Opera Critic

The opera world had a great deal to say about the first Met Forza in a decade, but perhaps expectations were too high. Even the inclusion of such noted voices as those of Deborah Voigt and Salvatore Licitra could not save this revival from a scatter that did considerable injustice to Verdi’s score. Giancarlo del Monaco’s worn out production – highly traditional but barely interesting – almost facilitated its disjointedness.

It has been said that Voigt cannot sing Verdi. This is far from true, especially given her recent slimming down, but her Leonora was unbalanced and betrayed middle and lower range difficulties. Her first act singing radiated some beauty, and her final aria, “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” found her in best voice. But she is still no match for the greats of old. Licitra produced a full-bodied, heroic sound in at least the first half of the opera, but did not drive the audience into raptures. Mark Delavan’s Don Carlo had moments of inspiration, but proved too blustery at the instances of greatest tension. His third act scene of swearing revenge demonstrated that sheer volume can detract from rather than add to an otherwise chilling scene. Verdi hardly wrote easy baritone parts, but Delavan, a much better Amonasro last fall, is not up to the challenge of Forza’s villain. Some of the supporting cast also disappointed. John Cheek’s brief appearance as Leonora’s father, the Marchese di Calatrava, reminded us of the advancing age of the singer rather than the character. Ildiko Komlosi’s Preziosilla offered hints of good musicianship, but illustrated all too clearly why her role is superfluous to the opera. Although it was probably more the fault of uninspired direction, her Act II appearance was grating and her Act III scene overblown to the point where it bordered on caricature.

Despite these problems, there were some highlights that glimmered hopefully for the future of Verdi at the Met. Gianandrea Noseda’s enthusiastic conducting in the much applauded overture conveyed excitement and passion that resounded throughout the evening, even if little of it escaped on to the stage. The young Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow made for a marvelous Padre Guardiano, with a strong and seemingly effortless line. His career should be watched with great attention. Juan Pons, himself a veteran of Verdi baritone roles, served surprisingly well in the humbler role of Guardiano’s comic foil, Fra Melitone. The Met should be applauded for reviving a somewhat neglected Verdi favorite (this performance, the last of the current season, was the Met’s 229th, compared to nearly 1100 Aidas to date), but alas, we are not in a great era for it.

March 2006 brought the Met premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and with it more reasons to wonder about the baffling attention given to set designer George Tsypin. Laden with his signature white-to-translucent sculpture, the concept gave Yury Alexandrov’s production a stylization that migrated from the silly to the meaningless. Along with a wire gallows shaped vaguely like the profile of Stalin, illuminated by bright electric lights, and allowing an unfortunate head to roll from it like a hot potato, the visual images parodied rather than evoked early eighteenth-century Ukraine and the Cossack society inhabiting it. The final scene’s snowfall demolished any historical connection. The Battle of Poltava, the seminal external event that immediately precedes the scene and inspired Tchaikovsky’s forcefully martial prelude to it (the opera itself is based on Pushkin’s narrative poem, entitled Poltava), happened in June, a perennially hot month on the Ukrainian steppe. Tatiana Noginova’s costumes, which give us red and orange Cossacks and hideous gold lamée dancers, increased the garishness. The writing of Kochubei’s denunciation of Mazeppa to Peter the Great, portrayed in a scene lifted directly from Ilia Repin’s painting The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of Turkey, also betrays a basic ignorance. The Cossacks in the painting were rudely rebuffing the Sultan. Kochubei is trying to preserve his family and demonstrate loyalty to the Tsar. He ends badly — Peter disbelieves him and orders his arrest and execution, — but the mood of the scene hardly calls for the defiant posturing of Repin’s canvas.

Visually, this production may be one to miss, but executed by Mariinsky singers and conducted by that theater’s artistic director Valery Gergiev, there is simply no better performance of the opera to be heard today. Elena Evseeva, who shares the role of Maria with Olga Guryakova in this production, made lovely music as the torn daughter of Kochubei and lover of Mazeppa. Olga Savova’s fine mezzo served well in the part of Maria’s mother Lyubov and admirably complemented performances in the role by the more famous Olga Borodina, who shares it this season. The two friends made rivals by Maria’s predicament, sung by veteran Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze and the truly outstanding Russian baritone Nikolai Putilin, delivered stentorian performances that cannot be described as anything other than wonderful. Putilin’s second act aria captured his character’s hints of conscience with insight, and his performance throughout the evening seized Mazeppa’s cruelty with equal power.

Gergiev’s conducting brought the Met orchestra firmly to attention, leaving no doubt – even with this opera’s less than memorable score — that he is unsurpassed in the Russian repertoire.

Tobias Picker’s new opera had its world premiere at the Met this month, heralded by a public who has thirsted for this very traditional house to offer more world premieres than the three it has staged since 1967 (all in the 1990s).  The fanfare must have influenced the Met’s casting decisions, for in addition to assigning the production to the red-hot Francesca Zambello, it has drawn upon some of the best young singers in its roster: Patricia Racette, Susan Graham, Jennifer Larmore, Kim Begley, and, as the protagonist Clyde Griffiths, the new baritone sensation Nathan Gunn.  All sang in beautifully articulated American English under the able baton of James Conlon.  But despite the high quality of the cast, few of the singers conveyed much psychological depth or emotional power.  One might properly ask whether they could when Gene Scheer’s libretto gives them apostrophes to concrete blocks, arias about how interesting it is to be in New York (who would have guessed?), and lines as banal as “the lake is so beautiful — just like my Sondra.”  Picker’s lyrical score avoids the ugliness and alienation that one so often encounters in contemporary classical music, yet at the same time it fails to move or inspire.  The melodies verge on unmemorable, and one may properly doubt both the work’s ability to draw newcomers to opera or reinvigorate existing audiences.  Alban Berg’s Wozzeck , 80 years young and also dealing with themes of betrayal in love (together with a drowned lover), is accomplishing exactly those tasks in its current Met revival.  Picker’s opera seems condemned to share the fate of de Koven’s The Canterbury Pilgrims and Breil’s The Legend, American operas of the 1910s that appeared on the stage of the old Met for one run and were never seen again (no revival plans for An American Tragedy seem to be in the works).

Perhaps Theodore Dreiser’s realist prose, which no one ever claimed to be lively, does not lend itself to gripping operatic adaptation.  The composer has noted that he feels his nearly 900-page source of loose inspiration (the opera is interwoven with details of an early twentieth-century murder trial similar in content to the plot of the novel) to be “one of America’s great, universal subjects,” a story chronicling very American themes of success versus sacrifice and ambition versus love.  However powerfully Dreiser may have told this story in print, in this case – perhaps surprisingly given the novel’s relatively successful early Broadway adaptation and two film versions — it could not survive the transition to the stage.  Despite Zambello’s direction and designer Adrianne Lobel’s innovative split set concept (which enables two or more scenes to be performed simultaneously), this reviewer left the hall feeling little.  Even the technical innovations brought the occasional frown.  Having one scene occur atop another works well for scenes of betrayal in love, but why do we need to see the neglected Roberta Alden both fall out of the boat and flail her whole drowning body underwater (where were the Rhine maidens)?  This climactic moment was lost.   Likewise, the merging of the two levels to show Clyde’s long and solemn pacing from his prison cell to his (first on stage?) electric chair dispelled much dramatic effect and spoiled the tension built up in the much more successful courtroom scene in which he his condemned.

The Chinese composer Tan Dun, who wrote the score to the recent Jet Li film Hero, is scheduled to have his new opera The First Emperor (on a subject similar to the film) premiere at the Met next season.  Nearly a decade in the works, it has been described in advance as “ambitious and experimental,” an opera even more boldly conceived as a means of attracting new audiences.  Let us hope there is more for us and them to admire in it. – Paul du Quenoy

            Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is hardly traditional holiday fare.  Based on dramatic fragments by the nineteenth-century German writer Georg Büchner, who died of typhoid fever at age 23 in 1837, this atonal opera draws on the psychotic cultural gifts of World War I (Berg began its composition while on leave from the front in 1917) to betray the harsh social traumas of lower class military life.  The title character, a poor soldier, confronts and brutally stabs his prostitute babymama girlfriend Marie to death after he learns that she has taken up with the latest handsome drum major to strut through town.  Attempting to conceal his crime, he only manages to drown in a pond in which he has tried to dispose of the knife.  Neighborhood ragamuffins end the opera by teasing his orphaned and uncomprehending child about Marie’s death.

Perhaps to the thanks of everyone who hates the holidays, the Met has chosen Christmas week to revive Mark Lamos’s 1997 production, in a neat balance to the three cheerful performances of Johann Strauss’s lighthearted Die Fledermaus this week.  Despite the festive mood outside the house, no serious opera fan could have complained about the performance.  Alan Held’s performance as Wozzeck blazingly illustrates his steady and impressive growth into major roles.  His animal responses to animal treatment, desperate confrontations with his unfaithful beloved, raw rage, and final madness were all models of what this disturbed role should be.  Marie’s murder is no discreet operatic stabbing, but a full-on throat-slashing evocative of the murder of the former Mrs. O. J. Simpson.  Katarina Dalayman’s Marie responded to Held with emotional need, maternal love, and ultimate helplessness.  As Wozzeck’s chief tormentor in daily life, veteran tenor Graham Clark sang a nasty and supercilious Captain.  Austrian baritone Walter Fink made an admirable debut as the doctor who helps the title character “survive” by paying him pittances to be his experimental guinea pig.  The lesser but vital role of the drum major was admirably filled by Clifton Forbis, Paris ’s Tristan this season and an upcoming Met Siegmund.  The much talked about young tenor Eric Cutler unfortunately cancelled his appearance as Wozzeck’s friend Andres, but was respectably replaced in the small role by John Horton Murray.  Comprimario stalwarts James Courtney, Jill Grove, Anthony Laciura, and Ronald Naldi filled out the cast of depressed Germans.  Met music director James Levine led his customarily robust interpretation of Berg’s dissonant score, drawing forth every disturbed feeling that appears so wonderfully out of place at this most wonderful time of year.


-Paul du Quenoy