Je suis encore tout etourdi, je suis encore tout engourdi!
Enzo here, back in the Windy City, feeling spiritually regenerated and
physically exhausted by a week-long excursion to New York City. The focus of
my trip was a four-opera marathon at the Metropolitan Opera, consisting of
Samson et Dalila, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Madama Butterfly and the prima of the
now-notorious Lohengrin, as well as an extensive backstage tour of the
company's Lincoln Center facility.
James Jorden was my gracious host in the Big Apple and we were both guests of
fellow lister Richard Lynn for the Met tour. Throughout the week, I had the
great pleasure of socializing with many of the stars of Opera-L, including
Fiorella Beckmeier, Michael Giuseffi, Neil Funkhouser, Simon Rich
(HaagenDasz), Ken Howard, Ed Streim and a number of others. I enjoyed
visiting with all of you and look forward to future encounters at the "Millo
pole" and elsewhere.
I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of Samson et Dalila on March 4.
There has already been a wealth of commentary on the new Elijah Moshinsky-
Richard Hudson collaboration, so I see no need to be repetitive by offering a
detailed description of the production. I will say that I admired the
simplicity of the visual elements. Although Saint-Saens' score is more
evocative of ancient Babylon than Botswana, the tribal imagery did nothing
blatantly to contradict the music. Given the choice between Zeffirelli-style
kitsch and a visually austere concept, I'll take this kind of approach
anytime. What the production lacked in terms of realistic detail, it made up
for in the use of color--particularly the generous application of rich earth
My one major reservation about this show is that the final destruction of the
temple looks cheesy. A central pillar splits apart but does not tumble, while
Samson and the screaming Philistines fall to the ground in slow motion. No
debris, no chaos, not even the illusion of sudden disaster. It doesn't work
and I hope the Met can figure out a way to restage this critical denouement.
Musically, the performance was quite strong. Placido Domingo was in
astonishingly youthful form as Samson. There was nothing terribly distinctive
about either his acting or interpretation but the voice worked like a dream:
firm, ringing and utterly confident in the higher-lying portions of the role.
Sergei Leiferkus' raspy baritone is all wrong for French music but he radiated
demonic energy and purpose as the High Priest. Alan Held did what he could
with the thankless role of Abimelech but Paul Plishka brought quiet dignity
and command to his portrayal of the Old Hebrew. Leonard Slatkin drew
committed playing from the orchestra but a sense of inertia set in at various
points throughout the evening, exaggerating the already staid character of the
But the evening was primarily about Denyce Graves. She was in much better
voice here than in the broadcast. Her phrasing was notable for its long-
breathed eloquence and poise, while the bronze and caramel qualities of her
voice sounded as attractive as ever. Graves still lunges at the high notes
and I wish she was able to achieve a better blending of the registers but her
singing was never less than convincing. Her portrayal, on the other hand, is
breathtaking and really needs to be experienced in the house for its full
impact to register.
Graves is just about the most voluptuous female singer to grace the Met stage.
Stunningly garbed in a series of clinging silk gowns, she was a vision. But
it was the way her intense dedication to the dramatic situation illuminated
her natural physical endowments that made this Dalila so special. Graves
radiated joy and tender longing in Samson' presence. Her dance with the
Philistine maidens in Act One was perfection: the liberation through movement
of spiritual and sensual impulses stimulated by the arrival of springtime.
The choreography here owed more than a little to Motown but I loved the
incredible conviction Graves brought to it. Her smile alone would have melted
a stone. Yes, she spends a lot of time on the floor but she never looked
awkward or posey. There is humanity and vulnerability to spare in this
interpretation of Dalila, not just obvious allure. Moshinsky has created a
unique conception of the role for Graves and it remains to be seen how other
mezzo-sopranos will adapt themselves to the staging. Nevertheless, Graves
exuded star quality and I sincerely hope the Met can find her other work
besides endless repetitions of Carmen.
The final Hoffmann performance of the season on March 6 was cause for
celebration--although for reasons other than you might expect. It appears
that this might be Simone Young's addio to the Met and the break comes not a
moment too soon. The orchestra made all manner of mistakes and miscued
entrances. The playing was loud, unvaried and without shape. After coping
with Young's amateurish performance on the podium throughout a long run, the
singers navigated their way around her with aplomb. However, the ensemble in
the Venetian scene was an indescribable mess, with orchestra, chorus and
solists all going their separate and uncoordinated ways.
In spite of the ineptness from la maestra, the opera showcased some truly
thrilling singing. Richard Leech was the very picture of a youthful romantic
hero and he sang like a god. He currently owns the easiest tenor high notes
in the business. Considering all the old chestnuts regarding the size
limitations of her voice, Sumi Jo produced a quite audible stream of sound.
Despite some thinning of tone on the very highest notes, the basic timbre
remains deliciously sweet and she attacked Olympia's music fearlessly. Jo's
portrayal of the unpredictable doll was witty, charming and endearing.
Suzanne Mentzer's Nicklausse/Muse was stylishly sung, if a little hyperactive
in movement. Still, her elegant musicianship made a compelling reason for
hearing the new material added for the dual characters. James Morris was a
very unamusing Coppelius but his Miracle had charisma aplenty. Unfortunately,
the aged-wood quality of his singing robbed Dappertutto's aria of fascination.
As the four servants, Pierre Lefebvre's Gerhard Stolze imitation was not
received with pleasure. Furthermore, his scenery-chewing antics made Frantz'
"methode" number more tedious than usual. Victoria Livengood was a strikingly
tall Giulietta but her lyric mezzo-soprano was sorely taxed by the tessitura
of the role.
Patricia Racette is a diva with a major future ahead of her. As Antonia, she
flooded the house with gorgeous, shimmering tone. The phrasing was heartfelt,
expressive and remarkable for its generosity of spirit. Her acting managed to
reconcile both the grandeur and fragility inherent in the role. Everything
she did communicated an artistry of the highest order. I was quite overcome
by the beauty of her performance and unleashed a fair number of "bravas" at
the exciting conclusion of the trio. When I hear an artist for the first time
that stirs my soul as much as Racette, I feel like dancing in the streets.
Great operatic singing ain't dead yet, folks.
The Otto Schenk-Guenther Schneider-Siemssen production continues to be one of
the Met's most engaging productions. It suggests the dark nature of the piece
without resorting to the grotesque or sensational. I especially love that
blonde mannequin with guitar that graces stage right of Spalanzini's workshop:
looks like the Baby Jane Hudson doll was the prototype for Olympia!
In between the Samson and Hoffmann performances, we entered the bowels of the
Metropolitan Opera for an extended tour of the backstage area. As JJ has
already reported, next season's Nozze di Figaro set features off-white walls
with crumbling paint. Did anyone at the company bother to *show* Jonathan
Miller and his production team Monsieur Ponnelle's discarded designs? Then
again, deja vu seems to be all the rage now at the Met, what with Zeffirelli
brought in to produce yet another version of La Traviata. We noticed from the
rehearsal schedules posted around the opera house that James Courtney is
covering Hans Sachs for James Johnson. Eventually, I guess Adoph Green will
be considered for the role.
We returned to our accustomed places "out front" for the matinee broadcast of
Madama Butterfly on March 7. As I indicated in a previous posting, I was
dismayed by the resurgence of ageism on the list in relation to Catherine
Malfitano's portrayal of Cio-Cio-San. I have no idea what kind of impact she
made through singing alone, but in the house she delivered the most
emotionally truthful performance of the entire week.
Malfitano was announced as singing over a sinus infection and she found
certain moments of the taxing role rough going vocally. But it was the
interpretation that was remarkable. Malfitano brings an unusual mystique to
the part of the victimized geisha. She conveys an almost siren-like aura in
the first act, a sexual energy that adds dimension and depth to the character.
As Pinkerton praised her beauty in the love duet, she swayed subtly in the
moonlight, suggesting a well-practiced dance for the pleasure of men.
Malfitano also made Cio-Cio-San's devotion to Pinkerton wholly understandable.
At the point when Pinkerton consoles Butterfly after the Bonze's denunciation,
Malfitano looked at him dumbfounded. The impact of his caring words struck
home and we saw revealed in all her moving frailty the emotionally deprived
adolescent who longs for empathic attunement and nurturance. Malfitano's
portrayal is full of this kind of rich detail. And for the record, she looked
fabulous, moved well and in every way suggested a youthful, girlish heroine.
If anyone wants to make age considerations into an issue, you'll have to look
elsewhere for ammunition: Malfitano wears her fifty years better than most.
Franco Farina will never be luxury casting but he sang honestly and with
feeling as Pinkerton. There were several moments when he attempted to do some
sensitive things with dynamics and I appreciated his effort. Lefebvre yowled
his way through Goro's scenes but Alan Opie suffused Sharpless with an urbane
sensitivity. Wendy White simply IS Suzuki: all of Butterfly's big moments
became even more engrossing because White listened and reacted with such
belief. When Malfitano sighted the Abramo Lincoln sailing into port, White's
tearful response was almost as devastating as her mistress' elation. Carlo
Rizzi's supportive conducting sustained the ailing Malfitano through a long
afternoon and the orchestra members covered themselves with glory in the long
interlude between Acts Two and Three.
The curious might be interested to know that almost all of the original Del
Monaco staging has been excised from the production. Butterfly enters rather
quickly, eliminating the slow and musically hazardous trek behind the house.
She carries no parasol with mosquito netting. Suzuki and Goro hold no
discourse during "Che tua madre." Goro does not trip and fall in the stream
while fleeing the enraged Butterfly. Suzuki does not slip out of the house
for a nap on the lawn during the vigil. Butterfly does not fly crashing
through the shoji after her suicide. Instead, Malfitano laid her wedding
kimono on the porch, stabbed herself facing upstage, her head falling forward.
When Pinkerton rushes in crying Butterfly's name, Farina touched Malfitano's
shoulder and her body slumped to the ground. The changes were all vast
improvements. If Malfitano was somehow responsible, she has every right to
feel vindicated after the directorial atrocities foisted upon her by Del
Monaco when this production opened four years ago.
Speaking of directorial atrocities, I wish to preface my comments about the
Robert Wilson staging of Lohengrin by stating with sincerity that I entered
the performance with an open mind. I pay way too much money for my opera
tickets to have some sort of investment in hating a production. I genuinely
hoped it would be a fantastic experience. But it wasn't. It was simply a
loathsome variation on the Emperor's New Clothes fable. Fortunately, the
majority of the audience didn't buy it and responded to Wilson's curtain call
with intense booing. And make no mistake about it: he was thoroughly booed
by hundreds of Met patrons, not a couple of reactionary cranks.
I think there are many ways to analyze the failure of the production but, for
my money, its main offense is that it completely suppresses the individuality
of the performers. It is simply impossible for a singer to have any kind of
impact in this staging. No one interacts here: there is no touching, no
intimacy, no genuine feeling of any kind allowed. The singers seldom even
look at one another.
Worst of all, the cast is limited to one or two party traffic cop gestures
that they repeat ad nauseum throughout the performance. Everyone is reduced
to the level of a puppet or automaton. There is nothing to distinguish
Deborah Voigt's portrayal of Elsa from any other soprano who might be
contracted for this production. It could be Karita Mattila. It could be
Cheryl Studer. It could be Iris Adami Coradetti, for that matter. The
personal distinctiveness and individual attributes of the singer matter not a
whit. And I find that REVOLTING. How ironic that Leonie Rysanek, that
inspired bacchante of the operatic stage, should have this singer-hostile
production dedicated to her memory!
>From a design perspective, the production settles for being perplexing when it
isn't outright laughable. Large white panels descend from the skies anytime
divine intervention plays a part in the proceedings. A long black platform
with an ice cream parlor chair carries Elsa onto the scene for her "Euch
lueften" scene. At the end of Act Two, Ortrud drags a blood-red drape from
stage left to signify her corrosive influence on Elsa's belief in Lohengrin.
Indeed, Ortrud is the central figure in this production, camping her way
through the proceedings like a bad Norma Desmond parody. At the conclusion of
the opera, Deborah Polaksi is left onstage winding Telramund's shroud around
her arm like a sling, twisting her already over-the-top facial expression into
an outrageous contortion.
I am all for innovation when it reveals some new and undiscovered dimension of
the work or its composer. This fiasco managed to do nothing but reveal the
director's pretensions. In the hands of Wieland Wagner, Patrice Chereau or
Harry Kupfer, Wagner's operas have managed to communicate in a daring dramatic
language that is rooted in the traditions of the piece. This staging did
nothing but convey Wilson's complete distrust in and disregard for the
composer's intentions. If this is evolution, I say let's hang back with the
Musically, the show operated on a much higher plane. Given the excellence of
the singers, it saddens me to think what kind of evening it could have been if
the collective talents of this cast had been allowed their full expression.
Deborah Voigt mustered as much vocal radiance as her straightjacketed
movements would allow. Deborah Polaski has a fair amount of Varnay-like
squall and sourness in her large voice but the musicianship was superb. Ben
Heppner began badly with a lot of flat, out-of-tune singing but improved as
the performance progressed. There were stretches of gleaming, evenly produced
tone but the overall effect was one of cautious reserve. Hans-Joachim
Ketelsen sang with healthy reserves of youthful sound, a rarity in the bark-
and-howl role of Telramund. Eike Wilm Schulte displayed a cultivated,
polished baritone in the utterances of the Herald. He deserved a better
monarch than Eric Halfvarson, whose booming voice is undermined by a severe
and pervasive tremolo.
James Levine was his customary self on the podium. No other opera orchestra
in the world can hope to render up this kind of exquisitely refined playing
when he is in the Met pit. But the tempi were like molasses: Levine seemed
to be reveling in sound for sound's sake with no real regard for the dramatic
momentum of the opera. Despite all his protestations to the contrary, Levine
appears to have said all there is to say in his current Met position and may
soon need to renew his artistic soul in another part of the world.
Well, that wraps up my report on Enzo's Met marathon for this season. I'm
already planning further excursions to New York for next season's goodies:
the Millo Tosca, Khovanshchina, Pique Dame, the Futral Lucia, Katya Kabanova,
etc. But I'll pass on any future revivals of that Lohengrin. Far heim, Bob
Wilson, far heim!