Opera Critic

Julie Taymor’s fantastical recent staging of this Mozart classic has packed the Met since it opened in 2004. A constant house-filler, this season it will be adapted into an abridged English-language version and broadcast into movie theaters around the world.

The original German version, however, has lost none of its charm and Met casting decisions have only helped. Isabel Bayrakdarian’s beautiful soprano lilted through Pamina’s music to the delight of all present. She was a bit mismatched with the tenor Christoph Strehl, who sang Tamino a bit too effortfully in his Met debut role, but the proud baritone of Rodion Pogossov counterbalanced him with acrobatic antics in the role of opera’s most famous bird catcher Papageno. Cornelia Gotz’s Queen of the Night betrayed an impressive mastery of bravura technical skill. A new artist this season, she will be an obvious benefit to the house. As Sarastro, Rene Pape was a bit muddy in the role’s challenging lower register, but his fine legato and presence carried him through the evening. Met music director James Levine did not conduct, but was ably replaced by Scott Bergeson.

Taymor’s critics have alleged that her production is too “busy”, with flying objects, changing colors, rotating stage fixtures, and other potentially obstructive features of George Tsypin’s sets. But for this opera, which is so prone to caricature and so easily reduced to a kind of sung cartoon, the production team has tastefully avoided kitch and two-dimensionality in a way that should be rewarded. One hopes more Mozart operas will appear in this vein.

A season that includes the first ever replay of Maria Callas’s sole live Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast (Lucia di Lammermoor, December 8, 1956) might lead us to wonder whether we are coming into a new age of great bel canto singing. The hype surrounding the beautiful young Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who is steadily appropriating classic Callas roles (she made her role debuts both in Puritani in this revival and in Bellini’s La Sonnambula in 2006), seems meant to make us believe so.

But despite all the good thoughts, this Puritani left much to be desired. Ms. Netrebko is of course stunning, dramatic, and sexy. She definitely knows how to use these qualities to full effect, even cascading her gorgeous brunette mane into the orchestra pit during Elvira’s mad scene. Unlike a true bel canto soprano, however, her ubiquitous sharp notes and muddled lower register created the impression that she is out of her Fach. For all of her artistry and sheer magnificence in last year’s Don Pasquale and renowned Mozart/Puccini singing, the more demanding Callas signature roles may be out of reach.

Her colleagues scarcely helped. The young tenor Eric Cutler cancelled his scheduled appearance as Arturo and was squalidly replaced by Gregory Kunde. At times barely audible, the rumor at intermission was that he would not finish the evening. But unfortunately for the audience he did. Franco Vassallo made for a wooden, unmemorable Riccardo and Canadian baritone John Relyea’s bout of bronchitis weakened his normally fine voice. Their duet “Suoni la tromba” may not be the most dramatically overwhelming in opera, but their efforts were of little help. Adding Patrick Summers’ stagnant conducting and Ming Cho Lee’s tired, vintage 1976 sets made for an uninspired evening.

The Met’s innovative new season continued apace this fall with another infusion of extra-operatic talent. Fast on the heels of Anthony Minghella’s evocative Madama Butterfly, noted Broadway drama director Bartlett Sher brought the house an infectiously funny interpretation of Rossini’s most famous work.

Opera is often accused of being a static art form, but Sher’s debut firmly refutes the thought. Here we have an intensely sexualized Barber, literally done in an “in your face” style (a walkway extends over the orchestra pit to bring the characters as close as possible to the audience). Supported by Michael Yeargan’s sets and costumes by Catherine Zuber in her Met debt, Sher successfully draws out the senses of desire and entrapment, despair and insistence that make this work a believable dark comedy. Of course we still have loads of perhaps unavoidable slapstick and physical comedy – Dr. Bartolo’s poor servant Ambrogio keeps getting hurt and we see the giant metaphoric anvil Bartolo feels in his mind descending over Seville, — but the characterizations follow in a brash yet attractive way from a perceptive producer of drama. Rosina, sung by Diana Damrau in her Met debut role, buzzes with repressed sexual energy, spinning, flailing, and focusing nervously on the boundaries and symbols of her carefully controlled life. Peter Mattei’s Figaro is accompanied by a flock of unscripted women magnetized by his artful, masculine presence (a pair of them make out early in Act I). Count Almaviva’s ardor is hardly disguised, and even stuffy old Bartolo has flashes of sexual energy. The whole production is pervaded by a motif of oranges, a symbol of Seville, used here in a way that focuses our attention on fruits that might well be forbidden.

Sher was fortunate to have a cast that proved so amenable (perhaps even too amenable) to his overall concept. Peter Mattei’s Figaro gave no cause for complaint. The Swedish baritone sang with a solid, steady line throughout the entire evening and generated well deserved admiration. John Del Carlo delighted the house with his energetic Bartolo. The aging Samuel Ramey and always delightful Wendy White were impressive in the roles of Basilio and Berta. The young lovers united by the opera were no less ardent, but Damrau’s much talked about vocal heights sometimes failed to find focus. Improvisations in the score led her to disappointing restraint on some of the original high notes and unfortunate attacks on newly placed ones that did little to energize the music. The popular Juan Diego Florez seemed uncharacteristically reduced in vocal power throughout the evening. Maurizio Benini’s conducting was jovial throughout.

The Met opened this season with a new general manager, Peter Gelb, who has succeeded Joseph Volpe with a promise of popularizing reforms. Along with live telecasts into movie theaters, $20 rush tickets for normally pricey orchestra seats, and ballyhooed posters and banners around town, these efforts will include a faster pace of new productions – as many as eight a year – including many by stage and film directors who have rarely or never worked in opera. The season opened with perhaps the greatest “catch” of the first year of the Gelb administration: the famous Anthony Minghella of The English Patient, commissioned to replace, in partnership with English National Opera, the relatively recent (1994) but less than inspired Madama Butterfly by Giancarlo del Monaco.

Minghella’s approach addresses Japanese culture in unique ways important for a work that contains many inherent cultural inaccuracies. Butterfly and Pinkerton’s child, most notably, is represented by a surprisingly lifelike Bunraku puppet operated by members of the Blind Summit Theater. Whether this works with the three visually distracting live puppeteers needed to operate it on stage has been a matter of serious debate, but the production deserves praise at least for its attempt at innovation

All action, moreover, is reflected in a curved mirror suspended above the stage, a technique that allows us to see everything, including the drama behind the sliding screens that make up most of Michael Levine’s set and occasionally mask characters from normal view as they wrestle with the complexities of their lives. Minghella’s intense use of color handily adds to the psychological effect. Violent reds, oranges, and purples pervade the action, stunning the audience visually yet avoiding even a hint of the garishness too often suffered in opera today. Evocative costumes by fashion designer Han Feng (also new to opera) add strong, if perhaps a bit caricatured, impressions of Japan and its people.

Stage direction also helped the Minghella production overcome the sterility to which Butterfly often falls victim. Movement throughout the evening was dynamic and attention grabbing, right up to the title character’s fully on-stage suicide, committed in this production by a surgical stab to the throat rather than the traditional disembowelment.

The Gelb era may, however, fall short in innovating the vocal component of the Met’s work. The much heralded new Butterfly was staffed largely by regulars. The two leads, Cristina Gallardo-Domas and Marcello Giordani, have been familiar to New York for at least a decade. Despite their high technical competence, the excitement of the new production did little to help them find the dramatic singing necessary to move real audiophiles.

Dwayne Croft’s steady baritone had more success in the ancillary role of Sharpless, the American consul, as did Maria Zifchak as Butterfly’s faithful servant Suzuki and James Courtney in his brief appearance as her angry uncle.