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Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Opera House’

I have a friend who likes Richard Strauss but dislikes Der Rosenkavalier. He says it is Strauss’s most overrated work. The first time he told me that, I asked him what about the Marschallin’s monologue, the delivery of the silver rose and the final trio? His answer was “Precisely: you have to endure two hours of cacophony to get 45 minutes of beautiful music”. Of course, I disagree with him, but I understand that he has a point. The great challenge of conducting this score is to integrate both tingle-factor highlights and the Falstaff-like comedy scenes, exactly as the Leitmotiv structure concocted by Richard Strauss and also the mirrored Marschallin/Octavian and Ochs/Sophie situations devised by Hofmannsthal demand. Some conductors achieve that by Marschallinizing the whole opera, most notably Herbert von Karajan in his glamorized melancholy performances with Anna Tomowa-Sintow and Kurt Moll in Salzburg. Others Ochsify the three acts, by keeping things objective and kaleidoscopic as Karl Böhm, most notably in his formidable performances with Christa Ludwig and Tatiana Troyanos also in Salzburg. Both share the same secret ingredient: the Vienna Philharmonic. Some will say Carlos Kleiber could get the best of both worlds, especially in his last recording with Felicity Lott and Kurt Moll. He had the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (i.e., the Vienna Philharmonic’s day job) then.

I don’t know if Simon Rattle shares Karajan’s or Böhm’s credo, but he definitely does not fall into the Carlos Kleiber slot. At the end of act 2, I was about to say that he had to be classified in the Karajan group, for the complex counterpoint of the ensembles in Faninal’s Stadtpalais proved to be beyond his possibilities. And the fact that he does not have the Vienna Philharmonic made it more difficult for him. The Met Orchestra is not the nec plus ultra in terms of clarity of articulation, and its brass section has its bumpy moments. Sir Simon chose forward movement as his Ariadne’s thread in this labyrinthic score, but that often involved blurred orchestral playing, clouded phrasing and unsubtleness. If I could mention a composer in which Simon Rattle is at home this would be Gustav Mahler, whose music – if contemporary to that of R. Strauss (they knew each other, as a matter of fact) – requires an entirely different approach. Here I noticed that Rattle tended to look for a Hauptstimme, invested everything in it and let the myriad of secondary voices fall into place by themselves. That might work in the Lied von der Erde, but unfortunately not here. This is a score that has to be built brick by brick and not by assembling components. On the other hand, act 1 seemed more successful at first – the conductor was able to keep the aural image symphonic, with beautiful interplay between woodwinds and singers, but he had light-voiced soloists (or something like that) and refrained from pressing the turbo button when the music cried for more intensity. A similar effect could have been achieved by a flexible beat, but his one trick was rhythmic regularity. I wondered how the final trio could deliver its full emotional content under these circumstances. It did not. It showed no development in terms of dynamics, tempo or intensity. And then there was the problem with the cast.

It is a tradition to start with the leading soprano and so I’ll speak first of Camilla Nylund, who happened to be the most successful singer this evening. Ms. Nylund’s big lyric soprano, even in its prime, lacked radiance in its high notes. Above the passaggio, it acquires a velvety, floated quality that tends to stay on stage rather than pierce into the auditorium. In the role of the Marschallin, this natural float helped her all the way. Instead of shifting into mezza voce every time she needed to suggest pensiveness, she just had to keep doing her thing. And her middle register has the necessary warmth and plushness to suggest the chic the role really needs. There were moments when one wanted a little bit more pointedness of delivery or presence (the final trio, for instance), but her naturalness had a patrician glow to it and that made do. This Marschallin was above trying to make an impression. This woman was the measure of all things in her world.

I once bought a ticket to see Magdalena Kozena’s Octavian in Berlin but couldn’t make it and had never overcome the feeling of unfinished business until this evening. I feared that the Met might be too big an auditorium for her reedy Mozartian mezzo and my intuition proved to be right. Ms. Kozena is a singer incapable of carelessness – she sings every note and utter every word as if they were the most important thing in the world, but I am not sure if the audience in Family Circle could hear that. When Strauss requires the full orchestra, her low notes were inaudible and her high notes could be hooty or fluttery. When surrounded by chamber-like sonorities, however, she relished in poised phrasing and sounds of instrumental purity. In terms of stage presence, her Octavian was convincingly boyish and aristocratic. Her Mariandl, nevertheless, lacked the necessary tomboy quality. As shown here, the Count Rofrano had a natural talent to walk on high heels.

As Sophie, Golda Schultz displayed absolute ease throughout her whole range. She was hands down the singer with best low notes in the role in my experience live in the theatre. At the same time, she did not have to change any gears to float her high notes in the delivery of the silver rose. She sang from beginning to end with musicianship, abandon and charm. And yet the absence of silvery quality in her voice made her small-scaled and excessively discreet. With such a self-contained Sophie, the final trio sounded like a sundae without the cherry on top. I don’t think either that the role is close to this singer’s personality – although she worked hard to be the damsel in distress, the acting seemed to be build from the outside in rather than inside out.

When Günther Groissböck appeared on stage, I had to adjust my ears to the fact that, even if his voice was firm and solid to the super low notes, it sounded bottled up and lacking resonance. When I saw him sing this role in the Grosses Festspielhouse, it hardly sounded gigantesque, but here it made me wonder if the whole process of becoming a Wotan is really working. Back in Bayreuth in August, my impression was very different. So I would rather consider that he was not in his best night. Curiously, Markus Eiche, who in Bayreuth would never be counted as a forceful baritone, here – through clarity of emission and precision of focus – was the most hearable person on stage.

Der Rosenkavalier is an opera difficult to cast – the many small roles require important voices and I cannot say that I heard something close to efficient this evening. Matthew Polenzani’s Italian Tenor came close – he sang richly and showed amazing breath control, but the tone was far from ingratiating.

I had not seen before this evening Robert Carsen’s 2017 production for the Met, but it looks and sound as the watered down version of his 2004 production for Salzburg, where lots of ideas just hinted at here were fully developed. There, Ochs’s philandering is a façade for a mix of some sort of erectile and moral dysfunction, the Marschallin is a regular of the demimonde shown in act 3 and the ghost of World War I hovers around the opera rather than decorates the last scene. I cannot say I liked Carsen’s first attempt – I found it incoherent and kitsch – but it made sense somehow. The version “for all audiences” is incoherent, kitsch and silly.

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It is almost unfair as a good performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is usually taken for granted. Asked about the starry casts she used to be part of in the Vienna State Opera, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf once said that those were singers who matured together under the supervision of knowledgeable conductors through a heavy rehearsal schedule and that it was only natural that they responded so immediately to each other and to the music. In other words, you cannot produce an ensemble out of thin air in two weeks. And if there is an ensemble opera in the repertoire, this is Le Nozze di Figaro. For this score to work, the sections of the orchestra and every singer in the cast must be well-integrated the same way the registers of a Mozartian singer’s voice should be. Nothing can stand out, it’s either perfect balance or fiasco. That is why I keep my expectations very low whenever I go to the theatre to visit the Almavivas, Figaro and Susanna. I am thankful for what can be salvaged and deem myself satisfied if I can remember two or three numbers that went really well.

Even in my low expectation policy, I expected very little of this evening’s performance. To start with, the sheer size of the Metropolitan Opera auditorium is a challenge in itself for a conductor to achieve ideal balance in scores meant for theatres smaller than the Met’s barn. Ideally, one would need singers of surpassing means and immaculate technique, an orchestra with extraordinarily flexible strings and a chorus of unusual clarity. The problem is: the house orchestra is not famous for clarity of articulation and the chorus is notoriously unwieldy. Conductor Antonello Manacorda had the difficult task of trying to make something really delicate out of inadequate raw material. Without considering the circumstances, the performance could be described as dull, unclear and inert. There was a high level of mismatches between singers and the orchestra, the playing of which was often poor in articulation and limited in color and dynamic. And things tended to be even stodgier when Mozart makes texture more complex, as in both act 2 finale and the finale ultimo. Now, if one considers the circumstances, if the musical side of the evening did not add much in terms of expression, it didn’t stand in the way of the stage performance.

Richard Eyre’s staging is hardly illuminating – I took a while to understand it was not Michael Grandage’s Glyndebourne production. There is nothing new or coherent or deeper than superficial in the Personenregie either, but – and this is not a small “but” -it was truly efficient. You may call it cute, unimaginative, slapstick, plagiarized (and it often was all of that), but the comedy timing never failed. All members of the cast seemed comfortable with each other, with what they had to do and they seemed to be having fun, what is a must for a comedy. I laughed, everybody laughed.

I have to be honest: I wasn’t eager to see Susanna Phillips’s Countess. Everything I had heard from her would not make me foresee anything of interest this evening. Porgi, amor has plainly defeated many a famous soprano and I braced for the worst, but Ms. Phillips – even if she and the conductor couldn’t agree about the beat – attacked her notes with surprising purity. The tone was a bit whimpery, intonation had its dubious moments, but she really tried to do the right thing. She developed steadily from her entrance. I am bit cranky about Countesses who don’t sing their high notes in the trio with Susanna and the Count, but the voice warmed to a round, creamy sound and, other than a wiry last phrase, her Dove sono was ideally sung. Again, she got a bit nervous with having to produce 100% pure tone when she forgave the Count for his bad behavior, but in the end I enjoyed her singing. Under the right conductor, she could really nail it. As it was, it was interesting and occasionally satisfying. Her Susanna, Nadine Sierra, was really in charge of keeping the plot moving and, if her acting was too pointed, she showed herself never less than fully committed. Her voice is not what one expects in this role – it never sparkles or gleams and she has the habit of stressing the last syllable of every phrase, even when it should go unstressed, but her Italian is usually believable, she can float mezza voce when she needs and her low notes are better than what one hears in the role. Even announced as indisposed, Gaëlle Arquez was a dulcet, stylish Cherubino, really at home in this repertoire. The three ladies indulged in discrete ornamentation.

Adam Plachetka had no problem in portraying the Count as a nasty, irascible master. Yet his grainy bass baritone seems to have lost some volume since I last saw him. And his singing tended to the emphatic in a way that tampered with legato. The stretta of his big aria was almost unmusical and his variations of what Mozart wrote felt as plainly wrong. Luca Pisaroni’s voice too sounded less spacious than what I was used to hear. Some of his high notes grated too and I would have mistaken him as the one with the flu. At this point, his Figaro runs dangerously close to sounding artsy,  and yet he is an alert actor and keeps the audience on his side. Brindley Sherratt was a forceful, firm-toned Bartolo, Meigui Zhang displayed a warm soprano as Barbarina and it was surprising to find Giuseppe Filianoti as Basilio.

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Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades was the first opera I have ever seen. Those were the days I did not care much for vocal music, but it must have worked it charm for here I am. Curiously I had forgotten about that until I got myself a ticket for today’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera. Until this afternoon, I had never seen it again – and the truth is that I can’t say I really like it. I find it a bit all over the place with its multitude of secondary characters who get to sing an aria, some of them longer than Basilio’s In quegli anni in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and its cute atmospheric scenes (not to mention the intermezzo) that only let the steam of dramatic tension off. And yet listening to Rostropovich’s recording to renew my acquaintance with this work there was this moment during Lisa and Hermann’s first duet that did the trick for me. Lisa does not resist her emotions and cannot help crying. When Hermann sees that a woman he thought to be entirely unaware of his existence returns his feelings, he is so overwhelmed that he cannot even form a sentence. He says “My beauty… my goddess… angel”. Unlike the character in Pushkin’s short story, Tchaikovsky’s Hermann longed not for the money but for the girl. As the girl happened to be rich, the money was something he needed to get to her, but then the prodigy happened: he managed to won her heart in spite of his lack of wealth. She had fallen for his tormented eyes. Therefore, the torment had to go on – it was more than the bond between them, it was his very essence. He would perish without it – and so he does. And this kind of feeling, this is exactly what Tchaikovsky knew how to put into music.

If conductor Vasily Petrenko did not offer his audience that, one must take in account the forces available to him this afternoon. From the first bars, I realized that this performance would be very different from what one hears in Rostropovich’s Paris recording, where every chord is driven by some sort of force. From bar one and even through the children chorus and the ball scene, one hears that this is not going to end well. And Rostropovich did that with a subpar orchestra and a colorful cast. But that was a studio recording. Mr. Petrenko, on the other hand, is debuting at the Met and has a show to carry on. And he does it with a soprano new to the role, a tenor light for the part, a chorus not entirely at ease and an orchestra with limited availability for rehearsals. And in spite of all that, he offered a polished account of the score, the house orchestra particularly warm and smooth in sound, all singers taken care of and in the hands of a conductor sensitive to their needs, and one who knows the music from inside out, as the audience could hear in the absolute clarity and structural coherence of this afternoon’s music making. But the white heat, the paroxysm, the Angst, one would have to look elsewhere for all that.

Much has been written about Lise Davidsen’s first Lisa. She had been accused of not being Nilsson or Flagstad and now she is blamed for not being Vishnevskaya nor Milashkina. The problem with Ms. Davidsen is simple: music lovers have been waiting  so long for someone like her to show up on operatic stages that now that she is here it has been difficult for everyone to accept that her job is not fulfilling the fantasies of every member in the audience simultaneously, but rather serving music and text with her own voice and imagination. And I am happy to see she has been true to herself and is building her own career in her very own terms. Yes, Ms. Davidsen’s Lisa lacks the vibrancy and intensity of a Vishnevskaya or the plangency and roundness of tone of a Milashkina. To say the truth, she does not sound at all as a Russian soprano. Her Lisa turns around restraint – her sizable soprano kept in strict control throughout the opera. Both her big arias are sung with Schubertian discipline, her high notes effortlessly hit without showiness. It is almost a performance about what you don’t hear: the luxuriant mezzo-ish depth in the low register and the Valkyrian power in its top notes are at an arm’s reach, but kept under leash, exactly as the character in the opera, the girl who was supposed to go straight from the strict supervision of her grandmother to the suffocating affection of a husband she knows very little about until she finally succumbs to the vortex of passion and obsession of a foreigner in a world where she feels foreign too, although she was born in it. Yes, this is not what one usually hears in the role – and maybe the way it has always been done is ultimately more efficient – but in the context of this performance, Lise Davidsen’s subtle glow worked wonders. In terms of acting, she showed the same economy of means and would have been far more efficient if the Spielleitung had not insisted in some sort of fidgety blocking with no added insight. Her best scene was therefore the ball, where she moved with aristocratic poise, but oozed anxiety in every gesture.

Yusif Eyvazov’s Hermann is a whole different story. He displayed acquaintance with the style, crispness of textual delivery and even more than that – awareness not only of the dramatic situations, but also of the words in the libretto. In the onstage discussion after the performance, he joked about how his wife, Anna Netrebko, told him that his problem in this opera wouldn’t be what he had to sing, but what he had to act. Mr. Eyvazov is hardly a force of nature in terms of acting, it is true, but he knows what he can do and, within his possibilities, offered a vulnerable take on the role that makes sense to the text, but not necessarily to the music. When one listens to Vladimir Atlantov sing this part, there is not much room for subtlety, but the weight of a voice like that and the intensity of every utterance sounds simply right. Mr. Eyvazov is no dramatic tenor. He copes alright with the heroic writing, but the voice lacks volume and slancio to fully pierce through thick orchestration and, at the same time, is short on roundness of tone and fluidity for him to be called a “lyric tenor”. Although he has no problem with high notes, the voice lacks squillo. One feels something is missing, high overtones I would say.

Both Igor Golovatenko’s Yeletsky and Alexey Markov’s Tomsky benefited from firm, velvety voices, but Elena Maximova’s Pauline could have done without the harshness in her high register. Larissa Diadkova has stage presence and her low register is still imposing and fruity. Her approach to the Countess, however, lacked mystery. Normally, this is a character that seems to be made of a different substance from the other people on stage, but here she seemed very much like everyone else. It was also a good surprise to find Paul Groves as a firm-toned Tchekalinsky and Jill Grove relishing the competiton for darkness of tone with Russian altos in her short appearance as the governess. I cannot say how proficient the cast is in the language of Pushkin, though.

I won’t write much about Elijah Moshinski’s production. I would say that a traditional staging oughts to offer far more in terms of characterization than the pointless running to and fro seen here, but 1) one could say that this is not truly traditional, considering the stylized sets and costumes, but, anyway, it is lackadaisical and vacuous to a fault; 2) it was first seen at the Met in 1995 and it is difficult now to say what the director really accomplished back then.

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When I first saw David McVicar’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore for the Met back in 2009, I remember feeling shortchanged when I left the theatre. This is an opera that thrives on white heat, and lukewarm won’t ever make do. Nine years of use have not made it more exciting, but rather duller and drearier. One could say that nobody goes to Il Trovatore for the staging, but then one would be entitled to an exciting musical performance.

Maestro Marco Armiliato is hardly the world’s most exciting conductor, but he is undeniably a reliable one who makes something of whatever he has to work with. Ths evening fulfilled some of the basic requirements: the tempi were ebullient enough, the conductor was attentive to dramatic effects and helped out his singers without making it too obvious. However, other than the world’s best anvils, the house orchestra sounds ill-at-ease in this work. Rereading what I wrote in 2009 – and what I have just written this weekend – I am forced to acknowledge that I am repeating myself, but here it goes again: the sound lacks brightness and flexibility. You actually can use a full-toned, full-powers orchestral sound in Verdi – as Herbert von Karajan had, for very exciting results, but his cast had some high-octane voices such as Elena Obrasztova.

This evening’s group of “four best singers in the world” started off with the replacement of Italy’s favorite new lyric soprano, Maria Agresta, by Jennifer Rowley, the Met’s favorite stand-in singer this year. I had seen her previously as Tove in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in São Paulo and couldn’t help findint it curious to see her as Leonora. Hers is a voice forced into a sound different from the one intended by nature. In its manipulated present state, it has a nondescript tonal quality in its darkened vowels, and the insufficient focus does not truly carry it into the auditorium. When things get too high and fast, she lightens it a bit and then she manages to acquit herself quite commendably in some difficult passages, such as the cabaletta of the Miserere, Tu vedrai che amor in terra, and the ensuing duet with the baritone. As much as her hard work deserves praise, it is ultimately a performance about the mechanics. earthbound and short in expression.

This evening, Leonora and Manrico have more than the enmity of the Count di Luna in common: both have an extreme fondness for an artifficialy darkened sound. It is admirable the amount of energy employed by Yonghoon Lee to keep the illusion of a dramatic voice, and the fact that he is only very intermittently tired makes it even more remarkable. Although his idea of interpretation is a series of variations on ardor, it is also true that he is capable of singing piano and producing seamless legato now and then. His act-4 duet with Azucena particularly smooth. I confess I cannot really watch him doing his Bergonzi-like stand-and-deliver stage routine without sense of Fremdscham, but with my eyes closed the splash of James King in the sound of his voice made his Manrico quite appealing to my ears. If it were not for a Di quella pira reduced to one verse nonetheless shorn of many notes written by the composer to acommodate a long but not truly flashing final interpolated note, he could be the most decent Manrico in the market these days.

Luca Salsi’s baritone too is a couple of sizes smaller than the role of the Count, but, differently from tenor and soprano, his voice sounds natural and his diction is crystal-clear. Only when things get really Verdian – i.e., high and dramatic – his attempt of beefing up his high register ends up a bit hooty and wooden. In any case, he shares with the evening’s prima donna the ability of holding very long lines, even when tested by the writing. The fact that he is comfortable with the bad-guy attitude rounded off a performance in which the sum was greater than the parts. His interaction with a Kwangchul Youn in excellent voice made for some of the best moments this evening.

On paper, Anita Rachvelishvili’s mezzo is on the light side for the role of Azucena, but this resourceful Georgian singer did not seem fazed by that. Hers was a take on the role entirely different from everyone else’s. In her fruity tonal quality and ability to spin long legato phrases, she portrayed primarily the vulnerabilty, the bereavement, the loneliness. Her Azucena was more passive-aggressive than commanding – and only when the character’s mental imbalance is speaking does Ms. Rachvelishvili unleashes her reserves of power to produce a more conventionally dramatic sound. This vocal ambiguity made her take on the part revelatory in many ways. Also in terms of style. I could not help imagining that this was closer to what Verdi must have heard than the behemoth mezzo with abysmal chest register usually heard in this repertoire.

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For decades, a performance of a Wagner opera at the Met would mean that it would be conducted by the music director James Levine, whose credentials had been endorsed by 15 seasons in Bayreuth. Since decaying health and PR debacle put an end to his career, the New York opera house had its share of Italian maestros but finally has decided to look closer to home in its own new music director, Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Seguin. He is no newcomer in this repertoire, having conducted Lohengrin and Der fliegende Holländer in the Vienna State Opera, for example.

In the first bars of this evening’s performance I did think of my only Parsifal in Vienna (1999, Jun Märkl) in its clarity and cleanliness. Later on, the absence of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and its refulgent string section would be missed. The Met Orchestra can produce Wagnerian orchestral sound, but not really within the limits of this lighter and more transparent sound picture, when it veers towards the colorless and poorly articulated. It is no wonder that the purely orchestral passages would be the highlights of this performance.

Blaming the orchestra (and the chorus, whose lack of purity is particularly problematic in this piece) would be oversimplifying matters. Mr. Nézet-Seguin is an extremely objective Wagnerian, in a way that would make Georg Solti sound like Hans Knappertsbusch in comparison. As long as his straight-to-the-matter approach was allied to a certain directness in what regards tempo, this proved to be a viable and valid approach, not dissimilar to Riccardo Muti’s Wagner performances at La Scala (dismissed by many as overfast and unambitious). The first scene with Amfortas, however, hinted at a problematic turn in his concept. There, the conductor tried something more traditionally Wagnerian, i.e., flexibility of beat in order to achieve a certain gravitas to the proceedings. Then, one started to feel an increasing number of full stops in the discourse. Without depth of sound and no real profoundness of meaning, pauses sounded like silence and rubato sounded like lingering.

Act 2 is the one that generally benefits from conductors who keep things moving on, but here Mr. Nézet-Seguin seemed conflicted between Reginald Goodall and Pierre Boulez. His shifting from overslow to overfast would make some specialists in baroque opera envious. When you have singers of legendary tonal variety, they can fill in the blanks of the orchestral playing. Knappertsbusch had Martha Mödl and Régine Crespin in Bayreuth. This was not always the case this evening. As usual, act 3 tends to inspire conductors to give their best and the final note was rather positive, if not truly illuminating.

I had seen Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry in Tokyo and was a bit disappointed by the fact that she was caught short with the exposed acuti in the end of act 2. For this second encounter, I decided to hope that she would be in top form and flash Spitzentöne in the auditorium. I couldn’t be more off the mark. As a matter of fact, Ms. Herlitzius has never sung more subtly than she did this evening. She tried all kinds of softer dynamics and her intent to sing legato even involved the use of portamento. As she deals with the text adeptly, one felt drawn to her interpretation. The problem remains that, if her control of the passaggio was masterly, she still finds the dramatic high notes difficult, what is surprising for an experienced Brünnhilde. Sometimes, her voice sounded poorly focused, even if the squalliness was less pronounced than what one would expect.

Klaus Florian Vogt’s monochrome Parsifal is not the best fit to this performance. Whenever the conductor gave him time to produce a dramatic effect, one would just hear a note sung after the other with very little affection. Maybe I’ve grown too accustomed to James King’s recordings, but it all sounded reined in and lacking dynamic variety. It is true that the one color suggests innocence and youth, but this is a long opera and one needs a little bit more than that.

Peter Mattei’s tighly focused baritone is consistently pleasant to the ears and he phrases with the imagination and sensitivity of a Lieder singer. His Amfortas sounded particularly vulnerable and expressive. He would be tested when the writing demanded a little bit more power, and this was the only thing between him and complete success in this role. This was not a problem shared by Evgeny Nikitin, whose superpowerful bass-baritone finds no difficulty  in the role of Klingsor. Moreover, he seems to have fun in bad-guy roles. It is a pity that René Pape was not in his best voice. The way it grated whenever he tried mezza voce made me think he has the flu or something like that. He would sound more comfortable in act 3, but even then this does not compare to his usual standards in the role. In any case, this is still comparing him to himself.

I am not sure about François Girard’s 2013 production. It is indeed very creative in its low-cost quality and the way it explores powerful and simple symbols, but the red/black/white colors and the wet-baby-doll-contest Flower-maidens made me think of Las Vegas. Also, the male/female imbalance storyline has been – even if less clearly – more insightfully explored elsewhere.

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I remember the Met’s old production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, even though I had never seen it live. One can still see it in two different DVDs, both with Luciano Pavarotti. One of them features Judith Blegen, the other one has Kathleen Battle. Having seen it on video makes for an experience for those who have the opportunity to see the “new” production at the Met. In its cardboard sceneries and kind-of period costumes and cuteness it looks a hundred years older than the “old” production.

It is also more expertly directed and truly better acted than what we can see on video. The comedy timing is almost always impeccable and even individual chorus members seem to be aware of their “motivations”. Its 2012 premiere had Anna Netrebko and Matthew Polenzani, who happens to be this afternoon’s Nemorino. It is praiseworthy that his long experience in it does not turn out calculated or bureaucratic, but rather as well-mastered and effective in his portray of the likable but unsexy.

Vocally, his performance is less persuasive. His once dulcet tenor now sounds quite grainy and open-toned. Even if a smoother legato would make all the difference in the world, he generally sings with poise and sense of style. Curiously not in his big aria, in which he sounded oversentimentalized, effortful and overreliant on falsetto. Someone like Pavarotti could get away with Verdianizing his Donizetti, but that’s an entirely different voice.

I had never seen Pretty Yende live before and YouTube videos did not made me look forward to it. Hearing her in the theatre made has the opposite effect on me. Her aim in life seems to be proving that you can sing with the full range of overtones and still sound bright and focused. There are moments when she really manages it and the sound is simply gorgeous. There are also moments when you can see that she is negotiating in her mind if she should sing the next note bright and light or full and round. Normally, the bright and light option is the right answer, but I reckon she likes the full and round better. Those are the moments when the voice sounds smoky and unfocused – and I could bet that this is when the microphone does not flatter her. Anyway, Ms. Yende got me under her spell with her unbridled joie de chant. She is on stage as if she were in the place she has always wanted to be and her singing sounds like someone who is doing her favorite thing in the world. She tackles every trill, run and mezza voce passages not as challenges but as opportunities to show the audience how thrilling these effects are. Moreover she has a lovely stage presence and an irresistible smile. She made this performance something refreshing.

Davide Luciano’s Belcore was aptly light and flexible and he managed the be funny without exaggerations. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, on the other hand, did not seem comfortable with clowniness and tried to do his Dr. Dulcamara in his own hipster-ish way. That has somehow and surprisingly worked. There was something wild and potentially dangerous about this con guy, and that made the show more interesting. With the right director, it could even be revelatory. He sang it accordingly, without buffo effects and in an important tonal quality, forceful, firm and dark.

Conductor Domingo Hindoyan seems to have the right approach to this score. He kept the proceedings light, clear and forward-moving, but the Met orchestra (probably not in is A-team version given that there is Parsifal to be played in the evening) sounded opaque and unfinished, entirely un-Italianate. Sometimes he would try an accelerando effect to mark the change of atmosphere, but his musicians would sometimes feel ill-at-ease following his beat then. Not the singers, to whom Mr. Hindoyan was always alert. Unfortunately, the chorus was in very poor shape, especially the women. Finally, a hearable Gianetta would make all the difference in the world in ensembles .

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Expectations can play tricks with our opinions. When I bought a ticket for this Don Giovanni, starting only three hours after a complete performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, I was not still convinced that I would really use it: I’ve never had luck with Don Giovanni at the Met and there were just a couple of names in the cast that seemed to make it worthwhile. But I’ve made it and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. If someone is responsible for my good impression, this is primarily Fabio Luisi, who offered an exemplary big-house Mozart performance, showing how flexible the Met’s opera violins can be, highlighting woodwinds as it should be and keeping the natural rhythmic flow, while using the power of a big orchestra to create the right theatrical effect. He also proved to be very attentive to his singers, helping them to make their best. For some members of the cast, this was more than providential – it was life-saving.

It is puzzling that, although this evening’s was far from being a dream team for this opera, it delivered the goods somehow. As a matter of fact, the problems were to be found more on the ladies’ side. I won’t deny that I was not very happy about the possibility of seeing Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna for the second time. Last time in Moscow was not truly compelling, and it was a good surprise to see how much she has developed this part since then. She still sounds hooty and hard-pressed when things get high and fast (and her dealing with coloratura is more a matter of resolve than of technical abandon), but her pronunciation of Italian language, her textual clarity and dramatic purpose are undeniably improved. She could more often than not produce Mozartian phrase of unusual purity and power and, whenever that happened, the effect was almost Golden Age standard. I don’t know if this was the influence of Luisi, but I noticed an effort to avoid pressing hard the tone (what invariably brought about what I called in Moscow a Mara Zampieri-ish hoot). If am not mistaken, the effort is paying off. Although Malin Byström’s soprano is becoming too smoky (not to say airy in a way that tampers with her ability to hold long lines without too many breathing pauses), her understanding of Donna Elvira’s mezzo carattere is very refreshing. And the fact that she sings her big aria in the original tone has unfortunately become something that one should praise these days. Serena Malfi’s high register is harsh and intonation can be iffy – and yet it is refreshing to hear a Zerlina that sounds earthy and who does not steal the show in “aristocratic” Mozartian poise. Paul Appleby, whose Belmonte early this year was a bit shaky, shows improvements too: his control of mezza voce was impressive. If only he could avoid unstylish portamento and the odd explosive high note, he could be an impeccable Don Ottavio. Simon Keenlyside was, for a while, the world’s favourite Don Giovanni – and he still can make a grand impression in the part. I had never seen Adam Plachetka before and I am glad I could hear his Leporello, not only the most compelling performance this evening, but one of the best I’ve seen in this role. His baritone is rich, large and, if it can be too grainy sometimes, it is pleasant in the ear – and he has amazingly (really – Caballé-sian) long breath. And he handles the text with perfect comedy timing, without clowniness and offering something really funny instead. Bravo. Matthew Rose too was a funny and vocally solid Leporello and Kwangchul Young sounded almost frighteningly dark as the Commendatore.

Michael Grandage’s production is traditional in concept and a bit dull visually, but if Spielleiter Louisa Muller was faithful to the concept (this was premiered in 2011), it is extremely well directed: sometimes one felt at a loss of which actor to follow, so interesting and dramatically coherent was everyone’s gestures and attitudes.

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