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:

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:

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:, 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:

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: and

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 Peter Mattei as the title character (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

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Seven) — Oh Brothers, Where Art Thou?

‘Finding Neverland’ (2004) – Airbrushed movie poster of Johnny Depp & Kate Winslet

The Value of Family

Whether it be a crime family or a makeshift coterie of privateers; whether it involves one spouse married to another, or encompasses a string of failed marriages and divorces; whether it be a foreign-born family or the all-American variety, film fans know that Johnny Depp will be at its center.

Does all the above mean the prolific and versatile actor, producer, and musician has had relatively few anxieties where his own family is concerned? Um … not likely. The famously tightlipped Mr. Depp had been in a live-in relationship with singer-actress Vanessa Paradis since 1999. This resulted in the birth of a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody (now an actress), and a son, Jack Jr., two offspring who happen to be born three years apart.

They say that parenthood brings out the crinkly-eyed mellowness in people. And being a father certainly has its positive “up” side, as well as those negative “down” aspects nobody likes to talk about. Like everything else, you never know how married life can turn out until you try it. Likewise, you never know how you will turn out as a parent (a mother, a father, a surrogate, whatever) when it comes to raising your own brood.

During Johnny’s filming of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, he would often stay in character — so much so that little son Jack once thought “Dad” was a real buccaneer (how quaint!). Too, Depp would throw on the three-cornered hat, fancy boots, and frock coat, along with gold-trimmed teeth and unwashed “dreads,” in his visits to children’s hospitals, orphanages, and cancer wards where, like seagulls, the kiddie inhabitants would flock to see him. Charity work, to paraphrase an old expression, begins in one’s home.

On one occasion, Johnny paid a call on a British grade school that resulted in leading his young charges in a fake mutiny against the faculty — and the students loved every minute of it. This was all staged in response to a cute little girl’s letter to “Mr. Jack Sparrow” about her plans for a “rebellion.” To further embellish the proposal, Depp brought along a few cast members (they were shooting a scene nearby) as backup. The girl’s teacher was “in” on the scheme and conspired with “Jackie” to make it all happen. As for the little girl? She was absolutely thrilled!

Depp in costume as Jack Sparrow at Meridian Primary School in Greenwich

Aw, shucks! Why couldn’t Mr. Depp turn this humorous, true-to-life incident into a lovable onscreen endeavor? Sounds like a fun concept, don’t you think? Something to tell the grandkids about. Well, now, we’re waaaaaay ahead of you! If fantasy can mimic real life, then real life can be turned into fantasy — a childhood fantasy, at that.

Finding Neverland (2004)

On a related theme — one that was miles removed from either Once Upon a Time in Mexico, The Secret Window, or the Pirates of the Caribbean chronicles (well, not SO far away from “pirates”) — director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee’s fanciful Finding Neverland takes a wide-eyed innocent’s view of the world as a place where childhood never ends; where adults in the room are the ones with the hang-ups, while the kids, like birds, are free to let their imaginations soar.

One adult in particular, a Mr. James Matthew Barrie (the Johnny Depp character) is, in reality, a big kid at heart. Based on a true-life episode in Scottish-born novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie’s own life and career, the plot of Finding Neverland focuses on his attempts to write a successful stage play.

Although, in actuality, Barrie was already a celebrated author, the film emphasizes his inability, at first, to attract an audience for his convoluted theater productions — much to his producer’s consternation. That producer, a Mr. Charles Frohman (played by Dustin Hoffman with a not-too-convincing, fading in-and-out British accent), is at wit’s end, trying to eke out a profit from his protégé’s repeated duds.

But Barrie has other concerns. His stiff-upper-lip society spouse Mary (Rahda Mitchell) is all about keeping up appearances. They sleep in separate bedrooms and lead separate lives. You know, your typical upper-crust, British society couple, all Victorian reserve and highfaluting airs. “Mustn’t do this, James. Mustn’t do that. What will the neighbors think?” Yadda, yadda, yadda…

Barrie doesn’t even bother to attend the premiere of his most recent fiasco. He’s too busy inside his own head to worry about what others think. Into his life comes Mrs. Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (a subdued Kate Winslet), an attractive widow with four young sons and another of those harpy-like British matriarchs, the over-protective Mrs. Emma du Maurier (the marvelously cutting and still-captivating Julie Christie). A platonic relationship soon develops between Mrs. Llewelyn Davies and Mr. Barrie, with the boys the primary focus of their concern.

Mr. Barrie (Depp) meets Mrs. Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet)

One of the lads, the super-serious Peter (Freddie Highmore, in a masterful performance), misses his late father to distraction. Peter’s the realist, and the most pragmatic of the bunch. As Barrie tries his best to establish himself as someone the boys can depend on (and have fun with), Peter fights his efforts tooth and nail. The older boys take to the whimsical Mr. Barrie from the start — his earnestness can be quite disarming. But Peter’s growing tendency to throw cold water on their budding acquaintanceship betrays long-buried issues involving repression of hurt feelings and his unresolved loss over a loved one.

In our day, such a man-boy association would be treated with “kid gloves,” in view of the countless scandals (among others) reported about pedophile priests that has rocked the Catholic Church in this country and abroad. In the movie, rumor and innuendo regarding Barrie’s closeness to the Llewelyn Davies children are surreptitiously whispered about town. Those rumors not only trouble Barrie’s snooty spouse, but the widowed Sylvia and her mother as well.

Leave it to surrogate daddy Depp to step in and play this one straight. His acting assumption and lightly-accented Scottish “burr” are spot-on ideal and highly infectious to boot (uh, no pun intended). Staying in character throughout and never grandstanding to prove a point, Johnny’s built-in naïveté charms the screen family, to a degree, with his sincerity and childlike wonderment.

As the plot machinations move along, we too are enchanted by Barrie’s visions. Soon, he gets the brilliant idea of creating a character out of his harmless dalliance: Peter Pan, a boy (very much like himself) who never grew up but leads a life of adventure, to encompass fairies, pirates, Indians, mermaids, and pixie dust in a magical place he calls Neverland. This is where the picture ultimately “takes off” on its own coattails — and where the boys, including the skeptical Peter, begin to notice that they’ve become part of Barrie’s latest theatrical experiment.

One of the orphans watches ‘Peter Pan’ in the theater

Trying to convince his producer into financing another flop is only one of Barrie’s hurdles. Another is making sure that society audiences are more receptive to this venture than to his previous doomed efforts. As such, Barrie takes out a little insurance: instead of pixie dust, he sprinkles the first-night audience with ragamuffins from the local orphanage. His instincts prove correct: Enjoying the production to the hilt, the audience is charmed by the orphans’ spontaneity and mirth at the premiere of Peter Pan. This results in a triumph from beginning to end. (Art imitating life? You betcha!)

When several audience members at the post-premiere celebration rightly take young Peter as the inspiration for the title character, the boy immediately insists that Barrie, not he, is the real Peter Pan. He’s right, of course. One problem solved, one more to tackle.

But the big payoff is yet to come. The ending (and there are two of them, quite frankly) involves the stricken Sylvia, who is deathly ill and unable to attend the premiere. In a fantasy-inspired sequence, but one that will take your breath away, Barrie has the first-night cast recreate Peter Pan in Sylvia’s home. Suspension of disbelief is called for here, but viewers attuned to the director’s internal logic will succumb to this fabulous sequence. Neverland materializes as a living, breathing place, not only in Barrie’s imagination but in Sylvia’s living quarters. She strolls off in the end with her boys to find peace and solace in this wonderful spot.

Mrs. Du Maurier (Julie Christie) voices her concerns to J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp)

The final minutes take us to Sylvia’s funeral. Mrs. Du Maurier, as stern and businesslike as any bereaved matron would behave in her situation, informs Barrie that her daughter’s last will and testament appoints both her and J.M. as the boys’ guardian. She hasn’t softened her approach (nor changed her opinion about him, either), but is at least willing to give this newly created association a shot.

Returning to the park bench where he first encountered the Llewelyn Davies clan, Barrie sits next to the downcast Peter. Their heartfelt exchange — an honest and open one, for once — will have you blubbering in your seat. It’s one of Johnny and Freddie’s finest cinematic encounters.

Working organically from the script, a straight-faced Depp feeds his lines to little Freddie, who reacts perfectly in time to his character’s story arc. Freddie’s tears flow naturally, as the boy comes to the realization that acceptance of loss is a part of life. We will always remember our loved ones in our mind’s eye. Yet, we must move on from there to make use of what time is given to us.

Barrie (Depp) takes Peter (Highmore) in his arms

With the exception of Edward Scissorhands, where Johnny’s earlier film triumphs may have failed to move viewers emotionally, this one easily passed the acid test. Appearing with like-minded colleagues, Johnny D and company delivered the goods. There was lovely work overall from every cast member, especially from Ms. Winslet and the very talented Mr. Highmore. We’ll give this flick the Good Parenting Seal of Approval.

Filmed in England, Finding Neverland was another milestone in Depp’s British period pictures, earning nearly five times the cost of its production. He was even tapped for a Best Actor Oscar, only his second nomination after Pirates of the Caribbean (a surprise move, savvy?). The film also boasted a wonderfully enchanting, Academy Award-winning music score by Polish composer Jan Kaczmarek. The story was later turned into a 2015 Broadway musical, adapted from the same source material as the film.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

The cast of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (2005)

No sooner was Finding Neverland in the can when Depp and Highmore were reunited a year later for the filming of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a re-imagination of the 1971 feature Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The earlier flick was billed as a musical fantasy, with words and music by the British songwriting team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley (Stop the World – I Want to Get Off). This updated version would adhere closely to the author’s original theme: that of a whimsical garden of chocolatey delights run by an eccentric entrepreneur.

Both film versions were tied to Roald Dahl’s eponymously titled children’s book. However, Burton’s newest iteration, unlike its predecessor, would take a much darker view of the story. The emphasis, as the title suggests, would be placed on the boy Charlie Bucket (then-twelve-year-old Freddie Highmore) and his impoverished family of Buckets, who occupy a ramshackle, off-kilter Expressionist home flat in the middle of London town.

The Bucket’s rickety house near London

Shot at Pinewood Studios on the far outskirts of the city, with a tuneful score and witty song structures by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (the lyrics were taken directly from Dahl’s writings), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory presented a primarily UK cast headed by Highmore and Irish-born actor David Kelly as Grandpa Joe. Johnny, of course, embodied the top-hatted, pasty-faced Willy and played him as allergic to children and fearful of parenting.

Helena Bonham Carter co-starred as Mrs. Bucket (a test drive for her casting as Mrs. Lovett in 2007’s Sweeney Todd), and Noah Taylor (the teenage David Helfgott in Shine) played Mr. Bucket, with AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) as the ambitious Violet Beauregarde, Missi Pyle (Big Fish) as Mrs. Beauregarde, Julia Winter as the snooty rich kid Veruca Salt, James Fox as her accommodating “Daddy,” Jordan Fry as video-gamer Mike Teavee, Adam Godley as Mr. Teavee, Philip Wiegratz as the chocolate-loving Augustus Gloop, Franziska Troegner as Mrs. Gloop, Brian Dunlop as young Willy Wonka, hard-working Deep Roy as the Oompa-Loompas (ALL of them!), Christopher Lee as Dr. Wilbur Wonka, and dancer, actor, choreographer, and costume designer Geoffrey Holder providing the lilting Trinidadian-accented narration.

Similarities abound between this production and Finding Neverland, to say nothing of overt hints of Edward Scissorhands in the overall concept and design. Whereas the focus of Neverland involved a boy’s difficulty in accepting a substitute parent, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the roles are reversed. Here, Depp, as renowned chocolatier Willy Wonka (a mild reference to the Juliette Binoche character in Chocolat, an earlier Depp vehicle), the self-made businessman and purportedly “mature” adult is the one who experiences post-traumatic issues concerning his dentist father Wilbur; while Charlie, the pre-pubescent schoolboy, is a well-adjusted adolescent much wiser than his years.

He’s the genuine article, all right. Indeed, Charlie’s strength is in his goodness and honesty. He loves his down-to-earth working class parents to death; and wholeheartedly worships his elderly grandparents (a feisty and comical foursome who share the same bed!). His generosity and selfless devotion to his family and to what’s right holds him in good stead. One telling aspect to Charlie’s persona is his upstanding moral authority, something that thoroughly puzzles the self-centered Willy to no end.

After he lucks into purchasing the winning Golden Ticket that will enable him to spend a day at Mr. Wonka’s fabled factory, Charlie insists on selling it so he can help his family out. Grandpa George (David Morris), the orneriest and wisest of the group, manages to talk some sense into the boy: “Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money.” With plucky Grandpa Joe along for the ride, Charlie sets off on his factory adventure.

Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) rides with Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) as Willy Wonka (Depp) looks on

With the exception of honest to goodness Charlie, all of the so-called winners are little monsters in disguise. Augustus is a glutton, Violet is an over achiever, Veruca a spoiled brat, and Mike a snotty know-it-all. Their parents, however, are no better. They are either easily manipulated automatons (the condescending Mr. Salt) or type A-personality go-getters (the obsessed-with-her-image Mrs. Beauregarde).

Later on, after the other ticket holders are eliminated one-by-selfish-one, a delighted Willy Wonka congratulates Charlie, the last kid standing. His prize will be to come live and work in the chocolate factory — with the proviso that he leave his family behind. Will Charlie take Willy up on his offer? Not if director Burton has anything to say about it.

Audiences are taken on a trip down memory lane (er, Wonka’s memories, to be precise), where we learn the cause of the chocolatier’s childhood trauma. Afterwards, while shining the magnate’s shoes, Charlie convinces Willy to let bygones be bygones. The scene of Dr. Wonka (“Lollipops. Ought to be called cavities on a stick!”) and his estranged son Willy’s belated reconciliation — where six-foot-five-inch Lee places his long-limbed arms around five-foot-nine-inch Johnny — is almost a carbon copy of Depp (as J.M. Barrie) embracing the bawling Freddie Highmore (as Peter) at the end of Finding Neverland.

Dr. Wonka, DDS, embraces his son, Willy, in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

And talk about controversy, the scuttlebutt that circulated at the time of the picture’s release involved Depp’s mimicking the looks and mannerisms of Michael Jackson (down to the gloved hand), which Depp denied. Instead, Johnny claimed he was channeling the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (he also stated it was an old high school teacher of his, but never mind). Whoever Johnny based his performance on, the resultant box-office payoff assured the film’s success; certainly, no one complained about the profits that poured into Warner Bros.’ coffers (least of all, Burton and Depp).

Director Tim Burton summed up his interest in filming the book with this quote from Mark Salisbury’s Burton on Burton: “I responded to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because it respected the fact that children can be adults.”

You’ll get no argument from me on that point.

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Five)

The Three Norns (Elizabeth Bishop, Ronnita Miller, Wendy Bryn Harmer) from the Prologue to Wagner’s ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

From the Cosmic to the Intimate

The fourth and final installment by the Metropolitan Opera of Wagner’s tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung concluded on April 27, 2019 with Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) and the “resolutions,” so to speak, of the various participants’ dilemmas.

What do we mean by resolutions? Does anything ever get “resolved” in the Ring? Does the world really come to a watery end? Are the characters redeemed by their actions? Is Siegfried the long sought-after hero who finally returns the Ring to its rightful owners? Most of these questions are answered in this concluding segment. But, then again, many are not.

Oh, come on now! Why all the double talk? For goodness’ sake, do we have a satisfying ending or not? These are the continuing problems of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Indeed, one of the countless side aspects of this work is that its so-called “conclusion” is up to individual interpretation. That’s what makes the saga so compelling to singers and irresistible to stage directors. And why us Wagnerites love the drama in the way that we do.

Having listened to many of the complete recordings of all four Ring operas, including some hard-to-find broadcasts (most of which can be seen or heard on YouTube), I’ve come to the realization that there can be no “ending” as such. For instance, in East German director Harry Kupfer’s “Road of History” version at Bayreuth (revived in Barcelona), the cycle concludes in the same way that it began: with richly-dressed theatergoers at a dinner party watching the cataclysm on television. It’s unnerving how Kupfer had the foresight to anticipate, in a manner of speaking, the horrific events of the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Certainly many if not all of the intertwined stories in the Ring can be summed up in one line: things go from bad to worse to not-so-good and not-so-bad. Isn’t that how real life evolves? Well, maybe. The ancient Greeks, bless their souls, had a way of explaining human events by imposing moral truths onto an immoral world. Wagner took that statement to heart and created an ethos all its own. He purposely kept the story line circuitous and, for the most part, analogous to myths and legends.

The hero’s journey was one of his angles, the hero being the unruly Siegfried. In this final work (originally called “Siegfried’s Death,” the text of which was the first to be written, followed by a prelude entitled “The Young Siegfried”), the fall of the gods would come about by their own misdeeds; their redemption would be through human intervention.

The Immolation Scene – Bruennhilde (Deborah Voigt) riding atop Grane (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

We know that Wagner ended his saga with Das Rheingold. However, he began the composition of the music chronologically. By closing the chapter on his characters and setting fire to the Hall of the Gibichungs — the flames of which reached all the way up to Valhalla itself — the world’s sins could be washed clean by the overflowing Rhine River. Redemption, if that’s the term, could be achieved by returning the Ring to its source.

Fate Marches On

As the opera begins, the Three Norns, those enigmatic daughters of Earth Mother Erda, recount the tragic history of the past (the withering away of the World-Ash Tree, the piling up of its logs around Valhalla, Wotan sitting and waiting for the end time) and attempt to prophecy what’s to come. The Norns tug and pull at the Rope of Destiny, hoping to untangle the mess that Dark Alberich’s curse has placed on it and on humanity. Suddenly, the Rope snaps which leaves the Norns mourning the fate of the world. They slink back down to Erda.

Dawn breaks. Brünnhilde now leads Siegfried out from the cave, where their love has been consummated. No one knows how much time has passed. Since “mythological time” is not “real time,” we can presume that events after Siegfried have moved along at a faster than normal clip. The restless hero is eager to partake of further adventures. His bride, now semi-mortal, has enough tricks up her sleeve to cast a protective spell around her man. Only Siegfried’s back is vulnerable, for he would never turn away from a foe. This is key to understanding what takes place in Acts II and III. As the orchestral passage known as “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” is played, Brünnhilde is left alone on Valkyrie rock to await the hero’s return.

Bruennhilde (Christine Goerke) bids farewell to her hero, Siegfried (Andreas Schager) in the Prologue (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Moving on to Act I proper, we meet Gunther, heir to the Gibichung throne, his lovely sister Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen, the illegitimate son of Alberich and the Gibichung’s mother Grimhilde (“grim” is right!). Gunther pays heed to Hagen’s advice to take a highborn wife. Gutrune, too, should crave a worthy husband. This would add to their fame and fortune. But who should Gunther wed? There’s a bold maid who sleeps on a fiery rock, Hagen tells him. She would be the perfect mate! And for Gutrune? Why, the hero Siegfried would serve that purpose handily. He could be enticed to marry Gutrune by drinking a powerful potion of forgetfulness.

Lo and behold, who do we hear but Siegfried and his hunting horn. Answering the call, Hagen welcomes the brash youth and his horse, Grane, to the dark, imposing strains of Alberich’s curse (shivers!). After reiterating some basic plot points — mostly to recap for the audience’s benefit about Siegfried’s dragon slaying, the Ring, the gold, and the magical Tarnhelm — their conversation turns to matrimony. Hagen offers the hero a refreshing drink, which not only quenches his thirst but makes him forget the past (to be exact, certain aspects of his past). It also ignites his lust for the charming Gutrune.

Promising to provide Gunther with a bride of his own, Siegfried is tricked into helping to bring the wild woman Brünnhilde down from her perch. Hagen seals the deal by presiding over Siegfried and Gunther’s swearing of blood brotherhood — not realizing that our hero’s death warrant has been sealed with this oath.

Gunther (Evgeny Nikitin) heeds the advice of Hagen (Eric Owens) to take a wife (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

In the next scene, Brünnhilde is thrilled to welcome her sister Waltraute to Valkyrie rock. She’s not so thrilled by what Waltraute has to say: that Wotan is beside himself with sorrow. All he and the other gods and warriors do is sit around Valhalla waiting for the place to catch fire. The only way to salvage the situation is for Brünnhilde to throw the Ring into the Rhine. Mirroring what Wotan once told Fricka, her response is “Are you mad? No way!” The Ring is a token of Siegfried’s love. He gave it to her when he moved on to new adventures. See, she wears it proudly! Waltraute is dismayed.

With her sister’s exit, the Valkyrie is heartened once again to see the surrounding flames shoot up and part. Her hero has returned! Siegfried, my love! But wait! It’s not her beloved. It’s Gunther (actually, Siegfried in disguise, by means of the Tarnhelm). Speaking in low, halting tones, the stranger claims Brünnhilde for his own. She shows him the Ring of power in a last ditch effort to frighten the intruder away. A violent struggle ensues with Gunther overpowering the maiden and grabbing the Ring as his prize.

Ordering her to go into the cave and await his presence, Brünnhilde sadly marches to her fate. The next step is for Siegfried to pretend that Gunther has wooed the wild woman, but with the sword Notung placed between the pair as they lie in bed. That way, he can claim that he never violated his blushing “bride to be” (a false claim, to be sure, since the couple has already spent many a blissful night together).

Which Ring is Which?

In Act II, Alberich re-emerges in a dream-like sequence wherein he charges Hagen to brace himself for battle against the bold Siegfried. The Ring is all he cares about and forces Hagen to swear allegiance to him, that he will destroy the youth and recapture the Ring for themselves. Siegfried suddenly materializes (thanks to the power of the Tarnhelm) to proclaim that Gunther is approaching with his new bride in tow. Hagen summons the Vassals with a blast of his horn. The overwhelming power of a full male chorus (all the way up to high B), the first such number in the cycle, dominates the proceedings.

With everyone gathered for a grand old time, what could possibly go wrong? A double wedding, the imbibing of spirits, the slaughter of steers, goats and boars. A merry banquet indeed for our brave lads! Gunther introduces his downcast bride who bristles at the sight of Siegfried arm-in-arm with another woman. What gives? There’s a commotion among the men and women gathered. All of a sudden, the celebration turns into accusations of chicanery. Siegfried wears the Ring. But Gunther wrenched it from her hand. How can that be?

Sensing an opening, Hagen takes Brünnhilde’s side in denouncing the hero as a liar and cheat. Gunther hasn’t a clue as to what everybody is arguing about. Obviously, he wasn’t the one who snatched the Ring from his bride. As noted, it was Siegfried in disguise. To make matters worse, the vengeful Valkyrie proclaims herself to be his lawfully wedded wife. Unwittingly, Siegfried admits that he won her for his blood brother Gunther, but claims that Notung lay between them in the cave as they slept. Ah, clever rascal, that’s true as far as it goes. But that wasn’t so when they first met, back at good old Valkyrie rock. (Why do I hear myself singing, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”?).

Bruennhilde (Goerke) swears an oath on Hagen’s spear (Owens), along with Gunther (Nikitin) in Act II of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Accusations and recriminations bounce back and forth, which lead both Siegfried and Brünnhilde to swear an oath on Hagen’s spear that they are speaking the truth. “May I be struck down dead if I have broken faith,” Siegfried pledges. Act II ends with a rousing trio for Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen as the Valkyrie spews forth the secret of how to vanquish the deceitful Siegfried. It takes all of Hagen’s guile to convince Gunther to agree to the hero’s slaying. It’s the Ring, stupid! That’s all that matters.

The first scene of Act III brings back those flirtatious Rhine Maidens. Curiously, they wonder when Siegfried will come around to visit them. No sooner said than done: the exuberant dragon slayer enters by way of having followed a stray bear. They tease him good-naturedly until one of the maidens notices the Ring. They ask him to hand it over, but he refuses.

Diving back into the water, the maidens splash around playfully until Siegfried decides to offer them the booty. Warning him of its power and the evil curse that’s been placed on it, they chime in unison that today he will meet his doom. Siegfried scoffs at their threats, but the Rhine Maidens insist that before the day is out a wise woman will grant their wish and return the Ring.

The Rhine Maidens (Renee Tatum, Disella Larusdottir, Jennifer Johnson Cano) warn Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) of the Ring’s power in Act III of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Hagen, Gunther and the hunting party gather for some feasting and drinking. After a long day out in the woods, Hagen asks the hero if he can truly understand birdsong. Siegfried turns to Gunther who has grown serious and taciturn. Gunther knows what’s about to happen, but he can do nothing to prevent it. The cheery Hagen plies Siegfried with ale which gets the hero to relate some of his tall tales: about the mean-spirited dwarf Mime, about his slaying of the dragon, and how he tasted the dragon’s blood which gave him the ability to understand birds. Everyone is entranced by his stories; everyone, that is, except Gunther. Having laced his drink with special herbs and spices, Hagen offers some more refreshment — the ploy being to bring Siegfried’s memory back.

It works! Siegfried tells the story of how he got through the flames that surrounded Valkyrie rock. Once there, he witnessed a wondrous sight: a woman warrior. He awoke the sleeping warrior with a kiss to find Brünnhilde alive and kicking. Gunther is thunderstruck by the news. At that moment, Hagen points to two black ravens hovering above. They are Wotan’s ravens, the god’s only link to the outside world. As they take off, he demands that Siegfried tell him their song. As Siegfried looks up to the sky, Hagen plunges his spear deep into the hero’s back. “Vengeance is what they say!” Hagen shouts at him.

The Vassals are shocked. “What have you done?” they cry in disbelief. Gunther repeats their query. Hagen responds: “Meineid recht Ich!” – “Perjury have I avenged!” Then he slinks off, back to the Gibichung palace. The Vassals hear Siegfried’s dying words. To the same music that his beloved Brünnhilde greeted the rising sun, Siegfried pronounces her name. He greets her in death. The orchestra plays the familiar “Siegfried’s Funeral March,” punctuated by the sledgehammer blows of the tympany. The pounding continues as the hero’s theme is heard in all its glory. The Vassals solemnly place the dead hero’s body on their shields and take him away.

In the last scene, Gutrune is alone. She is frightened and has premonitions of doom and gloom. Hagen calls out to her to light the way, her hero has returned: dead on arrival. Reviving his sister, Gunther is wracked with guilt. She accuses him of murdering her husband, but he points to the real culprit, Hagen. Back and forth they rage, until Hagen finishes Gunther off with a single blow (just as Fafner had done to his brother Fasolt). When Hagen reaches out to take the Ring from Siegfried’s hand, the dead hero’s arm rises in a threatening gesture (an eerie coup de théâtre). All recoil in horror.

At this definitive moment, Brünnhilde strides in, solemnly and deliberately. She demands that they heed her words. Gutrune hurls accusations at her, but the Valkyrie silences her cries. Gutrune was only his lover, but she, Brünnhilde, was his adoring wife. With that, Brünnhilde begins the passage that will lead up to the Immolation Scene. What happens in this scene? Practically everything! Wagner labored long and hard over this sequence, which underwent numerous revisions until he finally settled on the right manner of how to end his saga.

In sum, the Valkyrie orders the populace to prepare for a conflagration. Siegfried’s body will be cremated as befits a hero, along with her own and that of his wonder horse, Grane. The steed is brought in (most productions substitute a fake horse for the real thing — it’s, uh, less “messy” that way). Brünnhilde absolves Siegfried of all blame for the chaos that’s left behind. He was true blue, his only crime being his childlike ignorance of human cunning and deceit.

Bruennhilde (Goerke) bemoans the loss of the hero, Siegfried (Schager) before the Vassals in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

What of Wotan, who is guilty of multiple crimes against his own flesh and blood? She pardons the god as well. Bidding him eternal rest, she takes the Ring from Siegfried’s finger and places it on her own. Hagen greedily eyes her every movement. In some productions, he paces restlessly about the stage, waiting for the perfect opportunity to steal the bauble from her person. No way, José!

Brünnhilde now addresses the Rhine Maidens, who are to take the Ring from her ashes after it has been purified by the flames. The waters of the Rhine will wash away the curse. With that, she grabs a torch and charges Wotan’s ravens (which, according to Wagner’s instructions, are supposed to be flapping about the palace) with sending word to the gods that the end is nigh. “Go tell Loge to shoot his flames up to Valhalla!” With her last breath, Brünnhilde speaks directly to Grane (there’s a bit of psychological insight in speaking to her horse). She leaps into the funeral pyre, delighting in death.

So much happens musically in this final episode that it would take a voluminous book to relate all that occurs. Suffice it to say that Valhalla burns (you can hear the characteristic motif in the orchestra), Hagen tries to steal the Ring from the Rhine Maidens, but he’s drowned for his efforts. The Gibichung palace collapses, but the populace is spared (at least, that was the composer’s intention). And the violins intone what most announcers describe as the “Redemption through Love” theme, which in reality belongs to Brünnhilde’s transformation (or “apotheosis”) from warrior maiden and wife to healer and deliverer.

Burning Down the Opera House

American soprano Christine Goerke resumed her strongly realized, granite-like vocalization and emotionally straightforward interpretation of ex-Valkyrie Brünnhilde. Some garbled diction and under-the-pitch top notes aside (which proved less troublesome here than in her broadcast of Siegfried), Goerke closed the saga with that marathon session known as the Immolation Scene. Again, the shading of words and her declamatory statements before the big moments (a wistful “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott” – “Rest now, you god”) were moving in their sincerity of feeling. This was straightforwardness taken to the extreme, especially in Act II when she pulled out all the stops to hurl some mighty imprecations at her clueless “husband,” Siegfried.

The crowd loved her performance, which in person, I am told, was urgently felt and nobly personified throughout. Such dedication to the task at hand deserved a ringing endorsement. But was it the big barnstormer that everyone had expected? The online reviews were all over the map. This was a marathon outing, no doubt about it, so we will reserve judgment and leave the final verdict to others.

Gutrune (Edith Haller) comforts her brother Gunther (Nikitin) as they listen to Bruennhilde’s ravings (Goerke) in Act II (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Tenor Andrea Schager’s more “mature” sounding Siegfried, while unlike in shading and tone from Stefan Vinke’s youthfully exuberant embodiment, convinced listeners that here was a fully-formed personality, as viable in its own way as his predecessor’s. Schager’s death scene was particularly touching, as it should be, with his voice ringing out impressively. And, as was previously mentioned, he hit the high notes squarely and securely, no mean feat in itself. The voice gained strength and firmness the more he sang, a truly noteworthy undertaking.

Eric Owens, a past Alberich and a recent convert to Wotan, took on the villainy of Hagen, the Nibelung’s bastard offspring. Lacking the lowest notes and that high bass thrust that made the likes of Gottlob Frick, Bengt Rundgren, Matti Salminen, and Hans-Peter König so captivating, Owens nevertheless reveled in his character’s treachery. Still, he disappointed by making too many phrases sound “samey-samey,” with little to no differentiation between them. A perfectly distinguished Alberich, his lighter than expected timbre and affable air did have their moments (his second act call to the Vassals, however, was not one of them). Overall, while expectations ran high, most of them went unfulfilled. His lowkey acting, however, was above reproach.

Similarly, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was miscast as the easily manipulated Gunther, the head of the Gibichung clan. Long an able-bodied villain (i.e., the magician Klingsor in Parsifal, and a forceful Alberich in his own right), with the vocal deftness of a snapping turtle, Nikitin represented overkill in this part. Gunther is not a “bad guy.” He’s incapable of making good decisions; when he does make them, they go wrong at every turn. His basic sins are his vanity and gullibility. A singer with a more flexible tone and supple weight (Welsh baritone Iain Patterson was excellent in this part) is needed, not one with Nikitin’s forte-at-full-throttle capabilities.

Soprano Edith Haller’s lighter-voiced Gutrune, Gunther’s shy sister, brought coloratura-like shading to her role. Properly girlish and giddy at the same time, Gutrune is the one who wishes for (and takes) the drugged Siegfried as her husband, not realizing that he’s spoken for. Her scream at the sight of Siegfried’s corpse was hair-raising. Dripping black venom with every syllable, Tomasz Konieczny brought his sonorous inky-toned portrait of Alberich to brief life (is he really there, or a figment of Hagen’s imagination?). Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster contributed a solid, emotionally pleasing assumption of Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s sister, who pleads with the ex-Valkyrie to return the accursed Ring to the Rhine Maidens.

The Three Norns, those Nordic-Germanic equivalents of the Greek Fates, were taken by mezzo-sopranos Ronnita Miller (especially memorable) and Elizabeth Bishop, and soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer. Returning as the beguiling Rhine Maidens (as boisterous as ever) were soprano Amanda Woodbury and mezzos Samantha Hankey and Tamara Mumford.

Swiss-born maestro Philippe Jordan presided over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra throughout the four Ring operas in a “lean, mean fighting machine” manner: competently led, responsive to the work’s lyricism and drama, with smoothly projected “singing” string tones, but poorly executed brass (too many stray or sour notes). Jordan did exceedingly well in painting a sonic picture, certainly better than one could expect from such an empty-headed production as this. His conducting brought unity and strength to the most demanding of moments (the Act II ensemble, for example, was particularly well balanced). It was comparable to, if no less individualistic than, Fabio Luisi’s lighter interpretation from a few seasons back.

Former Met musical director James Levine, in his later years as the company’s orchestral force, favored slower tempos and leaden sonorities, sometimes down to a crawl, by pulling the musical line out of proportion to the whole. On the positive side, Levine made the brass section ring out majestically; the strings vibrated with tactile life and proved most affecting in the melodious postlude that wraps up the saga.

Perhaps the Metropolitan Opera’s new music director, Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be given the opportunity to add his vision of Wagner’s Ring cycle to the company’s repertoire and turn it into a future conducting triumph. With any luck, in a brand new production that does better justice to the work than this superficial white elephant does.

We’ll be waiting with bated breath.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Four)

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) faces the dragon Fafner in the Met Opera broadcast of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Gods and Monsters

In Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, we return to the realm of gods and monsters; of heroes and villains, myths and legends, dragons and dwarfs, mighty deeds and damsels in distress (well, one damsel, at any rate). For listeners, Siegfried represents a respite from the runaway emotions that ran rampant throughout Die Walküre. And conductors, as well as laypeople, have regarded Siegfried as the saga’s scherzo movement, much as one would experience with a Haydn or Beethoven symphony.

Indeed, there is much to savor, not only in the lustrous Forest Murmurs of Act II (with the titular hero’s ruminations about his dead mother), but in the lengthy tenor-soprano interlude that concludes the work. There’s also Siegfried’s battle with the dragon Fafner, and, of course, that marvelous Forging Scene in Act I. With the pounding of the anvil and the firing up of the blast furnace, Siegfried forges the shattered remnants of Notung (along with his manhood) in order to slay the savage beast.

As well, the dusky forest settings of Acts I and II and their darkly brooding scoring will evoke memories of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, in which Luke Skywalker seeks out Jedi Master Yoda so as to learn the ways of the Force. In Siegfried, the title character is taught the ways of the world (or not) by the malicious dwarf Mime. Siegfried learns about his mother, Sieglinde, who died while giving him birth. He’s also shown the fragments of Notung, which his mother had entrusted to Mime. Up to this point, Mime has played for time.

Behind the dwarf’s feigned concern for his ward’s education, though, is the ever-present influence of the all-powerful Ring of the Nibelung. To wit, the Nibelung himself, Alberich, returns to the cycle by means of an Act II argument with the god Wotan and his no-account brother, Mime. While there is no Darth Vader as such, Siegfried’s grandfather, Wotan (in the guise of the Wanderer), does cross swords (or his spear) with the emboldened youth.

Certainly, the last scene of the opera is where fairy tales can come true by way of Brünnhilde’s awakening. To be precise, the entire third act is a masterly reconfiguration of the Sleeping Beauty story — albeit with a smattering of pre-Freudian psychoanalysis thrown in. As you may recall, Wotan’s disobedient child acted out his fondest wishes by protecting Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) from harm in the fight with Hunding. As punishment, Brünnhilde was deprived of her godhead and placed under a powerful sleeping spell. Surrounded by a ring of impenetrable fire, the former Valkyrie dozes away until such time as a fearless warrior can awaken her.

There’s even a hint of classical Greek mythology, i.e., the Oedipus and Sphynx-like colloquy in Mime’s vituperative questioning of the mysterious Wanderer. He, likewise, poses three questions of his own — with the scheming dwarf failing to answer the third and most vital question of all: Who will forge Notung anew? The answer: Only he who is without fear (and we know who THAT is, don’t we?) can make Notung whole.

The Wanderer (Michael Volle) tells Mime (Gerhard Siegel) that he has forfeited his head in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

It’s not all brain teasers by any means. Personally, I find Siegfried to be a most refreshing interval, and a totally involving one where the nature of the hero’s journey is concerned. Siegfried is honest to a fault, a bit dense in the head and slow to catch on, but he’s diligent and brave, trustworthy and strong. He’s also a lot swifter than he lets on.

On the other hand, the crafty Mime thinks himself superior in every way to the motherless brat. But the main point is this: Siegfried figures prominently in Mime’s plans to secure the Ring for himself, and the bountiful treasure that goes with it. All he needs is for the valiant lad to slay the dragon Fafner, who guards the hoard and magical Ring from deep inside its cave. After which, Mime will quench Siegfried’s thirst with a poisonous drink and chop his head off. With that, the Ring and the gold will be his! How simple is that?

Plot Points to Ponder

Not so fast! There’s more to the plot than meets the eye (or rather, Wotan’s missing organ). Remember Alberich’s curse? He placed it on whoever holds the Ring. And all those who long to possess it will be cursed as well, including those innocent folks who know nothing of its power. In essence, there are more expository sequences in this work than in the two prior ones. It’s those long, protracted stretches of dialogue that audiences find grueling and a chore to slog through. With the arrival of supertitles (aka surtitles) and such, the intricacies of the plot can be explained and that once-impenetrable Wagnerian veneer can be cracked.

For me, the real interest in this piece lies with the sonic, orchestral and philosophical contrasts between the second and third acts. At his wits’ end — emotionally, creatively and financially — Wagner abandoned work on the Ring before concluding Act II of Siegfried. Dismayed at ever being able to finish and produce his piece, the composer went off to write Tristan und Isolde, about as complicated a project as any that came before. After Tristan, Wagner took up the composition of Die Meistersinger, another exercise in vocal and literary extremes. What was Wagner thinking?

It would be twelve years before he would return to Siegfried. Well, to be honest, before he put down his pen twelve years earlier, Wagner managed to place some final touches to Act II. This may help to explain why that act is so jumbled story wise. One would think that the slaying of Fafner would put an end to that portion of the saga. Not so! We’re only at the midway point. There’s still that nasty little back-and-forth between Alberich and Mime, and others matters to attend to (like slaying Siegfried).

To top it off, Siegfried returns to the scene of his “crime,” after having tasted the dead dragon’s blood and learned to decipher bird song. Too, his newly acquired ability to comprehend the meaning behind the dwarf’s words (in a comedic episode where Mime mindlessly betrays his intentions to murder Siegfried and make off with the Ring and its booty) leads our hero to strike the villain down with one blow. Next, the Forest Bird tells him of a wondrous maid named Brünnhilde just waiting for him beyond the ridge. Siegfried is elated at the news. Finally, a new friend is within his reach, someone to talk to, someone to trust!

Wotan, as the Wanderer (Michael Volle), bows before Erda, the Earth Mother (Karen Cargill), in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

At the start of Act III, the change of mood is palpable. The orchestral tone has modified somewhat and is immediately felt with the massively impressive introduction. Lightning and thunder abound. The world order is about to collapse. The Wanderer’s theme and that of Wotan’s spear are heard above the orchestral storm as the music rages on. But the god’s authority will be tested. And with it, the old must give way to the new.

Still disguised as the Wanderer, Wotan urgently calls upon Erda one last time. He uses her alternate name, Wala (“Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach! – “Awake, Wala! Wala! Wake up!”), to summon the Earth Mother from her eternal slumber. He seeks knowledge of the future and what to expect from coming events. Erda, her speech as impenetrable as ever, can no longer help or offer any advice. Left to his own devices, Wotan is resigned to his fate. He tells her that he welcomes the end and will wait in expectation of whatever is in store.

When Siegfried approaches, the Wanderer purposely bars his way. Goading him on and plying him with query after query, the exasperated Siegfried has had enough. If the bothersome stranger won’t budge and let him through, then Notung will clear the path. Wotan challenges the youth, but the god’s spear is splintered in two with one blow. Calmly picking up what’s left of his authority (the act of which will remind audiences of Wotan’s shattering of Notung in Die Walküre), our weary warrior tells Siegfried to press on: he can no longer stop him. Wotan has removed himself from interfering in life.

The next sequence in the saga is pregnant with psychological insight and replete with magnificent music, including Siegfried’s passage through Loge’s flames and his discovery that the sleeping figure before him is no man. Now he knows what fear is! (In Harry Kupfer’s Ring, Siegfried places Notung between his legs, thus the sword has become a phallic symbol of youth about to attain maturity). Our hero bends down and cautiously places a prolonged kiss on Brünnhilde’s lips to music of aching mystery and longing.

The sleeping maiden awakens to a brilliant theme, that of the rising sun: “Heil, dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” (“Hail, rising sun! Hail, glorious light!”). Both are delirious with joy to discover one another, but in the midst of their happiness Brünnhilde remembers that she is now a mortal, helpless and defenseless against this presumed lover.

Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) greets the rising sun in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Unfazed by her appeals to leave her be, Siegfried the bold convinces the former war-maiden to give herself over completely to his love; to be his bride in what must be the most challenging and uplifting soprano-tenor twosome Wagner ever wrote. And it comes after almost five hours of music-making! Let them enjoy their rapture for now, for it shall be short-lived.

Broadcast Delights

I’m sure you will agree that this particular Ring-cycle broadcast held ample delights for yours truly. As in most of Wagner’s works, its length can be trying to us mortals. Not here. In the first place, we were thrilled to hear an honest to goodness Siegfried voice in that of the debuting Stefan Vinke. Where has this fellow been hiding for goodness sake? The German-born tenor bounced around the stage with the abandon of youth. Not only that, but he brought a cutting yet cultivated edge to Siegfried, gobs of personality and charm, superb diction, lyrical restraint where called for, and boyish enthusiasm to spare, capped off with ringing top notes.

Indeed, not since the time of Wolfgang Windgassen at Bayreuth (and on records) has there been a tenor so attuned to the vocal and physical demands of this nearly impossible part. How well I remember the labored quality of Jess Thomas, gorgeous to look at but barely up to the task. When this Robert Lepage production was new, Jay Hunter Morris made headlines as a last-minute substitute for the indisposed Gary Lehman (who was himself a replacement for the retiring Ben Heppner). Morris has since abandoned the role (a wise decision) for more, shall we say, mature offerings. Vinke, on the other hand, looked, acted, and sang as an impetuous youth should, a marriage made in Met Opera heaven and in spite of this production’s stage limitations.

Siegfried boasts to Mime that he alone can forge the sword Notung in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)

The Met was indeed lucky to have not only Vinke but another fine tenor, the Austrian Andreas Schager, waiting in the bullpen so to speak. We heard Schager on the April 27, 2019 broadcast of Götterdämmerung. Both singers turned in stellar contributions, with Vinke taking a victory lap for the most outstanding appearance by a new artist. Schager, lighter in timbre, clearly luxuriated in the language. Yet Vinke captured the doltish, pigheaded behavior of a post-pubescent teenager better than any singer in recent memory. In contrast to which, Schafer’s more modest scale proved winning in itself, especially when he let loose with a ringing high C in Act III of Götterdämmerung, before being joined by Gunther, Hunding and the Vassals.

Either singer’s approach can work within the context of this production’s demands. The character’s volatile nature and hair-trigger temperament came naturally to both artists. Vinke’s mood swings and verbal sparring matches with Gerhard Siegel’s feisty Mime were a highlight of Acts I and II. Many small details and pointed repartee were noted in both their performances — some subtle, others more overt. On the radio, Siegel’s voice was easily discernable from that of the younger Vinke; this made differentiating between tenors less arduous than usual.

What of the production’s Brünnhilde? She must have the longest wait time of anybody in opera: three full acts, and lots of plot exposition to plow through before she sings a note of music. When she finally did awake, the glorious sound of soprano Christine Goerke filled the Met hall with vibrant, full-toned abandon. Yet, I noticed some unsteadiness in the higher reaches, and, unusual for her, a certain lack of focus. Perhaps the lengthy wait took some of the “oomph” out of Ms. Goerke’s approach. Not so with her acting, which stressed the Valkyrie’s warm and womanly side.

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) marvels at the warrior maiden, Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Do I sound like I was disappointed in her performance? Yes, I hate to admit it. I strained to experience that moment of elation where many Brünnhilde’s are wont to display at this point in the drama. I’m thinking, of course, of the likes of Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, Hildegard Behrens, and others. Not every singer can emit the raw power of a Nilsson, or the depth of feeling a Kirsten Flagstad or a Helen Traubel could bring, to name but a few of the classic interpreters from the past.

Yes, it was an undeniable pleasure to hear Goerke in this part, one she has taken to other select venues besides the Met. Still, I’m at a loss to explain my lack of exhilaration. Where was that sense of discovery, the realization that Siegmund’s son and heir is the hero that Brünnhilde has waited so long for? With all that said, Goerke did bring susceptibility to the Valkyrie maiden, lovingly expressed toward the end as she accepted Siegfried as her conqueror. The pair went out in a blaze of glory, with each jointly taking a high C that ends their ebullient musings. As Siegfried all-but pounced on the prostrate prima donna, the Met audience let out a roar of approval at the final curtain.

As the white-haired Wanderer, baritone Michael Volle, previously heard as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and as the mythical Flying Dutchman, took over for Greer Grimsley in this radio broadcast. Volle brought equal reserves of intelligence and endurance to the part, along with steadiness and a balmy timbre that were lacking in Grimsley’s Walküre Wotan. I missed the sense of self-deprecating humor in Volle’s portrayal, and the voice was a tad drier than his predecessor’s. Overall, he engaged the listener’s interest in the question and answer session with the wheedling Mime, courtesy of Herr Siegel. Volle’s two confrontations in Act III — his call to the Earth Mother and his verbal clash with his belligerent grandson — were vocal and histrionic highlights. Well done, sir!

The Wanderer (Michael Volle) raises his spear, the symbol of his authority, in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Equally prominent was returning bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny’s vitriolic Alberich, as clear-voiced and vocally galvanic as the positive impression he had made in Das Rheingold. Stratospheric coloratura Erin Morley as the chirpy Forest Bird and basso Dmitry Belosselskiy, while both were heavily amplified, conveyed their respective character’s pluses and minuses convincingly. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill repeated her resonantly sung Erda, who also goes by the nickname Wala. Too bad the part is so short, a handicap that also afflicted Wotan’s mate, Fricka.

This production made the best use of the digital technology for which it was designed, especially in the scenically enchanting forest sequences. Holding it all together was maestro Philippe Jordan, who demonstrated deep affection for this longish score. Numerous minor details in the orchestral writing were brought out, to loving effect. Indeed, all the performers were happily greeted with cheers and bravos at each act’s end, a not-so-standard practice at the modern Met Opera. There was a time when artists were treated to prolonged cheers between acts (it was considered routine). Nowadays, the practice has become as rare as passenger pigeons (or talking Forest Birds).

End of Part Four

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes      


From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Three)

The Valkyries await their sister Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke, above center) in Act III of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The Human Element

The second and most popular opera in the four-part Ring cycle is Die Walküre. It’s the most frequently performed outside of the collective works. And why is that? It’s not the longest by any means, clocking in uncut at around three hours and forty-five minutes. The last two opuses, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are lengthier than that (at least, Siegfried “feels” longer). So, what is it about Die Walküre that attracts listeners more than any of the others?

One factor looks to the missing human element in Das Rheingold. None of the participants in that introductory piece are particularly laudable. In fact, the squabbling universe of gods, goddesses, giants, dwarfs, and water nymphs grows tedious with each repetition: deceit, duplicity, backbiting, trickery, theft, brutality, and so forth tend to make the above subjects highly dislikable, if not undeserving of our respect. One looks in vain for a glimpse of humanity among both antagonists and protagonists.

Fortunately (and for the future approbation of his cycle), Wagner was shrewd enough to temporarily leave the world of the immortals and concentrate his next entry on the doomed love affair between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the ever-mounting pressures placed on his other lead characters, Wotan and Brünnhilde.

When last we left Wotan, he had reluctantly given up the Nibelung horde, as well as the all-powerful Ring that was forged from it, to the greedy Fafner. Having stolen the Ring from its original purloiner, Alberich (the titular Nibelung), Wotan had every intention of using the object for his own selfish purpose: to add to his lust for power and exert control over the world. However “noble” his cause, Wotan’s efforts at same were destined to flounder due to Alberich’s all-enveloping curse.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) calls on his daughter Brunnhilde to defend Siegmund – Act II of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Instead, the Ring was turned into a symbol of man’s inability to influence the course of events: all those who sought to possess it would never achieve their aims; and those who did possess it were predestined for an early demise. No sooner had Wotan lost the ill-fated bauble than he plotted to reacquire it. But how to go about that end?

One of several notions that occurred to the one-eyed deity was to conjure up a hero, one who by his own volition could do what Wotan himself was incapable of doing. Another was to give this so-called “free-willed” champion a weapon by which he might accomplish the deed. That weapon would be the sword Notung (or Needful). It would come to his hero’s aid whenever the need was at its greatest. Despite his self-assurances, Wotan’s plans go terribly awry.

Starting things off in Act I, we are immediately introduced to the mortal Siegmund, who comes bursting through the door of Hunding’s hut. Hunding shares kinship to a band of tribesmen who roam the forest pillaging and otherwise creating mayhem. On one such raid, young Siegmund and his papa (I wonder who THAT might be?) had come home to find their residence looted, the mother killed, and the sister abducted or lost. On another foray, Siegmund became separated from dear old dad and forced, by circumstances, to roam the woods on his own. This led to a life on the run.

His “twin sister,” Sieglinde, whom we also come to meet, is married to the brutish Hunding, who’s not really a bad sort but a simple rustic. Brother and sister do not know of each other’s existence, but as Sieglinde retrieves some refreshment for the parched intruder, they cannot take their sights off one another. Perhaps it’s their resemblance that has sparked their interest, or the warm glow in their eyes. Whatever it is, the music tells us what we suspect: they are hopelessly in love.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) eyes Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) as husband Hunding (Gunther Groissbock) listens – Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

These two individuals soon find themselves entangled in the plot by way of their parentage. You see, that unnamed mother gave birth to two siblings; and the father, as we have surmised, was Wotan in human guise. After he came up with the idea of the sword, Wotan left Valhalla and his wife, the goddess Fricka, to roam about the earth on one of many dalliances where the god sought out human (read: female) companionship.

Prior to that encounter, Wotan had found solace in the arms of the goddess Erda. You remember Erda: she was the one who warned him of the gods’ impending doom, should they refuse to relinquish the Ring. Well, not only did Wotan learn a few dark secrets from Earth Mother Erda, he also fathered from her a noisy bunch of female warriors called Valkyries (nine in all), one of whom became Wotan’s favorite daughter, Brünnhilde.

As Siegmund tells his side of the story, Hunding suspects this trespasser of being the one his kinsmen have been looking for as the perpetrator of another assault (darn those pesky raids!). While offering him refuge for the night, Hunding swears vengeance. “Sleep tight, stranger,” he warns, but in the morning “Prepare to defend yourself!” This brings cold comfort to our hapless hero. But his luck changes when Sieglinde strides back in, telling this woebegone fellow that she gave Hunding a powerful sleeping draught — thus allowing both her and Siegmund some “alone” time.

After relating her version of events, the night wind blows open the door of the hut to reveal a springtime sunset. It’s here that Siegmund and Sieglinde discover each other, with Wagner’s heavenly music providing the perfect lyrical backdrop. They realize, after much back and forth, that they are indeed related (and become illicit lovers forthwith — ouch!). Oh, and one more thing: coincidentally, Wotan had earlier in the saga passed by a clearing and shoved a hefty sword into a tree trunk, challenging all comers to pull it out (Excalibur anyone?). Only the strongest of mortal men can draw this sword and make good use of it. And around this specific tree trunk, Hunding had built his home. How convenient is that!?!

With a triumphant shout, Siegmund draws the sword from the tree, repeating the name “Notung” as he does (and inspiring countless Freudian interpretations to boot). We can thank French director Patrice Chéreau for introducing a bit of “spice” into this scene. It was during the 1976 Centenary Ring production at Bayreuth that he instructed his Siegmund and Sieglinde to grab hold of each other and throw themselves lustfully onto the ground for a little “fun and frolic.” From such an impulsive act, an institution was born.

At the Met, the part of Siegmund was taken by Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose Tristan and Otello I have previously reviewed. Having fully recovered from the flu, Skelton was in his natural element in Wagner, his baritone-like instrument showing a deep and abiding commitment to making audiences sympathize with his character. He invested the role with a large, powerful Heldentenor that encompassed the full range and weight needed to bring this brooding portrayal off. He also displayed tremendous breath control on the long-held passages called for in this act — especially the repeated cries of “Wälse, Wälse!” His Spring Song was expertly articulated.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) calls out to his father, Waelse, for the sword Notung, in Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

After a nearly disastrous series of appearances in Verdi’s Otello, Skelton bounced back with vigor, favoring listeners with an emotional stream of raw passion not heard in many a Met season. No wonder audiences fell in love with this character! He was ably partnered by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, who turned in a daunting, breathlessly sublime performance. Her extended scenes with brother Siegmund felt convincing and lived in the moment, proving once and for all that Wagner was absolutely on the right track when he wrote this scenario.

Not to be outdone, the talented German basso Günther Groissböck returned to the Ring as a steely voiced yet brutally honest Hunding. He refused to bow to convention by making Hunding the all-purpose villain of the piece. He’s more a victim of circumstance, and the bass conveyed that aspect with his solidly vocalized interpretation of the wronged husband’s dilemma.

Speaking of going against convention, the Met’s management allowed their artists to bow after each act — in this instance, it was more than merited since the performers in question were over and above the already high bar set for them.

Wotan’s Walls Come Tumbling Down

As you may have guessed, the extraordinary state of illicit affairs between Siegmund and his sister did not sit well with Fricka, the four-square goddess of marriage and the hearth. Incest and its portent are frowned upon, even among the faithless gods.

In Act II, after Wotan has charged Brünnhilde with protecting the couple, Fricka challenges her wayward mate to come to terms with his plans. Wotan tries every which way to justify the actions of his earthly offspring, to little avail. Nevertheless, his futile attempts to convince Fricka to allow their relationship to blossom falls on deaf ears. She refuses to buy any of his arguments. Besides, Hunding has called upon her to preserve the sanctity of marriage. And Fricka, as the titular guardian of that institution, has to respect his wishes. Ergo, Wotan must bend to her will.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) tries to justify his actions to his wife Fricka (Jamie Barton) in Act II of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

At first, the macho god refuses. He puts up pitifully self-deluding excuses for their coupling. Trying to defend the indefensible, Wotan stumbles badly. In claiming that Siegmund is acting of his own free will, Fricka tears apart Wotan’s explanations. Indeed, the walls of Valhalla begin to crumble before him: how dare he provide the means by which Siegmund could triumph over Hunding, when he knows full well it was Wotan’s doing all along. He is the one who fathered his children; he is the one who planted the sword; and he is the one who deliberately influenced events in his favor. There was no “free will” at all, only Wotan’s will.

Wotan realizes, of course, that she is right. What does Fricka ask of him? The ultimate sacrifice, she replies: take Notung’s power away from Siegmund. When Hunding comes to do battle, do not give Siegmund aid. Even more disturbing to Wotan, he must prevent Brünnhilde from interfering in the outcome. Otherwise, whatever authority the god has over mortals will be neutralized. Siegmund must fall! After a brief exchange with the Valkyrie, Fricka withdraws.

A dark cloud descends upon War Father, the name the Valkyries call him. In utter despair, Wotan cries out that he is the lowest of creatures. He must comply with his wife’s demands, or else face the consequences. Brünnhilde is aghast at War Father’s situation, but has little grasp of the dire straits he has placed himself in. However, she convinces Wotan to unburden his mind to her: by reasoning with the god, the Valkyrie enables him to discourse at length about the path he’s been on and where that path might take him. Call it “armchair analysis” at its best, but this is one of the most gripping dialogues in the entire Ring saga.

A lengthy narrative takes shape, wherein Wotan relives past occurrences as well as looks forward to a bleak future. Events yet to come were foretold long ago, many by Erda herself. One such prophecy references Alberich, who has bribed a woman to give birth to an evil offspring. Wotan mockingly toasts this child of hate (with Hagen’s sinister theme sounding in the orchestra). We, the listeners, can only marvel at how psychologically astute and perceptive Wagner was in conceiving this self-revelatory sequence. The one thing Wotan longs for, “Das Ende!” (“The end”), is all he has left. Woe to Brünnhilde, or anyone else, who dares to disobey him. With that final, pained outburst, he departs. What’s a daughter to do?

Wotan (Grimsley) berates Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) for disobeying his orders

Mezzo Jamie Barton repeated her earnest and strongly felt Fricka, the custodian of the conjugal order and stern advocate for maintaining the status quo. There are many parallels with Wagner’s real-life situation as a married man having an open affair with a married woman (and with the husband’s full knowledge and tacit consent!). Still, it’s a shame Wagner did not give this character more to sing and do. Barton embodied the goddess’ decisiveness and regal bearing as if to the manner born.

Too, veteran bass-baritone Greer Grimsley’s world-weary Wotan was heard to better effect here than in Das Rheingold. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to hear a singer so closely matched in ability and timbre, and in temperament, as he was to the beleaguered god. But at this point in Grimsley’s career, the high notes don’t come as easy and focused or as solidly produced as they might have in earlier days.

Regardless, his portrayal lacked for nothing: the authority, the thrust, the anger, the command of language (his German was crisply articulated and flung full force into the auditorium), all combined to give weighty substance to the impotent god. Grimsley’s physical appearance may have been less happy, i.e., a certain casualness in holding his spear and a persistent distracted quality. But these were minor quibbles, to be honest, and, for radio listeners such as myself, beside the point. This was first-rate work all the way.

One-Way Ride to Valhalla

Wotan has lost his grip on a situation of his own making. Caught in his own web and done in by circuitous logic, he is incapable of action. And powerless to change the outcome. This god of gods rails against the flowing tide of destiny. If Alberich, his antagonist, can have his way with a woman by plying her with gold and conceiving a child of hate, what of the loving Wotan? The god fathered the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde out of love. Why must he step aside and watch his beloved couple fall into the abyss?

His desperation is keenly felt by Brünnhilde, boldly sung and acted by American soprano Christine Goerke in her role debut at the Met. She bore the burdens of Wotan’s daughter with sincerity and warmth. Despite a voice of tremendous thrust and staying power (her assumption of Strauss’ Elektra at the company was a major triumph), Goerke left this listener puzzled as to the opaqueness of her diction and the obliqueness of her characterization. Notwithstanding the above caveat, her Valkyrie maiden made one feel the emotion of the moment as she moved to save Siegmund’s life, thus changing her own fate.

The character’s blossoming humanity whereby she deliberately goes against her father’s wishes, along with that of defending the ill-fated Siegmund, were fully brought out in the marvelous Todesverkündigen (“Annunciation of Death”) sequence with Skelton. The act ends quickly and decisively with Wotan’s last-minute appearance and shattering of Siegmund’s sword. Hunding kills Siegmund with one thrust of his spear, as the dying son is cradled in his father’s arms.

Siegmund (Skelton) guards his beloved Sieglinde (Westbroek) as Brunnhilde (Goerke) looks on – the “Annunciation of Death” from Act III of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Meanwhile, Brünnhilde whisks away both Sieglinde and the shattered pieces of Notung before War Father’s angry wrath takes hold. Terrible and swift is the god’s justice: with a wave of his hand, Wotan strikes Hunding down and sends his limp form back to Fricka with his “blessing.” He takes off in furious pursuit of his disobedient child.

Act III begins with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” theme music, voiced by eight of Wotan’s daughters with Erda. They’re a wild bunch, these rollicking war children. All of the artists involved contributed to a fine ensemble as they rode their planks (the 45-ton monstrosity dubbed “The Machine”) in hobby-horse fashion. It’s silly, I know, but what can one do with the staging? Can producers be TOO literal in their interpretation of Wagner’s demands, or must they resort to ingenuity (as inane as it is)? A difficult call, no matter which side you fall on.

Kudos to the Valkyrie sisterhood, though, which featured an ensemble headed by sopranos Kelly Cae Hogan, Jessica Faselt, and Wendy Bryn Harmer, along with mezzos Renée Tatum, Daryl Freedman, Eve Gigliotti, Maya Lahyani, and Mary Phillips. Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan led the Met Opera Orchestra in a deliberately paced but tightly wound interpolation of the score, with many a sonorous take on Wagner’s melodies. There was no drag in any of the episodes, and the brass was much smoother in this production than in Das Rheingold.

The spent Sieglinde is brought before the sisters, who are aghast at Brünnhilde’s boldness. Sieglinde herself is resigned to a quick death, but the Valkyrie insists she must live. For within her womb, a hero will be born: Siegfried the bold. Rejoicing at this news, the ecstatic Sieglinde hails Brünnhilde as the bravest of maids. She rushes off into the forest, in time to avoid War Father’s judgment.

Facing her father’s wrath (the other Valkyries flee before Wotan’s anger), the lone warrior daughter tries to make amends and explain her actions. Wotan, who happens to be a manic-depressive type (especially in Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” cycle at Bayreuth), will have none of it. She deliberately disobeyed him, and must be punished for her act. He plans to take away her godhead, leaving her exposed to whatever mortal happens to pass by. A quick thinker, Brünnhilde begs her father to at least provide a protective ring of fire around her. Only the bravest and most stout-hearted of beings could penetrate the flames.

With his defenses down, the broken-hearted War Father relents. Wotan sadly sends his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, now bereft of her godhead, off to slumber land. The Sleeping Beauty will patiently await her Prince Charming — uh, more like an undisciplined teenager in the form of the boisterous man-child Siegfried — who will awaken her with a kiss. Wagner’s fairy tale could not have ended any other way but with a cliffhanger of a close in the memorable Magic Fire Music:

Brunnhilde lies asleep on Valkyrie rock as Wotan takes his leave to the strains of Magic Fire Music that ends ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

“He who fears my spear’s sharp point shall never pass through the flames.”

Famous last words….

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes      

Making Grand Opera Great Again: ‘Samson et Dalila’ and ‘Aida’ at the Met

The Act III Bacchanal from ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Gaudy and Campy: The New ‘Normal’

Before we continue with my review of Wagner’s Ring cycle, let’s take a break from the action and revisit some old favorites. The Metropolitan Opera, in its infinite wisdom (tongue planted tactfully in cheek), opened its 2018-2019 season with a new production of a tired, old potboiler: that over-cooked kettle of operatic stew by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila (or “Samson and Delilah” for those not in the know).

Talk about old hat, this lavish effort was once a popular item, and not only at the Met but in Europe and throughout North and South America. The main requirements for telling this age-old Biblical story from the Book of Judges are simple: a strong-voiced, beefy-built heroic tenor; a sumptuous and alluring mezzo or contralto; and a malevolent-sounding bass-baritone. Given these ingredients, any opera house worth its weight in décor can put-over this stirring piece. Or can it?

The key, though, can be found in those same title roles. In olden times, tenors who could do justice to the mighty Samson were ripe for the picking: worthy contributions from the likes of Enrico Caruso, Leo Slezak, Fernand Ansseau, Georges Thill, José Luccioni, René Maison, Ramón Vinay, José Soler, Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers, Richard Tucker, James McCracken, Guy Chauvet, Plácido Domingo, and José Cura could be counted on to (quite literally) bring down the house.

On the opposite end, such sultry sirens as Louise Homer, Margarete Matzenauer, Risë Stevens, Gladys Swarthout, Blanche Thebom, Ebe Stignani, Regina Resnik, Giulietta Simionato, Rita Gorr, Mignon Dunn, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Christa Ludwig, Elena Obraztsova, Fiorenza Cossotto, Agnes Baltsa, Olga Borodina, and Denyce Graves lent class and stature to Dalila, and (at one time) were a dime a dozen but just as thrilling.

Opening night of September 24, 2018 for Samson starred tenor Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča. These two hearty souls have sung together often, most excitingly as Don José and Carmen in Richard Eyre’s Franco-era production of Bizet’s masterpiece. On the Saturday broadcast of March 23, 2019, however, listeners had to settle for a substitute Samson, tenor Gregory Kunde, a former bel canto specialist, and the lush Dalila of Georgian-born Anita Rachvelishvili. The previously announced Aleksandrs Antonenko was nowhere to be heard.

Former bel canto specialist turned heroic tenor Gregory Kunde as the strongman Samson in Saint-Saens’ ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

We did get to hear Antonenko on the May 4, 2019 transmission of Verdi’s grand opera Aida, which marked the house’s role debut of Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the titular Ethiopian princess, along with Anita Rachvelishvili’s bone chilling Amneris, baritone Quinn Kelsey’s capable Amonasro, and bass Dmitriy Belosselskiy’s High Priest Ramfis. This was a pre-recorded broadcast taken from the performance of October 6, 2018. So where did Antonenko go? To paraphrase from Ole Blue Eyes, the Latvian tenor did not have a very good year. We’ll get to the specifics later on, once we get to reviewing that Aida broadcast.

For now, I hope readers don’t’ mind if we dig into the artifice of Samson et Dalila. Once a massive hit, Saint-Saëns’ oratorio-cum-stodgy religious epic needs first-rate singing actors to convince viewers that: one, the Hebrew strongman could be duped into revealing the secret of his strength to his enemies; and two, we can feel some kind of kinship (albeit fleetingly) to his villainous seducer. On records, these matters manifest themselves both vocally and sonically. On the stage, the visual aspects take precedent, but with the requisite tonal contribution. Was the Met’s cast effective in conveying these facets to radio listeners such as myself? Hmm…

Samson (Gregory Kunde) is about to get a haircut from Dalila (Anita Rachvelishvili) in Act II of ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

It goes without saying that the big draw here was Rachvelishvili’s warbling of Dalila. Or should I say outpourings? Yes, the fiery Georgian mezzo can deliver the aural splendors of Dalila’s three marvelous airs with amplitude and high-voltage capacity. Anita is young and vibrant, and made quite a mark for herself early on as the fiery gypsy girl Carmen. Since then, she’s gone on to triumph as the Princess de Bouillon in the revival (also, a new production) of Francesco Cilèa’s verismo warhorse Adriana Lecouvreur, with Ms. Netrebko on the receiving end of their rivalry (see my review: The result? Expectations were running high for something out of the ordinary.

Today, honest to goodness Samson and Dalila voices are difficult to come by. There are still some qualified candidates out there, among them native Virginian Carl Tanner, who appeared in an April 2018 concert performance of Samson with North Carolina Opera. Tanner was also “first cover” artist at the Met last season but come broadcast time we were given Kunde.

From the sound of things, Kunde managed the part well enough. He hit all the right notes (albeit with a pronounced beat), even if his middle voice turned hollow and his phrasing rather bland. He managed to express the fallen hero’s anguish at betraying his people in the Act III scene where Samson is tied to a millstone. As far as his having a heroic timbre, the higher up Kunde went the wirier he sounded — at least on the radio, not the best source for acoustics. Overall, an acceptable replacement.

What was missing from Kunde’s assumption was that inner fire, that spark, that flame that illumines the best Samson performers. Of course, I’m thinking of Canadian Jon Vickers in his prime. Granted that no modern-day interpreter, either on or off the record, could match what Vickers’ galvanic presence brought, both physically and vocally, to the part. His was the Samson voice I hold most dear in my mind’s eye whenever such lines as “Arrêtez, ô mes frères!” or “Dalila, je t’aime!” are uttered. It was not only the sheer size of the Vickers sound that never failed to impress, but his total immersion in the character’s plight.

The late Canadian tenor Jon Vickers as the mighty Samson

Oh, I know, I know. I’m not being fair to the other candidates (Domingo and Cura, for one, and José Carreras and Alagna for another) whose vocal resources were nowhere near the late tenor’s class. Still, one can’t help being guided by his model — and what a model it was.

To give the 65-year-old Kunde his due, he partnered well with Rachvelishvili’s Dalila. Yet even her contributions left me cold emotionally, although she too poured out tones of molten lava. Their extensive Act II duet where Rachvelishvili seduces Samson into mush (“Shall I take a little off the top, Sammy boy?”) proved enthralling. Anita spun out her long phrases (via her entrance song, “Je viens célébrer la victoire” – “I came to celebrate your victory,” and the accompanying “Printemps qui commence” – “Springtime begins”) with passion and meaning and plenty of subtle, persuasive feeling. Certainly, her big number, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart at your voice”), mixed charm and tenderness with overarching purpose.

Rachvelishvili’s second act scena with the wobbly High Priest of French-born bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, whom I praised for his campy portrayal of Cendrillon’s father in the Met’s premier production of Massenet’s opera about Cinderella (see my review:, missed the mark entirely. True, this duet is far from the composer’s best material.

Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila in Act II of ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Personally, I find the episode tiresome, to the extent their plotting tends to bog down the action. Still, in the right hands it can stir the blood. How well I remember a 2013 Richard Tucker Gala concert performance of this duet, with the glorious chest tones of the renowned Stephanie Blythe partnered by Greer Grimsley’s roaring thunder as Dalila and High Priest, respectively. Now THERE was a formidable exchange!

Thankfully, the secondary roles were expertly handled by two newcomers to the Met’s roster. Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, who triumphed as Alberich in the Ring cycle works, created an acid-tongued Abimélech, delivered in patented tongue-lashing manner. His voice poured forth with the same venom as earlier, only in insinuatingly enunciated French — solid work all around. Similarly, the golden-throated German basso Günther Groissböck regaled audiences with his warmly vocalized Old Hebrew. He easily hit the lowest note in the trio that closes Act I, and both artists received rousing ovations at the end.

Regarding conductor Sir Mark Elder’s elephantine pacing, the less said the better. However, kudos to the Met Orchestra and especially to the excellent Met Chorus for their contributions to the final scenario. Director Darko Trenjak’s production (a spinoff of Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics), with sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Linda Cho, held up the kitschy end of things as befit a gaudy and campy outing.

Mind you, I’m not out to destroy the fun, I’m just being honest. The virtues of Samson et Dalila are plenty, and include a memorable and stunningly melodious first act, followed by a rapturous and heady close from the middle of Act II onward (excluding that laborious twosome for Dalila and the High Priest) and into that pitiable scene with Samson and the millstone. The opera ends with an all-out, anything-goes Bacchanal, to wildly cliched music of the bump-and-grind variety that, if nothing else, tends to give grand opera a bad name.

The Verdian Take on the Grand

It’s a shame that Meyerbeer, the fellow most responsible for turning grand opera into an extravagant, out of proportion, bloated and cumbersome display piece, is given the blame for its undeserved demise. Truth be told, his path-breaking ventures at the Paris Opéra paved the way (and the impetus) for such Verdi masterworks as I Vespri Siciliani (known also by its French title as Les Vêpres Siciliennes), La Forza del Destino, and especially Don Carlos — all operas that predated Aida.

When Aida made its 1871 premiere in Cairo, most audiences, including the majority of critics and reviewers, felt that Verdi had reached the absolute summit of lyric drama. Given in four acts, Aida was based on a story by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette Bey. The story was adapted by poet Antonio Ghislanzoni into a libretto, with additional input from Verdi himself. That grandiose vision we know as Aida, then, fulfilled every expectation of the grandiose in opera: sweeping historical pageantry, public duty versus private agony, compelling and impressive characterizations by a large cast, outsized emotions, elaborate sets and costumes, ballet sequences, and massive choral episodes.

Radames (Aleksandrs Antonenko) professes his love for Aida (Anna Netrebko) in Act III of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (Photo: Met Opera)

How times have changed! After several decades or more of revisionist theory, lovers of Verdi’s music have come to the conclusion that Aida, which made up a major portion of the standard repertory (it was the “A” of those A-B-C productions, followed closely by La Bohème and Carmen), has been replaced by the letter “D” for Don Carlos. There is much to believe in this conceit, with part of the problem being that singers who can take on the vocal challenges of Aida and Amneris, Amonasro and Ramfis, and, most distressingly of all, the lead tenor role of Radames, have become a vanishing breed.

Sadly, I am not the only writer who has observed (and been influenced by) this growing trend. Listeners once searched in vain for tenors who could tackle the parts of Otello, Tristan, and Siegfried. Today, such artists exist (we’ll meet some of them when I pick up the thread of Wagner’s Ring). On the other hand, how many successful Radames have you heard lately? Is there anybody out there who can convince you of his intentions? With the ageless Plácido having taken on nothing but baritone parts, who is left to give voice to our Egyptian general?

In our day, one could count on the efforts of Messrs. Del Monaco, Corelli, Mario Filippeschi, Tucker, Bergonzi, Vickers, McCracken, Richard Cassilly, Domingo, Carreras, Alagna, and others to do their duty or bust. Where is that voice today? Certainly not with Aleksandrs Antonenko.

The Aida broadcast mentioned above had its moments in the Egyptian sun. This was to be the last gasp of the Sonja Frisell-Gianni Quaranta production before a planned new version is given sometime in the near future. Let’s hope the Met hires the right people for their venture. To be honest, some of them were already present and accounted for in the May 4, 2019 radio transmission: Netrebko, Rachvelishvili, Kelsey, Belosselskiy, bass Ryan Speedo Green, soprano Gabriella Reyes as the Priestess, and tenor Arseny Yakovlev as an especially arresting Messenger. All of them held together by the baton of Nicola Luisotti.

Aida (Anna Netrebko) pleads for mercy to Amneris (Anita Rachvelishvili) at the Met’s performance of Verdi’s  ‘Aida’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s magical presence graced this role with startling accuracy and delicately filigreed pianissimos. Her artistry is such that little needs to be said about Netrebko’s mushy diction. When she lets out all the stops, there’s no holding her back. Her voice has filled out remarkably well, its sound plush and plummy, with no register breaks and solid craftsmanship up and down the line. She created a flesh-and-blood figure through voice alone, although some felt her generalized acting ability did not match her singing skills. In my experience, few singers could match the nobility and bearing of Leontyne Price, the essence of which is embedded in every Aida performance, whether at the Met or anywhere else.

Rachvelishvili was right behind, or ahead of the game if that sort of thing matters to listeners. The two divas duked it out vocally and, I must say, judiciously, much as they had done in the aforementioned Adriana Lecouvreur. Here, though, I felt their individual voices blended a whole lot better in conformity to Verdi’s demands. In another example, Amneris’ fabulous Judgment Scene was overpowering in its dimensions, the brass blaring out impressively as the priests delivered their verdict over Radames’ fate: he’s to be entombed alive in the crypt for divulging military secrets to the enemy.

Kelsey’s stirring Amonasro, the recipient of those military secrets, was also on fire vocally and histrionically. A brief but telling assignment (the Ethiopian king appears midway in Act II and has a duet and trio in Act III), Kelsey’s voice rang out firmly and cleanly. He always reminds me of Italian baritone Rolando Panerai, whose clear and precise enunciation was a joy to listen to as well.

Amonasro (Quinn Kelsey) makes his demands on daughter Aida (Anna Netrebko) in the Nile Scene from Act III (Photo: Met Opera)

Ryan Speedo Green’s bottomless King of Egypt (historically, he should have been called Pharaoh) was a pleasurable asset as always, as was Belosselskiy’s Ramfis. How I miss the voice-of-doom quality an artist such as Boris Christoff could bring to the role, or the rock-solid authority of an Ezio Pinza or a Cesare Siepi. Nevertheless, everyone acquitted themselves commendably — everyone, that is, except Antonenko.

Good for What Ails You

Considering that he was replaced, after Act I, in Samson et Dalila (but not the radio broadcast, which he missed entirely), Antonenko has been experiencing vocal problems of his own for several seasons now. Pitch-shy, labored, mealy-voiced, and squalling, his wobbly, unromantic rendition of “Celeste Aida,” Verdi’s opening torture test for tenor, was abominable (Opera News reported that he was “in ghastly voice”). He was incapable of sustaining a soft note, in particular that infamous B flat that concludes the air. Verdi had marked the note to be taken “pianissimo.” Good luck with that! Antonenko bawled it out of the ballpark, and none too steadily either.

Shouting is not singing, people, as I have pointed out on previous occasions. The only explanation one can have for this disaster is that Antonenko is in dire vocal distress. Don’t get me wrong. I like Antonenko’s way with the score, and he has a large, serviceable voice. He is excellent in Russian opera, especially as the Pretender Dimitri in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He’s a relatively young man (still only 43), with time enough to develop and progress in the direction he wishes to take his talents.

If that direction is the lirico spinto repertoire, then he needs to take better care of his instrument. Take a season or two off, Aleks, and go see a good voice doctor; learn fewer demanding roles or re-learn old ones. Give yourself a break. Try to develop a technique for getting around those tough assignments. Whatever you need to do to get your act together, by all means do it now. We want to see you back in action, pronto!

It’s worth comparing Antonenko to Vickers, who, in my honest opinion, gave one of the most stupendous and moving accounts of Radames on record. Vickers, along with colleagues Jussi Bjoerling and Carlo Bergonzi, set the standard for how the role should be interpreted. Scene after scene, including the entirety of Acts III and IV, are lovingly expressed in that inimitable Vickers style (before he became embarrassingly mannered toward the end).

Opera on Record: Volume One noted that Vickers was “in his best period as a singer” in the 1961 RCA Victor Aida with the formidable Leontyne Price, “communicating that rare sense of devotion to the music, sometimes imprinting his individuality so that it is hard to hear phrases like ‘Sovra una terra estrania’ in another voice, so beautifully haunting is it, half painfully, half entranced.” Amen to that.

Original album cover of the Grammy Award-winning RCA Victor Red Seal recording of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (1961)

The above observations will not cure what is ailing Aida. For my money, Aida is not some lumbering circus-like spectacle, but an emotional roller-coaster ride. AND I LOVE THIS OPERA TO DEATH! It was one of the first complete opera albums I had as a teenager (an earlier RCA Victor effort with Bjoerling, Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, and Leonard Warren in the leads). It’s a concise political drama with grandiloquent elements that transcend what replaced it, i.e., verismo and so-called “realism.” There is more human drama in this opus than in most verismo works. And it’s been much too maligned of late, no doubt due to the high cost of production: sets, costumes, cast, orchestra, extras, supernumeraries, you name it. That the opera is not as popular today as it has been in the past “may” have something to do with the vocal crisis of past decades. Very true!

More so today than before, it might also have to do with the opera’s specifically racial themes: that of a black African slave having fallen in love with a light-skinned Egyptian warrior (historically inaccurate, if we go by what historians have told us); and the subjugation of a race of people. In an interesting slant, I’ve read about productions that use all-black casts to tell Aida’s story in a postmodern, true-to-our-everyday-reality way.

Similarly, the experience of seeing an all-white cast in Aida, or in the Met’s “politically correct” misrepresentation of Verdi’s Otello as a white general (the very premise of the piece, along with the Shakespeare play on which it was based, demands that the lead character be black), has given potential converts to opera, as well as battle-weary veterans, a sour taste in their mouths. Even those more knowledgeable about opera have been taken aback by such efforts.

Let me remind readers that in many critics’ views, as well as my own, the finest modern interpreter of Aida, Mississippi-born African American soprano Leontyne Price, clearly identified with this part. With pride in her heritage and upon her impending retirement from the Met in 1984, Ms. Price gave an interview to the New York Times wherein she insisted that “I want to go out as the glorious Ethiopian, Aida. She is not a slave at all. She is a captive princess — she is of noble blood.”

Her statement, that Aida “is of noble blood,” means much more today, in our politically charged environment, than it ever did. A note of thanks to the nobility and dignity of Ms. Price, who alone made grand opera great by the majesty of her voice and by her presence and regal bearing.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes