Esa-Pekka Salonen leads Elektra

Dysfunctional Family Values: ‘Elektra’ and ‘Salome’ at the Met (Part One)

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Nina Stemme as Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

It’s Greek to Me!

Every generation feels it has the answers to life’s problems — and ours is no exception. When I was growing up in the Sixties, it was easy to blame the prior generation for the many ills we saw around us; to hold those in high office accountable for the endless, unresolved conflicts strewn about the land.

It’s during those trying times that many find comfort in family and friends. While some leave home and hearth to set off on their own volition, others stay put so as to deal with or fend off the difficulties as best they can.

The effect of unending conflicts, with frazzled nerves constantly on the edge of collapse, can only lead to all-out tragedy. And who better to depict those tragedies than the ancient Greeks — or, in their stead, the generation that gave rise to the First World War (or the Great War, as it was once known).

German composer Richard Strauss and his favorite poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were part of that generation. In fact, their supreme collaboration, vide the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”), paid supportive deference to the family unit as the central focus of a happy home life. In contrast, however, their preceding work, Der Rosenkavalier (or “The Cavalier of the Rose”), seemed to mock those sentiments entirely, with humorous jabs at familial relations (for example, the boorish cousin Baron Ochs) amid the amorous exploits and extramarital trysts of the petulant Octavian and the Field Marshal’s wife.

Richard Strauss (ca. 1910) posing for photographer E.O. Hoppe (Photo courtesy Getty Images)
Richard Strauss (ca. 1910) posing for photographer E.O. Hoppe (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

While that may well be, most historians and musicologists would argue that the team’s most forceful achievement in the operatic realm were its two earlier efforts: the one-acters Salome (1905), adapted by Strauss from Oscar Wilde’s scandalous 1893 play Salomé; and Elektra (1909), based on Hofmannsthal’s drama of the same name and on the original treatment given by Greek playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus.

In an unusual juxtaposition of musical events, the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcast of Elektra came on April 30, 2016, near the tail end of the 2015-2016 radio season; while the later transmission of Salome occurred on December 17, 2016, at the start of the 2016-2017 season.

Both operas featured all-star casts, among them Nina Stemme, Adrianne Pieczonka, Susan Neves, Roberta Alexander, Waltraud Meier, Eric Owens, James Courtney, Burkhard Ulrich, and Kevin Short in Elektra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and Patricia Racette substituting for the previously announced Catherine Naglestad, Željko Lučić, Gerhard Siegel, Kang Wang, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, and Carolyn Sproule for Salome, presided over by Johannes Debus.

At their respective premieres, both Strauss works came in for heavy criticism for their brutally raw sexuality and exceedingly perverse characterizations (in the Princess Salome and Queen Klytämnestra) as well as the matricidal tendencies of that deadly brother-sister combo of Orest and Elektra.

Greek legends being what they are, the story of Elektra, derived from classical mythology and known as the Mycenaen saga (or Oresteia), was not the first treatment of this daring subject. Gluck’s two back-to-back works in this vein, Iphigénie en Aulis (1774) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), both predate and elaborate upon the circumstances involving King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, and Orestes’ slaying of the treacherous pair and subsequent imprisonment. His sister Electra is only mentioned by name.

Mozart's Idomeneo, as staged by the Met Opera
Mozart’s Idomeneo, as staged by the Met Opera

Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo, which premiered in Strauss’ hometown of Munich in 1791, included the antagonist Elettra (in the original Italian libretto). As the revenge-filled daughter of Agamemnon, who was the same fellow who fought in the Trojan Wars, Elettra was performed by a coloratura soprano. She is one of the earliest surviving embodiments of this character to appear in a standard repertory piece. Prophetically, Strauss rearranged and re-orchestrated Idomeneo (along with introducing newly composed music of his own) for a 1931 Vienna State Opera production.

Strauss’ lifetime fascination with Greek myth pervaded his musical compositions from their earliest days. We need only mention such examples as the pastiche Ariadne auf Naxos (1912; revised 1916) and its wittily realized clash between the modern and ancient worlds; the dreamlike Die ägyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen,” 1928), based on a conceit that the fabled Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked away to the Land of the Pharaohs; and the operas Daphne (1938) and Der Liebe der Danae (“The Loves of Danae,” 1944), both depicting mythological figures Apollo, Jupiter, Mercury, Midas, and others.

As a representative of the German bourgeoisie, whose smug contentment with the status quo oftentimes clashed with the harsh realities of pre- and post-World War I existence, Strauss realized themes in his two-hour, powered-packed oeuvre Salome and Elektra that would, in due course, lay the groundwork for the coming decadence of Nazism. The deterioration of morals so outlandishly brought to the fore by Herod’s court and in the Princess Salome’s sultry Dance of the Seven Veils, not to mention her erotic attraction to Jokanaan’s severed head, were but harbingers of the horrors to come.

Topping even this, the depravity that poisoned the atmosphere that Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis, were forced to survive in — while begging for scraps from the servants and bearing witness to the treachery that led to Agamemnon’s brutal slaying at their own mother’s hand — accurately, if not presciently, conveyed the notion that corruption and wickedness began in the home.

The Jagged Edge

The late Patrice Chereau (1944-2013) directing From the House of the Dead in 2009
The late Patrice Chereau (1944-2013) directing From the House of the Dead in 2009

The late and much lamented French director Patrice Chéreau, whose 1976 Bayreuth centennial production of Wagner’s Ring has achieved an almost legendary standing, unveiled his vision for Elektra back in 2013 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. Reviewed in Opera News and in other similarly themed publications, this production made its initial Met Opera impact in April of 2016, a few short years after the director’s untimely passing from lung cancer. It won overwhelmingly positive notices for its emotional content and psychological insight into the souls of its protagonists.

Celebrated for his outstanding work with singers and for his theatrical finesse and acumen, Chéreau was feted for another depiction of tortured, imprisoned souls in the Met’s premier presentation of Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, in November 2009.  Using the same creative team that he did for Elektra (set designer Richard Peduzzi, who worked with the director on the Ring cycle, and costume designer Caroline de Vivaise), Chéreau set the opera in a “bleak, monumental palace” courtyard — similar in shape and scope to the single set found in From the House of the Dead (with that evocative title seeming to cast a subliminal pall over the machinations of the lead characters’ plight).

The opera was staged in New York by Vincent Huguet, Chéreau’s assistant at Aix-en-Provence. Meticulous attention to detail and to the interpersonal dynamic between characters were the most obvious signs of a well-planned and well-executed affair. Strauss provided this intensely mesmerizing work with music of elemental force. Gripping dissonance and raucous cacophony, from the lowest bass notes to the highest cries in the strings, were the norm. But there are also melodies of such overpowering tenderness that to hear them, as played by the excellent Met Opera Orchestra under the impeccable maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, was absolutely startling.

Richard Peduzzi's set for the Met's Elektra
Richard Peduzzi’s set for the Met’s Elektra (first staged at Aix-en-Provence)

Beginning with the opening chords, the full orchestra blasts forth the name of Agamemnon to wild abandon (a trick Strauss used again at the start of Die Frau ohne Schatten, with the Spirit King Keikobad), then dies down to a barely audible rumble in the Wagner tubas and bass clarinet. Jagged leaps up and down the scale, two and three octave jumps, sliding trombones, violins screeching and whining like the howling of the wind, bold bursts of sound coming from the brass section: all these, and singing, too! The opera ends as it began, with a repeat of the D minor intonation of Agamemnon’s name, followed by deathly silence.

It took the Metropolitan an entire generation to present this piece. At the time, Elektra’s so-called immorality and overt hints of incestuous bisexuality were deemed “too sensational” for Met audiences. The opera’s debut finally came in 1932, with Artur Bodanzky conducting and Gertrude Kappel in the title role. Fritz Reiner led the Swedish-born Astrid Varnay in the 1950s, while Inge Borkh essayed the part in the early 1960s. Hailed as a conductor’s showpiece, the opera has been presided over by the likes of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Arthur Rodzinsky, Thomas Beecham, Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Georg Solti, and James Levine.

Singers’ Roundtable

Elektra is also one of the most demanding roles in all opera, with a range of two octaves (and then some) going from middle C to high C. And few singers could match the high-voltage decibel levels of the inimitable Birgit Nilsson, although German soprano Hildegard Behrens’ dramatic sensibilities were not lost on Met Opera audiences. Other great interpreters of the part included sopranos Rose Pauly, Erna Schlüter, Anny Konetzni, Gwyneth Jones, and now Nina Stemme.

Initially, director Chéreau had chosen Evelyn Herlitzius as his Elektra at Aix. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka repeated her assignment as Chrysothemis at both Aix and the Met. As mentioned above, the spacious setting was more in line with that of a madhouse than a royal palace at Mycenae. The curtain rises before any music is heard. Serving women come out on stage and begin their daily tasks. It’s only at this point that Elektra is let out from her cell that the opera proper begins. She has the wild look of a caged animal, of someone who has spent her formative years in solitary confinement.

Thr sisters Elektra (Nina Stemme) & Chrysothemis (Adrianne Cieczonka) werestling with their problems
The sisters Elektra (Stemme) & Chrysothemis (Adrianne Cieczonka) wrestle with their problems (Photo: Sara Krulwich / New York Times)

Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, with her large, soul-searching eyes and searing intensity, penetrated the massive orchestration with an emotionally charged, devastatingly credible interpretation of Elektra. From the big moments in her opening monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein!” to her frozen, immobile form at the opera’s conclusion, Stemme conveyed the character’s inability to act out her revenge with a wrenching poignancy only a handful of artists could begin to suggest. In this, and in many other senses, Elektra is Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the vengeance ploy is itself the very be-all and end-all of both tales. And Stemme was the right singer in the right spot to do full justice to the role.

As Chrysothemis (the sisters’ other sibling, Iphigenia, you’ll recall, was sacrificed to the gods in order that their father Agamemnon’s ships could have favorable wind in their sails), Pieczonka exemplified the caring yet pleading aspects of a family member who knows that Elektra needs much more aid and comfort (and a large dollop of TLC) than she alone can provide. Their scenes of sisterly “affection,” for lack of a better term, were sung with a clear line and easily distinguishable timbre by the two female leads. Desperation kicked in as Chrysothemis was loath to assist her sister in carrying out their mother’s murder.

Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss's Elektra. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Klytämnestra (Waltraud Meier) ponders her fate in Elektra (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Speaking of which, the one inventive element of this production was the manner in which Klytämnestra was portrayed. Normally, one would expect a cackling, over-stimulated, hysterical harpy, an individual wracked with pain and guilt and overburdened with having to deal with the intractable Elektra. Heck, this is one dysfunctional family member! Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, who in the past has undertaken such varied assignments as Wagner’s Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Kundry, Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck, as well as Verdi’s Princess Eboli in Don Carlo, was definitely NOT your grandfather’s Klytämnestra. Hers was a more (how shall one put it?) “humane” reading of this ignoble creature, and a valid one to say the least.

Past adherents of the part — I’m thinking of Met stalwart Regina Resnik, a superb singing actress and fellow James Monroe High School alumnus, along with Martha Mödl, another valuable exponent of Brünnhilde and Isolde who turned to mezzo roles late in her career — have uniformly depicted Elektra’s mom as an incorrigible virago. What Meier provided was meltingly beautiful tone and an unmistakable air of murky eventuality, along with justification for her and her paramour’s violent actions against the paterfamilias.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens as the avenging Orest (the German form of Orestes), whose own distinctive timbre and careful enunciation of the text (via permanently clenched teeth) has made him a frequently called-upon Alberich and Porgy, gave a more subdued portrait. Again, in Chéreau’s carefully wrought analysis, Orest is an even more reluctant participant than the norm. Don’t forget: his principle modus operandi is to seek retribution for his mother’s heinous act. Owens’ silence and stillness, in this instance, spoke wordless volumes.

Nina Stemme in the title role and Eric Owens as Orest in Richard Strauss's "Elektra". Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Elektra (Nina Stemme) embraces her brother Orest (Eric Owens) in Strauss’s Elektra (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The drama’s apex occurs past the midway point, in the duly famous “Recognition Scene,” where, moments before, Klytämnestra is told that a messenger has arrived bearing news of Orest’s death. That “messenger” is Orest in disguise. In this production, the Old Servant (wonderfully enacted by veteran James Courtney) and Orest’s guardian (bass Kevin Short) are given added prominence. Just as Elektra has realized that the stranger before her is indeed her beloved Brüder (with a brilliant shout of “Orest!” above another of those thunderous orchestral interludes), the two men come together in a warm embrace. Interestingly, at the Aix-en-Provence performance, these minor characters were enacted by Donald McIntyre and Franz Mazura, two war-weary veterans of Chéreau’s Bayreuth Ring — a delightful happenstance.

We must put in a plug as well for another veteran artist, soprano Roberta Alexander, as the Fifth Maidservant, whose lustrous vocal display at the beginning of the piece was praised and commented upon in both the Aix-en-Provence and Met Opera productions.

On an historical side note, the monumental irony of Strauss’ later years has been documented in Alex Ross’ richly researched tome, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Ross relates how the once renowned composer, who publicly supported Hitler and his Nazi Party, yet privately railed against them, was found by occupation forces at his villa in Garmisch; how a sign just outside the entranceway pointing to the house where the famous composer Richard Strauss lived, had declared it to be “Off Limits”; how, like Orest, Strauss’ visage was almost unrecognizable, until a music-loving American officer was able to vouch for the composer and rescue him from possible imprisonment (or worse).

A punishment for past misdeeds? Divine intervention? A Greek tragedy come to life? Who can say? Strauss had managed to stay in Germany when all the signs pointed to his getting out. In Ross’ factual account, “if he had left by himself, his extended family [and his Jewish daughter-in-law] would presumably have been sent to the concentration camps. Strauss had little choice but to undergo a humiliating process of self-rehabilitation” (Ross, p. 325).

If only others had been as fortunate!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Another Opening, Another Met Opera Show: Ringing in the New 2015-2016 Broadcast Year

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So Many Choices, So Little Time…

Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello (Photo: Met Opera)
Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, the Moor of Venice (Photo: Met Opera)

When one radio season ends, another begins. That’s how swiftly things move about in the fast-paced world of grand opera… I’m kidding, of course. Typically, there’s nothing slower than grand opera, especially those grandiose efforts by Wagner and sometimes by Strauss. Verdi tends to glide along at a fairly rapid clip, with Puccini even quicker. For the most part, verismo composers take a brisk view of their work, whereas the French savor over their output (and their ubiquitous ballet sequences).

But I do digress. This latest post will pay homage to the coming Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast season, scheduled to begin in early December 2015. The Met’s official gala opening night, however, gets underway three months before that, on September 21 (broadcast via satellite on SiriusXM radio), with a new production of Verdi’s Otello, to be heard later in the season on April 23, 2016. More about that venture when we come to it!

Soon after the close of the 2014-2015 season the Met’s management informed radio listeners that one of the show’s senior producers, Mary Jo Heath, had officially taken over the duties of announcer and host from the late Margaret Juntwait. Ms. Juntwait passed away on June 3rd of ovarian cancer, a tragic blow to long-time listeners who had grown accustomed to her on-air presence as only the third announcer in Met Opera broadcast history, and the first woman to assume the role.

Mary Jo Heath, the Met's new radio announcer and host
Mary Jo Heath, the Met Opera’s new radio announcer and host

A native of Norman, Oklahoma, Ms. Heath earned a Ph.D. in music theory from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, as well as Bachelor and Master’s degrees in music from the University of Oklahoma. Ira Siff, the late Ms. Juntwait’s co-host for the series, will remain on board to add “color” commentary to the proceedings. A wise decision! Siff’s gushing delivery and intimate knowledge of the art form, in addition to his affable repartee with and respect for colleagues, are most welcome. I wish the team well in their joint assignment!

With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get the opera show on the road!

We’ve already mentioned that the broadcast season kicks off on December 5th. The opening work on the program is that perennial favorite of the holiday season, La Bohème. It will star soprano Barbara Frittoli as the tubercular Mimì, Ramón Vargas as her poet-lover Rodolfo, Ana María Martínez as the flirtatious Musetta, and Levente Molnar as the painter Marcello, with Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, Christian van Horn as Colline, and John Del Carlo as Benoit/Alcindoro. Conducted by Paolo Carignani in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production (which has been filmed on several occasions, but with different casts), Puccini’s classic tale of young love was based, in part, on the composer’s own experiences as a struggling artist.

December 12 will bring us Verdi’s Rigoletto in Michael Mayer’s glitzy Las Vegas-style adaptation. Starring Željko Lučić as Rigoletto, Nadine Sierra as his daughter Gilda, Piotr Beczala as the lascivious Duke of Mantua (a Frank Sinatra wannabe in this production), Nancy Fabiola Herrera as the hooker Maddalena, and Dimitry Ivashchenko as the hit-man Sparafucile, it will be led by Roberto Abbado. I thoroughly enjoyed this version of the opera, which is similar, in many respects, to an earlier production by Jonathan Miller (from the 1980s) that set the story in New York’s mob-controlled Little Italy.

Joyce DiDonato (center) in La Donna del Lago (Met Opera)
Joyce DiDonato (center) in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (Met Opera)

Moving on to the bel canto realm, the December 19 broadcast reintroduces audiences to Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (“The Lady of the Lake”) in a production by Paul Curran, with Joyce DiDonato as Elena, Daniela Barcellona in the trouser role of Malcolm, the spectacular Lawrence Brownlee as Giacomo V, John Osborn as Rodrigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. The conductor is Michele Mariotti. The opera is based on a romantic poem by Sir Walter Scott, the same author who fired Donzietti’s imagination with Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s a 16th-century tale of knights and damsels in distress set in the Scottish highlands. The difference is: everyone warbles in Italian! Mamma mia!

What better post-Christmas present than a December 26 broadcast of Rossini’s infectious The Barber of Seville, produced by Bartlett Sher and given in J.D. McClatchy’s English translation. Anthony Walker is on the podium, with Elliot Madore as Figaro, Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva, Isabel Leonard as Rosina (one of her most in-demand parts), Valeriano Lanchas as Dr. Bartolo, and Robert Pomakov as Don Basilio. I am not especially enamored of this adaptation, but the sets and costumes are a feast for the eyes, and the singing is on a generally high level. It’s something to look forward to on a cold, chilly Saturday afternoon, which should warm the cockles of one’s heart.

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

The New Year rings out in true January 2nd fashion with Johann Strauss Jr.’s effervescent Die Fledermaus, also sung in an English translation. The producers are Jeremy Sams and Robert Jones. With Met musical director James Levine at the helm, this performance should be nothing less than a rousing affair! It stars Susanna Phillips as Rosalinde and Adele Crowe as Adele. One of our favorite singers (and a delightful intermission host), mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, will take on the part of Prince Orlofsky, with Toby Spence as Eisenstein, Dimitri Pittas as Alfred the rambunctious Italian tenor, Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke, and Alan Opie as Frank. In my initial review of this production, I too found the English version a trifle forced and anachronistic. But it got the requisite laughs, so who am I to argue?

The most highly-anticipated production of the new season, however, involves the Met’s first-ever presentation of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy. That’s quite a major undertaking, but a long-delayed one in my view. The now-defunct New York City Opera had previously staged the three works way back in the 1960s and 1970s for their erstwhile singing sensation, the lively coloratura Beverly Sills. It’s a shame the Met never got around to giving Ms. Sills a better chance to shine in one of her bel canto specialties (barring the misconceived L’Assedio di Corinto by Rossini). Still, better late than never!

Donizetti's Anna Bolena (Met Opera)
A scene from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (Met Opera)

The trilogy starts the ball (or heads) rolling with David McVicar’s version of Anna Bolena on January 9, headed by the ravishing Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn, mezzo Jamie Barton (winner of the 2015 Richard Tucker Award) replacing the previously announced Elīna Garanča as her rival Jane Seymour, Tamara Mumford as Smeaton, Stephen Costello as Lord Percy, and Ildar Abdrazakov as Henry VIII. Marco Armiliato conducts. I found this production mostly drab in setting, but the colorful costumes by Jenny Tiramani and the choral work under Donald Palumbo are truly exceptional. In any case, the glamour and glitz should come from the singing. This was the case when the legendary prima donna Maria Callas revived the work in the now-famous 1957 Luchino Visconti production at La Scala.

Talk about glitz, the January 16 broadcast unveils a new production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (“The Pearl Fishers”), not heard at the Met in many, many generations. This stunningly beautiful piece, which has lately received a plethora of revivals domestically, was termed by Francis Robinson, one of the Old Met stalwarts from radio days gone by, as the most requested of productions. Mr. Robinson’s reasoning for why the company hadn’t staged the work in, oh, 100 years or so was that all of its best tunes are heard in Act I. How absurd! Bizet never wrote a catchier score (his final opus, Carmen, on which his fame now rests, came over a dozen years later). With that said, soprano Diana Damrau sings the part of Leila, with Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, and Nicolas Testé (Damrau’s real-life husband) as Nourabad. Gianandrea Noseda mounts the podium for this one. The production is by Penny Woolcock, with sets by Dick Bird and costumes by Kevin Pollard.

Pilgrim's Chorus from Wagner's Tannhäuser (Met Opera)
Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (Met Opera)

Next up, we have the January 23 broadcast of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, presided over by maestro James Levine, a renowned interpreter of the German master’s oeuvre. As you can see, the breadth and variety of opera on this coming season’s slate take in many neglected bel canto and modern masterworks — some more tuneful and/or respected than others — while those of Wagner have taken an unfortunate backseat. Why is that? Simply put, the singers most capable of breathing life into these demanding parts are few and far between.

However, the cast announced for this overdue revival of the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production is something to look forward to. Johan Botha, whose girth is almost as large as his voluminous voice, takes up the challenge of the title role (he was an excellent Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger, so that is some comfort). He’s joined by blonde bombshell Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth, Michelle De Young as the goddess Venus, Peter Mattei (his Amfortas in Parsifal was achingly moving) as Wolfram, and Günther Groissböck as the Langrave Hermann.

On January 30, Puccini’s final statement on the subject of opera, the lavishly conceived Turandot, is heard in the famously lavish Franco Zeffirelli production. Paolo Carignani conducts, with the laser-like tones of Nina Stemme as the icy Princess Turandot, beefy Italian tenor Marco Berti as the unknown Prince Calàf, Anita Hartig as the tender Liù, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk as the deposed Timur. Signor Zeffirelli is credited as both producer and set designer.

I’ve always wondered why the Met, of all places, has yet to present Turandot in either the original Franco Alfano-penned ending (with its additional high notes for tenor and soprano) or in the late Luciano Berio’s truer, albeit eerily dissimilar appendage. As opera-lovers are aware, Puccini died before he could complete his magnum opus. Leaving behind mere sketches, among which was a cryptic scrawl in his all-but unreadable handwriting of the words “poi Tristano” (“after Tristan”), Puccini expired never having seen his work performed. At the 1926 La Scala premiere, Arturo Toscanini laid down his baton at the point where Liù’s body is carried away by the populace. The next night’s performance included Alfano’s ending, as amended by the conductor. I once heard this original, unexpurgated ending in a late-1980s production at New York City Opera. It did not sound like Puccini at all, but it was fuller and more exciting than the truncated one we’ve been hearing. Let’s give it a shot, Mr. Gelb!

It’s Going to Be a Doozy!

Turning now to two jewels in the verismo crown, the double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (in David McVicar’s recent mounting) will return on February 6, with the Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi once more leading the orchestra for both works. Cavalleria will star Violeta Urmana as Santuzza, with the sensational Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee as Turiddu, and Ambrogio Maestri as Alfio. In Pagliacci we will be privileged to hear Roberto Alagna as Canio (one of his signature parts), Barbara Frittoli as Nedda, George Gagnidze as Tonio, and Alexey Lavrov as Silvio. I reviewed this production a few short weeks ago. At the time, I felt that, while it paid tribute to the verismo legacy in part, it was far from ideal. Given McVicar’s track record both at the Met and abroad, I remain hopeful he will be fine-tuning the production for the better.

February 13 is “make room for Verdi” day, with David McVicar’s Goya-inspired rendition of Il Trovatore, one of the Italian master’s darkest, most melodious early works. Marco Armiliato is back on the podium for this performance, with the marvelous Angela Meade as Leonora, Dolora Zajick in her signature role as the gypsy Azucena, Marcello Giordani as the troubadour Manrico (watch out for those high C’s!), stalwart Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count Di Luna, and Kwangchul Youn as Ferrando.

In late June, Opera News and other major publications announced the sad news that Siberian-born baritone Hvorostovsky had cancelled his performances through the summer of 2015 for treatment of a brain tumor. According to published reports, while his voice and vocal condition remain unimpaired, Dmitri’s “sense of balance has been severely affected.” We are indeed confident that this remarkable artist, whose main focus has been the Russian and Italian repertoire (in particular, the Verdi canon), will make a full and speedy recovery. Mr. Hvorostovsky was last season’s major highlight, what with that burnished voice and virile stage presence of his.

Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth I in Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)
Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth I in Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

Round two of the Donizetti Tudor Trilogy continues on February 20 with the broadcast of Maria Stuarda (“Mary Stuart”), in a repeat of David McVicar’s production. The sets and costumes are by John Macfarlane. We will once again be graced by the presence of Sondra Radvanovsky as Maria (or Mary Stuart). Elsa van den Heever will also be repeating her veddy British, very Bette Davis-like interpretation of Queen Elizabeth, along with Spanish tenor Celso Albelo as Leicester, Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil, and Kwangchul Youn as Talbot. Conducted by Roberto Frizza, this opera is notorious for perpetuating the myth (concocted by German playwright Friedrich Schiller) that Elizabeth I and her rival for the English throne, Mary Stuart, had actually met and traded insults with each other. This bit of creative license, while historically inaccurate, makes for thrilling theater. I can’t wait to hear Mary hurl her infamous “Vil bastarda!” (No translation necessary) at the neurotic ruler. Sparks are sure to fly!

And speaking of neurosis, February 27’s broadcast work is none other than Alban Berg’s notorious twelve-tone Lulu in another new production, this one conceived by renowned artist William Kentridge, who gave us Shostakovich’s The Nose (the opera, that is, not the organ) a few seasons back. It will be co-directed by Luc De Wit. The set designer is Sabine Theunissen, with production design by Catherine Meyburgh. Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s searing stage plays Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, and memorably enacted for the silent screen by Louise Brooks, the production stars the peerless Marlis Petersen as Lulu, Susan Graham as the gay Countess Geschwitz, Daniel Brenna as Alwa, Paul Groves as the Painter, Johan Reuter (fresh off his portrayal of Hans Sachs in last season’s Die Meistersinger) as Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper, and Franz Grundheber as the execrable Schigolch. Conducted by James Levine, whose championing and command of this work as well as Berg’s equally harrowing Wozzeck are justly celebrated.

Kristine Opolais in Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)
Kristine Opolais in Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

March comes in like a lion — on March 5th, to be exact —with a new Richard Eyre production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, considered to be the Italian composer’s first big international hit. With sets by Rob Howell and costumes by Fontini Dimou, this film noir variation on Puccini’s star-crossed lovers features the young and talented Kristine Opolais in the title role (with Manon as a femme fatale?), smoldering tenor Jonas Kaufmann as the Chevalier des Grieux, rising Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti as Manon’s brother Lescaut, and Brindley Sherratt as that old lecher Geronte. Fabio Luisi leads the way to ruin for our entranced pair.

The last time Manon Lescaut was revived in 2008, it was ill-served by the unfortunate miscasting of soprano Karita Mattila. One of the Finnish artist’s few failures, the normally fastidious Mattila, an exceptionally gifted actress and performer in her own right, simply did not evoke youth and beauty. Her lover on that occasion, tenor Marcello Giordani, also had problems projecting youthful vigor. Nevertheless, the Met decided to re-cast the work with a more, shall we say, visually credible couple. By the way, both Opolais and Kaufmann have partnered in this piece on more than one occasion — most recently, at the Royal Opera House in London.

On a lighter note, the March 12 broadcast will present Otto Schenk’s 2006 staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, starring that fabulously funny comic giant, bass-baritone Ambrogio Maestri, as the Don, with Eleonora Buratto as the shrewish Norina, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena, who caused a sensation in the previous season’s broadcast of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, as Ernesto, and Levente Molnar as Dr. Malatesta. Maurizio Benini conducts.

Oy vey! Prepare yourself on March 19th for more Donizetti — a rarity, I’ll have you know, for any North American opera house to include so many of his works — with a revival of Bartlett Sher and Michael Yeargan’s vibrant production of L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”). With richly-detailed costumes by Catherine Zuber, the opera will star Aleksandra Kurzak as Adina, and matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo, the Met’s newest tenor heartthrob, as the clueless Nemorino, with Adam Plachetka as Belcore, and veteran scene-stealer Alessandro Corbelli as the patter-spewing quack, Dr. Dulcamara. Enrique Mazzola will be in charge of the proceedings from the pit.

Restoration Efforts

Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight! Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, or The Marriage of Figaro, will certainly entertain you on March 26. The cast for this revival of Richard Eyre’s production from last season includes the hearty Anita Hartig as Susanna, chirpy Isabel Leonard as Cherubino, Luca Pisaroni as Count Almaviva, Mikhail Petrenko as Figaro, and Amanda Majeski as the Countess, with maestro Fabio Luisi putting the orchestra through its paces. The one thing here that caught my eye was the casting of Russian basso Petrenko as the very Italianate (or should I say Spanish) Signor Figaro. Petrenko has proven his versatility at the Met as the dignified monk Pimen in Boris Godunov and the sinister Duke Bluebeard in the recent Bluebeard’s Castle, so I’m expecting some surprises by his latest assignment.

This production is another of Eyre’s contributions (along with those of the aforementioned Messrs. McVicar and Sher) to the refurbishing project spearheaded by Met General Manager Peter Gelb. Livening up the standard repertoire has been one of Mr. Gelb’s goals, many of which have involved replacing the old Zeffirelli productions with ones espousing a fresher viewpoint. I’m glad to report that most of his efforts in this vein have been met with support and acclaim. However some of them, including a positively dreadful Tosca by the usually on-the-money Luc Bondy, gave way to derision in the press and a lukewarm audience reception.

Scene from Act II of Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Met Opera)
Scene from Act II of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Met Opera)

April showers bring May flowers, so they say. And in Madama Butterfly, scheduled for an April 2nd hearing, Puccini brought us lots and lots of tears. Here is one replacement of a major repertory item, first seen and heard back in 2006, that deserves the high praise it has garnered. An outstanding example of Gelb’s vision and foresightedness for the company, this Anthony Minghella production, with its fascinating use of Bunraku puppetry and inspired Kabuki-like displays, along with superb direction and choreography by Carolyn Choa, incredible set design by Michael Levine, and dazzling costume work by Han Feng, has been wowing the opera-going public for several seasons now. This revival boasts Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San, mezzo Maria Zifchak (always a welcome presence) as Suzuki, romantic lead Roberto Alagna as Lt. Pinkerton, and dependable Dwayne Croft as the sympathetic Sharpless. Karel Mark Chichon conducts. Get out your handkerchiefs, folks!

April 9 finds us back to Verdi territory, with the master’s darkly foreboding Simon Boccanegra. This version, the work of Giancarlo Del Monaco, the son of the great spinto tenor Mario Del Monaco, will star Plácido Domingo (in his faux-baritone guise) as the titular brigand-turned-doge, basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele Adorno, with James Levine presiding. Curiously, Amelia, Boccanegra’s long-lost daughter, is supposed to be announced. Let’s hope the singer assigned to this part won’t be lost for long.

I wonder, too, how long Señor Domingo will continue to cruise the baritone seas. It’s my sincere belief, expressed a few years ago in a review of his Germont characterization in La Traviata that the workaholic, over-achieving former leading man should “hang it up” as far as performing is concerned. From the reviews I’ve read of his performances of late, Mr. Domingo’s softly-modulated tones and near-inaudibility in the theater have been hampering any number of forays. It’s time for the legendary artist to call it a night and gracefully retire from the scene.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux (Met Opera)
Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux (Met Opera)

April 16 will mark the final installment of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, with a new production of Roberto Devereux. Our old friend, Sir David McVicar, will be serving as both production and set designer, with costumes designed by Moritz Junge. Maurizio Benini will lead the all-star cast, which boasts powerhouse diva Sondra Radvanovsky in a recurrence of her quirky Queen Elizabeth interpretation (as a much older monarch, of course), followed by mezzo Elīna Garanča who returns to sing Sara, Matthew Polenzani as Roberto Devereux (who, you may remember from Errol Flynn’s screen appearance alongside Bette Davis, is actually Robert, Earl of Essex), and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as the Duke of Nottingham.

The Best is Yet to Come

We now come to what is, for me, the ultimate pièce-de-résistance of the Italian operatic repertoire: the April 23 broadcast of Verdi’s next-to-last masterpiece Otello, based on Shakespeare’s play. With a masterful libretto by poet and composer Arrigo Boito (whose own opera, Mefistofele, is scheduled for a Met revival a few years hence), this extraordinary piece — the musical and dramatic equivalent of being sprayed with titanic ocean currents — when rightly performed, has to be one of the most visceral experiences of any imaginable. I vividly recall a threadbare production from the early-1980s with a no-name cast in some remote Manhattan corner. While the singing left much to be desired, the sheer sound that emanated from the orchestra during the volcanic opening storm scene was thrilling beyond anything I have heard in the theater.

This is another of those Bartlett Sher productions, sight unseen for the moment but for which great things are expected; the sets are by Es Devlin, and costume design the work of Catherine Zuber. The cast is headed by Latvian-born Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, who has established a reputation among the cognoscenti as a dramatic tenor in the Del Monaco mold. I’ve listened to his portrayals of the bandit Ramerrez in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and as the Pretender Dimitri in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. If I what I heard holds true, we are in for an exceptional afternoon of opera. With soprano Hibla Gerzmava singing Desdemona, Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as the duplicitous Iago, and veteran James Morris as the Italian ambassador Lodovico, this promises to be an equally thrilling ride. The conductor is Hungarian-born Ádám Fischer, although opening night is slated for the dynamic Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

April 30 is a date you will not want to miss: that incredibly concentrated, psychologically probing one-act shocker Elektra by Richard Strauss, will be the featured work. Starring the sterling voiced Nina Stemme as the put upon title character this is a realization of the late Patrice Chéreau’s posthumous production which became a critical and artistic success in France and Italy. Others in the cast include Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis, Waltraud Meier as the evil Klytämnestra, Eric Owens as Orest, Burkhard Ulrich as Aegisth, and conducted by orchestral master Esa-Pekka Salonen. Chéreau’s frequent collaborator, Richard Peduzzi, is credited with the set design, along with costume designer Caroline de Vivaise and stage director Vincent Huguet. Whew! I can feel the tremors already!

Scene from Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)
Scene from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)

The radio season ends on May 7 on an agreeable comic note, with a revival of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, featuring soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze, the perky Kathleen Kim as Blonchen, tenor Paul Appleby as Belmonte, basso profundo Hans-Peter König as Osmin, and Matthias von Stegmann in the speaking part of the Pasha Selim. Conducted by James Levine, this is one of the few active productions to have been directed by the late John Dexter, a pioneer on the Broadway and London stage as well as in the opera house. The set and costume designer is Jocelyn Gilbert, with lighting by Gil Wechsler.

So there you have it, fans, a season rich in firsts and the last word in fullness! Will the Met’s continuing financial troubles and union demands delay the start of the new season? Will the company be able to overcome the chronic shortage of adequate covers? Stay tuned for further developments as they arrive…

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes