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‘Twas ever “Thus”

While James Levine’s name might not immediately spring to mind when pondering the great Mozart conductors, he does have a long and distinguished career leading operas by the Austrian master. In fact, Levine had conducted every new production of a Mozart opera at the Met since 1979 until health problems forced him to cancel his participation in Michael Grandage’s dud of a Don Giovanni in October 2011.  

So it was then perhaps fitting that his return to the Met podium after an absence of nearly two-and-a-half years came with Tuesday’s revival of Così Fan Tutte; unfortunately the uneven cast his home theater assembled for this emotional occasion couldn’t compete with the ravishing, fleet playing he drew from an orchestra clearly glad to have its long-time maestro back.

Expectedly the evening’s most memorable moment arrived before a single note was played when Levine’s first appearance in the pit was greeted by a long and loud standing ovation by the nearly sold-out audience. I had attended Levine’s return to conducting at a triumphant concert with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in May (it’s being released on CD next week) where I was happily surprised to see him much more physically vigorous and engaged than I had seen him in years. The orchestra superbly played that program of Wagner, Beethoven (with Evgeny Kissin) and Schubert proving that Levine hadn’t lost his touch to inspire the great band he has assembled during the over three decades he has been Music Director.

Having heard him conduct Così numerous times (the second performance I ever attended at the Met was the premiere of the 1982 Colin Graham production which also heralded Kiri Te Kanawa’s return after a six-year absence), I know it’s an opera that Levine clearly loves and one that brings out the best in him. The orchestra positively glowed throughout Tuesday’s season premiere, its winds glorious, its strings shimmering with a burnished glow. But this was not an old man’s Così—it bubbled along briskly, never falling into the ponderousness that can afflict his Wagner. My only reservation was the staid continuo of Howard Watkins at the harpsichord and an unnamed cellist.

Sadly, with one exception, the six singers on stage for this latest revival of Lesley Koenig’s now broadly cartoonish 1996 production failed to match the world-class sounds coming from the pit. Though announced as suffering from a cold, tenor Matthew Polenzani still shone brightest as Ferrando. Despite recent forays into operas by Offenbach, Massenet and Donizetti, his virile and melting singing showed why he remains one of the world’s best Mozart tenors. Despite his indisposition, he ventured the difficult, often-cut “Ah! lo veggio” (which I can only recall hearing before at the Met sung by David Rendall in 1982 and Jerry Hadley in 1996), a magnificent aria that challenged Polenzani, but he still demonstrated why it should never be excised. His finely spun “Un aura amorosa” held the audience breathless and easily proved the musical high point of the evening.

When he sang with his co-conspirator Rodion Pogossov’s Guglielmo, it was often hard to hear the spirited Russian baritone. His smallish, reedy voice would seem better suited to a house smaller than the Met, although he did made his mark with a biting “Donne mie” perhaps because it was sung near the front edge of the stage. His Dorabella, Isabel Leonard, started off very roughly but soon recovered; however, the voice has lately lost its roguish appeal and become edgy and harsh. While she’s a lovely performer, I’ve never understood why Leonard has evolved into Met’s go-to Mozart mezzo (and Rosina).

It was even harder to figure out what the desiccated Don Alfonso of Maurizio Muraro was doing on an international stage, for he was subdued to the point of nearly disappearing. Perhaps he realized the futility of trying to gain an audience’s attention while bantering with the scenery-gnawing Despina of the always-resistible Danielle de Niese. As ever, she preened and posed and made bug-eyed faces at the audience while only occasionally remembering to interact with her fellow performers. I can’t recall a moment that remotely resembled recognizable human behavior. Her raw soprano still has several good notes in the middle, but the top seems to be receding so we were mercifully spared the screeched interpolated high notes that blighted the opera’s previous revival which also ran aground on William Christie’s ill-fated Met debut.

As the first step in what appears to be “the season of Susanna Phillips” at the Met the young American soprano’s Fiordiligi proved perplexing. For the entire first act and the beginning of the second, we got a penny-plain portrayal exhibiting none of the prima-donna attitude–or bravura–needed. She worked hard in “Come scoglio” but lacked the strong middle and lower notes to put over that showpiece. The production, revived by Robin Guarino, did little to distinguish her from her sister; both just seemed shallow flibbertigibbets.

But once the story turned serious, a new Phillips emerged—the sublime “Per pietà” found her in surer command, coping well if not effortlessly with the demanding trills that conclude the aria. Her subsequent duet of capitulation to Ferrando “Fra gli amplessi” found Polenzani inspiring her to some of the evening’s finest singing. But throughout, one longed for a more distinctive timbre, a more individual approach to the music. After having witnessed such fine Met Fiordiligis as Te Kanawa, Carol Vaness, Melanie Diener, and Barbara Frittoli (the best thing I’ve ever seen her do), I thought Phillips fell short and didn’t begin to suggest the sparkle necessary to put over Rosalinde in the upcoming new production of Die Fledermaus

This farcical take on Così does a disservice to Mozart and da Ponte’s supreme “problem comedy” by avoiding the dark and troubling issues that pervade the work. When Ferrando experiences the crushing pain of Dorabella’s betrayal, we are shocked by his sudden surge of emotion—yet throughout this evening, we have only witnessed silly puppets playing Alfonso’s game. Guglielmo’s bitterness during the wedding preparations goes for naught, and the happy (?) reunion of the four with their original partners during the final chorus rings hollow, particularly after the rapture Mozart paints in that searing scene between Fiordiligi and Ferrando. Could they really return to the previous status quo after the cruelties we have witnessed?  Unfortunately, the Met would rather you didn’t think about these vexing questions.

This is too bad, but at least the remaining nine performances this season will offer opportunities to hear a great Mozart conductor doing many magical things and that—and Polenzani’s Ferrando—are things to be very grateful for, after all.  But let’s hope that the Met gets its act together: last night’s performance started ten minutes late, and, combined with a nearly 45-minute intermission, stretched to nearly four hours.

Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

98 comments

  • MontyNostry says:

    The cast sounds most uninspiring. It’s not as it there were a shortage of decent, good-looking Mozart singers in the world at the moment.

  • phoenix says:

    I don’t find the comparison offensive but I am a bit surprised -- maybe Robert J. knows something I don’t -- does Kathleen Battle have Sinhalese or Tamil ancestry? (only kidding, of course, no offense to either singer nor to Mr J.)
    - I have only heard de Niese in broadcasts, never have seen her live -- to me she doesn’t sound remotely like Kathleen Battle (whom I did hear live many times), in fact I the two voices strike me as entirely different to the point that it is difficult for me to even compare them — but someone else may be able to do so.
    - de Niese, in a smaller house, could do a greater range of roles than she does now.

    • phoenix says:

      Sorry I placed this comment at the end, rather than toward the beginning of this thread. It’s getting late, in more ways than one!

    • MontyNostry says:

      Well de Niese is no doubt set to do a greater range of roles in a particular smaller house -- Glyndebourne -- for obvious reasons. She got quite positive reviews for her Norina there this summer. For my part, I wouldn’t shlep all that way for either her or Don Pasquale!

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      I think even at Glyndebourne De Niese is going to be an eternal soubrette. In terms of an attempt at a Battle comparison, although they have several roles in common Battle had one of the most beautiful voices in the world and a fabulous upper extension -- De Niese is an engaging performer in spite of her scratchy timbre, and has a short top given her voice type.

      • MontyNostry says:

        Battle really did have a gorgeous, pearly voice, while De Niese (though I haven’t seen her live, except once with a microphone) seems to have what I call an ‘efficient’ voice. Unexceptional basic material that has been trained pretty much as far as it will go.

  • laddie says:

    ” always-resistible Danielle de Niese”

    Oropresa hopefully will take over these DeNiese roles soon.

    • grimoaldo says:

      That’s what I was thinking, she should take them over *now*, not five years from now as is par for the Met course by which time Oropesa should be doing Violetta, Marguerite, etc.
      Oropesa is fabulous!

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    A column of air through the vocal folds!!!
    Mastering the human voice and really learning how to sing is such an amazing and long process.

    • FragendeFrau82 says:

      Thank you QPF, you have reminded me there must be a role for Hvorostovsky in my dream Pique Dame with Trebs and Jonas…

      • Porgy Amor says:

        I initially misread that as “with Trebs and Jones,” and it got me imagining Dame Gwyneth as the Countess. Has she sung it?

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          I think, Porgy, that a Jones Countess would be a disaster. Her Vienna Herodias last year confirmed that she has absolutely nothing left in the middle, and her chest voice wasn’t a whole lot better. Only the top really carried, and the Countess has no top notes.

          • Porgy Amor says:

            True enough. It’s easy to muse about how she might make something compelling of it on sheer presence and authority (as the 80-year-old-and-sounding-it Martha Mödl did in the 1990s), but she does still have to sing, and it may not be an assignment that flatters.

  • Gerald says:

    “Ah lo veggio” has been pretty standard at the Met for a long time. Rendall almost always sang it, Groves sang it, Polenzani sang it last time, Croft sang it in ’97.

  • zinka says:

    “Come scoglio” was bland…Where is Eleanor??

    Leonard does NOT belong on the Met stage..Cloudy,small, non-descript vpice……

    But Phillips really does have a beautiful voice….but this was just “eh”

    • La Valkyrietta says:

      On dress circle there was on display the gown Steber wore as the Marchallin; on parterre the one Lehman wore in the same role. Wonderful gowns, as well as the one Regina wore on Pique Dame, on parterre. Last but by no means least, on dress circle, the fashion statement of the Marchallin of Lisa Della Casa.

      • Feldmarschallin says:

        Years ago I was lucky enough to have a backstage tour of the costume department by the most knowledgeable Robert Tuggle. He has treasures and all of a sudden he brought out a box that had Schwarzkopf’s green silk gown with cabbage roses. The same gown she wore for the film and for the Salzburg performances. Now I always wondered why Schwarzkopf left it to the Met since they were certainly not a main house for her and Bings attitude towards her was beneath contempt. Apparently he wrote to an agent in Wien who the best Figaro Gräfin was besides Schwarzkopf. The agent then responded with della Casa and at first Bings fee was so paltry that she demurred. Then Bing increased and she said ok but that they were still getting a bargain.

    • armerjacquino says:

      “Where is Eleanor??”

      She retired in the 1970s and died in 1990, both of which are compelling reasons for her absence from this particular production.

      • Feldmarschallin says:

        Exactly. Why not ask Ina Souez who hopefully didn’t get her gowns at the Koch atelier otherwise she will be disqualified as well.

      • zinka says:

        That is right…..So fvar,no one has surpassed her…but there still have been Fiordiligis like Vaness,etc…but Phillips,des[ite a gpopod voice, was bland..I still want to know,”Where is Eleansr?” “Where is Jurinac?”

        • MontyNostry says:

          Well, it’s off YouTube now, but there was a video from a Richard Tucker gala in London in, I think, 2001 or 2002 with Christine Goerke singing a magnificent ‘Come scoglio’. Judging from her Elektra the other night, I doubt Fiordiligi would be her thing any more (!), but it’s a joy to hear a more heroic voice getting its teeth successfully into the role.

          • armerjacquino says:

            But I mean, really… I can understand (although it’s just as frustrating) all the ‘where is Birgit, where is Leontyne’ stuff because Big Wagner and Big Verdi is hard to cast. But we really aren’t short of top-class Mozart sopranos and we never have been.

            • phoenix says:

              Agree, amerjac. Less-than-sterling casts for Wagner commemorative ‘celebration’ is evidence enough. But there was some light on the horizon preceding the ‘festivities’ -> Goerke: EXCELLENT as Ortrud (Houston), Kundry (Torino) and Brünnhilde (Auckland), although lately she sounds to me as if she is beginning to slide back a bit into her blustery mode, something similar to her blasting (but authentically interpreted) Madame Lidoine at the Met (2002).
              -- Somewhat better casting available for Verdi, but the glaring missing gap of decent Forza del Destino (my Verdi favorite) performances saddens me greatly. The proliferation of Rigolettos (not my Verdi favorite) annoyed me but I was gladly overcome by all the Trovatores.
              - As far as Eleanor Steber goes, her recordings don’t capture the incredible beauty of her tone -- yes, she was a great singer, but when I saw her (toward the end of her career) I couldn’t believe how youthful, golden, full voice she sounded -- free, natural & unforced she carried the line with no hint of stress or effort -- she was something else -- sorry about this -> but Harteros couldn’t compare.

            • Krunoslav says:

              “But we really aren’t short of top-class Mozart sopranos and we never have been.”

              Agreed. Wish that one of them had been cast as the Met’s current Despina. The DdN voice, once at least adequate, has further deteriorated, and as one poster noted her interaction was entirely with the audience, not with colleagues.

            • Buster says:

              Anja Harteros just cancelled her three Verdi requiems with the RCO and Jansons. Aga Mikolaj replaces her.

            • alejandro says:

              I’m just curious who the top-class Mozart sopranos are now. I haven’t been too impressed with the ones I’ve seen at the Met … just want to know who to look for.

            • alejandro says:

              Ah, yes, well, I love Anja. But I don’t think she’s singing here any time soon. :(

            • alejandro says:

              That production looks amazing, btw.

            • Buster says:

              I saw that Idomeneo with a different cast -- Stephanie d’Oustrac as the most passionate Idamante, and Judith van Wanroij a moving Ilia. Loved it:

          • PushedUpMezzo says:

            That would be the rather wonderful one at Covent Garden which also featured Millo, Bartoli and Bumbry (in Barbie pink) and included the Triumph scene from Aida, which Grace won on points. Cecilia declined to participate in that, but did do a lovely Non piu mesta. Anything from that show would be so welcome.

            • PushedUpMezzo says:

              Sorry that was intended to follow MontyNostry’s post about Goerke’s Come Scoglio

            • MontyNostry says:

              PUM, I eternally regret not going to that gala. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t -- I think I just assumed it would be sold out because Bartoli was in it and I alsomistakenly assumed that Grace would be a mere shadow of her former self. Her ‘Pleurez mes yeux’ from that occasion has also disappeared from YouTube.

        • Bill says:

          Zinka -- Steber was a very technically secure
          Fiordiligi -- and in the excellent Lunt production at the Met rather fun to view.
          Yet her voice was (to my thinking) not as
          beautiful as some of the other Fiordiligis
          at the time, Seefried (Boehm’s and Krips’ favorite), Schwarzkopf, della Casa, Jurinac and others.
          Later Janowitz and perhaps the finest Fiordiligi of all (vocally) Margaret Price.
          There was also Gueden (moving up from Despina), Stich-Randall and hordes of others. The finest
          (vocally) I heard in the last decade was that of Isokoski. Steber, however, could sweep
          through Come Scoglio (Felsenaria) with great aplomb and technical security. In the earlier 1950′s at the Met we did not have much to compare Steber to in this role except broadcasts from Salzburg (always Seefried) and the old Glyndebourne recording from the 1930s and a Remington discI think from Stuttgart (if I recall Hetty Pluemacher was the Fiordiligi but I may be wrong -- and she was not as luminous as Seefried or technically secure as Steber -- rather pedestrian in my memory. In the late 1950s the floodgates opened and many more sopranos began to sing Fiordiligi globally, as Cosi began to be performed all over outside of Germany and
          Austria (the Vienna Opera did it regularly in the earlier part of the 20th Century and as a matter of course, almost every season after 1943 pretty much with the same cast (with various Dorabellas, Rohs, Hoengen, Jurinac, Herman, Ludwig) almost always with Boehm or Krips (a couple with Kempe or Ackermann) but later with a variety of lesser condctors). I found Carol Vaness technically secure but uneven of voice in the role -- Lorengar sang exqisitely with refined taste but her vibrato never made her an absolute favorite -Still, from 1943 on (at least) there have always been good Fiordiligis available on a world wide basis and it is one of the most challenging roles for soprano in my book plus anyone essaying the role MUST be able to blend into the ensemble with great beauty of tone (and a creamy tone at that) as well as tackling the technical difficulties of Fiordiligi’s two great arias with no register breaks and a secure technique.

          • zinka says:

            A main reason for posting here is that one derives great pleasure and knowledge from a wonderful post like yours…..It is like reading Steane or even La Cieca..Thanks….CH

    • jimupde says:

      You will find Eleanor either upstairs at Sherry’s or across the street at Bill’s

      • zinka says:

        I met the great Eleanor once and needed VALIUM..Loved her!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        • La Valkyrietta says:

          It is nice to think of the past, and wonderful that many posters remember and were present at memorable performances of the not too distant one. Thank you zinka and all.

          At the start of the Met season I wonder about the near future. I will see The Nose, as I missed it last time, and I can’t miss Levine conducting Falstaff, it promises joy. I am undecided about Norma. Will it be something, comparing with the sublime donne Maria, Joan, Montserrat? As the King of Siam used to say, a puzzlement, something to soon decide. To tip toe to the big house, or place the feet under a warm comforter, have a gin and ginger, and dream with Maria vintage 55.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            I don’t like Radvanovsky, and think I don’t like Meade based on recordings, but I’d still go and see Norma, just because there have been so few opportunities for me, so far, and I’m sure both ladies will have their moments.

  • Grane says:

    Re DDN: NY Times says she “nearly stole the show.” Could that be taken to mean she tried as hard as she could--but didn’t manage--to steal the show?

  • Gualtier M says:

    BTW: Ann Midgette in the Washington Post had this gem of an observation:

    “Although he is the Met’s music director, his fortunes have somehow never been tied to the house, in the sense that however bleak the Met’s artistic achievements have been in any given season, somehow we all still love Jimmy. Since Levine took over as music director in 1976, the Met has hardly seen a Golden Age, but the conventional wisdom is that his own tenure has represented one solid triumph. I say this not in a spirit of criticism, but simply of observation. It’s nice for him that he’s been able to pull this off.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/classical-beat/post/levine-returns-with-gusto-to-met-cosi/2013/09/26/6bd45cb8-265e-11e3-b75d-5b7f66349852_blog.html

  • pobrediablo says:

    • Feldmarschallin says:

      She looks and sounds stunning. The dress and earrings match perfectly. Looking forward to her Traviata in April.

      • oedipe says:

        It’s very recent, too. Between two performances of Lucia she was invited to sing in this private gala at the magnificent Château de Chimay. She mentioned it on her FB page and seemed very excited about the whole thing.

        • Feldmarschallin says:

          Well I hope she doesn’t cancel the Violettas here since you said she cancelled several engagements in the near future. I have had two horrible performances back to back at the Bayerische Staatsoper of Liebestrank and Don Giovanni and needed something good to cleanse my ears. Van der Heever was not my ideal of a Donna Anna with a shrill loud top and no piano nor trill. Poor Röschmann has always had a short top and now getting shorter and she sings up to the notes. The soprano as Adina you could not hear. I mean Güden and Berger and Battle certainly didn’t have large voices but voices that carried. She also left coloratura out. Poor Filianoti started Una furtive only to have nothing come out and it goes on. My third performance would have been the Figaro but I already got rid of that ticket. Now lets hope that three is the charm and the Wozzeck with Denoke and Simon K is much better than the crap Bachler gave us for the start of the season. I complained and told the woman at the front information desk I would boo if the DG was as bad as the Liebestrank and she said yes I have every right to. I just left immediately since it wasn’t even worth booing for. I was just thinking who nice it would have been for Yoncheva to sing the Anna last night. Extra credit goes to the costume department who made Röschmann wear sneakers with a skirt and stockings like the American women like to do. With her being rather short and plump and having short legs the length of her skirt made her even look shorter. In the second act she wore sweat pants which flatter no woman let alone a short and plumb one who is hippy. In going to the BSO for 33 years now these two have to be two of the worst performances I have heard there.

          • Buster says:

            That sounds very depressing.

            I heard Röschman struggle her way through the Four Last Songs, that was not very pleasant either. Way too mousy for that repertoire.

            Vielleicht probieren sie doch die Johanni? Sie ist supergeil.

            • Feldmarschallin says:

              Nein danke mir reichts für jetzt. Da war eine Zeit da hätte ich mir gewüscht, daß Röschmann den Oktavian und den Komponisten singt aber da ist es jetzt auch zu spät.

            • Buster says:

              That is a pity. Fortunately, I now have the weekend off, with Anja out of the requiem. Hope you like Wozzeck. I am going to the Cologne one next week, with Markus Stenz, and Florian Boesch.

            • Feldmarschallin says:

              Hope you enjoy the Wozzeck in Köln. Sorry to hear about the Requiem cancellation. I just bought tickets for three Requiems in Feb 2013 and an interesting Kammerkonzert with French composers which one wouldn’t normally associate with her.

          • Gualtier M says:

            I am actually really saddened to hear that Filianoti is still struggling vocally -- I now wonder if he will ever recover. He was so wonderful at his Met debut in “Lucia” with Futral. His first Nemorinos at the Met with Swenson were good. I looked up the Adina on the Bavarian State Opera website -- Ekaterina Sadovnikova. Sorry to hear about Roeschmann too but that has been going on for a while. She was ill too wasn’t she?

            Actually “Wozzeck” with Denoke and Keenlyside sounds like a winner to me. I heard both under the baton of Salonen at Carnegie Hall and both were wonderful. Keenlyside does some twitchy, off-kilter physical movements to mitigate his handsome, leading man looks.

            • Feldmarschallin says:

              Well she wasn’t announced as ill but she never had an easy top. The Elsas she sang for one run and never again. The Marschallin even which certainly isn’t high also seems to have disappeared after not very many performances. Question is what can she still sing. Of course Liederabend are always an option and she is a very intelligent singer but operatic roles are not that many that would fit her comfortable now. Even the Elvira was a stretch and didn’t come easy. Keenlyside and Denoke are both great in those roles.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Yoncheva is wonderful here.