Natalie Dessay and JUan Diego Florez in LA SONNAMBULA
“Why are they booing?’ asked the nice lady in the expensive seat one row in front of us as the final curtain fell during the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s LA SONNAMBULA.
“They are serious admirers of the opera who are offended by what that woman bowing up there, the director Mary Zimmerman, did to it,” I told her. Indeed, Zinneman’s onstage curtain call appearance elicited immediate aural disfavor – the loudest heard since Robert Wilson’s LOHENGRIN – despite star soprano Natale Dessay’s gallant, frantic attempts to shush the outraged.
Opera’s No. 1 Enemy: Director Mary Zimmerman
Zimmerman updated Bellini’s bel canto work, setting it in a rehearsal studio said to be an exact replica of that used by American Ballet Theater, and mixing things up with a putting-on-a-Bellini-show premise. On the surface, this did not seem unreasonable (the opera admittedly does have one kooky libretto) and things started off with a sprightly brio. But it soon became obvious that Zinneman’s take was arbitrary and sloppy – you never knew when the singers were performing as themselves, with their real emotions and interactions, or as characters in this purported SONNAMBULA production. This slipshod convention also evidently puzzled certain prominent cast members who, I was told, mentioned this essential confusion to Zimmerman, who merely shrugged and said, “I don’t care about that.”
Zimmerman said the same thing, I heard, in response to remonstrations that having Dessay begin her great final aria “Ah! Non Credea” by scrawling “A-R-I-A” on a rehearsal blackboard was not only gratuitous – I say just plain infuriatingly smart-ass, the gesture of someone who detests opera – but rather disrespectful to Conductor Evelino Pido and orchestra. Then there was the utterly senseless, crazy carryings-on of the entire company trashing the rehearsal hall which closed Act I, supposedly inspired by the break-up of heroine (Dessay) and hero (Juan Diego Florez). (“We need some action in this thing!” one could almost hear Zimmerman thinking.) The cast finally appeared in traditional costumes for the finale, but they were Tyrolean-Disney, another example of the director’s condescendingly smug idea of cutesiness. After her clueless hack job on LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR and now this, one shudders to think what she’ll do to ARMIDA, scheduled next season with Renee Fleming. (A little bird told me that General Manager Peter Gelb was so eager to have Zinneman direct LUCIA – her very first opera – yet unwilling to pay her astronomical fee, that he caved in to her demand that she then be given a three-opera contract instead.)
On the plus side, Dessay’s voice was plangent and penetrating, and she brought her considerable acting skills to both the opportunities for comedy – lots of rather amusing temperamental diva antics – and pathos – as a confused young woman in love – in her role. And who else around today possesses the histrionic bravado to make her sleepwalking entrance from the back of the house down the aisle? Florez hit every high note smack on target, like a sharpshooter taking down ducks, driving the always tenor-crazed Met audience wild, but I find his tight, yelping voice devoid of essentially expressive colors.
Black Party 2009? Nah, It’s the Met’s new TROVATORE
Things were undeniably redeemed with the Met’s magnificent new production of IL TROVATORE which sent the definitely non-booing audience out on that rare, happy, collective cloud of ecstatic satiation which can only be achieved by seeing a great opera, perfectly done. Director David McVicar, in his company debut, deserved much credit, especially after two nigh-unbearable takes on Verdi’s warhorse in 1987 and 2000. (I’ve tried unsuccessfully to blot out memory of the last one, in particular, which had heroine Leonora “planting” five obviously fake looking calla lilies in the stage before singing her first aria, and the final duet between hero Manrico and his tortured gypsy mother Azucena taking place on what looked like a huge mushroom out of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, just missing that hookaah-smoking caterpillar.)
McVicar set the opera in the bloody, dusty war-torn Spain of Goya and made brilliant use of the Met’s revolving stage which kept things moving briskly at all times, sans pauses for set changes. The “Anvil Chorus” I don’t think has ever been as effectively done before: the sublimely over-the-top virility of the music was matched by a posse of half-naked sweaty hunks banging away with their hammers in rhythmic time, who looked to be enjoying themselves as fully as if they were at some Miami circuit party.
Marcelo Alvarez, Sondra Radvanovsky
From the moment Bass Kwangchoul Youn, as Ferrando, set the performance bar very high with his gripping account of that gypsy burnt at the stake, the cast could be best described in one word : “dream.” Incidentally, everyone in the cast physically fit their roles, which undoubtedly added to the evening’s effectiveness and undoubtedly made Gelb veery, very happy. (Such a crime that this very “cinematic” production, which should be enjoyed by thousands more in the Met’s theatrical HD presentations and could certainly bring a new audience to opera, isn’t on that schedule for some reason.) Sondra Radvanovsky was, dramatically, the best Leonora I have ever seen, making her not the usual, somewhat tiresome victim-dupe but a strong-willed mistress of her own tragic fate which bore a certain devastating kinship to RIGOLETTO’s likewise uncannily inner-directed Gilda. Dmitri Hvorostovsky made the Leonora-obsessed Count dashing but definitely psychotic in his single-minded ferocity. And what a pleasure it was both to see and hear Marcelo Alvarez perform Manrico with real, throbbing Italianate passion and fraught desperation, exactly what Verdi had in mind. He had convincing, heartbreaking chemistry with Dolora Zajick’s Azucena, a role this great mezzo is still singing after all these years with undiminished power and emotion, as well as ever more insight. (Indeed, she owns this role as surely as Leontyne Price ever did Aida.)
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Radvanovsky
We’re saying farewell to the Otto Schenk rock-happy production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle this season and, although it will be missed by many – who knows what the new production will be like – as far as Gil Wechsler’s original, maddeningly dark lighting scheme for it, which the Met has unaccountably held on to, all I can say is good effin’ riddance. Do you remember as I do, all those pretentious, obscuring conceptions at the Met in the 1970s-80s, with their goddamned scrims, of which Wechsler’s work here – so contemptuous of audiences, not to mention the work of the designers – is a muddy hangover? Even from the tenth row of the orchestra at DAS RHEINGOLD I had trouble seeing the Rhinemaidens, and God only knows what could be recognized from the balcony.
Can you nake anything out? Neither can I, even from the 9th row at DAS RHEINGOLD
Otherwise, DAS RHEINGOLD was well-done, with cast standouts being Kate Lindsay, Lisette Oropesa and Tamara Mumford a radiantly silver-sounding trio of Rhinemaidens, and Richard Paul Fink a marvelously flavorful, even sympathetic Alberich, so totally into the character, that he did a delightfully grotesque little jig at the curtain call. Kim Begley made an effectively energetic Loge, but I, for one, will definitely not miss his costume – so ’80s Billy Idol rock star.
James Morris, Irene Theorin
DIE WALKURE was even better, particularly for the exciting company debut of Swedish Irene Theorin, a last minute replacement for Christine Brewer as Brunnhilde. Filled with bracing energy of both body and voice, she was an utterly convincing goddess-Amazon, and it was a sheer tonic to hear her indisputably full, healthy sound effortlessly ride the thunderous Met orchestra, conducted by James Levine, always in his utmost element with this music. Johan Botha proved himself a true, ardent heldentenor, confidently big in voice and even bigger in body. (But such is the magic of Wagner well-sung that, as with, say, an aging Lauritz Melchior, you could give two sticks for what they look like as a supposed youthful hero, as long as they aurally deliver with such expressive richness.) Waltraud Meier may not possess the world’s most gorgeous sound at this stage – it’s pretty dry – but her passionate commitment to the role of Sieglinde and emotive communication were inescapably impressive.
A Met Star is Born: Irene Theorin
Yvonne Naef, as in DAS RHEINGOLD, was a commanding, forceful Fricka who actually made you understand her disgruntlement as a cuckolded goddess trying to uphold “traditional family values,” and not see her as a mere meddling shrew. James Morris was, for me, a real revelation here. He, of course, has owned the role of Wotan for decades but this time, perhaps inspired by Theorin’s verve and intensity, he seemed to rouse himself and, instead of just standing and delivering with oak tree impressiveness (read woodenness, which often made him the Gregory Peck of opera), he really became her doting, disappointed father and moved me. He was completely present dramatically throughout, whether suffering Fricka’s complaints like any hard-ridden husband, frightening in his fury at Brunnhilde’s defiance and, finally, meltingly poignant in his farewell to her.
Waltraud Meier, Theorin
So far, so very good, and I am definitely looking forward to GOTTERDAMMERUNG as performed by these powerhouses, all at the very top of their game.