Opera Critic

The latest casualty in the Met’s effort to replace its heavily traditional roster of productions is Franco Zeffirelli’s second consecutive production of this Verdi favorite.  A somewhat cumbersome effort dating from 1998, it succeeded his earlier effort, of 1989.  Having done away with Zeffirelli’s Tosca, Tales of Hoffmann, and Carmen, on New Year’s Eve the house replaced his Traviata with Willy Decker’s stylized Salzburg production, available on DVD with Anna Netrebko, who was originally scheduled to sing the Met premiere.  Moving away from the opera’s nineteenth-century milieu, we find ourselves in a minimalist present.  Violetta enters in a red cocktail dress and her party guests, men and women alike, appear in identical dark suits.  The overcoated figure of Doctor Grenvil, normally confined to the final act (the only time he has lines to sing), serves as a cautionary presence to the heroine, who is obviously conscious of her mortality and impending death.  In case we forget or are uninterested in subtlety, a giant clock dominates sets (by Wolfgang Gussmann) that are sparse if at times cleverly lit in passionate shades of red and purple.

Marina Poplavskaya was chosen to replace Netrebko.  Her notable appearance in Prokofiev’s War and Peace with the company a few years ago anticipated her star-quality Elisabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlo earlier this season.  Accompanied by a fascinating if less than flattering article in the New Yorker, the young Russian soprano appeared poised for celebrity.  Alas, she did not quite arrive in this production.  Her overall performance was nothing to despair.  Her lower and middle register tones were full bodied and appealing.  She captured real pathos in her parting from Alfredo, in the despair of the gambling scene, and in her deathly finale.  The part’s essential coloratura flourishes, however, noticeably eluded her.  The attacks were often awkward, the notes sharp, and the pitch wavering.  Undoubtedly a fine career awaits her, but not in the early and middle Verdi roles that still required a bel canto voice.

As Alfredo it was heartwarming to witness the continuing growth of tenor Matthew Polenzani, once a comprimario singer now promoted to leading roles.  His robust voice delivered the part with verve and superbly articulated skill.  I first encountered Polenzani in the role opposite Renee Fleming in the 2007-2008 season and simply revel in thus young artist’s impressive growth.  Andrzej Dobber’s Germont has also grown in stature and interpretive nuance.  He is not a true Verdi baritone, but the wooden qualities that once limited his performances seem to be gone.  The strong impressive cast included notable contributions from Jason Stearns as Baron Douphol and Luigi Roni, a most stentorian bass, as Doctor Grenvil.  Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting drew an inspired performance from the Met’s orchestra and chorus.

Decker’s production avoids descent into Eurotrash, but there are some tricks that seem overplayed.  Our introduction to Violetta brings to mind an immature teenaged alcoholic, hardly the type to find soaring compassion for the Germont family or the ladylike virtues of renunciation and forgiveness that the role ultimately demands.  Alfredo is an uncharacteristically jittery suitor.  His jump from timid infatuation to the building Act II outrage and public humiliation of Violetta seems out of character.  The hide-and-seek pantomime the couple carries out in their happier scene rings untrue.  Future direction might harmonize the characters better.

Simon Boccanegra has long been a favorite of opera connoisseurs but never quite made the inroads into the standard repertoire.  The Met only had its first production in 1932.  Giancarlo del Monaco’s picturesque staging of 1995 is the house’s third.  The complexities of the plot make Verdi’s other complicated opera, Il Trovatore (based on a play by the same Spanish writer, Gutierrez, who inspired Boccanegra), look comparatively simple.  In short, the prologue is separated from the rest of the opera by 25 years.  Two of the five major characters have hidden identities and are known by aliases.  The plot turns on medieval Italian political intrigue at its most twisted: personal betrayal, a family feud, friction between patricians and plebians, war between pro-Papal and pro-Holy Roman Empire factions, intra-Italian strife with an inserted call for national unity, and, of course, a poisoning.  It is not the easiest work to follow, but it abounds in the stuff of grand opera.

The big question surrounding this year’s revival revolves around how it would stand up to Placido Domingo’s unusual appearance in the opera’s title baritone role last season.  Domingo’s widely praised performance had the virtue, or at least the singularity, of offering a Boccanegra who sounded more or less like Placido Domingo.  In Dmitri Hvorostovsky the Met has found an admirable successor.  Hvorostovsky has been expanding his Verdi roles with great success of late and has openly acknowledged his ambition to become one of the great Verdi baritones.  His rich tones, elegant line, and able dramatics all brought out the corsair Boccanegra with vivacity.   Hvorostovsky enlivened the character’s sincerity when he learns of his daughter’s birth and the death of the child’s mother.  He captured his insecurity when he is named Doge.  He brought sagacity to the older Boccanegra (featuring Hvorostovsky’s own trademark silvery hair rather than the dyed brown used to show the character’s youth in the prologue) and grace to his death, which in its grandeur owed something to the finale of Boris Godunov.  His delivery of the curse line in the Council Chamber Scene – “E tu, repeti il giuro” – resounded as chillingly as his death scene, “Gran dio,” was poignant.  One almost failed to notice the cell phone that went off just as it began.  New York should look forward to many years of excellent Verdi performances with such talent at the Met’s disposal.

Hvorostovsky’s towering figure only benefited from the rest of an outstanding cast.  Soprano Barbara Frittoli sang his long lost daughter Maria (known as Amelia) with a moving passion and gleaming ascents.  Ferruccio Furlanetto, who is to Italian bass roles what Hvorostovsky would like to be to Verdi baritone roles, captured the outraged Fiesco (Andrea) to perfection.  The charcoal qualities of his voice drew fond memories of his riveting Philip II in last fall’s Don Carlo.  Ramon Vargas did not sing to quite the same caliber as Gabriele Adorno, but this talented tenor, who missed the revival’s premiere due to illness, filled the role admirably.  Nicola Alaimo (nephew of Simone Alaimo) proved an unusually gripping Paolo, a master conspirator whose subtleties are too often overshadowed by the other three male characters.  Met music director James Levine, who had conducted a robust Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall the previous afternoon, suffered from a cold but was competently replaced by John Keenan.  The orchestra sounded ebullient.  Del Monaco’s production, graced by Michael Scott’s elaborate sets, has held up well.

This season’s revival of Puccini’s tale of love and loss opened with a bang in October, with the debut of the young Italian tenor sensation Vittorio Grigolo.  He has not remained in the cast as the year approaches its end, but Franco Zeffirelli’s warhorse production – one of the few left in the Met’s repertoire (his La Traviata will be replaced on New Year’s Eve) soldiers on without him.  Now nearly 30 years old, this classic and conventional Boheme is not without it signs of wear and tear.  It could be freshened up, but its grand Act II sets and imaginative other scenes still have the power to enchant.

The talented Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja admirably replaced Grigolo as Rodolfo.  Blessed with radiant top notes and an excellent line throughout the register, he exhibited some of his best singing to date.  A skilled dramatic actor, Calleja brought an uncommon pathos and tender vulnerability to the role, reminding us of the travails of youth.  Krassimira Stoyanova got off to a slow start as Mimi but by the demanding third act she had returned to her radiant self, singing with a powerful clarity.  In his debut season the fine baritone Fabio Capitanucci mastered Marcello’s music, by turns sensitive and gruff.  Ellie Dehn showed less promise as Musetta, but fortunately her best singing happened to be in the character’s seductive Act II waltz.  Gunther Groissbock and Dimitris Tiliakos both make their Met debuts in this revival, as Schaunard and Colline, respectively.  Groissbock’s delivery of Colline’s sad Act IV “Vecchia zimarra,” an apostrophe to the coat he must sell to buy medicine for the dying Mimi portends a noteworthy career.  Met veteran Paul Plishka returned in his signature pairing of roles as Benoit and Alcindoro.  Roberto Rizzi Brignoli also debuts with the opera this season.  While his effort was respectable, the tempi were a bit too slow to convey the drama in the most effective way.

A good author gives us both sides of ourselves; a great author puts them in tension with each other, as Mozart and Schikaneder did in the Magic Flute by giving us Tamino and Papageno, and Pamina and Papagena, just as they already live in tension within ourselves. If the academic and intellectual puzzles over which part the author or the artist meant (as did the great Egyptologist Jan Assman in his recent book, Die Zauberflöte), he provides a small number of us who read him with the opportunity to extenuate the problem. On the one hand he consoles us by telling us the tension we already felt in ourselves is true and legitimate, but on the other he lies by making this a literary conundrum reveal some great author’s intentions when in fact it is nothing more than a conundrum that Tom, Dick, Harry, and I, face in our lives every day and even every moment.  To put it in suitably gross terms, at home we are Papageno but at work we are Tamino.

Tonight in Berlin, the 199th performance took place of the version of the Magic Flute that premiered here in 1994. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, mostly, and so has the venue.  The usual house Unter den Linden is closed for repairs that will take three years, and the Staatsoper has moved to the Schiller Theater on Bismarckstrasse, just a few blocks from the Deutsche Oper. While they are there it will repay the visitor to go to the second floor lounge during intermission and study the concave inside of the etched glass window work, cubist in style, whose outside is the primary architectural feature of the house, easily viewed on the web. Adam and Eve are featured in the middle of 34 vertical panes.

The house has a very unusual feature that has been lavishly exploited by the current production of the Magic Flute, and probably by other productions that have been brought here.  The stage can extend around the orchestra’s sides to a concourse along its front, separating the orchestra from the first row.  The singers can walk a complete circuit around the orchestra and, when they do they give the audience an opportunity to be disarmingly close to them while they are singing at full volume. I will need to ask my psychotherapist why tears came to my eyes when Papageno and Papagena sang their duet so close to me, sitting in the third row center, and why during her bravura aria in Act Two the Queen of the Night stopped at the same place and seemed to be singing with flawless virtuosity to me alone.

This old and traditional production does not need a new description.  The sets are reproductions of the old Schinkel decorations from 1816, and nobody cares if the soloists’ shadows are cast on the backdrop as they used to be in the time of limelight. But again the special flooring and doorways of the Schiller Theater have been provided for refreshing special effects that break down the barrier between the audience and the stage. In his first appearance Sarastro is located in the audience, singing from the boxes on the left; Papageno once emerges from the orchestra; and there are side doors on the concourse around the orchestra that provide for exits and entrances outside the actual plot while it is being played out a little further back on stage.

I learned tonight what Tamino needs to be because Martin Hormich failed to achieve it. He must be inherently attractive so as to make the Queen’s ladies fight over him, capable of guessing the truth better than Papageno, capable of a conversion when he finds he was right, and manly enough now to live up to his new high calling; but Hormich unfortunately, tonight at least, seemed to have only one voice and one emotional message: sing hard. I think everybody in the house was relieved for the few moments while Tamino was passing the test of silence! Pamina (Adriana Queiroz) on the other hand, was supple, emotionally satisfying, and very much in tune.

Papageno was one of the favorites, as Loge tends to be in Rheingold, because of his refreshing frankness.  But Hanno Muller-Brachmann who sang the role has a very great voice and moves very well. For me a highlight was the choreography (by Roland Gawlik) of the Three Ladies at the very beginning, each vying to tend to Tamino while sending the others to report back to the Queen.  Theirs will never be more than a minor role but it will seldom be played more enjoyably, and competently, than here.  Another highlight was Sarastro sung by Alexander Vinogradov: his arias are the best and truest of the opera, and Vinogradov sang them that way, with all the low notes despite a sinus congestion that appeared only in his nasal syllables. The conducting of youthful Alexander Soddy and the performance of the orchestra started with some sag in the high violins but soon got completely onto the mark and up to Mozart’s thrilling pace.

It is a wonderful innovation of this production that at the end all the Papagenos and Papagenas that these two had just vowed to create in their own images, actually show up. At the end, the stage is filled with all twenty of them along with everyone else in the cast; and even the Queen of the Night helps Sarastro remove his mantle and place it onto the shoulders of the newly betrothed royal pair, Tamino and Pamina.

The Realm of Night and the Realm of Day are again reconciled, and the Pagageni will continue to have their lives and live them without knowing any better. It is a reconciliation achieved by heroism in the case of Tamino, and divine mercy in the case of Papageno, the two paths that all of us find ourselves moving along, all the time of this life. – Ken Quandt