Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Another Met Season Gone; Some thoughts

Another Met Season Gone; Some thoughts

Another Met season has passed us by and like the ones prior and likely, the ones to come, there were many successes in addition to notable failures. In this post, i will give an analysis of what were for the successes, failures, surprises, and disappointments of this season. As a disclaimer, I would like to emphasize that the following comments are ONLY my opinion. I do not pretend to know everything or be right about everything. In fact, I respect those who believe that everything I say is completely wrong and welcome any contradictory arguments. Enjoy!


Boris Gudonov
Boris Gudonov conducted by the great Valery Gergiev, has to be one of the most complete performances of any opera that I've ever been too. The production, while not incredible by any standards, was sufficient in telling the story. The singers, and orchestra were the obvious success and it was truly rewarding to see such a stellar cast that consisted of the great Bass Rene Pape and upcoming tenor Alekansdrs Antonenko (who had a tremendous performance at Carnegie Hall under Muti as Otello) amongst others. Gergiev was as brilliant as always, though I might add that when he came into the pit before the start of the opera, someone in the theater booed and jeered him. Safe to say, that we never heard any such reactions during the rest of the evening. The performance was magical.

Netrebko's return to Don Pasquale
4 years ago, this very same production premiered and immediately solidified Anna Netrebko as a MET star. This year's series of runs (and I saw a performance in February and the HD in November) only served to reinforce this notion. Coupled with a solid cast that included a star turn by Mariuz Kwiecen, and polished conducting from James Levine, Netrebko not only triumphed, but in many cases improved upon her initial run 4 years ago. The production also emphasized the importance of a strong character/story-oriented director in an opera world where concepts and ideas trump all. For my full review, click here.

The Cast of Le Comte Ory
This opera was the latest in the Met's attempt to add new repetoire from Belcanto composers such as Rossini and Donizetti. Given the past successes of Bartlett Sher coupled with the striking cast of Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato, it was expected that this would be yet another successful production premiere. But it was not meant to be... for Mr. Sher that is. Even though his production came off as pretentious and unnecessary at time, it was not enough to destroy or the potency of its star cast... which delivered on all fronts. This performance proved that singers continue to rule the world of opera in spite of the disfunctional stagings and directors. For a full review, click here.

The Cast of Rheingold and Walkure
Wagnerites were treated to a rare treat this year during the two Wagner operas presented this year: stellar casts. In a world, where most Wagner singers sound tired performance after performance, the two casts assembled for the two operas were youthful and refreshing. Of particular note were Bryn Terfel as Wotan in both, Eric Owens as Alberich, Jonas Kauffman as Siegmund, Stephanie Blythe, and most surprising of all, Deborah Voigt. I single out Voigt because her vocal decline in her upper range in recent years made me wonder if she had any chance at pulling off the vocal demands of Brunhilde. I had seen her in Fanciulla del West earlier in the year, and had been left disconcerted.  But she worked through the role with ease, even though there were moments for concern (particularly when she fell off "the machine" at the beginning of Act 2 during the world premiere performance. You can find my full review of Die Walkure here.

Vittorio Grigolo
His debut at the Met was highly publicized and hyped. He was even touted by many as the "Next Pavarotti." His debut in La Boheme proved that while he may not be the next Pavarotti, he is certainly going to a great tenor for years to come. Few tenors these days, with the exception of Florez and Kauffman have the flexibility and polish in their upper range, not to mention the potency and volume of his voice. More importantly, he is the exception to the general trend of hearing tenors bark and growl in their upper range (see below Marcelo Alvarez).

Peleas proves to  be some of the greatest artistic successes of the season with little fanfare
Lost amid the announcements of Levine's 40th anniversary, the new Ring Cycle, and other highly touted new productions was the return of Debussy's intimate Peleas and Melisande conducted by Simon Rattle in his Met Debut. It proved to be one of the most critically acclaimed performances this season, as well as a tremendous revelatory experience. Lacking in A-list stars, everything about this performance worked in a symbiotic relationship and the result is likely one of the most polished and tightly wound performances that I have ever experienced. I was never a big fan of Debussy, but this opera changed my perception of his work completely. If there has ever been perfection on the operatic stage, this may have been it.

William Christie falters in Cosi Fan Tutte
Christie's debut at the Met in Mozart's delightful Cosi Fan Tutte was supposed to be a calling card for the notable conductor who specializes in this repertoire. Unfortunately, the result was far from a triumph. In fact, this belongs in the fiascos section below, but turned out to be a huge surprise, for all the wrong reasons. I fully expected to be satisfied by this performance which included a wealth of youthful and exciting singers led by a veteran and well respected conductor. But instead, we got unstable tempos, missed cues from the singers and conductor, and clear lack of preparation that made me wonder how the Met could risk its reputation on such a disaster.

Giuseppe Filianoti makes a successful return in Hoffman
A few years ago, I heard Filianoti singing Elisir D'Amore with great triumph. He had a great legato, a delicate voice, an easy upper range, and was one of the tenors I was excited for. As the years passed, I heard him tackle heavier repertoire and also heard his pure voice replaced by pushing and straining. It looked like he would be the latest in a long line of tenors that had lost their voices as a result of tackling repertoire that was not suitable for them. Then I found out that he had undergone surgery for throat cancer and had sung through the cancer. The story was that after his surgery, he had to struggle to get his voice back. He had kept the cancer quiet. And then I heard him sing Les Conte d'Hoffman last October, and the old Filianoti was back. His voice may not be as pure as it once was, and there is the occasional strain here and there, but Filianoti was in refreshingly fine voice that made him such a promising singer a few years ago. My hope is that he will continue to rebuild his voice and reestablish himself on the operatic stage.

The Met Audience accepting the New Traviata
I am going to be honest and blunt about this: I HATE the new Traviata production. Willy Decker stands for everything that I hate about new opera directors. He overlooks the libretto to advertise his own persona. He may be a visionary, but there are instances where it is clear to me that his vision may not be suitable to the world of opera. For example, he has singers run around the stage tirelessly to the detriment of their vocal quality. I am not against minimalist productions, but his treatment of Violetta in Traviata seems to degrade to the character without retaining any of her dignity. I had fully expected the Met audience, which has been traditional and conservative with regards to opera production, to boo the performance. However, the end result was massive applause. Glowing reviews. And Sold out performances night after night.

Disappointments and Disasters
No one complains when everything that I have to say is nice and rosy. For this reason, I would like to reemphasize that the following is simply my opinion based on my experiences. 
Don Carlo
I had loved the previous John Dexter production of Don Carlo and even though my expectations for the Nicholas Hytner production were tempered by what I had seen in the DVD release from the Covent Garden, I still expected a great performance of my beloved Verdi Classic. I knew that the production would lack the detail and pageantry of Dexter's (which I really enjoyed). However, Met manager Peter Gelb has constantly stated that theatricality and acting are the new focus of the Met productions. I can buy into a new production if that end of the deal is met and there is good singing. Unfortunately, when I got to see Don Carlo, I got none of the above. What I got was a phoned in performance that seemed eternal. I could not wait for it to end (and Don Carlo is one of my favorite operas). The production had some unique moments, but some extremely cheap ones to nullify the positive aspects. Most worthy of note is the dreadful Auto-da-fe scene, where the chorus moved aimlessly from one side of the tight stage to the next with no sense of direction. Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin did a formidable job, but it could not salvage what were rather ordinary attempts from the singers.

Productions of Rheingold and Walkure
Robert LePage's production of Berlioz's Damnation de Faust was unique and gave me hope that the new Ring was in the right hands. The Otto Schenk production was another Met Production that I was sad to see go. It was both simple and complex. It was both massive and intimate. It was the ideal Ring Production for the Wagner purist. But LePage had promised a traditional Ring filled with the state of the art technology. The promotional pictures also increased the hope. But what ultimately came about was a series of planks that weighed tons, cost tons, and ultimately did little. The productions looked cheap despite the state of the art technology that did not seem to be used to its maximum potential. The productions looked half-baked and at times were absurdly distracting. To see my full detailed thoughts on this travesty, go here.

The Revival of Queen of Spades
Tchaikovsky's opera featured a solid cast in addition to a successful production revival. Tchaikovsky's opera is a highly underrated treat that I had fully expected to be an enjoyable night at the opera.  However, it proved to be a routine revival, filled with bored singing and no discernible stage direction to speak of. None of the singers, not even the great Dolora Zajick who rarely has a subpar performance, could save this mess that seemed like it was a space filler rather than a production that the Met was truly taking seriously.

The Cast of Trovatore, which had tremendous success years ago, proved unable to repeat
Back in 2009, the Met finally made a successful Trovatore after years of inadequate and farcical productions.  The cast during the successful run included Sondra Radvanonsky, Marcello Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Dolora Zajick. All the singers gave tremendous performances. The Met decided to bring this cast back to sing the HD performance which is likely going to be released on DVD in the future. I had high hopes that this cast would repeat the previous year's success, but was left hoping. Radvanovsky, who had sung so confidently years earlier, sang consistently flat throughout the night. Alvarez, who seemed to be blossoming into a good spinto tenor instead lapsed into the bad habit to shouting through the role. He can barely singing a single legato phrase without barking on a note for emphasis. His upper range is especially faulty. There isn't a single moment in Alvarez's Trovatore where he doesn't access his upper range without reverting to straining and pushing. It is profoundly disappointing to hear the Met publicizing this kind of singing as first class. Hvorostovsky never really convinced me the first time around, but there were enough solid moments to let me pass him. This time around, his deteriorated voice and the heavy nature of the role seemed to wear even more on him. Zajick, may have continued to be the standout, but she is getting on in years and is no longer who she once was. Marco Armiliato didn't help matters with tempos that seemed too fast and uncomfortable for the singers.

Natalie Dessay returns to her most notable triumph in Lucia, but fails to deliver
Back in 2006, Dessay made her debut as Lucia for the Met's new production. She was tremendous in the role and cemented herself in my eyes and many others' as one of the opera world's top singer. However, the years have passed, and the years of shouting in her performance for dramatic effect and her abuse of her upper range have taken their toll, to the point where she no longer has the voice she had back in 2006. In fact, the voice she now has pales in comparison. It is unstable and grainy in the upper range where it was once clear and polished. Dessay clearly has a difficulty accessing her highest notes which often sound flat and forced. Her Lucia, which was rewarded with an HD performance was an utter disappointment, punctuated by a flat high E flat to end the evening. her coloratura runs which were once so clean and polished, are sounding rushed and messy. Dessay's decline was inevitable, but it seems that it is happening too fast and too soon.

Hvorostovsky is overshadowed in Simon Boccanegra
I thoroughly enjoyed this year's Simon Boccanegra. Tenor Ramon Vargas sang the Verdi tenor role with fluidity that most tenors singing Verdi lack these days (again see Alvarez). Barbara Fritolli sang beautifully as Amelia and Feruccio Furlanetto added to his legacy as one of the greatest Verdi Basses of all time. But unfortunately, the opera is titled Simon Boccanegra and as such, it is expected that the Baritone must carry the show. Hvorostovsky once had a beautiful voice that captured Don Carlo's Rodrigo with elegance and warmth that I have never since heard. I had fully expected him to develop into a solid Baritone  that might one day sing the great Verdi roles, include Boccanegra. But I had never expected him to jump into the heavy repertoire so soon. The result was that his voice lost its clarity, replaced by pushing and straining that has become a disease of most Verdi baritones/singers in general. His Boccanegra was greeted with glowing reviews, but in my opinion, was cold and reserved, as if Hvorostovsky were trying to mask how poorly this role sits in his voice. he is a light baritone who has tried to cement himself as a spinto baritone, to mediocre results. His Boccanegra was certainly one of them.

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