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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Met Opera HD Broadcasts in Review—2008–09 Season

The Metropolitan Opera’s third season of distributing live Saturday matinée broadcasts via satellite has proved to be its most successful so far, both from the number of theaters carrying the performances and the quantity of tickets sold. General Manager Peter Gelb’s vision to bring top-quality operatic productions to the masses has seen the number of participating venues jump to 383 U.S. locations in 48 states (including nine theaters here in metro Denver, more per capita than any other city in the world!), and 100-plus locations in 31 foreign countries. Other companies, notably San Francisco Opera and Teatro La Scala (Milan) have jumped on the bandwagon with similar offerings—however, with far fewer venues signed up and live performances replaced by previously recorded ones—but the Met continues to lead the pack by a mile. Much of this can be laid at the feet of its exclusive 2007 agreement with the FATHOM division of Colorado-based National CineMedia (NCM), the movie theater distributor of live one-night-only concerts by such diverse performers as Garth Brooks, Linkin Park, Queen, and Celine Dion. An immediate advantage to this alliance was the ability to exploit NCM’s online advance-ticket-sales feature, which serves the dual purpose of helping people avoid long lines the morning of the performance, and also gives theater managers a heads-up regarding how many patrons to expect on any given Saturday morning. Because most of these operas are shown in multiplex facilities, a large advance-ticket sale can indicate to managers when it makes sense to add a second auditorium to handle the overflow crowd. In the United States alone, more than a million tickets will have been sold this season!

As with any opera season, the HD performances for ’08–’09 were a mixed bag—some new productions, some old productions; some memorable singing, some forgettable singing; and a selection of styles that touched on baroque, bel canto, verismo, and modern. And while the Met attracts some of the biggest names in opera—singers, conductors and directors—its two high-level constants are the amazing musicians of the Met Orchestra plus its remarkably professional chorus.

The eleven cinecasts this season included the first-ever distribution of the company’s opening night gala (although, several years ago, Gelb began showing the gala live on a giant screen in New York’s Times Square). Prior to 2008, the night was designed to give Met patrons and season-ticket holders a sneak preview of the upcoming season, featuring singers performing arias and ensemble pieces from the operas in which they would appear. This year, however, and in honor of the Met's 125th anniversary, opening night was built around soprano Renée Fleming who, for close to ten years, has been the darling of the Met stage. Her ability to draw large crowds of adoring ticket buyers has led to the Met reviving or debuting no fewer than four productions, and all because Ms. Fleming has said to them, “I want to sing the role of….”

OPENING NIGHT GALA (September 22, 2008)

This was the only non-Saturday performance on the Met’s HD schedule. Because of its evening curtain (6:30 p.m. Eastern Time), the program was shown only in the Western Hemisphere. Three fully staged scenes, all from different operas, made up the schedule. The “hook,” in addition to making Renée Fleming the focus of each scene, involved costumes designed expressly for the evening by major designers Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld (for Chanel), and John Galliano. The evening began with Act II from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” where Fleming was joined by Ramón Vargas as Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as Germont. Then came Act III of Massenet’s “Manon,” with Vargas on stage as Des Grieux, Dwayne Croft playing Lescaut, and Robert Lloyd in the relatively thankless role of the count. Completing the triptych was the final scene from the Strauss opera, “Capriccio,” where the soprano has the stage all to herself. Fleming sang magnificently in all three roles, although her weird overacting in the final piece tended to take away from the vocalization. Vargas was equally good in both his appearances, Hampson managed a fairly pedestrian performance, and Croft was his usual excellent self.

SALOME (October 11, 2008)

Did not attend.

DOCTOR ATOMIC (November 8, 2008)

I tried to like this opera; I really did. This work by John Adams, which had its debut in San Francisco in 2005, is loosely based on events leading up to the first atomic bomb test at Los Alamos (New Mexico) in 1945—the Manhattan Project. Gerald Finley, a baritone who should definitely get more exposure than he’s enjoyed so far, sang the title role of Robert Oppenheimer. Bass Eric Owens was General Groves, soprano Sasha Cooke was Kitty Oppenheimer, and a few other relative unknowns filled out the ranks. I admit that I came to this production with trepidation, however, having heard a few things from “Nixon in China” and “Death of Klinghoffer” (two of Adams’s earlier operas) and pretty much hated them all. “Atomic” is not as discordant as his earlier pieces but sufficiently non-melodic to make this opera fan—ears firmly planted in the nineteenth century, thank you very much—cringe with every key change. The libretto seemed a mish-mash of technical jargon and Hindu philosophy (Oppenheimer was reportedly a fan of the “Bhagavad Gita”), and I simply didn’t care enough to stick it out. Intermission couldn’t come quickly enough, and I beat a hasty path to my car without a backward glance.

LA DAMNATION DE FAUST (November 22, 2008)

When I first saw that this opera was on the HD schedule, I was very pleased. A few years ago I’d heard this Berlioz opera in a non-staged version at Grant Park in Chicago, part of their summer concert series. I’d enjoyed the music immensely, and the bass aria “Devant la maison” is one of my favorites. Because of the reputed difficulty in staging this work—often thought of more as a free-form oratorio than an opera—this would be its first appearance on the Met’s stage since 1906. John Relyea sang Méphistophéles with his usual liveliness. As the company’s heir apparent to bass Samuel Ramey, who nowadays appears in lighter, less demanding roles such as Don Pasquale, Relyea lacks the depth of low notes of his predecessor but not his flair for the dramatic. The only drawback to HD broadcasts is that the camera highlights close-up views live audiences never see. Relyea has this annoying mouth-movement thing he does that detracts from his singing after watching him do it four or five times. Marcello Giordani, a terrific tenor who nonetheless seems more at home in the Italian repertoire than the French one, played Faust. He stumbled a few times early on but hit all the notes with authority and the right amount of zing. Susan Graham was Marguerite. Berlioz apparently did not think much of this character, given the forgettable music he wrote for her, and Graham basically gave the role a similar reading. The staging was by Robert Lepage, perhaps best known for his work with Cirque du Soliel. As a result, there was a great emphasis on technology over substance—not necessarily a bad thing, but distracting in the extreme with its reliance on video projection. In the end, I would have been just as happy with a non-staged version.

THAÏS (December 20, 2008)

This Massenet opera has enjoyed a revival, over the past decade or so, due solely to the star power of Renée Fleming. She recorded it for Decca in 2000—it was the best-selling opera CD that year—and has performed it at Lyric Opera of Chicago and in a number of European venues since then. Opposite her at this Met performance was Thomas Hampson as Athanaël, the same leading man on the Decca recording and in nearly all the aforementioned productions. Having performed together many times, it was no surprise they blended so well vocally and interacted with unbridled emotion. Neither character is all that likable, especially if you don’t buy the piety theme—which I don’t—and the story rates an 8.5 on the Operablogger Lameness Scale™ (OLS), where the wealthy courtesan gives everything up to serve in a convent while her “spiritual guide” eventually lusts after her and regrets talking her into this life-changing course of events. Oh, she also dies at the very end. Still, it has some wonderful Massenet music, and the production was nicely put together. In a supporting role, fairly unimportant to the overall scheme of things, tenor Michael Schade was terrific.

LA RONDINE (January 10, 2009)

The opera my wife calls “La Traviata Lite,” this Puccini “romance” featured the husband-and-wife team of Angela Gheorghiu as Magda and Roberto Alagna as Ruggero. It’s very nearly an operetta in tone, with several memorable tunes and a clearly transparent libretto. I was highly unimpressed with the duo’s singing. Gheorghiu did a nice job on the big soprano aria, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” but she seemed to sort of sleepwalk her way through the rest of the opera. Alagna had some serious issues with his upper register, straining unpleasantly to hit nearly every high note. I’m convinced, however, he might have shown more effectiveness had he not played grab-ass with his wife the entire time. Ruggero is infatuated with Magda, but Alagna took those stage instructions to marginally tasteful levels. Sam Ramey made several brief appearances as Rambaldo and sang well, although the role requires little in the way of legato that, at Ramey’s stage of his career, tends to show off a rather disconcerting vocal wobble.

ORFEO ED EURIDICE (January 24, 2009)

Having had its premiere in 1762, this is one of the oldest operas in the standard repertoire; only several Monteverdi works come earlier. Gluck’s setting of the mythical story, where Orpheus travels to the Underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, is effective in part because he uses the chorus much the same way classical playwrights (Aeschylus, Euripides, etc.) employed it—to comment on the action at hand rather than simply help flesh out the story line. [More on the chorus below.] Stephanie Blythe has blossomed into one of the better mezzo-sopranos of this era (surpassed, in my opinion, only by Jennifer Larmore), even though I think she’s more accurately a contralto. Blythe is perhaps best known for singing in a number of Handel operas—"Giulio Cesare," among others—and her richness of tone is ideally suited to assume the roles originally written for castrati and occasionally sung by the likes of David Daniels and Michael Maniaci. Orfeo’s best-known aria is “Che faró senza Euridice?” from the third act, and Blythe received a lengthy and much-deserved ovation from those in attendance at the Met. As Euridice, Danielle de Niese was nothing special, and I believe I would have enjoyed the performance more if intermission interviewer Susan Graham had sung in her place. Amor is a piddling role made even more so by Heidi Grant Murphy. I’m surprised someone of her seemingly limited vocal abilities is singing at the Met, even though she appears to fulfill mostly comprimario positions. Set designer Allen Moyer was either inspired or insane—even now I haven’t decided which. The chorus spent the entire opera sitting or standing on multiple stacked rows of movable scaffolding—sort of like operatic bleachers—that rolled forward or to the rear as the action on the stage demanded. Costumed by Isaac Mizrahi, each chorus member was dressed to represent an historical character—Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette, Jimi Hendrix, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. are just a few of those I recall. In the opera, the chorus is comprised of “those who have passed on,” and Mizrahi went all out. For those of us in the viewing audience, though, it tended to distract from the rest of the production, as it was almost impossible not to try and guess who each of these personages was. If the Met had only published a seating chart, we would have been much the better for it.

LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (February 7, 2009)

This was, by far, the most anticipated production of the HD season and the one with the highest number of advance-sale tickets. A late illness caused the opera’s original Edgardo, tenor Rolando Villazón, to cancel in favor of Piotr Beczala, who was magnificent. This young tenor is definitely going places! In the title role was Anna Netrebko, and she clearly lived up to her advance press. Her singing during the famous Mad Scene brought down the house, but she did not have an even remotely weak moment during the performance. Netrebko has worked hard to improve her acting, and her Lucia showed how far she has come in just a few years. The Wolf’s Crag scene that opens the final act was a second highlight, featuring baritone Mariusz Kweicien as Enrico in the dramatic duet with Edgardo amidst lightning and thunder. In addition to the live Saturday cinecast, the Met always offers replays of each of its HD performances a week or so later—usually on a Wednesday evening. The response was so great for “Lucia” that they presented TWO replays a week apart. I must say, it was just as fantastic the second time around!

MADAMA BUTTERFLY (March 7, 2009)

This opera also required the substitution of one of its leads, with Patricia Racette stepping in for Cristina Gallardo-Domâs in the title role. I’ve never heard Ms. G-D sing, so it’s impossible for me to say whether she would have been as good as her replacement, but I can’t believe she would have been better. Racette has sung this role a number of times over the past few years, and she clearly took second (only to Netrebko as Lucia) in the season’s Best Soprano competition. Marcello Giordani returned as Pinkerton, sounding better and seeming more comfortable than his earlier performance in the Berlioz opera. Dwayne Croft appeared as Sharpless and definitely did not disappoint, with his sonorous voice and well-honed acting skills. Much was made early on regarding the role of Trouble, Butterfly’s child by Pinkerton and usually played by a precocious three-year-old. In this production by the late Anthony Minghella and his director wife Carolyn Choa, the child is represented by a puppet manipulated by three black-clothed puppeteers in the bunraku tradition (actually ningyō jōruri, to be more historically accurate) that goes back to the 1870s. The action was so lifelike that one soon forgot all about the robed men and accepted the child as real. It even got its own bow at curtain-call time.

LA SONNAMBULA (March 21, 2009)

After the hit pairing of soprano Natalie Dessay and tenor Juan-Diego Florez in last season’s mega-hit, “La Fille du Regiment,” the duo was booked to bring this fanciful tale by Vincenzo Bellini back to the Met’s stage, where it had not been seen since 1972. The opera proved a popular bel canto vehicle for soprano luminaries such as Leyla Gencer, Renata Scotto and Joan Sutherland—who recorded it for Decca with Luciano Pavarotti—and tenors Beniamino Gigli and Nicolai Gedda, even though it is probably only ranked fourth-best of Bellini’s ten operas: “Norma,” “I Puritani” and “I Capuletti ed i Montecchi” rate higher both in number of productions and frequency of recordings. Set by librettist extraordinaire Felice Romani in a Swiss village, the story is only moderately lame—perhaps a 6.0 on the OLS—and clearly ameliorated by those gorgeous Bellini tunes. In what has easily become the biggest controversy of this Met season, this production by Mary Zimmerman (and, some have said, thanks to the insistence of Ms. Dessay) instead places the opera in the current day where an opera company is rehearsing a production of “La Sonnambula.” While interesting on its surface, this story-within-a-story falls apart just slightly past the first act’s halfway point and appears to have been abandoned entirely after intermission. Sadly, this contrived plot twisting effectively reduces one’s ability to concentrate fully on the singing. On opening night the Met audience roundly booed director Zimmerman when she took her bow at the end of the opera, and several negative reviews—including a particularly scathing one in the “New York Times”—may have led to lower attendance figures for the HD performance. That was a shame, since Florez gave a magnificent performance from both a vocal and stage-worthy aspect. Ms. Dessay began with some vocal distress, sounding almost as if she were fighting a cold, but midway through the first act she appeared to shake it off. Both their voices blend perfectly in whatever they happen to sing together, and this performance was no exception. Dessay has a tendency to mug a bit for the camera—she played it awfully close to the edge in last year’s “Regiment”—but except for a few mildly distracting quirks, we saw a more restrained and in-control Natalie.

LA CENERENTOLA (May 9, 2009)

Will not attend.

Next season’s HD schedule has already been announced. I will discuss it further in a later posting, but here is the list:

Tosca (October 10, 2009):
Karita Mattila, Marcelo Álvarez, Juha Uusitalo, Paul Plishka.

Aida (October 24):
Violeta Urmana, Dolora Zajick, Johan Botha, Carlo Guelfi.

Turandot (November 7):
Maria Guleghina, Marina Poplavskaya, Marcello Giordani, Samuel Ramey.

Le contes d’Hoffman (December 19):
Kathleen Kim, Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Elina Garanča, Rolando Villazón, René Pape.

Der Rosenkavalier (January 9, 2010):
Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Christine Schäfer, Eric Cutler, Thomas Allen, Kristinn Sigmundsson.

Carmen (January 16):
Barbara Frittoli, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Mariusz Kwiecien.

Simon Boccanegra (February 6):
Adrianne Pieczonka, Marcello Giordani, Plácido Domingo, James Morris.

Hamlet March 27):
Natalie Dessay, Jennifer Larmore, Toby Spence, Simon Keenlyside, James Morris.

Armida (May 1):

Renée Fleming, Lawrence Brownlee, Bruce Ford, José Manuel Zapata, Barry Banks, Kobie van Rensburg.

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