Thursday, May 24, 2018

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed….

Guest blogger EB reviews three performances seen whilst visiting New York last month:

Cendrillon, Massenet, Metropolitan Opera, April 20th 2018
Luisa Miller, Verdi, Metropolitan Opera, April 21st 2018
Tosca, Puccini, Metropolitan Opera, April 21st 2018

…something blue? Maybe Anna Netrebko’s dress for the finale of her first ever Tosca (more of her later) but otherwise the traditional wedding saying will do for a satisfyingly busy weekend at the Met, worth taking a trip from London for three operas in two days.

Three operas, three composers, one conductor. Bertrand de Billy was already listed for both the Tosca and Cendrillon performances, but then took over Luisa Miller after James Levine’s departure. More about him later, but from the start let me praise his sheer energy as much as his musical achievements.

First up, Cendrillon, or “something borrowed” - in this case Laurent Pelly’s production. It has appeared in a number of houses – I saw its London outing – having started life in Santa Fe as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. The production’s provenance explains its relative economy and low-rise designs – Santa Fe has limited flying facilities – and the sets, with their palate of whites, reds and golds, take their cue from the words of the fairy tale upon which the opera is based. The production is full of witty touches – business with lamps, rooftops, a comic ballet for Prince Charming’s would-be future wives. Massenet gives a straightforward rendition of the familiar tale: Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri, idiomatic but underpowered) has married the rich but ghastly Madame de la Haltière (a bombastic Stephanie Blythe, vocally and visually several sizes larger than life). She and her dreadful daughters treat Pandolfe and daughter Lucette, known as Cendrillon (DiDonato) abominably but her Fairy Godmother, La Fée (Kathleen Kim) ensures she goes to the ball, glass slippers and all. There she meets, and at midnight runs away from, Prince Charming (Alice Coote). They almost meet again in an enchanted forest – they can hear but not see eachother in Massenet’s most original scene – before a more traditional happy ending.

DiDonato, who has a real affinity and love for French music and language, remains a superb interpreter of the title role, such a contrast from her more recent outings as Didon and Semiramide. Perhaps there is a loss of the easy lightness I recall from London, but her remarkably humble portrayal of Lucette, her vocal control and her sense of style are impeccable. Coote’s voice has also moved in a different direction over the years – a thrilling Vitellia last time I saw her – but their duets were moving. Kim’s is perhaps the most successful performance, effortless and sparkling high above the stave, and looking a million dollars.

I had been expecting Parisian De Billy to have a natural affinity for this music, but the delicate score felt pedestrian at times, perhaps not helped by the size of the house. Somehow the particular combination of lightness and perfume that characterise Massenet was missing, although this is partly the score itself which isn’t quite the composer’s greatest work. Massenet’s best music is also his sexiest – think Manon, Thaïs, Hérodiade – and perhaps the innocent Lucette didn’t inspire him in quite the same way. I suspect my wish for the finale of La Cenerentola is a clue that De Billy and Massenet had missed the mark – but this was a highly enjoyable evening nonetheless.

Sonya Yoncheva, Placido Domingo, Pietr Beczala
“Something old” - the Met’s Luisa Miller, directed by Elijah Moshinsky’s and hailing from a bygone operatic age of brown and beige, the monumentally murky sets intermittently spotlit. Without screaming “Tyrol” or setting the stage alight dramatically, it proves an effective enough frame for the performers, and has a certain grandeur. And it’s grand operatic stuff, the tale of the Luisa (Sonya Yoncheva), innocent daughter of Miller (Placido Domingo), betrothed to Carlo – himself the disguised Rodolfo (Piotr Beczała), son of Count Walther (Alexander Vinogradov). Aided by cartoon baddie Wurm (Dmitriy Belosselskiy), a plot ensues whereby Luisa is forced to betray Rodolfo to save her father’s life; Luisa and Rodolfo take poison and die along with Wurm in the dramatic finale.

Whilst we are still in the transition from the bel canto structures of his earlier works to mid period Verdi, meaning that some of the music is formulaic, there is plenty to show us what would come later - some strong finales, one truly great tenor aria and a final act of duets and a trio which foreshadow Rigoletto and Forza. The fine overture was scorchingly performed by the Met orchestra and in all I found De Billy much more engaged with this music than with Massenet the night before, the playing and pacing very stylish.

The principals were very satisfying. Of Domingo’s “baritone” roles this is one of the most successful, once the listener accepts that his is not a Verdi baritone voice and takes the performance on its own terms. Some parts of the voice remain remarkably intact and powerful, and he sang better than at the broadcast a week before, with impeccable Verdian phrasing. Dramatically, he is most convincing as Luisa’s tragic, elderly father. In Domingo’s previous (tenor) role, Beczała poured forth irresistible, honeyed Italianate tones - much like Domingo in his prime in fact. This was my first encounter with the Polish tenor, and I hope the first of many. Yoncheva is a familiar performer from London stages and this role debut comes after some heavier recent assignments. She is convincingly girlish in the lighter, more florid music at the start, has the heft for the role’s (surprisingly) dramatic moments, and is touching in the finale. Vocally close to the demands of Violetta (one of Yoncheva’s signature roles in New York and elsewhere) it is not surprising that this is a great part for her at this stage in her career. Mention too for Vinogradov – a rolling, ample bass-baritone, oozing style – and Olesya Petrova, ear-catching in the smallish role of Federica.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov
Credit:  Sarah Krulwich, The New York Times
Last then, “Something New”, or new-ish. David McVicar's Tosca opened on New Year’s Eve (with Yoncheva in the title role, in fact), and returned principally to showcase Anna Netrebko’s long awaited first performances of the title role. Very long awaited in fact – people have been talking about her taking on this role for years. I was lucky enough to hear her as Lady Macbeth in London in March, when she was in splendid, fearless voice, and Floria Tosca inhabits a similar vocal ball park.

Netrebko has everything she needs for the title role – her familiar dark, even and beautiful tone is capable of scorching (but not screeching) intensity and she has a genuine chest voice which is well connected to the rest, crucial for some of the key low-lying lines. She was a little cautious at the very top – I think she will take more risks later – but histrionically holds little back. I have always been struck by her natural instinct for moving around the stage and her acting was spontaneous, never calculated – the leap to her death felt genuinely shocking. “Vissi d’Arte” was introspective and expressive without resorting to mannerism, and predictably caused quite an explosion in the house. Interviews have indicated she doesn’t perhaps feel the affinity for the role that she does for others, but I hope she keeps it in her repertoire, for she is very close to being a Tosca for the ages.

As in the London Macbeth, the tenor was her husband Yusif Eyvazov, a relatively late replacement for Marcelo Alvarez, and on these showings certainly more than just “Mr Netrebko”. His voice is light in colour, but vibrant and powerful, and vocally, he can act. He was a big hit with the house. Scarpia was Michael Volle, one of our truly versatile singing actors (I’ve heard him in French Verdi and Strauss already this season) and a seasoned Chief of Police. He was a superb foil to Netrebko in the second Act, not stinting on menace but stopping short of melodrama.

McVicar’s production looks fabulous, the opulent designs full of colour and detail. Designer John Mcfarlane is a painter, and at first sight his sets look naturalistic (the church and the palazzo feature a lot of paintings, after all). Alongside the naturalistic details like Scarpia’s roaring fire, however, there are touches of expressionism, the skewed perspectives culminating in a stunning final act, a queasy dawn cloudscape looming over the castle battlements and Roman skyline, all dramatically lit by David Finn. The production has no specific “angle” - McVicar understands that Puccini works best when following the score and directions to the letter – but there are some telling details (Tosca swigging wine before spotting the knife – her thoughts easily readable from Netrebko’s expressions), and the blocking is always purposeful (Tosca is cornered on the castle roof with the jump down her only route of escape).

De Billy gave his best performance of the weekend for me, leading his excellent principals and his debuting diva with a firm dramatic pulse. It was a busy weekend for him and a busy weekend for me – but once again the Met served up a feast well worth the flight across an ocean. Til next time…

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