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February 25, 2009

Triple-header at Met Opera reveals company's strengths

Finally got a chance to report on the Metropolitan Opera portion of my New York weekend (I know you've all been positively breathless with anticipation). The big news in town, of course, was the reopening of Alice Tully Hall after a nifty makeover, but there was a lot happening at the Met to write home about, too.

First up on Friday night was a production of Verdi's Il Trovatore that managed to minimize the holes in the notoriously overwrought plot, thanks largely to an appropriately dark, Goya-inspired staging designed by Charles Edwards that moved with cinematic fluency under David McVicar's fresh direction. (One test of a director in this work comes in the second scene, when Leonora mistakes di Luna for her boyfriend Manrico in the dark. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard audiences giggle at this, but McVicar’s solution avoided that pitfall entirely; Leonora’s mistake looked perfectly plausible. Maybe a small detail, but worth a lot to me.) The most noteworthy thing, in these days of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Verdi singers, was that the cast managed to ...

generate a great deal of expressive heat, with admirable sensitivity and dramatic understanding from conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

Sondra Radvanovsky was a riveting Leonora. Take all the points away that you like for her sometimes edgy tone, but you still would have to give her high marks for the intensity and theater-filling power of her singing, the uncommon attention to words and phrasing (even while sprawled on the floor for part of her Act 1 aria). The soprano has remarkable presence, and she used that quality to command the stage and deeply humanize the character. You can't ask for much more than that.

Marcelo Alvarez was getting over bronchitis on Friday, but the tenor still sang the role of Manrico with considerable elan and stylish detail. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as di Luna, pushed his velvety baritone to the limit, and the effort sometimes showed, but he turned in about as warm an account of Il balen as you're likely to hear today. And Dolora Zajick, despite some thinning in the upper reaches, fleshed out Azucena's music with authoritative flourish. Yeah, I know, singers today can't measure up to the glorious days of yore, but I'd say the present measures up pretty darn well on nights like this.

Saturday afternoon was filled with Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, that deliciously old-fashioned, over-the-top romantic opera so beloved of prima donnas. I don't really think of Marina Guleghina as true diva material, but she’s a vivid singer and actress, and she clearly relished the title role. I missed the lovely, floating high notes and truly tender phrases associated with interpreters of  times past, but the soprano's dynamic characterization proved consistently effective.

As Adriana’s beloved Maurizio, Placido Domingo was returning to the role that served as his unexpected Met debut 40 years ago, subbing for an indisposed colleague. (A few updated adjustments aside, this was even the same physical production he was in back then.) The nattering opera bloggers have their knickers in a twist over the fact that Domingo had his music transposed down for this production, arguing that he’s past it and just satisfying his ego now. Oh, please. The man has paid his dues, can still get up there high enough for genuine tenordom, and can still produce a vibrant, exciting tone in the process. He’s still a very decent actor, too. Why not let him have the fun of returning to this opera? On opening night earlier in the month, Domingo was said to be recovering from a cold. On Saturday, he sounded hale as he created quite a persuasive Maurizio.

As the Princess, Adriana’s vengeful rival for Maurizio’s affections, Olga Borodina poured out big, compelling vocalism. A supporting full of astute singing actors enhanced the production. Marco Armiliato conducted with a lyrical sweep.

It’s easy to denigrate Adriana Lecouvreur as a silly confection, the operatic equivalent of a Death by Chocolate dessert (Death by Milk Chocolate, at that), but the melodies are really quite beguiling, the orchestration deftly crafted, the whole thing remarkably assured. A guilty pleasure.

On Saturday night came Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, in the stunning Robert Carsen production with sets and costumes by Michael Levine – a brilliant study in minimalism, where plain walls and a few pieces of furniture become far more expressive than the most ornate Zeffirelli scenery. Jiri Belohlavek conducted superbly, always allowing the music to breathe.

Karita Mattila revealed all the charm and vulnerability of Tatiana, singing in a pure tone that cut to the heart of each line. Thomas Hampson sounded pressed at times as Onegin, but his performance was rich in nuance and insight. It was actually possible to sympathize with the seemingly heartless character, which says plenty about Hampson’s abilities. Lensky was winningly sung and acted by Piotr Beczala. And Baltimore’s own James Morris offered a refreshing, thoroughly ingratiating portrayal of Prince Gremin, singing his aria with considerable eloquence. The rest of the cast was on the same intense wavelength as the principals. Here, as in the other two performances I heard in that 27-hour span, the Met’s justly celebrated orchestra did exemplary work.

At a time when the company has sold a million tickets to its simulcasts at cineplexes around the country and beyond, it was good to be back in the house itself, experiencing opera the old-fashioned, in-the-flesh way, and getting so many aural and visual rewards out of it.

PHOTOS FROM METROPOLITAN OPERA AND AP: Sondra Radvanovsky and Marcelo Alvarez in 'Il Trovatore'; Placido Domingo in 1968 and 2009 as Maurizio in 'Adriana Lecouvreur' at the Met; Thomas Hampson in 'Eugene Onegin'

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:11 PM | | Comments (1)


Tim's remarks are absolutely "on the money" about these three productions as staged this season at the MET. "Il Trovatore" was about as credible as a production of this outrageous libretto could hope to be. The opera can turn "hokey" in a flash, and David McVicar's staging never even veered close to that. The singing, while not exactly flawless on all counts, was robust and artful--exactly what an Italian opera full of PASSIONE requires.
I also enjoyed the "Onegin" and "Adrianna." The latter works best with a soprano who can produce a creamy pianissimo and Guleghina--for all her many virtues--is definitely not that kind of soprano. Tebaldi and Caballe both excelled in the role precisely because they could generate such an ethereal sound. Domingo has indeed "paid his dues" and had nothing to apologize for in his performance as Maurizio.
Karita Mattila's Tatianna in "Eugene Onegin" was as marvelous as anything else I have ever had the pleasure of hearing her perform. She is truly a treasure on the MET's roster. I am not crazy about the current production, however, although I think all that Tim says about it is quite true. The sets just always seem to look as if the MET ran out of money before they were finished. The richness and opulence of Tchaikovsky's score needs a visual equivalent that is much more substantial than what the MET currently offers on its stage. The strong focus on "character" in the current production is, however, without question a plus.

Thanks muchly for your comments and insights. I couldn't agree more about the need for vocal cream in 'Adirana.' That quality, alas, is in short supply these days. As for 'Onegin,' I sure can enjoy a very richly staged approach, too. One of my fondest memories (as a terribly young person, needless to say) is of a gloriously traditional Bolshoi production that visited DC eons ago and offered such realism that you could almost feel, not just see, the snow falling before the duel scene. But there's something about the starkness of the Met's version that really grabbed me. I liked the way it forced all the attention on the characters and emotions. Anyway, thanks again for writing.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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