description of the fugitive “Grishka,” aka the escaped novice Grigory (Aleksandrs Antonenko)

The next scene takes place in the throne room. We are in the presence of Boris’ family members: his son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) and daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) whose betrothed has recently died. The Nurse (Larissa Shevchenko) entertains the youths with a literal song and dance. These poignant sideshows are designed to temporarily distract (and provide relief) from the larger context of the country’s unresolved ills, which lead to a scene in the Duma. The Tsar’s own love for his children and his tenderness towards them betrays his inner torment where worldly affairs invade his private thoughts (surely inspired, one would think, by Verdi’s Philip II in Don Carlos — had Mussorgsky been aware of it).

Wracked with remorse and overwhelmed by his duties, Boris is faced with confronting Russia’s dark past, a constant reminder of which is embodied in the immense history volume that dominates this scene. In the monologue, “I have attained the highest power,” Boris bemoans the fact that he is blamed for every conceivable ill, no matter what good he has attempted to bring. Plots are everywhere, and Shuisky’s sly machinations are always afoot. The boyars, who control the workings of the state, lament Shuisky’s absence from their meetings. “He’s a schemer and not to be trusted,” they complain, “but we need his advice.” Small comfort, indeed! He’s not the only one: the populace itself is wary and fickle, and easily swayed by rumors of a Pretender, the allegedly resurrected Dimitri, in league with the Poles and ruled by the ambitious Princess Marina Mnishek (mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk).

Both Shuisky and Boris stand, at one point, on opposite ends of the great book. Who will write the next horrific chapter, as Pimen had earlier prophesied? Tormented by a conscience that won’t quit, Boris begins to experience hallucinations of the dead and bloodied Dimitri, rising up ominously to confront him. Boris breaks down under constant psychological torment (the male version of a “Mad Scene”), falling to the ground in a delirium in the famous “Clock Scene,” the music of which depicts the monotonous ticking of a clock. “Get away! Get away from me!” Boris shouts to the monstrous vision. The act ends with his begging for God’s forgiveness.

The Fate of Mother Russia

The scheming Jesuit priest Rangoni (Evgeni Nikitin) plots with Princess Marina (Photo: Met opera)

Through-composed sequences and so-called “set pieces” have been integrated into the whole. Still, the added Polish scenes are the opera’s weakest section. After the original 1868 opus was turned down for performance in 1869, Mussorgsky crafted these additions to placate the “professors,” as well as provide audiences with a “love interest.” Critics at the time felt the opera needed a feminine presence, a sort of comfort filler to suit contemporary tastes. It was felt, too, that the opera concentrated too much attention on the Tsar’s foibles at court. Nothing is lost by the Polish scenes’ elimination, which can seem superfluous to the main plot. In compensation, there is much lovely music (the sprightly polonaise for one, reminiscent of Chopin’s A major Military Polonaise). Some marvelous tableaux are also present, as is a carpet version of the great book.

Speaking of the Polish scenes, a different type of politics emerges, centering on the radical Jesuit priest Rangoni, as unctuous and loathsome an individual as the two drunken friars. Impersonated by bass-baritone Evgeni Nikitin, the scheming Rangoni entices Marina to seduce the willing Pretender and, most ingeniously, to align himself with their cause and that of their people. “Surrender to the Church, surrender to me,” he charges her, a warning with more than a hint of personal gratification. This would fulfill their mission of delivering Russian Orthodoxy into the lap of the Holy See in Rome — i.e., the unification of the Eastern and Western Church, which has been an unfulfilled goal for a millennium.

For his part, Dimitri is only too eager to be part of their campaign. He falls easily in “love” with the Princess, but make no mistake: They are using each other to further their individual gains, each with his or her own agenda. Ambition rules both Marina and Dimitri’s motives, but “power,” as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” And so it is with these supposed lovebirds, each one testing the other with feigned expressions of ardor, their true intentions coded yet made overt. We can be secure in the knowledge they are both on the same wavelength; their goals are one and the same, despite the play on words. Equally matched and desirous of the other’s charms, they give in to their passion.

Dimitri now stands on the great book of history. He will write his own story, knowing full well what lies ahead. In turn, Marina takes up her position on the great book, indicating that regardless of their union, she has every intention of following her own path. (We make note that Boris and Dimitri never meet; Mussorgsky wisely kept them physically apart, but individually they cannot help to be mindful of one another.)

Princess Marina (Ekaterina Semenchuk) tries to entice the Pretender Dimitri (Aleksandrs Antonenko) to her cause (Photo: Met Opera)

The Holy Fool reappears before the Church of St. Basil, along with the starving crowd. He wears a tin pot on his head, pleading for the people to pray to God for deliverance. Suddenly, a kopeck he has found gets snatched from his hand by one of the street urchins. Boris strolls past with his family and retinue. He is drawn and muted, his hair a premature gray. He distributes bread to the famished bystanders, while the masses beg for mercy. “We are hungry. Give us bread, for God’s sake,” they plead. Famine has ravaged the once fertile land.

At that moment, the Tsar is attracted by the Holy Fool’s pitiless wails. “They have robbed me!” he cries. Both Boris and the Holy Fool find themselves on opposite ends of the great book. But the Holy Fool refuses to pray for Boris. “One can’t pray for a Tsar Herod,” he discloses, a reference to the biblical king who murdered the firstborn of Israel to prevent the Messiah from reaching manhood, as well as a direct indictment of Boris’ own crimes.

“Weep, weep, oh faithful soul. Sorrow, weep, oh starving people.” The Holy Fool finds rest atop the great book, using its mammoth pages as a makeshift bedcover. He seeks protection from the elements — and from the inevitable march of history.

Back at the throne room, the boyar Shchelkalov reads Boris’ proclamation, urging any and all Russians to crush the Pretender Dimitri. The ruling court passes a stern judgment on Dimitri and his followers, one they will come to regret. Prince Shuisky enters. Shrewd and manipulative, he plays both sides of the political aisle. Boris is in a pitiful state, he relates, and incapable of governing. At that, the Tsar enters, crying out for the “dead” Dimitri to leave his sight. Continuously wracked by guilt, Boris sits on his throne (which is turned round to face the audience). The presence of the old monk Pimen is announced, and he is ushered in. He has a story to tell about a vision of the coming Pretender, but Boris can hear no more. He goes into a death spiral, dismissing the boyars and summoning his remaining family members.

A tortured Boris (Pape) bids farewell to his daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) & son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) (Photo: Met Opera)

Left alone, Boris bids farewell to his son and daughter. In a final gesture, he appoints Fyodor as his successor. Near death, Boris pleads for God’s mercy. “Prostii menya, prostii. Bozhe, smert! Prostii…” His few, fleeting words reveal his humbled state of mind: “Forgive me, forgive. Lord, death! Forgive…” The stricken Tsar collapses to the ground, his two children left weeping at his side.

The scene changes swiftly to the Kromy Forest on the outskirts of Moscow. Peasants enter. Symbolically, they tear the great book apart. What will become of Mother Russia, now that the history of the realm is in tatters? The boyars are taken captive. Taunted and tortured by the crowd, one of them is executed outright, the populace taking out their mounting anger on their former oppressors; it’s clearly mob rule. The two drunken friars reemerge, as does the Holy Fool. The friars drag one of the guards with them, bloodied and bound. They squabble atop of what’s left of the great book. A near riot breaks out, but the bloodlust grinds to a halt when Dimitri leads Marina into view, riding a magnificent steed. The Polish banner precedes their triumphant entrance.

The rejoicing is interrupted by Jesuit priests, several of whom are hung on the spot. Dimitri spares the lives of two of the Jesuits. With that, the treacherous Shuisky comes forward, accompanied by Rangoni. The two conspirators are obviously pleased with the results, but they eye each other suspiciously. The crowd praises the new young Tsar as their deliverer. On the sidelines, the two friars marvel at Dimitri in recognition of this Pretender as the fugitive novice Grishka. Dimitri begs his followers to walk with him to glory. The two remaining Jesuits kneel in prayer for the dead.

But the Holy Fool — the Idiot, the “guileless” Simpleton — repeats his poignant plea for Russia to weep for her soul. With arms raised upward, he looks to heaven, the unmistakable image of Our Lord in supplication.

Darkness falls. 

The Holy Fool holds up the Byzantine Crucifix to Heaven (Photo: Met Opera)

And where is our “happy ending”? Nowhere in sight, I’m afraid. History tells us that once he was established in Moscow, the newly crowned Tsar Dimitri put Boris’ son Fyodor to death. Within a year of the Pretender’s triumphant entry, he too was murdered shortly after his marriage to Marina Mnishek. Upon Dimitri’s death, Prince Shuisky assumed the title of Tsar. And within a few years after that, Tsar Shuisky himself was captured by the Poles and later died in one of their prison camps. Turnabout is fair play!

Amazingly enough, two more false Dimitris emerged, each coming to an ignominious end. To borrow a phrase from Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part One, “It’s ‘tough’ to be the king.” 

It sure is! And it can even get you killed. 

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part Two) — Roku You!

Dieter Dorn’s production of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Continuing from where we previously left off, below are my opinions and views of various Metropolitan Opera productions over the years. All are available online via the Met Opera on Demand app, or in this case through the Roku streaming device (and others). 

Eugene Onegin (2013) –  Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as the dreamy Tatiana is the big draw, in this new production designed by Deborah Warner. If you ask me, it’s more Ingmar Bergman than Tchaikovsky, with obvious inspiration drawn from the Swedish director’s Smiles of Summer Night (1955), as well as Sondheim’s musical comedy A Little Night Music.

The title character, Onegin, is portrayed by Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, the romantic poet Lensky by Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov, mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova is Tatiana’s sister Olga, bass Stefan Kocán is the aging Prince Gremin, and conductor Robin Ticciati leads the Met Opera Orchestra.   

Caveat emptor: Suspension of disbelief is definitely called for. That a matronly prima donna of Netrebko’s caliber (she had put on considerable weight since giving birth) can convince audiences that she’s a lovesick teenager bursting at the seams is a major triumph in itself. We say it’s chutzpah, but call it what you want, Anna nailed the part! Her apple blossom cheeks, full-moon facial expressions, and (ahem) buxom form did not stand in the way of her portrayal of a girl in the passionate throes of unrequited first love. Her schoolgirl crush on the brooding older gentleman Onegin is the stuff of drawing room drama. Still, the excitement of discovery, the sleepless nights, the realization that this is the man of her dreams — all of these emotions are captured by the diva with total sincerity and honesty.

Before long, one is forced to believe that a major artist is standing at the pinnacle of her career. When Onegin confronts Tatiana with her letter, a tome in which she bares her soul (perhaps too hastily) to this undeserving soul, we feel her disappointment. For Onegin’s part, and to his credit, he does not take advantage of the situation, despite her innocence and vulnerability. A man in his position, and worldly experience, could easily have had his way with her — and with society’s consent, we’ll have you know (see Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the details). Instead, Onegin takes apart her arguments before her tearful eyes. The girl’s esteem and self-respect has been shattered for all time.

Tatiana (Anna Netrebko) has a heart-to-heart with Onegin (Peter Mattei) in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s interpretation works within the confines of the story. Periodically brushing away the tears and/or wiping her eyes, Tatiana weeps openly during Onegin’s passionless oratory and justification for not accepting her declaration of love. Shattered and hurt to the bone, Netrebko captures every facet of this book-loving youth. It was a masterful performance, her letter writing scene being the highpoint of the drama. When she finally collapses to the floor, the audience greets her with a massive roar of approval.

Mr. Mattei’s personification of Onegin — tall, distinguished and emotionally distant — was but a cipher in comparison. Plainly, it’s not his fault that despite being the titular protagonist, the composer made Tatiana and Onegin’s friend Lensky the recipients of extended scenes. The poet’s sprightly air to Olga in Act I and his dour soliloquy in Act II are a lyric tenor’s dream. Unfortunately, Onegin is denied any such display. His explanation to Tatiana is altogether brief and to the point, no more. He does have an Act III arioso, but it’s based on the same melody that Tatiana sang in her declaration at the start of the Letter Scene. And that’s about the extent of it.

That final demoralizing confrontation where the now-married Tatiana rejects Onegin’s hopeless affirmations of affection — one she seals with a prolonged kiss — represents the final thrust of the dagger to his heart. Contrast this with his earlier brotherly buss on her forehead and you will come to understand Tatiana’s motives for doing what she did, which is giving this selfish suitor the brushoff and a bitter taste of his own medicine.  

Tenor Dolgov (a marvelous singing actor) performs the part of the poet to perfection. There’s something to be said for native Russian artists in this and other key roles. They bring a sense of authenticity to everything they do. Dolgov’s smallish stature and lean physique contrasts markedly with that of the much taller Mattei, which added to the impression that these two friends were miles apart in their views. Their awkward handshake and embrace before the fatal duel (leading to Lensky’s demise) are evidence of the gap that existed between them: Onegin, willing at least partially to concede to his error; and Lensky, unwilling to forgive his friend’s shameless flirting with the poet’s fiancé Olga. Their respective stations in life demand satisfaction, even if it ends in death.       

Oscar (Harolyn Blackwell) brings King Gustavo (Luciano Pavarotti) up to speed in Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Un Ballo in Maschera (1993) – Here’s a blast from the Met’s stolid past: A traditional staging of one of Verdi’s most unique works. However, the general stiffness of this production, stemming from that “stand up and sing” aesthetic previously discussed, pretty much places the spotlight on our old pal, tenor Luciano Pavarotti. To be honest, he luxuriates in the role, indeed the part was one of his finest creations. This, dear friends, is Pavarotti in his prime, with all his faults and pluses.

As the bumptious King Gustavo (or Riccardo, whichever you choose), Luciano regales the audience with his flamboyant personality. True he gives it his considerable best; and despite his sheer bulk, the tenor was able to convince viewers that he completely identified with this protagonist: carefree, loving, loyal, and in the end merciful. His name can be placed alongside such past proponents as Caruso, Pertile, Bonci, Gigli, Tagliavini, Bergonzi, and others.

The Italian names of some of the characters — Renato, Amelia, Samuele, Tommaso, etc. — were utilized, however the looks and costumes all point to pre-Revolutionary Boston mixed with Louis XIV (or was it George III?) outfits and décor: the powdered wigs and the natty waste coats, alongside your standard three-cornered hats. Why, the opera might have been mistaken for a roadshow production of the musical 1776, but I do digress.

As for the other cast members, soprano Aprile Millo’s portrait of Amelia is a caricature of a prima donna, all surface and superimposed from without, as if her somewhat mannered approach and cliched posturing were valid substitutions for actual, real-life emotions. Her singing is faultless, as was her vocal resemblance to Italian diva Renata Tebaldi. But beyond that, there is little depth to this assignment. Italian baritone Leo Nucci’s lightweight tone and relentless barking as Renato, the cuckolded husband, is crisply enunciated and marvelously inflected, even if his vocalism was less than high-powered.

Some quite novel casting choices was apparent, in that I detected the presence of four major African American singers on the Met Opera stage: coloratura Harolyn Blackwell as a chirpy and lively Oscar the page, bass Terry Cook’s mellow sounding Sam, contralto Florence Quivar’s earthy prophetess Ulrica (albeit a bit stiff in her overall deportment), and baritone Gordon Hawkins’ smoothly sung messenger.

That old reliable, tenor Charles Anthony, appears as a model Judge, his diction and projection well-nigh perfect and unbeatable (Signor Nucci could have taken a lesson from this old pro). And, of course, the very young conductor James Levine’s unquestioned musicianship gets him through this score’s trickier aspects, although coordination between the pit and stage was off in spots (most notably, during the many ensemble passages).

All in all, this Masked Ball was enjoyable vocally, but scenically and histrionically a desultory affair. The sets are ugly and dull and representative neither of time nor of place; with few exceptions they were very much in the style of the dreary staging for Giancarlo del Monaco’s Simon Boccanegra (see below).            

Amelia (Kiri Te Kanawa) & Gabriele (Placido Domingo) hear Simon (Vladimir Chernov) pass judgment in Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Simon Boccanegra (1995) – Talk about static! This production of Verdi’s dark and tragic middle period work (revised extensively, years after its premiere, by the poet-composer Arrigo Boito) is dead on arrival. Most of the characterizations are as immobile as marble statues, their movements stilted and choreographed with the calculation of pieces on a massive chess board (think: Harry Potter). Now, what’s the word I’m looking for… How about “dull, dull, dull”?

In the title role, the decent sounding Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov has a gorgeous voice. His delivery is full throated, the high notes secure, a true Verdian in its richness and timbre. The effect, however, is mitigated by his short stature and frozen facial expressions. On records, this is hardly an issue, but on the stage these detriments can be amplified in the extreme. A shame, really, for Chernov, in his relatively brief Met Opera career, pointed the way for many wonderful lowered-voiced artists of Russian and/or Slavic descent, among them the late and much lamented Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the young Alexey Markov.

New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa is an odd choice for Amelia (or Maria, if you will — the plot is most confusing and I won’t get into the particulars, thank you!). She’s as cold as a two-day-old mackerel. Lighting a match under her “might” have helped. Her Act I duet with Chernov hardly raises the pulse level. Let’s say that “tepid” is about the best description one can give concerning her participation. With that said, British basso Robert Lloyd’s weighty Fiesco suffices without being either menacing or exciting. And bass-baritone Bruno Pola is an underpowered Paolo, a key role and a missed opportunity for sparks to fly. What we get are regional flares, and nothing more.

The much heralded Council Chamber scene, the one that Verdi and Boito had slaved over and inserted into the earlier version of Simon, went by the numbers. When adequately performed and executed, the effect this addition can have on audiences is nearly foolproof. Alas, not here. In fact, one of Master Verdi’s most inspired sequences, one that looks forward to Otello in many spots, went for naught — it made too little impact. About the only saving grace of this performance is tenor Plácido Domingo’s virile Gabriel Adorno. He, above all the others, brought genuine vocal fire and muscularity to his role. The rest went by the wayside.   

Tristan (Robert Dean Smith) professes his love for Isolde (Deborah Voigt) in Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Tristan und Isolde (2008) – This performance was first transmitted as a live Saturday afternoon broadcast on March 22, 2008. Due to tenor Ben Heppner’s indisposition, noted Wagnerian Robert Dean Smith was flown in from Germany as a last minute substitute for the grueling role of Tristan. He did not disappoint. And what an impressive debut! At the time, Dean was a relatively unknown artist who had an established career in Europe, but in 2008 (at age 52) he made for a sensational contrast with soprano Deborah Voigt’s singularly successful assumption of Isolde.

I’m sure there are fans out there who remember the classic teaming of Kirsten Flagstad with Lauritz Melchior, two large and outgoing singers from the Met’s Golden Age. Some might recall the lava-like outpourings of Birgit Nilsson with Jess Thomas, or Nilsson with frequent stage and recording partner Wolfgang Windgassen at the Bayreuth Festival in the mid-1960s. More modern ears may boast of having heard the Austrian Helga Dernesch with the fabled Jon Vickers at Salzburg. But this Wagner lover will have to give the Voigt and Smith partnership their due in Dieter Dorn’s strikingly abstract production — a hell of a lot more impressive (and far more interesting), in terms of the scenic potential of the story, than the Met’s somberly lit newest version.

James Levine simply adored this score, and the former Met maestro gave it his undivided attention in that customary leisurely stride of his. For one, the opera is given note complete, a major undertaking in itself. For another, a good supporting cast was a most welcome plus. It included mezzo Michelle DeYoung as the somewhat sisterly handmaiden Brangäne, baritone Eike Wilm Schulte as Tristan’s faithful retainer Kurwenal, a still potent Matti Salminen as a massive-voiced King Marke whom Tristan betrays, Stephen Gaertner as the unctuous knight Melot, Matthew Plenk as the Sailor, and Mark Schowalter as the Shepherd.

Finnish bass Mr. Salminen was near the end of a long career. Still physically imposing and vocally formidable, Matti made for a sorrowful monarch. Although his basic timbre is marked by a certain “yawning” quality, his characterization was moving and spot on. His roles at the Met, and elsewhere, have encompassed such outstanding portraits as the villainous Hagen in Götterdämmerung, a towering Boris in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and a regal King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Ms. Voigt’s Isolde was heard to much better advantage than her strained Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, the voice full and opulent on top, with plenty of body and roundness (this was near the start of her slimming down period), something she ultimately lacked during that disastrous 2011 run of the Ring cycle. Tristan’s delirium in Act III and the lovely Liebestod (“Love Death”) are some of the highpoints of the work (if you’re interested), but the entire opera is well represented as a tragic tale of misguided love and mutual misunderstanding between couples. I was especially impressed with the bold and stark color design and scheme. Indeed, this was a production to die for.

It’s a shame it was so quickly abandoned for the current “empty vessel” addition, played out in near total darkness. What gives with these new productions, anyway? I’m thinking that the barebones nature of many of them have a lot to do with budget cuts and the like. Well, with the Covid-19 pandemic still running rampant in this country and elsewhere, who knows when things can get back to a semblance of normalcy.

Lisette (Lisette Oropesa) & Prunier (Marius Brenciu) look on, as Ruggero (Roberto Alagna) raises his glass to the swallow (Angela Gheorghiu) in Puccini’s ‘La Rondine’ (Photo: Met Opera)

La Rondine (2009) – Now here’s an odd little bird. It’s a mature Puccini work, and then it isn’t. It has catchy waltz tunes and beautifully crafted melodies that seem disembodied from the main plot. We’ve called this opera a Traviata wannabe, and there’s much truth in that assessment. To be honest, there’s very little drama to grab one’s attention, an atypical Puccini piece. Lacking a truly compelling story line, in all fairness La Rondine (or “The Swallow”) possesses charm if little else. Being from the period post-La Fanciulla del West and before Il Trittico, there’s an unmistakable Puccianian “air” about it.

The main problem, in our opinion, is the opera’s frivolity. The main characters — Magda, the titular swallow; Ruggero, her earnest young lover; Prunier, the misanthropic poet; and Lisette, Magda’s highly opinionated housemaid — are caricatures of better, more substantive individuals found in such works as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Fledermaus, and, yes, La Traviata, not to mention that most characteristic of all Puccini’s oeuvres, the poetic La Bohème, which it most closely resembles.

La Rondine is the least appreciated (and, ergo, least produced) of all Puccini’s mature works. This swallow can go back to Capistrano with but little fanfare or loss. Still, the Met’s lavish Nicolas Joël production, starring the former “love couple” Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, exuded abundant allure and a good deal of panache, with Gheorghiu operating at low voltage. Conductor Marco Armiliato held the varying elements together; his own passion for this buoyant if puzzlingly empty score revealed an inner beauty and tunefulness not normally achieved in other productions.         

I fondly remember a PBS television production with a very young Teresa Stratas and rising tenor Anastasios Vrenios that, if truth be told, caressed both the eyes and ears, but was as pointless as it was unfulfilling. Blame the composer, whose heart was never in this poor excuse for a comedy-drama. The abrupt changeover to “tragedy” at the end feels unearned. It’s so sudden as to be off-putting. Not that the two stars suffered because of it: they were ideal at this point, acting and emoting to their fans’ delight. Perhaps they were TOO ideal — stage life would soon imitate reality life, as the love couple subsequently parted ways, never to be united again.

The Met’s supporting cast did wonders with this tuneful piece, especially with the secondary couple, convincingly sung and acted by debuting tenor Marius Brenciu as Prunier (a substantial part) and the lovely Lisette Oropesa as her namesake Lisette (pert and frisky). Veteran bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, who has seen better vocal days, supplied the few lines allotted to Magda’s sugar daddy Rambaldo; he’s the Baron Douphol character if you recall your Traviata. Magda’s tarty friends, Yvette, Bianca and Suzy, were taken by Monica Yunus, Alyson Cambridge, and Elizabeth DeShong.

This, then, is the fate of La Rondine: to be forever lost and on the wing. Signor Alagna cried real tears, and so do we at the outcome. The similarities to other, better works proved too much to surmount the general sense of too little, too late. Puccini’s swallow flies off in all directions at once, but never really lands. A wasted opportunity, we’re sad to note.  

End of Part Two

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Stream for Your Supper: After-Dinner Treats with Met Opera on Demand (Part One)

Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere,’ Act II: Magic Fire Music, with Bryn Terfel as Wotan (Photo: Yves Renaud/Metropolitan Opera)

There’s still no live opera to speak of, anywhere or anyplace. Of course, the primary cause for this deficiency can be traced to the coronavirus outbreak. Regardless, you can obtain your daily dosage of the operatic art via Met Opera on Demand, the company’s streaming app, if you are so inclined.

Well, this fan happens to be so inclined. Available for download (including from the Roku streamer), Met Opera on Demand can provide the starving opera lover with whatever jolt to the system one needs. The only limitation, if you would like to hear about it, is that all performances come from previously available material: Live in HD, Live from Lincoln Center, and/or Great Performances at the Met. Most are courtesy of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) archives and go as far back as the mid-1970s, the dawn of live televised opera.

Having watched many (but not all) of these productions when they were first broadcast, I noticed a number of changes that have taken place in the four or more decades since they made their initial appearance. The main differences between Met Opera productions from the seventies and eighties and those that materialized in the 1990s through 2010 and so forth were not only in the physical aspect of the sets and costumes, but in the looks and actions of the principal players.

The ones from earlier years featured large structures with little in the way of flow and movement. Modern lighting techniques and elaborate choreography, as viewers have come to understand and appreciate them, were limited and crudely handled. Simply stated, productions revolved around major stars (i.e., Millo, Scotto, Price, Sutherland, Horne, Verrett, Bumbry, Pavarotti, Domingo, Milnes, MacNeil, and many others) who planted their feet firmly on the Met’s stage and basically confined themselves to a given space. Stand and deliver, that was the maxim. You entered, you sang, you exited. You bowed to the audience and called it a night.

By my count, the notion of European Regietheater did not take hold until the 2006 arrival of General Manager Peter Gelb. Prior to Gelb, Joseph Volpe controlled when and what got produced, and with whom. Before Volpe, the Schuyler Chapin era flourished, despite money being especially tight. There was also a traditionalist fervor prevalent in those long-ago Volpe years, in that an opera’s looks and time period were set in the traditional manner, with little to no variance from the norm.

On occasion, a more provocative experiment would spring up from the doldrums that had inevitably set in (for example, the sparseness of John Dexter’s work). This was due mostly to the scarcity of financial resources. With Gelb’s rise came productions with a modernistic bent (with sets and costumes to match) that challenged how audiences experienced opera in ways not formerly seen.

Hand in hand with these came a strong impact from the nearby Broadway stage. Although many joint productions from Europe and major North American theaters began to take hold, overall these proved less expensive and, therefore, more practical to put on in comparison to something developed from scratch. This smacked of the old “out of town tryouts” long favored by Broadway producers. Well, if it worked for the Great White Way, why not give opera a shot.

Since those earlier times, today’s audiences have been privy to a younger crop of singers who have demonstrated an increasing mastery of the art form. Additionally, this newer generation can boast of superior vocal talent and acting abilities where the stand-and-sing methodology of yore has grown stale with the years. But for every gain there is some loss. A star one moment can become a has-been the next — and in far less time. In truth, a forty-or-more-year career span is becoming increasingly rare these days.

What drove this obsession with appearance and relevance is a simple fact of theatrical life: audiences want to be moved. As a result, the public must believe in the protagonists’ struggles on stage, or at least suspend their disbelief for the duration. Those trials and tribulations called for in the music and text must be convincing (that is, to a reasonable extent). Along with this, singers must strive to “look” their parts. That’s a tall order if you happen to be six-foot-two and weigh 300 pounds, or five-feet-nothing. “No problem,” you say. “They can play character roles.” Well, maybe. That’s if they want to play them.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about when dealing with modern-day opera productions. Still, those Golden Age throats were golden for a reason: the Pavarottis, the Prices, the Domingos, the Hornes, the Sutherlands, and the MacNeils of the opera world could SING and sing WELL, with personalities that spilled over the footlights and into the audiences’ laps.

With all that said, let me take you through a partial romp of Met Opera on Demand performances from the past:

Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna (l.) with James Morris as Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni (1978) – Eugene Berman’s original 1957 ink and watercolor sets for Mozart’s most controversial work is a certified design classic. In this broadcast, a young James Morris appeared in his first starring role as the titular libertine. Channeling Howard Keel in MGM’s Kiss Me, Kate, the Cole Porter musical about temperamental theater people, Morris steals the thunder (and the spotlight) from veterans many years his senior. Only 31 at the time, the novice bass upstaged everyone with his mellifluous tones, slim build and carefree stage deportment. It was obvious to anyone watching that here was a star in the making. His only problem, as far as I could discern, was getting through the high tessitura of Giovanni’s Act II serenade. This impediment, however, became mute when the budding bass-baritone took on Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle (see below).

Sad to say, Morris did not have a Kathryn Grayson to play off, nor were the tap-dancing skills of Ann Miller around for added comfort. Instead, we had Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna and Julia Varady as Donna Elvira — both artists equally adept at Mozart’s fast runs and intricate passage work but lacking in genuine vivacity. An atrociously made-up Huguette Tourangeau as Zerlina did little to convince me of her feminine charms. I am aware this was an early TV transmission, but the closeups did this fine artist no favors. She failed to make viewers believe that the dapper Don would want to make a play for this 40-something peasant. In this and in other respects, the camera does not hide but reveals.

Giovanni’s comic foil, Leporello, was taken by the stylish French baritone Gabriel Bacquier. From a previous generation of classically trained singers, Monsieur Bacquier played the servant with a mixture of deference and defiance. His crisply enunciated patter and elegantly executed exchanges were the work of a refined artist. At all times, one had no trouble mistaking who was the master and who was the servant. Bacquier was that rarest of birds, one I had the immense pleasure of seeing live at the Met as Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

John Brecknock’s Don Ottavio was pleasurable as well, if without much dash. Unlike most tenors, he observed the composer’s markings which included the usually omitted appoggiaturas, those added grace notes that come before the written score. Bass John Macurdy’s Commendatore was a refreshing bit of booming bass bluster, albeit short-lived. And baritone Alan Monk’s overly ripe Masetto, while firmly sung, seemed out of sorts. He reminded me of comedian Red Skelton in his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit. But Morris was the main draw, a winning television debut which I can recommend without reservation.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Don Giovanni (2013) – Completely apart from the old Berman set, this Michael Grandage production is another in a long line of what some critics like to call the Laugh-In look. That is to say, it will rekindle older viewers’ memories of the 1960s NBC-TV comedy show (hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin) where cast members and invited guests popped in and out of windows to make dumb remarks about the latest goings-on.

In the title role, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien dominated with his virile if smallish stature and cutting tone. But compared to that old pro Morris, Kwiecien’s Don was a bush leaguer. He did make for an unctuously sensual Don, and his interactions with Luca Pisaroni’s bumptious Leporello were amusingly varied. Pisaroni was a tad short at the top and bottom of his range, but he shone in the comedic portions that were allotted to him.

The women’s roles were well acted and sung, starting with Marina Rebeka’s Donna Anna, Barbara Frittoli’s Donna Elvira, and Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina, all convincingly youthful and vividly voiced. They were smartly dressed, too, their costumes and headwear being of the period in question. Ramón Vargas’ Don Ottavio felt more comfortable in the ensemble passages (he was wonderful in the Trio of the Masks) than in his two solos. And Slovakian basso Štefan Kocán was an appropriately other-worldly Commendatore, his voice soaring mysteriously over the loudspeakers.

Hildegard Behrens as Brunnhilde, listening attentively to James Morris’ Wotan, in Act II of ‘Diw Walkuere’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Die Walküre (1989) – Eleven years after his ground-breaking Don Giovanni, James Morris went on to appear in the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Wagner’s Ring. In the second opera of the cycle, Die Walküre, Morris is the god personified, his formidable six-foot-four-inch frame easily filling the bill. Even more significant, his impressive bass-baritone had matured to the point where Morris’ interpretation set standards (he had studied the role with the great Hans Hotter, the previous generation’s leading exponent). He went on to become the Wotan of his generation. And why not? Few singers could master the Act II dialogue in such a biting manner as he could. Yet, he managed to portray an awesome fury as the angry god struck Hunding dead with a look and a wave of his hand.

For me, Morris’ poignant and dramatically forthright musings in the long Act II scene with daughter Brünnhilde, sung and acted to perfection by soprano Hildegard Behrens, were this performance’s high points. Even better was Wotan’s Farewell, with both artists’ emotional commitment to the drama (and their moving glances to one another) captured for all time by the superb camera work. Unfortunately, the image has become blurred and faded with time (remember, this broadcast took place in the days before high definition), but the impact these sequences held for viewers are worth putting up with such minor inconveniences.

As added bonuses, Jessye Norman’s womanly Sieglinde was seconded by Gary Lakes’ fervent Siegmund. Kurt Moll, growly voiced and threatening, made for a low-bottomed Hunding. Christa Ludwig, a stylish singer in Strauss and Mozart, proved a good choice for Wotan’s put-upon spouse Fricka. But at this stage in her long career, Ludwig’s high notes were wanting. Still, she gave her all to the part. James Levine’s conducting, as good as it would get in this early going, managed to whip up a thick head of steam for the Act I duet with Lakes and Norman. The Magic Fire music toward the end put the finishing touches to a classic performance (in the old stand-up-and-sing style!), one not to be forgotten.

Brunnhilde (Deborah Voigt) hears the origin of the magical Ring from her father, Wotan (Bryn Terfel) in Act II of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Die Walküre (2011) – There is little to recommend in director Robert Lepage’s “Barnum & Bailey meet Cirque du Soleil” version of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Contrasted with the Met’s stodgy old Otto Schenk standby, this so-called “novel take” on the composer’s second installment, Die Walküre, points out the major flaws in placing too much faith in modern technology. Those 24-noisy planks and the noticeably restricted playing area that resulted left most viewers and critics with a bad taste in their mouths. Only in Siegfried did the stage machinery appear to work in the way the production team had planned. Otherwise, give me the tried and the true, please.

If only the singing were up to the task! And in this, for Act I anyway, we had Eva-Maria Westbroek in her company debut as a womanly/girlish Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as a heroic and iron-lunged Siegmund (for once, they actually looked like twins), and Hans-Peter König’s menacing Hunding (as gentle as an ox otherwise). The pair’s rousing duet closed out to raucous shouts of approbation. James Levine was back in the pit (he did not take up the baton for Das Rheingold due to a back injury) and was greeted with a thunderous roar.

For Act II, the heart of the drama, Bryn Terfel’s blustery, bright-voiced Wotan left this viewer wanting: more bite, and less fuming and fussing. His frequent eye-popping at the slightest provocation was distracting to the point of our nominating him to the Ralph Kramden Appreciation Society. Soprano Deborah Voigt’s trim figure and spunky attitude were ideal for Act II, but they came at a loss of full-bodied warbling. Her voice grew thin on top, and those high C’s called for in her war whoops were indistinguishable from one another.

Despite the two decades that separated them, neither artist were a match for the bond and chemistry that generated between James Morris and Hildegard Behrens. A real singing lesson was delivered by the great Stephanie Blythe as a thunderously imposing Fricka. Her acting with the eyes alone was enough to make any god whither before this harridan.

Eva Marton as Elsa of Brabant, with Peter Hofmann as her knight Lohengrin (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Lohengrin (1986) – An August Everding barebones production, with the sets held together by Lincoln Logs. In Act II, it’s all ceremonial pomp and circumstance for 40 minutes where the action comes to a halt. Peter Hofmann, the titular knight in shining white armor, looked every inch the part. His voice, however, lacked power in the ensembles. The ring of a Jonas Kaufmann or a Piotr Beczala was not Hofmann’s to command, despite his golden-haired looks and gentlemanly manner. He did deliver a congenial tone, and his soft utterances to his bride-to-be were not to be missed. Still, he lacked that spark of inspiration, the near-Christlike aura that must surround the otherworldly Lohengrin, a Knight of the Holy Grail. It’s what artists such as Jess Thomas, who had that ethereal quality in spades, exuded and conveyed, as did Sandor Konya, a notable knight in his own right. Hofmann got by on looks alone, the rest we must take for granted.

Two major female stars gave polar opposite performances: soprano Eva Marton as Elsa of Brabant, the damsel in distress, and legendary diva Leonie Rysanek as the witch Ortrud. Marton’s Madonna-esque Elsa mesmerized Met audiences with her teary-eyed, emotionally laden assumption, one of the best we’ve ever witnessed. At nearly every juncture, Marton poured out sumptuous tones of warmth and humility. She meant every word of her tale of woe. Who, one need ask, would doubt such a winning persona?

Marton moved mountains, and proved immensely effective against the vicious tirades and calculating villainy of Ortrud, played by veteran scene-stealer Leonie Rysanek. This was old-fashioned acting at its finest, compared to Marton’s measured approach. Wild-eyed and untamable, Ryansek’s voice tended to spread on top. But the scale of her instrument was larger than life. Indeed, this was a stage performance aimed at the farthest reaches of the Met balcony. Exaggerated? Yes, and way over the top. Yet, Rysanek earned the lion’s share of the applause — not unmerited, mind you, but not one to be repeated. Again, think theatrics: How captivating she must have been live, but not in HD!

As the witch’s husband Telramund, baritone Leif Roar was a cipher, a dull and routine “villain,” weak-minded and too easily manipulated. Telramund must be the most ungrateful part Wagner ever wrote. No wonder few star singers take it on. It’s punishing to the voice, the tessitura merciless and unyielding. He’s plainly a Mama’s boy, one who deserves his pitiless end. John Macurdy’s sturdy-voiced King Henry brought welcome power and thrust. Upon learning of his death at age 90, one felt the sad passing of an era, and a major American artist in one of his signature roles. Macurdy was one of those old Met Opera stalwarts who seemed ageless. He was a dependable mainstay, and will be sorely missed by those who knew his work.

Diana Damrau as Juliet and Vittorio Grigolo as Romeo breathe their last in Gounod’s ‘Romeo wt Juliette’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Roméo et Juliette (2017) – This operatic version of Shakespeare’s tragedy all but confirmed tenor Vittorio Grigolo’s standing as one of the Met’s most valuable go-to-players for French repertoire. Not only was his finesse with the French language close to that of a native, his natural acting ability and complete immersion in whatever role he’d been assigned to brought a whiff of spring air to what could have been a stuffy drawing-room drama. To date, Grigolo has taken on Gounod’s Faust, Massenet’s Werther, and Offenbach’s Hoffmann. Visibly dashing and handsome as all hell, the Tuscan tenor would win any woman’s heart with this portrayal — especially with his bold ascending of the balcony and his athletic displays of swordsmanship.

It’s a shame, then, that in late 2019 he was summarily dismissed from both the Met and London’s Covent Garden for “inappropriate and aggressive behavior” with a chorus member and (allegedly) others. Since then, Grigolo has been sidelined in this country, but was received with a standing ovation at La Scala. Go figure.

His partner on this occasion, soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette, outdid herself in presenting a strong-willed and forceful heroine, one eager to match her Shakespearean wit against any and all comers. Their many love duets (and their marvelous death scene) left no dry eyes in the house. At the curtain, Vittorio literally swept Damrau, and the audience, off their feet! Thanks to this production, this old warhorse from the pen of Charles Gounod surpassed the boundaries of this dainty Victorian-flavored score to become a box office favorite.

Erin Morley as the mechanical doll Olympia, being wooed by the poet Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo) in ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’ (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (2015) – In an interesting twist, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja had earlier premiered as Hoffmann when this 2009 Bartlett Sher production was new. While he has a pleasant enough timbre and displayed fine musicianship, Calleja’s carefully calculated portrait of the poet was no match for the sheer gut-wrenching thrills that Vittorio Grigolo was capable of bringing to this long and terribly difficult assignment. What set Grigolo apart from his colleague was that fiery temperament, that sense that he’s willing at all times to throw caution to the winds and go for broke: those endless, prolonged high notes, those pauses between breaks, that impending sense of disaster. These take an artist of the first rank to bring off. Not that Calleja is an unqualified performer, but his basically refined sound — cautious, cool, deliberate — doesn’t quite tingle the nerve endings the way that Grigolo seems adept at pulling out of a hat (or from his vocal bag of tricks).

As Hoffmann, Grigolo was the best of the modern breed of spinto tenor. Perhaps his only rival in this category is the Polish Piotr Beczala, who has lately moved on to heavier repertoire, i.e., in Wagner’s Lohengrin. Suffice it say that this production is a mash-up of many shock elements (lots of semi-nude vistas and provocative poses), mostly from the decadent 1920s. Stylistically, it was all over the European map: part Kafkaesque delusion, part vaudeville spectacular. Some settings were downright ugly, others littered with Hoffmann’s writings spilled out and about the Met stage. Most impressive of all was Kate Lindsey’s dual role as the poet’s Muse and his constant companion Nicklausse. Lindsey was seen as well as heard in practically every scene, which begs the question of whether to retitle the opera The Tales of Nicklausse and Hoffmann. This was a major undertaking that merited the rousing ovation given to her at the end.

My earlier criticism of Thomas Hampson’s assumption of the four villains (Councilor Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto, in that order), was reinforced by this HD transmission: His voice got lost in the proceedings, and his solo pieces went by with no force or thunder to speak of (Dappertutto’s bogus “Diamond Aria” was taken a half tone lower). If this character isn’t allowed to roar and bellow as the evil Dr. Miracle (or is it the miraculous Dr. Evil?), then the Antonia act falls apart. He looked smart in his top hat and tails, though, his height and bearing that of an aristocrat. As for his singing, much was wanting at this stage.

All the ladies were committed to their parts, especially Erin Morley’s stratospheric, scale-ascending windup doll Olympia (just try to pick her out from the lineup of mechanical automatons onstage). Both sopranos Hibla Gerzmava as the consumptive Antonia and Christine Rice as the courtesan Giulietta did well enough. The men were a hair better at discerning individual characterizations. We must make note of Tony Stevenson’s multiple portrayals (my favorite was his Gene Wilder-inspired Young Frankenstein takeoff as Spalanzani’s goofy lab assistant, Cochénille), Dennis Peterson as the oleaginous Spalanzani, and baritone David Pittsinger’s full-throated Luther and Crespel.

This new production of Hoffmann incorporated not only the bogus and ersatz “standard” version, with those Ernest Guiraud recitatives and that spurious Septet in the Venice act, but numerous material that was unearthed over 40 years ago and only recently has become part of the company’s practice. These “newly discovered”(!) pieces include two arias for the Muse/Nicklausse, and a completely new number for Coppelius, along with a different ending for the chorus in the Epilogue. Hoffmann’s chair and writing desk predominate throughout — giving notice to everyone, as if they were in doubt, that the poet’s lot is to create no matter what. To hell with his love life!

We may never know what composer Jacques Offenbach ultimately had in mind for his masterpiece, since he died without having finished work on this major opus. What we do have is a theatrical assemblage, a hodgepodge if you prefer, that contains a fair amount of memorable, oftentimes jumbled yet supremely hummable music.

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Defiant and the Profane — Getting a Grip on Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ at the Met

David McVicar’s staging for Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marry Sohl / Met Opera)

If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t’ Fix It: Part Two

Baroque opera has little appeal for me. I know, I know. I need to get with the times. And, yes, I am fully aware that those longwinded works from the early 18th century have been back in vogue for nearly half a century. But I can’t help it. I find their laborious plots and over-complicated story lines a chore, the set pieces painful to listen to (well, not all of them), and especially the samey-samey quality of the music and solo numbers (called aria da capo). And those annoyingly drawn-out recitatives are especially egregious.

Yet, I keep saying to myself, Get a grip on it already! Give yourself a break. Now, with all the above said and done (and off my chest), I would much rather watch a live or pre-recorded performance of a Baroque piece than listen to one on the radio or compact disk.

Speaking of which, the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Handel’s 1709 Agrippina was touted as the oldest work in the company’s active repertoire. That claim may very well hold up for the opera house itself at Lincoln Center. However, I seem to recall some mid-1970 performances at the mini-Met of Sir Henry Purcell’s one-act Dido and Aeneas from 1689, which would place that opus a good two decades ahead of Agrippina.

Historically, George Frideric Handel’s first opera seria for Italy was Rodrigo, written for a Florentine academy sometime around 1707. Agrippina appeared two years later, for Venice, and became his first big stage success. It certainly proved its worth at the Met this past season, having received a rousing reception at its debut. I heard and saw Agrippina this weekend as part of the Live in HD transmission, available for free on the Met Opera on Demand online streaming service. The original broadcast date was February 29, 2020.

Sir David McVicar’s production set the work in modern times. In actuality, this was a 20-year-old production, created by the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, and adapted for the stage by the Metropolitan. John Macfarlane was credited with the set and costume designs, Paule Constable with the lighting, Gareth Morrell, harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, and Dimitri Dover with musical preparation, and Hemdi Kfir with the Italian diction.

Handel’s opera concerns the machinations of the wickedly Machiavellian Empress Agrippina, married to Roman Emperor Claudius (called Claudio in the opera). It’s historically inaccurate, irreverent and funny, but the guffaws and chuckles begin to stick in one’s throat when we relate the characters’ machinations to actual real-life events. Politics, so the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows, as they most assuredly do here.

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) greets her husband, Emperor Claudius (Matthew Rose)

And as he did with the earlier Giulio Cesare from 2013, Sir David, by way of composer Handel and his librettist Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, has brought poet Tacitus to life (in fact, one of the minor characters, Lesbo, appears early on holding a copy of the Roman historian’s book). Given these sets of parameters, modern-day audiences will have no trouble following the meandering plotline.

Into the Roman Woods

In this all-but contemporary staging, evil runs rampant and corruption is a way of life. As with most such Baroque products, the plot moves slowly and fitfully through prolonged dry recitatives (or recitativo secco), while highly embellished da capo arias tend to express, by turns, lofty sentiments or banal syllogisms (more like clichés, if you get my drift). These are repeated in A-B-A sequence, which in practice are a perfect forum for displaying an individual artist’s technical and vocal abilities by means of fast runs, roulades, fioriture, cadenzas, and so forth — a veritable feast for the ears if not the eyes.

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) has a one-on-one with her son Nerone (Kate Lindsey)

To director McVicar’s credit, he kept things moving. The action never stops for a second, which wins praise from yours truly for sheer inventiveness. And a most feisty and accommodating cast brought the onstage shenanigans smoothly and seamlessly to fruition, if not always coherently. Each individual character was allotted sufficient time and space to establish his or her presence and, most importantly, a certifiable personality type (uh, “dysfunctional” would be a better term).

In the title role, mezzo Joyce DiDonato was in her element, relishing the opportunity to play as devious and twisted a figure as she possibly could. This Agrippina would make even Lady Macbeth blush. Her sly, crooked smile, copious winks and double-entendres were priceless. Vocally, DiDonato was above reproach, although her coloratura was a shade off its usual mark. She compensated by using her innate language skills in enunciating the Italian text with bite, rrrrolling her r’s trippingly off her tongue till there was nothing left to roll. This verbal affectation, to my mind, was indicative of a disturbed, one-track mind.

Along those same lines, mezzo Kate Lindsey took the acting laurels, as it were, for her bravura take on the man-child Nero, or Nerone as he’s known. Lindsey played the emperor-to-be as a butch version of rapper Eminem, with tattoos across her arms and chest, and on the back of her neck, crossed with Jared Kushner in a slim suit and narrow tie. A punkish hairdo and saucy snarl on her lips, along with a take-no-crap-attitude completed the picture.

Nerone (Kate Lindsey) hands out alms for the poor in ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

One clever sequence involved Nerone’s handing out of Care packages to the vagrants assembled at the palace gate. That look of utter disdain on Ms. Lindsey’s face said it all. Slippery as an eel and twice as unstable, this Nero had his hands full with both wooing the lovely Poppaea (debuting soprano Brenda Rae) and keeping her suitor Ottone (countertenor Iestyn Davies) at bay.

Together, Agrippina and Nerone shared what might have been an incestuous relationship. This falls neatly into line with the basic premise for this work, in which Agrippina schemes to bring her debauched, mentally challenged offspring to the throne as Rome’s next emperor. Complications temporarily disrupt her little plans when, after having planted the false rumor of Emperor Claudius’ death (via poisoned pen letter), Claudius reappears to assert his position.

Sung and acted by British bass Matthew Rose, his amusing personification of Claudio reminded one of England’s Edward VII (“Bertie” to his friends), all hot and bothered and itching to get into his lover Poppaea’s pantyhose. With his large frame and booming voice, Rose hit the right note in depicting the emperor as a libidinous lout, full of macho posturing and empty-headed pronouncements. His scales needed a bit of work, though, and his low notes lacked a solid bottom.

The throne room set for Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

He did, however, display a flare for comedy, as did Brenda Rae, in a penetrating characterization of the sexpot Poppaea. Their relationship was played strictly for laughs — and, indeed, it should be. Both Rose and Rae had a field day, with the bass practicing his golf swing and Rae fighting off the emperor’s (and practically everyone else’s) advances.

In fact, this entire enterprise smacked of a vaudeville free-for-all. For example, the angst-ridden Nero, acting like a freaked-out cocaine addict, indulged himself to the fullest by, literally, sprinkling his desk with happy dust and dropping his face into the white powder. This aspect of the show played like an episode of House of Cards or a Saturday Night Live parody of The West Wing. Uncanny!

Into this rather bizarre company strode countertenor Iestyn Davies’ more subdued bearing as Navy Admiral Ottone, a welcome respite from the lunacy. Baritone Duncan Rock’s solidly vocalized Pallante, in military uniform throughout, vied with countertenor Nicholas Tamagna’s nerdy Narciso in his makeshift combover for most obnoxious cohort. Both singers embodied groveling toadies, obsequious pawns in the manipulative Agrippina’s hands. Bass Christian Zaremba played the emperor’s press agent Lesbo. And high fives all around for the supernumeraries who did double duty throughout the program, especially the two security guards dressed up as Men in Black at the hotel’s bar.

Across the board, fast and slow runs, going up and down the scale, were flawlessly executed and accompanied, on the harpsicord and in the pit, by conductor Harry Bicket, a Baroque opera specialist leading the superb Met Opera Orchestra.

Poppaea (Brenda Rae) meets Ottone (Iestyn Davies) in the hotel’s bar

You could say that everybody and their mother — in this case, Agrippina— kept themselves busy with illicit affairs and off-the-record trysts in hotel lobbies, bars and apartments. Some silliness was bound to spill over, as in Agrippina giving a hand job to Narciso, an action straight out of Peter Sellars’ staging for John Adams’ Nixon in China. Good artists copy, great artists steal? Maybe. Others were routine or vulgar, yet stayed within the PG-parameters. The sole exceptions were the many hand gestures and raised middle fingers, which drew hearty laughter from an appreciative audience.

Anachronistic dance movements only added to the entertainment value. These were provided by choreographer Andrew George, with much of the routines seemingly tied to the plot or otherwise just plain outlandish. History meets theater, competing for viewer attention. It can often lead to absorbing material, or not. As for myself, I delight in such treatments as Verdi’s Don Carlo and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, operas based more or less on the historical record, with a preponderance of invention.

In Handel’s Giulio Cesare, which relayed the tempestuous affair between the noblest Roman of them all, Julius Cesar, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, David McVicar placed the setting in India during the British Raj (see the following link to my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/handels-giulio-cesare-if-it-aint-baroque-dont-fix-it/). As for this musty old warhorse Agrippina, from another time and another place entirely, I am pleased to have given ample time to this piece so as to allow it to make its point.

The opera begins and ends in a mausoleum, with the principle participants perched atop their tombs. Although it’s our understanding the Met’s version had suffered some doctoring from its earlier Brussels incarnation, the nearly three hour and thirty minute running time flew by in a flash. From beginning to end, Agrippina remained a bawdy and sexy showpiece, as well as plainly over-the-top. If that’s what Baroque opera takes to draw attention to itself, then let’s have more of it. Those badass Romans can teach us all a valuable lesson about drama and art imitating life.

In sum, this was as happily realized an undertaking as they come, a welcome novelty that should help in expanding the boundaries of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire, one most audiences are unfamiliar with. Now, let me get back to reading a good book. I have it: Sir Robert Graves’ I, Claudius….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Three): ‘At-Home Gala’ and the New Normal

Screen capture of a performance of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” chorus during the Met Opera’s At-Home Gala on April 25, 2020

Sing For Your Supper

When last we left the Metropolitan Opera, America’s premier repertory company had cancelled the remainder of its 2019-2020 season. As time went on and the circumstances under which the company thrived became ever grimmer, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb was forced to reconsider the first half of their planned 2020-2021 season. Sadly, it too was withdrawn.

Having closed its doors in mid-March, due of course to the coronavirus outbreak, the Met Opera, along with its famed orchestra and chorus — and millions upon millions of radio listeners and live-streaming viewers the world over — were faced with the prospect of no opera performances at all and no work for all. This created a bind for singers, artists, stagehands, craftspeople, and anyone associated with the mechanics of bringing live opera to devotees of the form.

Similar to those in the movie and television industries, not to mention those in the dance and theater business, the bulk of opera’s participants are freelancers who depend on performing in order to meet their needs and obligations. Unlike essential workers, opera singers and chorus and orchestra members are considered non-essential personnel; consequently, they are at the mercy of theater companies for gainful employment. This situation has had a negative impact on performances worldwide.

General Manager Peter Gelb with Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Similarly, the sports community has also been stymied by the recurring presence of COVID-19. One possible solution, which has been tried in Europe and elsewhere, is to hold soccer matches in empty stadiums with prerecorded crowd noises and assorted cheers and shouts piped in. Another proposal involved placing dummy cutout figures around the field’s perimeter. This was done to give the “appearance” of a live audience in attendance. Can you imagine imposing such a solution to opera houses? The whole purpose of the art form is the immediacy of it. I can’t see this move as resolving anything. It fools no one and, ultimately, only calls attention to itself.

But the real questions on everybody’s minds are these: When will isolation be over? And when will things get back to normal? For most people, the issues are personal — and ergo more problematic. This holds true for HBO programs, and for Netflix, CBS-All Access, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and any number of channels and streaming services. How about sports and leisure-time activities: baseball, football, basketball, tennis, hockey, track and field, swimming, and others? When will their stadiums and arenas be filled to capacity again? That’s an unanswerable query at this point.

Granted, this is all wishful thinking on our part. We know that the problems of the world cannot be solved simply by holding the aforementioned activities. Too many people are suffering and dying at the moment for that to safely occur, what with the alarming upsurge in COVID-19 cases, both in the U.S. and in Latin and South America, having reached dire proportions.

More importantly, though, is the question of the continued viability for ALL the arts and the organizations that support them — from museums, art galleries, institutions of higher learning, Broadway, dance, and musical theater, to outdoor rock and pop concerts, poetry readings, lecture halls, indoor gatherings, and everything under the intellectual sun.

For those interested in any of the above pursuits, everyday life and the pleasures derived from them have ground to a halt. So speculating as to when and how these activities can safely resume is beyond the realm of possibility — at least, for the foreseeable future. Protecting ourselves and our loved ones should be, and is, the immediate concern. Driving the numbers down is of prime importance. Once control of the situation is achieved, then all these matters can be addressed.

Some issues will require immediate attention. Others will have to wait. However — and this is key — we must not allow complacency to govern our lives. People’s health and welfare are at stake. We must be as vigilant as ever in warding off this threat. We must all become displaced “artists” in our way, and in the time allotted to us.

If this is to be the new normal, then let it be so. To “sing for your supper” is to stand in someone else’s shoes. Only then will we be able to feel the pain and suffering that others have gone through. Only then will we be able to empathize with one another’s plight.

This is what it takes. The times demand it. Because this is what makes us whole and human.

From Live-Stream to At-Home With the Stars

Renee Fleming sings Verdi’s “Ave Maria” from ‘Otello’ from her home

The Met’s proposed solution to the dearth of opera performances was certainly the most unique endeavor the company has ever attempted. The “At-Home Gala,” as it was dubbed, took place live (for the most part) on Saturday, April 25 at 1 PM Eastern Standard Time. Forty or more individual artists partook of what can only be described as an unprecedented, globe-trotting live-stream event of immense value and import.

Not counting the many accompanists, technical crew, camera people, and sound engineers who participated, as well as the full Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus, there were live and prerecorded performances, across ten time zones(!), by the likes of Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming, Roberto Alagna, Joyce DiDonato, Bryn Terfel, Jonas Kaufmann, Sonya Yoncheva, and many, many others. Fans got to see and hear their favorite artist in intimate surroundings. The immediacy of opera, downsized for home consumption, came through loud and clear.

One subject of note that should be mentioned: Each of the participants donated freely of their time and energy toward this event. All of the extracts reflected, in some way or another, an artist’s individual choice of a specific feeling, tone or mood. In addition, if listeners had any inkling of the historical significance of each piece, they would be able to identify what that particular artist’s personal statement was meant to convey, given the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Indeed, a collective sense of suffering and loss, sadness, joy, and exhilaration could be felt throughout the proceedings. The give-and-take that typically occurs in a stage production, or in a Live in HD broadcast, was magnified tenfold by the closeness of the live-stream process. Obviously, emotions ran high. Some artists were more subdued than others, given the wide range of nationalities presented. Some were introverts, possibly due to language barriers or inherent shyness; others displayed more outgoing behavior. Still others “let it all hang out,” as we Americans say, overflowing with sentiment or sorrow over whatever sensations they experienced through song.

Overall, each artist had something to say, whether implied or explicit. It is for us, the listener and viewer, to supply the missing ingredient — that is, of what lay behind and beyond the words and tunes. And for that, a knowledge of the pieces in question is paramount to understanding the underlying subtext. I’ll leave it to the individual viewer to do his or her homework on the matter.

Stepping up to the plate (you will forgive the sports analogy), Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, one of the tallest talents around, started things off with a delicately modulated depiction of Don Giovanni’s Serenade, “Deh, vieni alla finestra” (“Do come to the window”), accompanied by an accordion. Next, boundless energy took hold of tenor Roberto Alagna and his wife, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, in an extended excerpt from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore.

Aleksandra Kurzak looks on disapprovingly, as Roberto Alagna serenades her

The scene took place in Alagna’s living room, with a pianist providing the lively accompaniment. Alagna was in a boisterous mood, mugging and acting up a storm as the inebriated Nemorino. Running and jumping about like a grasshopper, he and Aleksandra chewed the scenery at every opportunity. It was both delightful and exhausting. As Peter Gelb told New York Times reporter Joshua Barone, “There’s no substitute for performing.” And that’s what we got: a live, in-your-face, and on-your-laptop opera experience.

In contrast, Georgian mezzo Anita Rashvelishvili’s lush version of “Mon coeur souvre à ta voix” (“My heart at your voice”) from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila lowered the room temperature by a few degrees. Following her, Michael Fabiano provided a subdued interpretation of Lensky’s melancholy air, “Kuda, kuda,” translated as “Where have you gone, those golden days of my spring?” The poet Lensky reflects on his life as he faces a duel to the death over a misunderstood slight. Still vocally impressive, retired Met diva Renée Fleming faithfully intoned Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” she cried, as tears streamed down her cheeks.

After five live transmissions in a row, it was time for several prerecorded features, the first one being the achingly throbbing Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, conducted by Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in charge of the Met Opera Orchestra. Subsequently, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s majestically poised and perfectly articulated “L’ombra mai fù” from Handel’s Serse, popularly known as the “Largo” and made famous by Enrico Caruso, made literal time stop. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Met violist Vincent Lionti, who had passed away of the coronavirus.

Joyce DiDonato, surrounded by strings, performing “L’Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s ‘Serse’

It was back to live action with tenor Jonas Kaufmann in an heroic account of Eléazar’s “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from Halévy’s La Juive. This gave way to Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri’s powerful “Nemico della patria” (“Enemy of the state”) from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Playing the piano was fellow paisan, conductor Marco Armiliato. By the way, chirpy coloratura Erin Morley accompanied herself in “Chacun le sait” (“Each one shall know”) from La Fille du Régiment by Donizetti. We were amazed at the number of talented instrumentalists among these superb voices. This showed that their careers could have gone in any number of directions. And Morley was no exception.

German baritone Michael Volle’s bronze-colored delivery of Wolfram’s “Song to the Evening Star” brought us closer to Paradise in one of dozens of vocal highlights. Elza van den Heever regaled listeners with a nostalgic Dutch folk song, “Heimwee” or “Homesick.” Another memorable moment was presented by tenor Matthew Polenzani, who also accompanied himself on the piano in “Londonderry Air,” also known as “Oh, Danny Boy.” Wistful and poignant, this deeply touching piece conveyed that unmistakable vibe of Irish sentimentality. His family members greeted him with vociferous applause. Concluding the segment, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča gave listeners a taste of her lusty Met Opera Carmen in the thrice familiar “Habañera.”

The second prerecorded performance of the day was of the Act III prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, led by Maestro Nézet-Séguin. After which, Welsh-born bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (a fine Wotan and Wanderer) and his harpist wife, Hannah Stone, gave an upbeat rendition of a favorite Welsh tune, made popular by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, of “If I Can Help Somebody,” as appropriate-sounding a number as any.

Two back-to-back Verdi showstoppers, both from the Master’s Don Carlo, were rendered by powerhouse mezzo Jamie Barton (“O don fatale,” or “Oh fatal gift of my beauty”), who exhibited an infectiously bubbly personality, and Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey (“Per me giunto,” or “For me, the supreme day is here”), in seamless fashion.

Mezzo Jamie Barton belts out Eboli’s aria “O don fatale”

This was followed by soprano Angel Blue, who made quite a splash this season in the new production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. She lived up to her name, revealing an absolutely gorgeous voice and poise in “Depuis le jour” (“After the day”) from Charpentier’s Louise, a once popular verismo potboiler not heard at the Met in many a season. German bass René Pape’s sepulchral tones and reverent approach to “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (“In these hallowed halls”) from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, familiarly known as “The Magic Flute,” proved potent and closed this section.

Another prerecorded interlude featured Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the piano and Met concertmaster David Chan on solo violin, in the schmaltzy “Méditation” from Massenet’s exotic Thaïs. There followed notable contributions from Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov in a lively Rachmaninoff song, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja in a full-throated “Ah, lève-toi, soleil” (“Arise, thou loveliest sun”) from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, South African soprano Golda Schultz’s evocative delivery of Magda’s “Il bel sogno di Doretta” (“Doretta’s beautiful dream”) from Puccini’s La Rondine, North Carolina-born countertenor Anthony Roth Costanza’s mesmerizing “Pena tiranna” from Handel’s rarely heard Amadigi di Gaula, and stunning Bulgarian diva Sonya Yoncheva in the transcendent “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka.

The concert’s musical peak and emotional highpoint, however, was reached with the stirring “Va, pensiero, sul ali dorate” (“Go, thought, on wings of gold”), or the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” from Verdi’s first great success Nabucco, sung to grandiloquent excellence by the Met Opera Chorus in a prerecorded segment that turned out to be a labor of love for all concerned. It is hard to capture in words the mixed feelings this piece engendered in the listener. One could only hum along with the composer’s sweeping three-quarter tempo. At the line, “O mia patria, si bella e perduta” – “Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost,” one couldn’t help turning our thoughts to those who have suffered at the devastation this plague has inflicted on humanity. The individual faces of the chorus and orchestra, conveying the sorrow of the lost children of Israel and their Babylonian captivity, were in truth revealing our own sorrow — no acting or role playing was required.

From top left: Angel Blue, Erin Morley, and Anita Rachvelishvili; and from bottom left:  Javier Camarena, Jonas Kaufmann, Ailyn Perez and Solomon Howard

Next, listeners were treated to soprano Nadine Sierra in the perennial “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” from Puccini’s La Bohème; Polish wonder boy, tenor Piotr Beczala, provided an enthusiastic “Recondita armonia” from the same composer’s Tosca; a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni with soprano Diana Damrau and her husband Nicolas Testé (the ubiquitous “Là ci darem la mano”); high-flying sparks issued forth from Lawrence Brownlee’s throat (“A te, o cara,” from Bellini’s I Puritani); deep low-bass rumblings from Günther Groissböck (“Wie Schön” from Richard Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau) — a nice contrast here; and a prerecorded solo effort by Yusuf Eyvazov of Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina,” also from La Bohème.

The last installment began with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s heartfelt and timely “Somewhere” (aka “There’s a Place for Us”) from Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins’ West Side Story. The New York City native was nearly overcome with emotion, so pertinent were the song’s lyrics (“We’ll find a new way of living / We’ll find a way of forgiving”) to our own time and place.

Soprano Ailyn Perez and bass Solomon Howard, as Luisa and Wurm, provided a scorching duet from Verdi’s Luisa Miller; Lisette Oropesa wiped the coloratura slate clean with a remarkably apt “En vain, j’espère” (“In vain, I hope”), from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable; Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis performed “Baigne deux,” again from Thaïs; Stephen Costello and his wife, violinist Yoon Kwon Costello, gave us “Salut demeure” from Gounod’s Faust; and an incredible display of agility and breath control came from Mexican tenor Javier Camarena in a bravura aria and cabaletta from Bellini’s Il Pirata, a taste of what’s waiting in the wings for 2021.

Soprano Anna Netrebko performing a Rachmaninoff song

And finally, an established individual who merits a paragraph of her own: Russian prima donna Anna Netrebko, in a standout, viscerally charged sequence recorded in Vienna of the Rachmaninoff song, “Oh, never sing to me again!”

We pray that sentiment may never come to pass.

In sum, this marvelous concert stood as a metaphor for our collective suffering and unity of purpose. Yes, we are separated from our friends, family, and loved ones. Yes, the world is spinning out of our control. But together, we commiserate; together we struggle; together we overcome. And together, we contribute. Even if we are physically apart, even if we are separated by great distances, we will stand as one. Our voices will not be silenced. We will be heard, either alone or as a unit. Let them ring out loudly and for all.

This is the message of the Met’s virtual “At-Home Gala.”

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Two): And Now, Back to Our Unscheduled Program

The new production of Wagner’s ‘Der Fliegende Hollaender’ (‘The Flying Dutchman’)

Was It Something I Didn’t Say?

In writing about the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts of La Damnation de Faust and Der Fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”), I neglected to mention what a huge debt Richard Wagner and Arrigo Boito owed to French composer and music critic Hector Berlioz.

Certainly, much of Berlioz’s orchestral coloration, brass fanfares, and choral effects eventually found their way into Boito’s labyrinthine Mefistofele. As for epic dimensions and classical structure and story line, nothing could top Berlioz’s titanic Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), which figured prominently in Wagner’s own theories for his mythic The Ring of the Nibelung.

In turn, one can’t help noticing the similarities between the Ring cycle’s plot — and some of its main characters, i.e. Alberich with Gollum — with the later The Lord of the Rings saga penned by one J.R.R. Tolkien, but I do digress.  

For The Flying Dutchman, Herr Wagner drew inspiration from fellow German Romantic Carl Maria von Weber, whose 1821 opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) was a period favorite. The plot centers around a young forester, Max, who makes a sinister pact with fellow forester Kaspar in return for the Devil’s aid (here, called “Samiel”) in winning a shooting contest. All for the hand of the lovely Agathe.

       A production of Carl Maria von Weber’s ‘Der Freischuetz’ (‘The Free Shooter’)

Scenes of ghostly apparitions, dead-of-night depravity, and hellish shock effects were also present in the eerie output of musician Heinrich Marschner, a contemporary of both Weber and Wagner. Marschner’s Der Vampyr (“The Vampire”) from 1828 was based on a Lord Byron story (published under his friend and former doctor, John Polidori’s name); whereas the opera Hans Heiling (1833) must have had a profound influence on Wagner’s development of Tannhäuser (1845; revised 1861 for Paris), whose plot bears striking analogies to the Marschner work.

In Hans Heiling, the title character leaves his underworld dwelling to seek out and marry a mortal woman. Complications arise when the woman, Anna, falls in love with the handsome Konrad. It should be noted that supernatural elements are present in both Hans Heiling and Tannhäuser, with both protagonists having set foot in the earthly and mystical realms, and suffering untold indignities because of it.        

At one time, Marschner was as popular as Weber — perhaps more so, where his operas were concerned (sadly, Weber died young in 1826 from tuberculosis). With Wagner’s emergence as the prime mover of so-called “music drama,” Messrs. Weber and Marschner were left in the dust. Chiefly known for their overtures, Weber’s operatic endeavors include the aforementioned Der Freischütz, along with Oberon (based on characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Euryanthe, and the unfinished Die Drei Pintos (or “The Three Pintos”), completed and orchestrated by Gustav Mahler. The good news is that Weber’s stage works have been revived on more than one occasion, while Marschner’s oeuvre remains comparatively unknown in the U.S.

On the outer fringes of the operatic repertoire, history records that there is another Flying Dutchman-like opus left to be discovered, this one credited to an obscure French composer named Pierre-Louis-Philippe Dietsch. It is titled Le Vasseau Phantôme, or “The Phantom Ship,” from 1842 and adapted from an obscure Sir Walter Scott novel. From the limited research available, this version has but minor similarities to Wagner’s opera.  

For Your Listening and Viewing Pleasure

With historical precedent as our guide, it’s a simple matter for readers to muse upon the past. In the case of opera and the performing arts, one looks to antecedents for clues as to where opera has been and where it might go.

That’s all fine and well. However, in these perilous times, with COVID-19 and the still troubling response to the outbreak on our minds and before our eyes, the future of opera in general — and, specifically, for any performing art, including the dramatic and musical theater variety, as well as the motion picture industry — remains unknowable.

                    Interior of an empty Metropolitan Opera House at orchestra level

What it boils down to is this: Will live opera, in its present state, survive the pandemic? Will the movie- and theater-going experience be rendered pointless as a consequence? Will live- or previously-recorded streaming of these events replace the real thing?

And what of the performers and crafts people involved in their execution — that is, those individuals who make it all happen? Will they ever be able to interact in close proximity to one another? Or will the “stage kiss” make a belated comeback?

I can’t help “laughing” (although in truth, this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a laughing matter) at that last thought. Similar to how the X-rated movie industry has been run of late, the idea that opera singers, and stage and film personalities, may be faced with testing for the coronavirus, or having their temperature taken before interacting with each other on an intimate level, is not as farfetched as we imagine.

Yes, I know it’s a ludicrous notion, but a highly credible one and within the realm of possibility. Indeed, this very situation may soon come to pass and become a permanent part of the entertainment landscape. Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.

I say this in connection with, and as a consequence of, the altered nature of the 2019-2020 Met Opera Saturday afternoon broadcasts. Beginning with the March 14, 2020 relay of The Flying Dutchman from March 10, all subsequent transmissions were of previously recorded material, presented for our ongoing listening pleasure. As usual, radio host Mary Jo Heath and color commentator Ira Schiff “phoned in” their contributions, supplementing their on-air patter by providing illuminating background information regarding each broadcast work.

Continuing with the March 21 re-airing of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, which featured mezzo Joyce DiDonato and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, a March 28 re-broadcast of Massenet’s Werther followed with tenor Jonas Kaufmann. April showered listeners with a re-hearing of contralto Stephanie Blythe’s sumptuously executed Orpheus in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice on the 4th of that month.

This gave way to an April 11 re-hearing of Puccini’s Tosca (from an earlier April 20, 2018 performance) that starred the fabulously talented Russian soprano Anna Netrebko putting her personal stamp on the titular diva, with husband, Azerbaijani tenor Yusuf Eyvazov, as a heroic-sounding Cavaradossi, and German bass-baritone Michael Volle as an un-Italianate-sounding Scarpia.

April 18 brought a masterful 2011 Met archive reading of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. A stellar cast highlighted this effort, manned by the late, great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon (so viscerally realized and commandingly sung), with Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as his daughter Amelia, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as her lover, Gabriele, cavernous Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as an intensely vocalized Fiesco, and baritone Simone Alaimo as the devious Paolo. James Levine led the Met Orchestra and Chorus in probably the nearest to an ideal performance this dark and brooding work has ever received there.

           The late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’

The last three broadcasts of the season included one we had previously heard and commented upon. This was of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, on April 25, in the gaudy, overly-busy Franco Zeffirelli production (done to death, I might add). It starred Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as the haughty Princess Turandot, giant-toned tenor Marco Berti as Prince Calàf, Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava as the slave girl Liu, and American basso James Morris as a thin-of-voice yet physically imposing Timur.

This left only the May 2nd pre-recorded 2004 performance of Leoš Janáček’s rarely heard Kát’a Kabanová with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, fellow Finn tenor Jorma Silvasti, and Canadian-born mezzo Judith Forst; and the May 9th transmission of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda from 2013 with Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart and Dutch soprano Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth I.

With the regular broadcast season over, what is there left for the Met as an institution — or any other opera company, for that matter? At this point, no one can be certain.

Still, the Met Opera’s board of directors, helmed by Executive Chairman Robert I. Toll of Toll Brothers, Inc. (the main sponsor for the Saturday broadcasts), and the company’s general manager, Mr. Peter Gelb, came up with (you’ll pardon the expression) a “novel” approach as to what the future may hold: a live-stream concert of up-and-coming and/or established opera stars singing arias and excerpts from their favorite works, direct from their homes or in pre-recorded venues of their choice.

We’ll have more to say about this extraordinary four-hour Saturday afternoon program, labeled the “At-Home Gala,” in the third and final installment of this post. Until then, a happy and prayerful Memorial Day to one and all!

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes  

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part One)

                                            The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center

Casualties at the Front

Stop what you’re doing and take a moment to listen. Did you hear that? It’s the silence.

During wartime, strict radio silence was maintained. But now, our radios are tuned to pre-recorded broadcasts. We also have a new war on our front: the war against COVID-19, the dreaded coronavirus.

There are many casualties along this particular front. Most of them involve the disastrous human toll this war has taken. For lovers of fine music, it’s the performing arts: Broadway, pop and rock concerts, and, of course, classical music and the opera. Closings and cancellations have abounded, along with financial calamities.

One first noticed that something peculiar was going on back in mid-March when New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced it was postponing the remainder of its 2019-2020 season. Shortly afterwards, the company was either laying off or furloughing anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of its workforce. However, its streaming service was called into action as an emergency backup for those interested in pre-recorded performances.

In general, the operatic arts have suffered, along with every other related artistic endeavor. From famous museums and tourist attractions to concert venues and movie theaters; from film studios to the Great White Way, all have experienced an unprecedented number of cancellations and/or outright closings. How long these valued institutions can sustain this present predicament is anybody’s guess. Certainly the deadly toll the virus has taken on artists, performers, actors, singers, and musicians is truly astounding. It has caused great harm to them all.

Not to dwell on the matter, we fans of the performing arts can take heart that, as indicated above, assorted streaming services and pre-recorded performances of many of your favorite works and artists can be viewed and appreciated, in the comfort of one’s home, either free of charge or at a reduced fee. It’s good to know that something — anything! — worth salvaging in this troubled, mixed up world can still be enjoyed, despite the dire situation at hand.

For me, listening to music or watching a good movie or TV series is tantamount to therapy. And goodness knows we need it now, more than ever! Taking one’s mind off our troubles is reason enough to tune in.

The Show Must Go On!

Debuting American tenor Michael Spyres as Faust (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Before things started to spin out of control, however, radio listeners (both of the satellite and regular kind) were rewarded with a vocally impressive, nay, superior concert performance of Hector Berlioz’s “dramatic legend” La Damnation de Faust, broadcast live on February 8, 2020. (For the background to the Faust legend, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/10/12/mefistofele-ecco-il-mondo-behold-the-world-the-devils-in-the-details-of-boitos-opera/).

Originally slated as a revival of the lavish, digitally-conceived production by Canadian-born Robert Lepage, this challenging work was given a low number of concert readings due to technical deficiencies or insufficient rehearsal time (or quite possibly both). One missed the technological bells and whistles this amazing presentation called for. Fortunately, the Met Opera rose to the occasion with excellent soloists, a rousing orchestral depiction, and a truly spectacular contribution by the outstanding Met Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus, courtesy of chorus master Donald Palumbo.

The young British conductor Edward Gardner lorded it over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and to majestic purpose. His reading was swift and potent, most notably in the inspired horn and brass sections. The strings were notable for their “singing” tone and full-bodied sonority.

Relegated to the pit, the sound that emanated from this world-class ensemble (via the radio transmission, at least) was thrilling in its power and sumptuousness. If nothing else, the orchestra proved, once and for all, that Berlioz was a master of storytelling through musical means. Some reviewers noted that it would have been better to place the orchestra front and center on the Met’s stage platform, as long stretches of music were played with little to no action taking place. Point well taken!

Vocally, though, there was a notable debut of sorts, that of Missouri-born tenor Michael Spyres as Faust. Known internationally as somewhat of a Berlioz specialist (mainly in France), Spyres’ belated Met Opera “appearance” was a welcome one indeed. Most tenors, whether they are of a lyrical bent or the gutsier variety, tend to shy away from Berlioz due to that composer’s (ahem) highly individualized treatment of the voice category.

To say that singing Berlioz’s music is a perilous ordeal is no exaggeration. Yet Spyres overcame all doubt with an exquisitely phrased interpretation. His French was ideal in “Nature, immense, impénétrable,” and his brightly colored tone smacked unmistakably of old school lyricism, laced with that spinto quality one rarely hears, even in Italianate throats. He did experience some strain in Faust’s love duet with Marguérite (all the way up to C sharp in alt), but otherwise overcame the challenge better than his Met predecessors.

On the lower-voiced end of the scale, Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov made for a marvelous Méphistophélès. Dressed in white tie and tails, his was an appropriately devilish portrayal, with a marked improvement in his diction and a delightfully wry and witty repartee. Like his counterpart Faust, Méphistophélès’ music takes the voice upward into high baritone territory (“Voici des roses”), as well as back down to the basso profundo realm. While Abdrazakov may not have conquered all of Berlioz’s hurdles, he certainly had a grand time of it— his repeated shouts of “Hop! Hop! Hop!” near the end were delivered with a fiendish snarl in his voice.

Mezzo Elina Garanca as Marguerite (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Taking the vocal honors away from the men, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča proved the most all-around satisfying of the performers. Her artistry in this repertoire has improved by leaps and bounds, so gorgeously plummy was her tone, yet capable of molding Marguérite’s airs with delicacy, passion, and the right emotional weight. The ballad of “Le Roi de Thulé” and especially her moving Act IV Romance, “D’amour l’ardente flamme” (so similar to Delilah’s “Printemps qui commence” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila), were models of their kind. To have accomplished this without the aid of costumes or props is a coup de théâtre by any definition of the term. Brava, Elīna!

In the brief character bit by Brander, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi stood out with his firmed-toned delivery of “The Song of the Rat.” Concluding the work, the Children’s Chorus stepped up to deliver the sonorous closing hymn of angels with heartfelt compassion, as Marguérite’s soul rises to heaven. A salvo of bravos greeted their efforts.

I missed the next series of radio broadcasts (i.e., of Massenet’s Manon, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte, as well as Handel’s Agrippina) due to prior commitments.

We Resume Our Irregularly Scheduled Program

When the middle of March approached, radio listeners were informed that the March 14 broadcast of the new François Girard production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”) would be a taped transmission of the performance from March 10. Hmm, now why was that?

I had been looking forward to bass-baritone Bryn Terfel’s return to the Met roster after a prolonged absence. Regrettably, Sir Bryn, as he’s now called, had suffered an ankle injury and would be unable to appear. To the rescue came the potent voiced Evgeny Nikitin, who had previously sung the part of the evil magician Klingsor in Girard’s ingenious re-imagination of Wagner’s Parsifal (for my review of that production, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/parsifal-and-don-carlo-a-celebratory-feast-of-wagner-and-verdi-for-the-ravenous-opera-fan-conclusion/).

The ‘Spinning Room’ in Act II of Wagner’s ‘Der Fliegende Hollaender’ (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)

Expecting a torrent of sound and fury and little in the way of nuance, I braced myself for an entertaining afternoon of Wagnerian music drama. This visually stunning production (unseen on the radio, of course), blew many critics’ away. However, the idea of the story of the doomed Dutchman taking place in the protagonist Senta’s head was already dated long before this production was unveiled.

Coming so soon on the heels of the 2017 revival of August Everding’s old-fashioned take, which I wrote about in September 2017 (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/09/17/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-tristan-the-flying-dutchman-and-the-love-of-a-good-woman-conclusion/), this ill-conceived re-modification “stole,” for lack of a better word, a concept first employed by the late pathbreaking German director Harry Kupfer.

In Kupfer’s version, Senta is obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait from the start (it stays with her throughout the length of the work). In Girard’s modern interpretation, that portrait is blown up to gargantuan proportions; in fact, audiences get to glimpse the doomed Dutchman through a closeup of one of his eyes! Yikes, how creepy is that? Abstract impressionism abounds, with little in the way of actual physical structures to (you’ll pardon the expression) “anchor” the setting, the sole exception being Daland’s ship.

The Dutchman himself (or “itself,” if you will, noting that musicologists and literary scholars have felt that the ghostly Herr Vanderdencken was dubbed the “Dutchman” after his own vessel) is a pitiable lost soul. The so-called Spinning Chorus is nothing more than a group of women playing around with huge strands of rope that hung suspended from the stage’s flies — with the Dutchman’s ever-present eyeball keeping watch over the proceedings.

Would that the singing have brought some luster to this misbegotten concept! For that, one had to turn to a solid supporting cast. Stepping in literally at the last minute, Russian basso Nikitin conveyed the Dutchman’s plight in fits and starts. His basic tone is part Bayreuth bark, part mellow-voiced growl. More of a character player than a major headliner, Nikitin excels in such personifications as Klingsor, Telramund in Lohengrin, Alberich in the Ring cycle, and as Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal retainer.

How did he fare as the lonely Dutchman? Reasonably effective, under these circumstances, but not by much. The voice lacked warmth, and his dramatic encounter with Senta (debutante Anja Kampe) went by the boards. Then again, Nikitin was only able to express the Dutchman’s tortured spirit through verbal inflections, for example, in the first act monologue “Dir Frist ist um.” Nevertheless, he cut an impressive figure (as the photographs demonstrate). This is no Byronic hero; and in that Nikitin was less successful as a romantic embodiment than as a ghostly apparition, which is how the director envisioned it. There were times when one wished for a softer, less forceful sound. I like to think that he was miscast and leave it at that.

Dutchman (Evgeny Nikitin) meets Woman, Senta (Anja Kampe), object: matrimony (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Senta, the woman obsessed with this fellow’s massive portrait, was firmly sung by the German-born Ms. Kampe. Incredibly, the nearly middle-aged dramatic soprano was making her Met debut, another belated first. A dancer (Alison Clancy) embodying the young Senta was seen pre-curtain at the start of the Overture. Clad in a red dress, this was the only splash of color in an otherwise drab gray-black and white atmosphere.

Kampe was this production’s saving grace. Apart from a few squally high notes, she, of all the singers, was the one who most closely identified with her character. Her soft singing was a joy to listen to; she clearly made up in warmth and beauty of tone what her counterpart Nikitin had lacked. As Erik, Senta’s supposed betrothed, Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov was a real find. What a gorgeously pliant sound he emitted! Even and firm all the way through, he excited the listener with anticipation. His third act Cavatina was as eloquently sung as any I’ve heard recently.

In the secondary tenor part of the sleepy Steersman, tenor David Portillo, a native Texan and a fine Tamino in the English-language Magic Flute heard earlier in the season, did exceptionally well. My only beef was that he performed one-too-many yawns prior to his little Act I ditty. This smacked of another of Girard’s directorial whims of injecting “character” into a situation where none was called for. As Senta’s dad Daland, German bass Franz-Josef Selig was satisfactory, but no more. And as Mary, one of those Wagnerian non-entities, debuting mezzo Mihoko Fujimura was sturdy of voice and figure.

Russian maestro Valery Gergiev’s baton was, for this forceful artist, startlingly low-key and reserved. Could thoughts of his homeland and family have robbed him of his concentration? It’s hard to say. Although many critics found his conducting lacking in excitement, I noticed moments where the quieter passages in Wagner’s mighty drama were wonderfully inspired. Generally, his whirlwind style of orchestral leadership has brought much passion to the fore, but not on this occasion.

On a personal note, I would never have mistaken Gergiev’s way with Wagner with anybody else’s. Certainly not the leisurely approach that James Levine, Herbert von Karajan or Otto Klemperer once brought to this piece. I much prefer Antal Dorati’s electric way with the score (with George London and Leonie Rysanek in the leads), even Sir Georg Solti’s recorded version (with Norman Bailey, whom I saw live at the New York City Opera as Hans Sachs). Those old timers knew a thing or two about raising the temperature in the theater.

Room for improvement is what’s needed. Maybe with another cast, another conductor, the situation might perk up. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in today, who knows when that might be!

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

‘It Takes a Long Pull to Get There’: ‘Porgy and Bess’ and the Winding Road to the Met

The cast of The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ at the Met (Photo: Met Opera)

Plenty o’ Nothin’ or More of the Same?

After almost 30 years in limbo (or mothballs, if you prefer), the Metropolitan Opera brought The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess back to its stage with a vibrant, new production. Led by conductor and Juilliard School of Music professor David Robertson, this latest manifesatation, directed by James Robinson, featured set designs by Michael Yeargan, costume designs by Catherine Zuber, lighting and projection designs by Donald Holder and Luke Halls, respectively, and choreography by Camille A. Brown.

A much-maligned work, Porgy and Bess was a musical pathbreaker not normally found inside your standard-issue opera house. It was the sole attempt at a serious stage vehicle by one of Tin Pan Alley’s foremost writer of popular songs, the highly esteemed George Gershwin (1898-1937), and his older brother Ira. The duo had previously collaborated on several hit shows, among them Lady Be Good (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1930), Girl Crazy (also 1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), with Porgy and Bess debuting in 1935.

Branded as “pretentious,” “surefire rubbish,” and “too long,” as well as “commonplace” and lacking the “glow of personal feeling,” Broadway theater and music critics, in equal measure, were sharply divided as to Porgy and Bess’s merits. (For an in-depth background of this important work, see my post concerning the 2011-2012 Broadway revival with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/the-gershwins-porgy-and-bess-classic-opera-or-broadway-musical-it-aint-necessarily-so/.)

Souvenir program from the 1946 revival of ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Note the obvious ‘Gone With the Wind’ reference)

Unable to properly quantify the work, many dismissed Porgy as an aberration, a one-off not to be replicated in their lifetime. Others saw it as something bold and new, and unmistakably “American,” albeit with some exceptions. Still others marveled at director Rouben Mamoulian’s staging and mise en scene, while “less satisfied with Gershwin’s score” as a whole.

Here’s a typical review by Paul Rosenfeld, presented in Discoveries of a Music Critic from 1936: “The score is a loose aggregation … [that] sustains no mood. There is neither a progressive nor an enduring tension in it … the expression lies in conventional patterns, as if the feeling of the composer had been too timid to mold musical forms … Long before the conclusion one feels the music has got one nowhere new and true” (as quoted in On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ” by Joseph Horowitz, p. 163).

Conventional patterns? Too timid? No enduring tension? It makes you wonder whether Rosenfeld was writing about something else entirely. Indeed, what hath Gershwin wrought? Was Porgy and Bess a folk opera (as he himself described it), a fiery melodrama, a musical revue, a musical comedy or a plain old-fashioned operetta (i.e., along the lines of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat)? Did the work go out of its way to honor and elevate its poor black protagonists, or simply pigeonhole them in disparaging ways?

Many writers have attempted to examine and dissect Porgy in their struggles to place the work in its proper “social context,” mostly along ethnic lines. Some balked at its alleged authenticity and the impenetrable Gullah dialect. Others took the drama to task as unrepresentative of African American culture. It’s true that DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, the creators of the novel and play on which Porgy and Bess was based, were Southern whites; and equally true the Gershwins were of Russian-Jewish ancestry. But does all that, in themselves, disqualify them from creating a work of art?

From left to right, the creators of ‘Porgy and Bess’: George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin

In terms of the music, was there anything in Porgy that one could legitimately describe as African American? The influence of Wagner is evident throughout (in the recurrent leitmotifs), along with the chromaticism of Ravel and Debussy; factor in a bit of “modern music” by the likes of Berg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Schoenberg (whom Gershwin knew personally). Certainly, the jazz and pop idioms were major components in its construction, as were old Negro spirituals. But does any of the above stand out sufficiently to make the opera uniquely its own?

In the work’s defense, there is nothing in the modern repertoire that approaches it for distinctiveness. And it constantly amazes me that Porgy and Bess was Gershwin’s first and ONLY serious operatic endeavor. Neither Mozart nor Wagner, nor Verdi and Puccini for that matter, reached complete mastery of the form in the way that Gershwin had attained in this, his initial offering. What might George Gershwin, who died at 39, have accomplished had he lived as full a life as the 89-year-old Verdi? It’s beyond imagining.

From his pioneering Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Concerto in F (1925), and An American in Paris (1928), Gershwin continued to push the boundaries between popular and classical forms. He finally achieved his goal with his magnum opus Porgy. For myself, I find the opera’s infectious numbers impossible to resist. Coming one after another, in quick succession, one can easily lose count as to the sheer volume of “hit tunes,” not just in Act I but throughout the body of this work. How many operas are you aware of where the public comes away humming the melodies as it exits the theater? In Rossini’s The Barber of Seville? Yes. In Verdi’s Rigoletto, Trovatore or Traviata? Indeed. In Puccini’s La Bohème or Madama Butterfly? Indubitably. All right, but what else? Well, there’s Bizet’s Carmen.

In point of fact, there were as many similarities between Bizet’s opéra-comique as there are variances in Gershwin’s three-act Porgy and Bess (incidentally, according to Horowitz it was Mamoulian who reduced the work from four to three acts in the version we know today). Gershwin expressed admiration for Carmen, considering it a “model for working ‘song hits’ into Porgy and Bess … The two stories are cognates: Porgy the vulnerable [Don] José, Carmen the temptress Bess, Crown the [bullfighter] Escamillo who lures the girl away. Gershwin’s outcast Gullahs are Bizet’s Gypsies, the spirituals girding their songs are in Carmen flamenco song and dance … What Gershwin appreciated, citing those ‘song hits,’ was that Carmen blended art and entertainment” (Horowitz, Ibid., pp. 209-210).

Shortly after the premiere, Gershwin trimmed his score of an hour’s worth of music and recitative. Later revivals in the forties and fifties dispensed with the recitatives altogether, instead substituting spoken dialogue between the musical numbers (thus giving weight to the Carmen analogy).

George Gershwin composing at the piano

In practical terms, the comparison can be taken a step further when lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame), whose grandfather happened to be impresario and Manhattan Opera House founder Oscar Hammerstein I, adapted Bizet’s masterpiece for contemporary audiences. Hammerstein transferred the opera’s locale to the American South while setting the action near a parachute factory during wartime. The characters were all African Americans, for which he rechristened Carmen Jones (1943). Their speech patterns, humor, camaraderie, and shared experiences seemed almost to replicate what had been documented earlier in Porgy. In this context, imitation became the sincerest form of flattery.

Nevertheless, the opera Porgy and Bess and the resultant musical theater variations (to include the undistinguished 1959 Samuel Goldwyn-produced motion picture starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge) began the long, painful road to acceptance not only by highbrow audiences but by artists, singers, theaters and opera houses who cherish its truthfulness and humanity. (On a historical footnote, it was the first American work to be staged in the former Soviet Union.)

Fifty years after its Boston and Broadway premieres, the work finally reached New York’s Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on February 6, 1985, with Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry in the leads, and James Levine conducting.

‘Here Come the Honey Man’

To start off Black History Month (and nearly 35 years to the day of its Met premiere), the company paid tribute to Porgy and Bess with a live broadcast on February 1, 2020 (it had inaugurated the 2019-2020 season back in September 2019). Regrettably, as I had experienced with the 2012 Broadway revival, the opening Jasbo Brown jazz piano solo and accompanying chorus were cut. The overture that began the show, then, led directly into the number “Summertime,” the first of many standards.

The plot synopsis, in brief, concerns a cripple named Porgy who lives in the fictional community of Catfish Row, near the South Carolina coastline. It’s summertime, and, as Clara, the young wife of the fisherman Jake, croons to her little baby: “The Livin’ is Easy.” Jake and the men gather around a clearing to play craps. Joining them is the burly stevedore Crown, a known troublemaker high on drugs and alcohol. His supplier, Sporting Life (sometimes given as Sportin’ Life), joins the group, followed by Crown’s girl, Bess.

Soon, Crown, a chronic sore loser, picks a fight with Robbins, whom he kills. Serena, Robbins’ wife, screams in anguish as she flings herself onto his lifeless body. Everyone scatters. Bess tells Crown to run and hide, but not before Crown vows to come back for her. Bess insists that “Some man always willin’ to take care of Bess.” A police whistle is heard. Left alone, all doors are closed to the despairing Bess — all doors, that is, except Porgy’s.

At Robbins’ funeral, the mourners pay their last respects (“But He’s Gone, Gone, Gone, Gone, Gone”). After taking up a collection for the deceased, the mourners are interrupted by a police detective, who rudely questions them about the perpetrator who murdered Robbins. Dragging poor Peter, the Honey Man, away as a material witness, the detective leaves the grieving widow Serena to break out in song: “My Man’s Gone Now, Ain’t No Use A-Listenin’.”

“My Man’s Gone Now,” voiced by the grieving widow Serena (Latonia Moore) (Photo: Met Opera)

An undertaker bargains with the widow for burial money, while Bess leads the gathering in a prayer for the deceased (“Oh, the Train is at the Station”).

In scene iii of Act I, the action shifts to Jake and the men repairing their fishing nets (“It Takes a Long Pull to Get There – Huh!”). Clara warns him about the coming storm off the banks, but Jake laughs away her concerns. Porgy appears. Bursting into song (“Oh, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, and Nuttin’s Plenty fo’ Me”), Porgy’s in a jovial mood after having spent the night with Bess. Meanwhile, the bossy Maria, Catfish Row’s resident Earth Mother, berates Sporting Life for his hedonistic lifestyle (“I Hates Yo’ Struttin’ Style. Yes, Sir, and Yo’ Goddam Silly Smile”).

The smooth-talking lawyer Frazier now enters and, in a comical bit, tries to convince Porgy to pay for Bess’s divorce from Crown (even though she was never legally married in the first place). There’s a scene or two that was cut from the Met’s production (that of Mister Archdale, a speaking part; and Porgy’s rarely heard “Buzzard Song”).

Sporting Life tempts Bess with some “happy dust,” but Porgy drives him off. Left alone, the couple swears allegiance to one another (“Bess, You is My Woman Now, You is” / “Porgy, I’s Yo’ Woman Now, I is”), while the residents prepare to picnic off Kittiwah Island. Both Porgy and Maria insist that Bess go and enjoy herself with the picnickers.

“Bess, You is My Woman Now” — Bess (Angle Blue) confesses her love for Porgy (Eric Owens) (Photo: Met Opera)

The next scene takes place on Kittiwah Island. While the residents are having a grand old time merrymaking, Sporting Life entertains the throng with a sarcastic diatribe, the classic “It Ain’t Necessarily So / The Things That Yo’ Liable to Read in the Bible / Oh, It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Serena reproaches the crowd for listening to this hogwash, just as the boat leaving for the mainland toots its whistle.

Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) brags to the crowd that “It Ain’t Necessarily So!” (Photo: Met Opera)

As Bess prepares to depart, a disheveled Crown calls to her. Unable to resist his pull, Bess argues that she’s attached to Porgy (“Oh, What You Want Wid Bess?”). But Crown will have none of it. The two engage in an emotional tug-of-war. Finally, Crown overcomes Bess’s resistance and draws her into the thicket.

In Act II, we’re back at Catfish Row. It’s the time before dawn. Fishermen are preparing to go out to sea, despite gale warnings of trouble ahead. Jake kisses Clara goodbye. In the meantime, a delirious Bess is recovering from her unfortunate mishap with Crown. Porgy is beside her, nursing his woman back to health. Serena leads the assembly in prayer for Bess’s recovery (“Oh, Doctor Jesus, Who Done Trouble Water in de Sea of Galilee”). Various character vignettes take place (with marvelous scene-painting in the orchestra reminiscent of Puccini’s Tosca) as the village comes to life.

Bess confides her problems with Crown to Porgy, who claims he won’t stop her from going to him. She professes her unworthiness to Porgy but, in the next instant, begs him not to let Crown abuse her. Bess declares her devotion to him (“I Loves You, Porgy / Don’ Let Him Take Me, Don’ Let Him Handle Me / With His Hot Han’ ”). No sooner have they concluded, when Clara makes note of the darkening seas. Maria cries out that the hurricane bell has sounded and calls for Clara to go to her baby.

The scene changes to Serena’s room where everyone huddles in fear of the coming storm. Again, the populace calls on Doctor Jesus to save them from misfortune (“Oh, de Lawd Shake de Heavens An’ de Lawd Rock de Groun’ ”). Suddenly, there’s a pounding on the door. It grows louder and louder until Crown comes bursting in. Looking around for Bess, the bedraggled stevedore tussles violently with Porgy. His laughter is that of a possessed fiend as he mocks Bess with a song (“A Red-Headed Woman Make a Choo-Choo Jump its Track”).

From the window, Clara lets out a scream. Shouting “Jake! Jake!”, Clara hands her baby to Bess and runs to the shore in search of her husband. Crown brags that he’s the only man present who can rescue Clara from certain death. He flings himself through the doorway as the storm reaches its climax.

The crowd prays for deliverance from the storm in Act II of ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Photo: Met Opera)

After the storm has subsided, the populace gathers once more to grieve for the loss of life: for Jake, for Clara, and (it is presumed) for the detestable Crown. Sporting Life trades verbal barbs with Maria, who calls him a “low-life skunk.” Singing to Clara’s baby at her window, Bess repeats the lines of “Summertime,” but in a wistful, subdued manner.

Crawling outside in the courtyard, Crown stealthily approaches Porgy’s door. In the traditional staging, Porgy opens his window, plunges a knife into Crown’s back and strangles him with his bare hands as Crown stands up to face his foe. Victorious at last, Porgy conveys to one and all, “Bess, you got a man now, you got Porgy!”

In the next scene, a detective and coroner question Serena, who claims to be sick in bed. They then approach Porgy and inform him that Crown is dead. They insist he come along with them to identify the body. In protest, Porgy fears looking at Crown’s dead features. He refuses to go with them. In that case, he’ll be held in contempt until he complies. The detective and coroner drag poor Porgy off to jail. Bess is despondent, but Sporting Life takes advantage of the situation by offering her some “assistance.”

Bess (Angel Blue) is tempted by the devilish Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) in Act III of ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Photo: Met Opera)

“But cheer up, sistuh! Ole Sportin’ Life givin’ you de stuff for to scare away dem lonesome blues.” Now follows a recreation of the serpent’s temptation of Eve, with the good-for-nothing Sporting Life confiding to Bess that “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” An idyllic place, a Garden of Sinful Delights (if not of Eden), is at their call if she’ll only come along with him. He’ll dress her, feed her, give her all that she wants. In most productions, Bess makes a pretense of resisting his wiles. But no matter what she says, Bess can’t resist that “happy dust.”

After they exit, the community comes alive with the sound of daily activities. Having served his sentence, Porgy returns from jail. He goes from one resident to another, inquiring after Bess’s whereabouts. He runs into Maria, who tries to dissuade him from his pursuit. Finally, Maria tells Porgy the bitter truth: “Dat dirty dog Sportin’ Life make believe you lock up forever.” Serena seconds her remark, declaring that Bess has gone back to her old ways (“She done throw Jesus out of her heart”). But all their entreaties are to no avail. Porgy calls for his goat. In fact, he’s going to New York to find Bess, to rescue her from Sodom.

The last scene is the most poignant of all. Porgy swears he’ll be with Bess, come what may. He calls on God’s aid in the moving, “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way to a Heav’nly Lan’ / I’ll Ride dat Long, Long Road / Oh Lawd, it’s a Long, Long Way / But You’ll Be There to Take My Han’.” Slowly and awkwardly, Porgy grabs his crutch (or goat cart, depending on the staging) and makes for the bright lights of Broadway and Sin City — alone and with the good Lord by his side.

Sing It Loud, Sing It Strong, All Day Long

The ‘Porgy and Bess’ dancers, choreographed by Carol A. Brown (Photo: Met Opera)

It befits me to praise this pivotal work. Some folks find the story crude and forced. If that’s the case, then let me pose this basic query: What, in the above description, sounds forced or crude? Aren’t good people oftentimes tempted to do bad things? Do the situations in the opera’s plot not mirror real life situations? Don’t people get “high,” either from sex, booze or drugs, or from gambling on the ponies? If you’ve never known a person to debase him- or herself with the above vices (carried to the extreme, of course), then you haven’t lived in the real world.

That the individuals in Porgy and Bess, who happen to live in an imaginary world, are poorly educated African Americans struggling to make ends meet in a tightknit South Carolina community of the 1920s, is incidental to the main issue. And that is, we’re all capable of taking a wrong turn now and then. This is one of the many reasons why Porgy is so beloved by so many: It exposes real-world concerns in ways that anyone can relate to and learn from.

The cast of this new production did their best to straddle both the operatic and musical-theater sides of the complicated Porgy and Bess equation. For listeners, that meant good, solid vocalizing. And much of what listeners expect was sure to be heard in this nearly four-hour performance. Audiences expressed their total involvement in the drama, and were thoroughly transfixed by the action as well as the actors. So at the final curtain, many of them cheered or booed lustily at the singers and performers of their choice. The whole affair felt more like an animated America’s Got Talent audition than a staid Metropolitan Opera production.

For the most part, the title characters were expertly handled, with minor concessions. Despite a frumpy, unromantic stage deportment, bass-baritone Eric Owens, a powerful Alberich and Hagen in Wagner’s Ring cycle, had the role under his belt for most of the way. I’m not particularly enamored of his grin-and-bare-it-singing technique, though, nor his stand-and-deliver acting style. But the basic core of his vocalism is compact. On this occasion, General Manager Peter Gelb made a pre-curtain announcement that Owens was suffering from a bad cold. Not wanting to disappoint the fans, he soldiered on despite the indisposition.

With that said, there were moments of strain and wobbly, off-center pitch problems with Porgy’s high-lying tessitura. Under these circumstances, some wayward top notes went astray and were to be expected. Otherwise, Owens acquitted himself remarkably well in view of his health issues. The main takeaway was that he convinced listeners that Porgy was a flesh-and-blood figure who deserved a much happier ending than he ultimately received.

As his beloved Bess, soprano Angle Blue was a revelation, the heart and soul of this production. Tall, elegant, and strikingly good looking, Ms. Blue encompassed the slatternly yet good-hearted Bess’s persona with equal facility in a powerful vocal display. She’s an abused victim. It’s not her fault this staging did not revolve specifically around her character, or resolve the complicated Bess’s dual nature. This was distinct from the version I witnessed with Audra McDonald, who brought her usual firepower (both vocal and histrionic) to the beefed-up part. Still, if there were any inherent flaws, blame the composer and/or the original dramatists for those shortcomings.

In a large and varied cast, the standouts and stalwarts were too numerous to fully count. Still, let me give it the old college try. As Clara, South African soprano Golda Schultz (a superb Sophie in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier) sang cleanly and serenely. In my listening experience, Ms. Schultz earned extra points for sticking to the printed score for once, especially in her opening number, “Summertime.”

Clara (Golda Schultz) sings the lovely lullaby, “Summertime,” to her little baby (Photo: Met Opera)

As the grieving Serena, soprano Latonia Moore equaled Ms. Schultz in appealing tone and personal involvement, made evident in her heartfelt entreaty to the God-fearing masses. Bass-baritone Donovan Singletary’s meaty sound and lyrical output lent a welcome masculine presence to the fisherman Jake.

In the role of the abusive criminal Crown, Alfred Walker’s smoothly tailored bass-baritone was almost too luxurious for this brutal part. His laughter was oddly restrained, quite the opposite of the best Crowns, particularly the diabolical Gregg Baker (with appropriately muscular build) and the whirlwind Phillip Boykin. However, I’m told that Walker’s physical presence was most convincing (maybe he needed to sing the title part instead of Mr. Owens?).

On the other hand, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves did not have her best moments as Maria. Sounding dry and hollow and lacking tonal resonance, Ms. Graves has delivered far better performances as the sultry Carmen or the sensuous Delilah. Here, she seemed altogether out of sorts in a role that calls for a mighty contralto, the kind that breathes fire and brimstone, or rains down fury and the fear of God onto the likes of Sporting Life.

Maria (Denyce Graves) threatens to skewer the upside-down Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) (Photo: Met Opera)

And speak of the devil, tenor Frederick Ballentine reveled in his character’s bumping and grinding. Now, there was as slimy a portrait of this no-good, snake-in-the-grass drug peddler as one could get. His snide, repugnant side came through loud and clear, with appropriate hand and arm gestures to boot. As Peter the Honey Man, tenor Jamez McCorkle’s mellow tones were a balm to the ear.

Rounding out the large cast were Aundi Marie Moore as the Strawberry Woman, Chauncey Packer as Robbins, Errin Duane Brooks as Mingo, Norman Garrett as Jim, Tichina Vaughn as Lily, Damien Geter as the Undertaker, Chanáe Curtis as Annie, Arthur Woodley as the lawyer Frazier, and Jonathan Tuzo as Nelson.

Among those in speaking roles, actors Grant Neale as the Detective, Bobby Mittelstadt as the Policeman, Michael Lewis as the Coroner, and Ned Randall as Scipio delivered the goods. David Robertson presided over the orchestra, maintaining firm control over the enormous forces called for, in particular during the imposing hurricane episode. And no production of Porgy would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of the mighty Porgy and Bess Chorus, especially prepared for this occasion by David Moody, along with the Met Opera Children’s Chorus. And let’s not forget the dancers who mingled with the crowd, whose movements were carefully choreographed by Carol A. Brown.

It took an incredibly long pull — and a tremendous amount of love and dedication — to bring Porgy and Bess to the Met stage. Let’s hope it never outstays its welcome.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

A German Triumvirate: ‘The Magic Flute,’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ and ‘Wozzeck’ at the Met

Prince Tamino (David Portillo) plays his flute to ward off the dancing bears in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Operas Old and New

Saturday afternoons can be either marvelous or tedious affairs, depending on the season or the weather. For the past few weekends, however, yours truly has been thrilled to hear some fine performances at the Metropolitan Opera House via their perennial radio broadcasts. This gives me the opportunity to discuss these fine works at length.

The last three transmissions featured a panorama of German masterpieces, all of them classics of the genre: Mozart’s The Magic Flute was heard on December 28,2019, while Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (“The Knight of the Rose”) and Berg’s Wozzeck vied for equal time on January 4 and 11, 2020, respectively.

The Mozart opus, a 2004 production credited to Julie Taymor, was given a truncated English-language adaptation (courtesy of the late J. D. McClatchy). Robert Carsen’s stylish Der Rosenkavalier was a revival of a production from 2017. However, the harrowing Wozzeck, directed by acclaimed visual artist William Kentridge, whose 2010 presentation of Shostakovich’s satirical The Nose marked the company debut of Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, was hailed as a feather in the Met’s Tyrolian cap.

But before we begin, I might as well get this off my chest: Strauss simply adored Mozart. So much so that he modeled two of his grandest operas, Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”) from 1919, after the sublime Austrian master.

We say “Austrian,” which is the somewhat imprecise English translation of Österreich, or “Eastern Empire.” However one interprets it, the citizens of Austria do speak German, which some might call a “dialect.” Indeed, the Austrian dialect resembles a kind of slangy, quirky Dutch. Not to offend anybody, but the sound of native Austrian mimics the slurred speech of someone who’s had too little sleep. You’ll know what I mean whenever you witness a European production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. Ach, du Lieber Gott! It’s similar in some respects to Cockney English, but I do digress.

Nevertheless, American English was the choice for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Still, why would composer Richard Strauss (no relation to the Johanns, father and son) pattern one of his operas after Mozart’s seriocomic Singspiel? Not only that, but Der Rosenkavalier shares an obvious affinity to The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte, Wolfie’s first and third collaboration with poet and jack-of-all-trades Lorenzo da Ponte.

The Magic of Mozart’s ‘Flute’

Pagageno (Joshua Hopkins) “philosophizes” about life to Pamina (Ying Fang) in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Speaking of which, the Met’s presentation of The Magic Flute was aired in one long, solitary act (to be precise, 100 minutes by the clock). Now, it’s been my experience that if you take young people to the opera, especially kids of a certain age group, they’re bound to get fidgety after a while. Having a break between acts is preferable and downright mandatory. Why the company continues to play this piece straight through is beyond me.

In the first place, it’s long enough at one act and twelve scenes to warrant an intermission. In the second, that’s a hell of a lot to absorb in one sitting. Giving kids and their parents a break, along with sufficient time to exchange ideas and ask questions during the interval, is ideal for enhancing their appreciation for Mozart and his music. For example, they can discuss the staging, the characters, the settings and costumes, the byplay between Papageno and Pamina, or the Three Ladies vs. the Three Spirits (in reality, three boy sopranos). How about asking them what they think will happen next? Make a game out it!

I’m especially dismayed (and have been, for a while now) over the gratuitous cuts to the spoken dialogue and especially to Mozart’s music. (Dude, where’s the overture?) And you thought Strauss was longwinded! Some of this expository discourse can be trimmed to acceptable lengths. What would be deemed acceptable? That all depends on the audience’s age. Add a few words here, cut a few words there — basically, keep things moving and within the limits of normal conversation. At least, make it long enough to get a feel for the plot and short enough for an understanding of the protagonists and their motivations.

About that story line, The Magic Flute was originally divided into two acts. The first act introduces the basic premise: that of a noble prince accompanied by a comical sidekick (the bird-catcher), who are both enlisted by a powerful queen to bring her kidnapped daughter back to her mother’s arms. The second act reveals that those who we thought were on the side of good turn out to be bad; and those who we thought were bad are indeed good.

Papageno is everybody’s favorite, an Everyman for every occasion. His only thoughts are to have a good time and find himself a Papagena to love and hold (“a sweetheart,” in his words). Prince Tamino, the fellow who stumbles onto the scene, is given a magic flute to aid him in his quest. The Queen of the Night, a relatively minor figure, has two fiendishly difficult airs (one slow that ends fast, and one that takes her to stratospheric heights).

Tamino’s counterpart is Pamina, the queen’s daughter. She, too, has some lovely solos and duets, albeit less showy than her mother’s. There’s the villainous Monostatos, who has (ahem) evil designs on the girl, along with those of his minions. On the opposing side, Sarastro the High Priest is an honorable sort, although he’s not painted as such at the outset. His music is of the solemn kind, which tends to ennoble his character. The Speaker is another upstanding citizen of the realm, with fairly judicious turns of his own in his encounter with Tamino.

Sarastro’s Masonic Temple in the finale to Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Have I confused you even more? Fear not! All will be well, thanks to Mozart’s sublime score and those wonderful characterizations that the composer’s old friend — producer, actor, librettist, some-time promoter, and all-around Freemason Emanuel Schikaneder — concocted for less discriminating Viennese audiences. And as if you didn’t know it, the telltale signs of Freemasonry are everywhere in this piece.

Too, the scenic elements in Julie Taymor and George Tsypin’s colorful displays are wondrous to behold. Taymor herself, in an interview with soprano Deborah Voigt, pointed out the airiness of the production as a whole. She stressed the kite-like weightlessness of the puppets (i.e., birds, animals, random flying objects, and such). I, myself, have noticed her production’s kinship to Japanese theater — that is, in the inspired Kabuki-esque costume designs and effects, and the intricate, geometrically shaped sets.

With so many positives going for it, why am I disappointed in this Magic Flute? Mostly because of the feeling that audiences are not getting their full money’s worth. Listening to the separate arias, duets, and ensembles; marveling at Mozart’s spare accompaniments, offset by the loveliness of his melodies, I continue to be impressed by the sheer ingenuity he demonstrated in conveying the heightened emotions of his characters — all by the simplest of means.

For the past several seasons, the Met Opera has been giving this work in its present abridged form (at least, as a holiday radio broadcast). My suggestion would be to restore it to full splendor. Once and for all, let’s hear the magic in Mozart’s Flute as Mozart intended.

Cast-wise, all the performers contributed vitally to the proceedings, such as they were. As Tamino, tenor David Portillo (heard previously in supporting roles) did an outstanding job of managing the high tessitura of his part. His partner in “crime,” baritone Joshua Hopkins, was a spry, comically engaging Papageno who relished the bird-catcher’s every syllable. His Papagena was a spunky soprano named Ashley Emerson. The Three Ladies were taken by Gabriella Reyes, Megan Esther Grey and Renée Tatum, and coloratura Kathryn Lewek exuded fire and brimstone as a malevolent Queen of the Night.

The Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek) vows vengeance to her daughter, Pamina (Ying Fang) in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photo: Met Opera)

In contrast, soprano Ying Fang was a lyrically affecting, melancholy Pamina. Her chief tormentor, the blackamoor Monostatos, was sung by tenor Rodell Rosell. He was particularly amusing in his snarky asides to various characters. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi sang a characteristically model Speaker, as did bass Solomon Howard whose low tones and sumptuous speaking voice were most impressive. The two priests were Christopher Job and Scott Scully, and the two guards (who get to sing a proto-Bach chorale!) were portrayed by Arseny Yakovlev and Richard Bernstein.

Holding it all together and doing what he could with the leftovers, conductor Lothar Koenigs contributed to this festive occasion, helped immeasurably by the superb Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus. As in years past, this revival was supervised by executive stage director David Kneuss.

The Moment the Heart Speaks

After his two one-act shockers Salome and Elektra had made their ignominious debuts (to highly negative reaction), Strauss turned to the renowned poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and charged him to come up with a lavish, mid-eighteenth century entertainment that incorporated the decadent spirit, if not the letter, of Empress Maria Theresa’s Old World Vienna.

What Hofmannsthal delivered was a sentimental bedroom farce laced with sharp, critical observations of the aristocracy at play — more specifically, in the boorish behavior of the Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau. A randy, lecherous old fogey, Ochs (German for “ox”) plans an arranged marriage to the teenaged Sophie von Faninal, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant.

To seal the deal, he asks his highborn cousin, the middle-aged Marschallin, to appoint someone as his go-between, preferably a young knight who can deliver the traditional silver rose to Ochs’ betrothed as a prenuptial gift. The Marschallin suggests the young Count Octavian Rofrano (a “trouser” role for mezzo-soprano) as the gift bearer.

Baron Ochs (Guenther Groissboeck) flirts with “Mariandel” (Magdalena Kozena) in Act III of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Unbeknownst to the Baron, Octavian happens to be the Marschallin’s lover of the moment, an impetuous youth with a noble bearing and hair-trigger temperament. The Marschallin herself is trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man, the never seen Field Marshall (a recurring theme in several of Strauss’s work, for instance, in the characters of Agamemnon in Elektra and the Spirit God Keikobad from Die Frau ohne Schatten).

The plot, as the old saying goes, soon thickens with the sumptuous Act II “Presentation of the Rose” sequence. To evocative musical themes of champagne-sparkling delight, Octavian is received with much pomp and circumstance. As you might suspect, the flirtatious Sophie is in awe of the charming young nobleman. Octavian, on his best behavior, engages the girl in polite conversation. Little by little, the two young people fall in love — an awkward state of affairs, considering what comes next.

The lovebirds are interrupted by the arrival of Baron Ochs and Sophie’s father, Herr von Faninal. Ochs looks over the blushing bride as if she were a filly at a horse auction. Sophie is mortified, to say the least. Octavian is deeply angered, but composes himself enough to let this insult pass. Temporarily left on their own, the young couple swear to each other that Sophie will never marry the loutish Ochs.

They are caught in the act by the arrival of two so-called “spies,” the Italian intriguers Annina and Valzacchi — two remnants of commedia dell’arte in disguise. The spies blab what transpired to the Baron, who confronts the couple just as Octavian challenges him to a duel. A coward in real life, Ochs fakes being wounded by Octavian’s sword. His loud and over-exaggerated cries of “Murder!” bring von Faninal and his retainers to the rescue. Told to leave at once, Octavian exits in a huff, followed by the weeping bride-to-be. Despite her entreaties, Sophie’s father refuses to cancel the wedding.

This leaves the aching Baron (his arm wrapped in an improvised sling) to rest his weary frame in a huge armchair. Now comes the part that every Strauss lover longs for, i.e., the scene of an intoxicated Ochs waltzing about the room in time to the composer’s lilting, anachronistic score. Along with the trio and duet that conclude the opera (as well as the Italian Singer’s nonsensical song in Act I, a favorite of tenors from Pavarotti to Polenzani), this catchy theme in three-quarter time has attracted star performers from time immemorial.

The Italian Singer (Matthew Polenzani) looks suspiciously like Enrico Caruso in Act I of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Met Opera)

So what’s the motive behind the Baron’s miraculous recovery? He’s just received a note from the mysterious chamber maid “Mariandel” (in truth, Octavian in womanly disguise) inviting him to a secret rendezvous at an inn. That’s enough to cure any man’s ills! Hopping with joy about the stage, the Baron ends his revelry with a long-held low D (“Keine Nacht dir zu lang”), to much applause from the expectant audience.

In Act III, the characters’ world has turned upside-down. At the inn, Ochs meets the amorous “Mariandel,” who comes on to him just a little too strongly. But after innumerable interruptions and the last-minute appearance of Annina in disguise, accompanied by the Baron’s flock of “illegitimate children” shouting “Papa, Papa!” the situation gets out of control. It seems that Valzacchi and Annina have been working for Octavian on the side (it’s a matter of money, you see — or the lack of it). This, and other impediments, make for a longwinded winding-down of the over-complicated plot.

Once the wild, free-for-all shenanigans are over and done with — many of which will remind listeners of the goings-on in the Almaviva household in The Marriage of Figaro — matters start to settle down by themselves.

The ending, much favored by audiences and critics alike, involves the Marschallin’s acceptance of change in the face of advanced age and decorum. She realizes that her time has come, that she must give way to youth — more for her sake, if not for that of the young people in love. Her noble sacrifice is carried out to music of incredible depth and beauty. The contrast between the amorous Octavian and Sophie, billing and cooing on the sidelines, and the sacrifice of a mature Marschallin, will bring a tear to the eye and a lump to every audience member’s throat.

Cast Your Fate to the Winds

Octavian (Magdalena Kozena) presents the rose to Sophie (Golda Schultz) in Act II of ‘DerRosenkavalier’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The Met’s lineup featured artists both new to their roles and those with experienced hands. As the brash knight Octavian, Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená handled the high tessitura handily, although her costume was ill-fitting and unflattering. Her stage deportment was anything but noble-born, however she brought liveliness and spirit to her portrayal, as well as a velvety mid-range and potent top.

As the spunky Sophie, South African soprano Golda Schultz (who’ll partake of the Met’s February 1st broadcast of Porgy and Bess) displayed copious charm and cheery temperament, along with melting pianissimos in Act II. Both Schultz and Kožená made beautiful music together (excuse the cliché!), which is what counts in a post-romantic work of this kind.

As the aging Marschallin, debuting Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund carried herself with dignity throughout (the Marschallin is missing in action during Act II). Her basically lyric tone tended to stridency toward the very top of her range; however, at full voice, she embodied wounded pride and womanly grace in her Act I scena. She easily rode over the heavy orchestration in Act III, bringing the crucial trio to an emotional and fitting climax.

The Marschallin (Camilla Nylund) tries to tell the amorous Octavian (Magdalena Kozena) the “facts” of aristocratic life in Act I of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Met Opera)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, German basso Günther Groissböck, who made quite a splash in the company’s Ring cycle revival (as Fasolt and Hunding), repeated his slovenly portrayal of the boorish Baron Ochs. In this production, Ochs is depicted as a younger man, full of cheek and bravado, and full-on male privilege (the opera is set before the First World War). He hit all his marks and remembered every word of his part, a major accomplishment in itself (my goodness, there are SO MANY words…). He did lack power in the lowest notes, but, then again, who today could cope with the Baron’s tessitura?

Tenor Matthew Polenzani took the cameo role of the Italian Singer. Intriguingly, he was made up to resemble the great Enrico Caruso, which fit the time period in question to a “T.” Barring a bit of strain at the top of his range, Polenzani relished this brief but telling assignment.

Another debutant, German baritone Markus Eiche, was a full-toned, vigorously imposing von Faninal. As the Italian spies Valzacchi and Annina, tenor Thomas Ebenstein and mezzo Katherine Goeldner acquitted themselves ably, each establishing an individualized portrait amid the chaos surrounding them. Soprano Alexandra LoBianco excelled in the role of Marianne, Sophie’s duenna, and veteran bass-baritone James Courtney celebrated his 40th anniversary season with the company with his argumentative Notary.

Sir Simon Rattle, an infrequent visitor to the Met (we last heard him in the 2017 revival of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) set the pace. I noted that the playing was considerably looser than it had been under James Levine’s leadership. Rattle, unlike Leonard Bernstein’s mannered way with this score, kept the orchestral line flowing, which was all to the good. In sum, he knows his way around this piece, and the Met players delivered for him in spades.

Strauss was never again to attain such heights as an opera composer. Although, in this author’s view, his other Mozartian homage, the gargantuan Die Frau ohne Schatten, is more befitting of the honor of being his best work, Der Rosenkavalier has never lost its popularity with the public.

My only problem with the opera is its length. As I wrote in prior entries about the composer’s annoying habit of setting every word of Hofmannsthal’s text to music (including, according to operatic lore, the stage directions!), this unwieldy opus is talky, talky, talky. Mind you, there’s a fine line between talky and worthwhile. Even Herr Mozart knew this. Yet, Strauss crosses that line repeatedly and at every opportunity, which bogs this work down when you want it to soar.

Listen to the Noise

The Captain (Gerhard Siegel) berates the solder Wozzeck (Peter Mattei) for his immoral lifestyle in Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The highly touted new production of Berg’s Wozzeck was given a first-class reading in the orchestra pit by Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. For the history and background of this modern-day opus, see the following links: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/werther-and-wozzeck-the-poet-and-the-peasant-two-big-ws-at-the-met/) and https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/werther-and-wozzeck-the-poet-and-the-peasant-two-big-ws-at-the-met-conclusion/).

South African artist and film director William Kentridge set the story of the feeble-minded soldier Wozzeck in the same World War I period as Robert Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier production. This made for a striking disparity between these two pieces.

The post-romantic Rosenkavalier, which premiered before the outbreak of war, emphasized nostalgia for the past and a yearning for the way things were. In contrast, Wozzeck recounted the tragic outcome of that conflict, which left a war-torn European continent in ruins. The shattered lives it left behind and the psychological damage that war inflicted on its survivors were of prime concern to a weary veteran named Alban Berg. His opera’s 1925 premiere in Berlin took place only six years after the First World War’s end, and 14 years after Der Rosenkavalier’s unveiling.

William Kentridge’s production of ‘Wozzeck’ with Elza van den Heever as the title character’s mistress (Photo: Met Opera)

Before Wozzeck started to wind its way into the standard repertoire, critics and operagoers were aghast at its jangled scoring and unlikable characters. Not that artists such as Igor Stravinsky or Richard Strauss himself hadn’t startled European audiences with their audacious sounds. In Stravinsky’s case, he rattled everyone’ cages with the highly propulsive The Rite of Spring (1913). Seven years earlier, Strauss, too, turned many heads with the boldness of his heretical Salome (1906) — a work the young Berg praised to high heaven.

Today, our more (shall we say) “enlightened” ears, attuned after five or more decades to countless movie and television scores from the likes of Hans Zimmer, Ramin Djawadi, Jóhan Jóhannsson, Mac Quayle, and a host of others, can fully appreciate Berg’s dissonant efforts in ways the Austrian-born composer could never have imagined.

Kentridge’s production, which resembled his previous work for the Met stage (in particular, Dimitri Shostakovich’s The Nose and his 2015 staging of Berg’s last opera Lulu), emphasized clutter over clarity. Pen-and-ink drawings, illustrations, film animation, moving props, staircases and catwalks in odd places, people wearing gas masks, and, the worst offense of all, substituting a bunraku puppet for Marie’s child, did little to clarify the opera’s underlying themes of emotional isolation and dehumanization.

An Expressionistic nightmare, Mr. Kentridge might have sent a more meaningful message if he had placed the story, say, at a military base in Iraq, or dealt with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder run rampant among returning GI’s.

Fortunately, a first-rate cast helped to enliven the drama, which, on the radio, was all that mattered. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei shined as the titular protagonist. His complete disintegration into a ranting, hysterical beast convinced listeners that a human wrecking ball could engage their sympathies. He maintained a smooth vocal line throughout the ordeal.

Mattei was effectively partnered by South African soprano Elza van den Heever as his slatternly spouse Marie. Her tone was less pleasing to the ear than prior singers in this part (there’s a great deal of “song speech” in addition to outright “singing”), but her acting flair dominated the action. Van den Heever’s poignant Bible-reading to her puppet offspring, while tenderly uttered, missed that all-important connection due to the lack of a real-life child to play off of.

Marie (Elza van den Heever) salutes her little child in Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’ (Photo: Met Opera)

As the reproachful Captain, veteran tenor Gerhard Siegel was overpowering in voice and presence. His years of warbling Wagner’s Mime in Siegfried helped tremendously in creating a vile yet recognizably human antagonist. The mellow-voiced bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, last year’s Devil in Boito’s Mefistofele, while slightly underpowered compared to his colleague Siegel, held his own as the malevolent Doctor.

British heroic tenor Christopher Ventris proved his worth as Wozzeck’s oppressor, the prancing Drum Major, whose illicit affair with the accommodating Marie leads to Wozzeck’s unraveling. And debuting tenor Andrew Staples drew a supportive portrait of Andres, Wozzeck’s barracks mate.

Others in the cast were mezzo Tamara Mumford as Margret, bass David Crawford and tenor Myles Mykkanen as Apprentices, Brenton Ryan as a Fool, Daniel Clark Smith as a Soldier, and Gregory Warren as a Townsman.

As indicated above, Maestro Nézet-Séguin was the driving force behind this new production. His virtuosity was unquestioned, and the Met musicians responded in kind. That’s saying a lot for a noisy, purportedly unlistenable work.

It’s taken almost a century for audiences to finally listen to Wozzeck. Better late than never!

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’: The ‘Ideal Couple’ and Their Path to Destruction

Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) & Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) have done the bloody deed in Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Rise and Rise Again, Then Fall Caesar!

Has there ever been a viler, more compelling, or more self-destructive pair than Lady Macbeth and her warlike mate, Macbeth? Indeed, has there ever been an opera more worthy of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of political intrigue, immorality, and wanton destruction and murder; of the inevitability of fate stretched to the limits of human endurance?

What powerful forces possessed composer Giuseppe Verdi to take on such a distasteful subject? And what poet, in his right mind, would indulge the Bear of Busseto’s thoughts on the matter? Truly, Verdi must have been out of his cotton-picking mind. What was he thinking? No love duet, no romantic tenor lead? No sympathetic soprano heroine or fatherly baritone to soothe the soul? It was downright absurd, but onward he plowed.

Having slaved through the so-called “galley years,” wherein Verdi composed, in rapid succession, one dutiful operatic work after another (e.g., I due Foscari, Giovanna d’Arco, Alzira, Attila, I Masnadieri, Il Corsaro, La Battaglia di Legnano, Luisa Miller, Stiffelio), all within a span of six years (1844 to 1850), at the exact midpoint the famed Italian master decided on something completely different.

He asked Francesco Maria Piave, his go-to-librettist at the time, to prepare an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (or Macbetto in Italian) for local consumption. That was in 1846. To think that a foreign-born musician could do justice to one of English literature’s most revered poet-playwrights must have seemed an insurmountable task. To do so at this stage in Verdi’s career was doubly challenging. Yet, surprisingly, the opera received a favorable response at its March 14, 1847 premiere in Florence, but quickly faded from view. Too high-minded, too cerebral, no one to root for, and too “out there” for the average opera-lover to grab hold of.

Macbeth (Lucic) tells his Lady (Netrebko) about the witches’ prophecy in Act I of ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Disappointed that his efforts were underappreciated, Verdi held a special place in his heart for the misunderstood Macbeth. So much so that, eighteen years later, he revised the opera for the Théâtre Lyrique of Paris. That was in 1865, the same year that Wagner introduced his unsuccessful reworking of Tannhäuser. Comparably, this later revision of Macbeth has stood the test of time, and is the one we regularly hear in performance — including at the Metropolitan Opera’s pre-recorded Saturday afternoon broadcast of December 21, 2019 (the performance itself took place on September 25).

The plot, as any high school student will tell you, is straight out of HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you are unconvinced of this claim, take a look at what happens to our anti-hero Macbeth. At the start, he rides in with fellow comrade in arms, Banquo (or Banco). They stop before a group of witches (of the cackling, kettle-stirring variety) who inform him, in a prophecy, that he will inherit the Kingdom of Scotland, after two other titles. Mind you, he’s not the only soldier to be favored with their visions: Banquo will never be king, but he will father many kings. Both men are confounded by the news.

After several of the events come to pass, Macbeth realizes that part of the witches’ prophecies have indeed been fulfilled. But what of Banquo and his path to father a coterie of kings? He sends a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth, who subsequently beseeches her husband to strike down Duncan, the current King of the Scots, when his Royal Highness pays a visit to their castle. There, the dirty deed is done. Then, acting on impulse and goaded by his ruthless wife, Macbeth has Banquo killed, but the assassins fail to capture his young son.

Banquo (Ildar Abdrazakov) mulls over what the witches have told him (Photo: Met Opera)

As events continue to spiral out of control, Macbeth, at a banquet held in his honor, is nearly frightened to death by the bloody vision of Banquo’s ghost (an incident straight out of Hamlet). Macbeth’s Lady tells her husband to get a grip on himself, but Macbeth can hardly keep it together. In the midst of all the mayhem, listeners can pick out frequent echoes of operatic numbers to come, especially the early hints of Rigoletto in the assassins’ chorus and of Iago’s Brindisi from Otello in Lady Macbeth’s drinking song, along with her aria “La luce langue” (“The light fades”) from the 1865 revision and its similarity to Elisabeth’s sorrowful “Tu che le vanità” from Don Carlos.

Moving on to the witches’ coven, Macbeth demands to know more. They immediately oblige him by conjuring up three apparitions, each one with a hair-raising tale to tell: a helmeted warrior warns him to beware of Macduff; a bloody child insists that no man born of woman can harm him; and a crowned child claims he will be invincible as long as Birnam Wood does not move. “Hah! How can a forest move?” questions Macbeth assuredly.

Feeling better about his chances for long-term survival, Macbeth presses the hags for more answers: What can they tell him about Banquo’s ancestors? One by one, Banquo’s descendants materialize, a long line of them! When Banquo himself rises before him, Macbeth draws his sword, but is unable to dispel the image. The witches tell him that Banquo’s descendants will live a prolonged life, which makes Macbeth fall over in a faint.

His queen now enters. The two conspirators plot to kill anyone who gets in the way of their ambition, especially Banquo’s missing son. In the meantime, Scottish refugees have gathered to mourn the loss of their loved ones. It seems the murderous Macbeth and his army have ravaged the countryside, killing everyone in their path. Macduff enters to convey the tragic loss of his wife and children (in the heartfelt aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”). Malcolm, Duncan’s surviving offspring and heir to the Scottish throne, leads Macduff and their combined forces in a rallying cry against the brutal tyrant.

Just before the end, Lady Macbeth is spotted wandering the night in guilty remorse. She is met by the doctor and a lady-in-waiting. They note that her eyes are wide open, but she cannot perceive their presence. One of Verdi’s most ingenious episodes — a mad scene in all but name only —  the famous “Sleeping Walking” sequence accurately mirrors the line “Out, damned spot,” from the play. Ending on a high D, which plunges down an octave, Lady Macbeth exits the opera. Only minutes later, when Macbeth is informed of her untimely death, he can only mutter to himself about the futility of life, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The famous “Sleep Walking” scene, as Lady Macbeth (Netrebko) is ministered to by the lady-in-waiting (Photo: Met Opera)

Macduff advances with his army. They and Malcolm have deliberately cut the branches off Birnam Wood to hide their mass movements. Macbeth, seeing the moving forest before him (brilliantly captured by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in his classic Throne of Blood), knows his time is up. Meeting Macduff head on, he challenges all comers. But when Macbeth boasts of his invulnerability, he’s in for the shock of his life as Macduff reveals he was not of woman born, but instead was ripped from the womb. With that, Macduff slays the miscreant Macbeth and the opera ends with one of those rip-roaring Verdian choruses.

It’s Good to be the King — Not!

All right. So we’ve proven to readers the Game of Thrones connection. Now what? Well, don’t let that deter you from enjoying this spectacular one-of-a-kind theater piece! The opera Macbeth is quite an extraordinary achievement, full of memorable tunes and forceful scenarios, not to mention two solid starring roles for baritone and soprano. Verdi’s genius for capturing la parola scenica (“the scenic word”) is evident in almost every bar. More importantly, his 1865 revision vastly improved the work’s viability for the operatic stage.

The Met forces revived the Adrian Noble production, first seen in 2007, for Plácido Domingo and Anna Netrebko as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, respectively. Unfortunately, Sr. Domingo was forced to cancel his contract with the company due to mounting accusations of sexual misconduct with women colleagues. His replacement, the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, lived up to expectations. He was favorably partnered by Russian soprano Netrebko. You will note that both artists previously appeared together in October 2014. Curiously, that performance was also a taped re-broadcast, heard on February 7, 2015. Hmm, is the Met trying to tell us something? That tape is better than live? Not sure about that.

I seem to recall a broadcast Macbeth, years ago, where an elderly patron committed suicide by jumping off one of the upper tiers and into the orchestra pit. An odd turn of events, that was. Any reasonably knowledgeable theater-goer will tell you that to speak the name “Macbeth” at a performance — indeed, any performance — is a disaster in the making. Despite that accursed backdrop, “he who shall not be named” has brought much enjoyment to the operatic stage.

Banquo’s Ghost scares the Beejesus out of Macbeth (Lucic) & his Lady (Netrebko) (Photo: Met Opera)

Past exponents of the two lead roles consist of a veritable who’s who of performing artists. Among the talents involved, one may cite Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek, Birgit Nilsson, Fiorenza Cossotto, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Maria Guleghina, Ghena Dmitrova, and Andrea Gruber as Lady Macbeth, with Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Cornell MacNeil, Giuseppe Taddei, Sherrill Milnes, Piero Cappuccilli, Leo Nucci, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Renato Bruson as Macbeth.

Great maestros have also been drawn to its musical and dramatic challenges (in all probability, Macbeth can be safely deemed a “conductor’s opera”). From the likes of Karl Böhm, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti, Lamberto Gardelli, and Claudio Abbado, to Carlo Maria Giulini, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, Fabio Luisi, and many others, Verdi’s music is both satisfying and appropriate to its source. Love it or leave it, Macbeth is a most unconventional adaptation of an existing stage work.

While the strictly minor roles of Macduff and Banquo are limited in scope, each has some poignant moments to share with listeners. Brief turns by tenors Domingo, Carlo Bergonzi, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, Bruno Prevedi, and Joseph Calleja, have brought their talents to bear on Macduff’s powerful air. And the recorded Banquo’s, while not at all legion, have enjoyed voicing the melancholy “Come dal ciel precipita.” Basses Jerome Hines, Ruggero Raimondi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Giorgio Tozzi, Bonaldo Giaiotti, and Samuel Ramey have plotted to spoil our ears with their mellifluous outpourings.

At the December 21 radio broadcast, Marco Armiliato conducted the Met Opera Orchestra, with Donald Palumbo in charge of the Met Chorus. Sets and costume designs were the work of Mark Thompson, with lighting by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Sue Lefton. There’s even a credited fight director, Joe Isenberg, as well as a stage band conductor, Bradley Moore. The Met left nothing to chance.

Lady’s Days and Nights

All eyes and ears were focused on Anna Netrebko’s Lady, all decked out in blonde tresses and silver negligee. You can tell this was going to be another of those “modern day” stagings. Fortunately for us, this aspect happened to work in the opera’s favor. Somehow, the politics of our day crisscrossed perfectly with what transpired on the Met stage.

Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) shows off her highs and lows (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s Lady Macbeth has grown in size since 2014, and her acting has matured to the point where she was able to transform herself into the scheming mistress of the castle. Her potent vocal actions, too, have expanded by leaps and bounds, to fully encompass the wide range of colors and surges that Verdi foisted on this malevolent personality. Along with her richly-hued highs, Netrebko’s low notes were to die for. There may be a second career for the Russian diva as a mighty mezzo. Only time will tell.

That Verdi expended so much time and energy on this character is made clear in his voluminous correspondence with his librettist Piave. Verdi saw, as others had, that Lady Macbeth was the chief motivator of her husband’s actions. Though not the titular attraction of the play or the opera, she was the driving force behind the drama just the same. Verdi became obsessed with her persona and the psychological motivations inherent in her actions — and aren’t we glad he did.

As he had with the earlier Abigaille, the adopted daughter of Nabucco (his first great success), Verdi emphasized the Lady’s wildness and plotting by writing the most exacting music imaginable. He avoided any kind of tenderness between her and her husband Macbeth in exchange for character development. Both protagonists grow as the story unfolds; that their lives are intertwined with the requirements of the plot is high praise indeed. Verdi stayed true to Shakespeare’s original, which is saying a lot for the composer’s theatrical instincts.

As her guilt-ridden mate, Željko Lučić also shone in the verbal tensions he brought to his scenes. His prior experience in the part lent this nearly last-minute assignment legitimacy. Although he has a habit of straying from the pitch and turning most phrases sharp or angular the higher up he went (with a minimum of vibrato), Lučić’s potent vocalism was pleasing, for the most part. He refused to make a meal out of the moody Macbeth’s unraveling, something not all baritones are prone to doing. I’ve heard many a so-called “star” buckle under the demands of this part. Luckily for us, Željko was not one of them.

Matthew Polenzani sang the short but crucial contributions of Macduff, his role debut. He, too, brought his distinctive style to bear on that doleful third act piece. Long-limned phrases and bel canto accents were bountiful and pure. Throughout the years, Polenzani has brought much pleasure to his growing fan base (yours truly included). His lovely turn as Nadir in the Met’s The Pearl Fishers a few years back was a marvel to hear. Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov brought a regal bearing and his singular timbre and enunciation to Banquo. I found him luxuriating in the role’s highest reaches (which sometimes went astray, by the way), while his low notes got lost in the vast Met auditorium (through no fault of his own, we assure you).

Macduff (Matthew Polenzani) bemoans the loss of his family in Act III of ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who I’ve heard on several occasions in the past (as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Ruggiero in Puccini’s La Rondine), seemed luxury casting in the brief exposure that Malcolm has. At times, his singing can be a hit-or-miss affair, but Filianoti stayed within the confines of what little music was allotted him. Of course, the Met Chorus outdid themselves in the opera’s moving Act IV sequence, “Patria oppressa!” (“Oppressed country!”), as sorrowful a choral statement as any that Verdi wrote and comparable, to some extent, to his earlier “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco.

Other contributions were brought to you by Bradley Garvin as a servant, Sarah Cambridge as a lady-in-waiting, Richard Bernstein as an assassin, Christopher Job as a warrior, Meigui Zhang as the bloody child, Karen Chia-Ling Ho as the crowned child, Yohan Yi as the herald, Harold Wilson as the doctor, and actors Raymond Renault and Misha Grossman as Duncan and Fleance, respectively.

The production itself was prevailingly dour and bleak (as befit the plot), with a gray-and-black color scheme and mirrored floors and paneling predominating throughout. What of the conductor? Maestro Marco Armiliato, an experienced hand in this and other Verdi works, kept things moving well enough, although I missed some of the striking brass utterings that the composer sprinkled about as part of the orchestration. The Met seems to do right by Verdi. May it always be so.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes