Cher Public

Wan lake

The sound of Joyce DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee and John Osborn nailing La Donna del Lago’s thrilling second-act trio alone made worthwhile enduring one of the ugliest, most bone-headed productions seen at the Metropolitan Opera in many a year.  

Reviving it Friday night just ten months after its premiere seemed foolhardy but anyone who hasn’t caught Rossini’s marvelous take on Walter Scott’s poem of romantic and political rivalries in the Scottish Highlands should grab the opportunity—maybe with his eyes closed. Who knows when there will be another chance to hear it?

The hero of the evening was conductor Michele Mariotti, who elicited taut, exciting performances from the Met orchestra and chorus and made a grand case for this splendid, problematic opera full of ravishing melodies and jaw-dropping vocal fireworks. More than once I averted my eyes from the mess on stage to observe Mariotti reveling in the ever-surprising orchestration.

I had hoped, for example, to enjoy Duglas’s stirring first-act aria but Oren Gradus’s labored, small-scaled rendition was even worse than last season’s so I just blocked him out and listened to the riot of wondrous color arising from the pit.

The returning Daniela Barcellona as Malcom remains a frustrating singer. Despite her long-term sterling Rossini credentials, the voice now has broken into three discrete registers; a muffled, barked chest; a thin middle and surprisingly bright and substantial top.

Her coloratura is “managed” with lots of half-voiced aspirates and lacks the sheer éclat one wants in this music. Rossini just doesn’t seem to suit her anymore as her calendar full of Amneris, Eboli, Santuzza, etc. suggests. Not much of an actress, she also wasn’t helped by her ungainly costume, a wretchedly ill-fitting kilt.

The third time was the charm for Osborn: the previous two instances I heard him (Guglielmo Tell at Carnegie and Donna’s Met premiere in February) he started out well but then pooped out in the cabaletta home-stretch. Friday found him instead in strong, consistent form, singing with admirable delicacy (smashing trills!) and fiery force.

His wide-ranging tenor can still take on a harsh, bawling edge at times but he used that effectively as the villainous Rodrigo whose political ambitions trump his amorous intentions toward Elena.

His strutting braggadocio contrasted strikingly with the more refined Uberto, the disguised king portrayed by the show’s sole newcomer Brownlee. If he lacked the steely debonair bravura of his predecessor Juan Diego Flórez, he brought greater vocal warmth and engagement with the drama.

Brownlee started out slowly, his lower voice sounding uncharacteristically unsteady, but was in fine form for a superb “O fiamma soave,” his extravagantly florid paean to the saintly Elena with whom he had spent a life-changing twenty minutes. He bravely overcame the production’s most risible tableau: just before his aria, one of the rebels jabbed a severed head onto a spike to display with several others on the peculiar post-nuclear landscape that is the Highlands.

Brownlee tossed off thrilling high Cs to match Osborn’s in that mesmerizing trio and also threw in a few Ds for good measure. Against such tenorial swaggering, Di Donato’s Elena might have been a bit self-effacing. Her burnished mezzo sounded somewhat reduced in volume from last season but her tendency to push high notes white and sharp was less pronounced.

Her impeccable Rossini style and mastery of always surprising, unerringly apt ornamentation remain matchless. If she worried the first half of “Tanti affetti” too much, its delirious conclusion dazzled triumphantly.

Revived by Gregory Keller, Paul Curran’s production (originally seen in Santa Fe) was a last-minute compromise after earlier productions starring Di Donato and Flórez seen around Europe were judged inadequate. While it presented the basic action clearly enough, it over-emphasized the civil war abounding in head-scratching, laugh-inducing moments like the chorus thrusting its spears into the air each time Osborn attacked a high note.

Malcom, then Duglas sneaking into the d’Angus household’s hidden booze stash provided unintended comic relief. Presumably money was tight for Kevin Knight’s barren set and dull costumes but surely he could have done up a new dress for Elena’s wedding to Rodrigo; instead Di Donato appeared in the same outfit (plus a veil) she’d worn the entire act.

I’ve loved this opera since I first heard the Montserrat CaballéFranco BonisolliPietro Bottazzo RAI broadcast as a teenager. Naively, I had high hopes when Opera Orchestra of New York produced it in 2003, but Eve Queler at her most lumbering failed to strike any sparks, while two scared-looking tenors botched the trio opposite the desperately bland Ruth Ann Swenson, while Stephanie Blythe definitively demonstrated she wasn’t the “next Marilyn Horne.”

Despite the Met’s dopey staging with its wrong-headed fairy-tale finale out of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Rossini still worked his considerable magic thanks to Mariotti’s mastery and his devoted mezzo and tenors.

  • gustave of montreal

    Could you elaborate on surprising orchestration ? looking at the score doesnt reveal any unusual instruments ?

    • semira mide

      4 clarinets is more than a standard Rossini score, I believe.

    • BB

      Not the instruments, it’s what he has them do. Ditto Armida. Judging from the way he wrote for them, the Naples orchestra must have been the finest most virtuosic in Europe because some of that music is still hella hard for players even today.

  • Camille

    While I had been entertaining the notion to go hear this in the house it does sound like it’s best seen on the broadcast. The harps at the end of the act are the most interesting bit of all of it to me, in any event.

    While Ruth Ann was not a scintillating ‘singing-actress’, at least she did sing well. As far as Stephanie Blythe being Marilyn Horne -- well -- she’s since revealed herself to us as the second coming of Kate Smith isn’t she? And when was Queler “Don’t call me MaestrA!” EVER more than competent?--that’s beside the point--the point was we got to hear things we ordinarily wouldn’t have at the Almighty MET. Opera Orchestra, RIP.

    • semira mide

      Yes, it is best seen on the broadcast, although the HD managed make more sense of the production. Barcellona’s placement is also problematic as she was much better in the ROH production. And she does have Arsace on the calendar, so Rossini is not lost.

      • Camille

        Thank you, dear lady.

        I look forward to the day when once again ‘your’ opera will be performed at the MET. and remember so well La Junie’s performance over the radio, what was that? 1991, I guess. Then, I thought the glory days of opera could not yet be over, for what how much it impressed me, not to mention General Horne was still at the fray and up to it, despite many years on the battle field.

        There have been one too many bad reports on this staging ever since it showed up in Santa Fee, but I’d thought maybe I’d hazard a chance this time, but frankly have too much to do these days, so, not! I do love that help section so much and find it unusual for Rossini.

        Happy listening to you, always!

        • Camille

          that would be “harp” and not “help”, just for clarity’s sake.

          Too many Advent calendar chocolates, I guess I’d better stop.

  • Milady DeWinter

    I thought Brownlee sounded fabulous -- as if the voice had gained a mote more metal. His big scene at the top of Act II was astonishing. And Osborn really nailed it too.
    Di Donato was brilliant, and I should not complain given her talent and personality, and nothing personal, but with all the tenor-izing and alto-izing, I felt the “wan” of the score as well, minus any soprano tones. (Though Mr. Corwin is correct about Mme. Barcellonoa’s surprisingly bright and true soprano-ish tones at the top of the range.)
    Dio mio, poor Mr. Gradus did sound under the Scottish weather, didn’t he?

  • Gualtier M

    Cast change tonight at the Met:
    “Andrey Nemzer will sing the role of Orlofsky in this evening’s performance of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, replacing Susan Graham, who is ill.

    A winner of the 2012 National Council Auditions, Nemzer made his Met debut in 2013 as the Guardian in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. His other recent performances have included Don Alfonso and Il Sole in Cavalli’s Veremonda at the Spoleto Festival; Agnes the Digger in Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox at Opera San Antonio; and two Mozart roles, Ramiro in La Finta Giardiniera and Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte, with Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh.”

    Nemzer has an unusually large and brilliant voice for a countertenor. BTW: I saw the second performance of “Die Fledermaus” -- they have cut a lot of Beane’s book -- a change for the better and Levine was in a holiday mood in the pit. The cast was far from perfect (Crowe sang though her upper notes were a little veiled) but worked together as a team. I had a better time than Mr. Corwin (though maybe the show came together better).

    • Camille

      ROWNA ALERT!!! Are you listening???

      • Rowna

        Yes, I heard about late yesterday afternoon. No way to get to NY on time :( I am going to get some first hand accounts from friends who were there, as well as from Andrey. You all know I am so hoping he gets a major league career, which I think he deserves. Unfortunately, there seems to be an epidemic of up and coming countertenors. And while I have only heard a few of them, I can tell you, Andrey has the biggest voice. Also he is a fabulous musician. Can you imagine -- the role of Orlofsky in the Met production has a Russian accent -- and Andrey’s native language is Russian. He is also a born comedian and stage stealer. I hope someone from parterre can add their own first hand account if they were there on Monday night.

        • Krunoslav

          “Can you imagine — the role of Orlofsky in the Met production has a Russian accent — and Andrey’s native language is Russian. ”

          Marina Domashenko sang Orlofsky at the Met in 2005-06 and was just about the best Orlofsky I have ever heard.

    • Rowna

      Andrey also gets a lot of orchestral engagements, singing solo in whatever oratorio or mass. His last triumph was singing in a new “pastiche” in Pittsburgh based on The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare. Of course he stole the show.

  • Krunoslav

    What, no mention of Weltstar Julia Hamari???

  • Lee B. Ahmo

    I always enjoy your thoughtful and perceptive reviews, dear CC. Thank you for this. As I was not there, alas, I’m wondering about Osborn’s low notes. At the premiere last year he basically didn’t have any, and these Nozzari roles need some baritonal notes, don’t they?

    • laddie

      I only heard the broadcast, and what I noticed was that initially, though audible on broadcast, low part of voice was not terribly strong. He gained energy after those initial moments and I noticed to problems from there on out.

      • laddie

        No problems not to problems.

  • Laura Amorosa

    I was in the house last night and I found the criticism leveled at Ms.Barcellona, unwarranted (at least last night). There was no sign of register breaks, the voice was uniform all across the range, and she does sing up and down that range several time in the opera. In other words, she sounded great, much better than last year, in fact.

    That said it’s true that dramatically she comes across weak, but i blame the director and the costume people. At least this time they removed that ridiculous fake beard that looked like she had picked up charcoal and smushed it all over her fact. It is also true that she is moving away from Rossini: I would love to hear her as Santuzza …

    I agree with everything else. I love the music of this opera: so many bravura pieces and beautiful music. But it is dramatically problematic. My question is why so much attention to LA DONNA DEL LAGO, when there are 2 Rossini serious operas with equally beautiful music, and much more dramatically compelling. I am referring to OTELLO and ERMIONE. You would think Ms. Di Donato would demand productions of those instead of DONNA … I suspect it has to do with the fact that all these DONNA productions are for Di Donato AND Florez. And in ERMIONE and OTELLO the “Giovanni David” role is smaller than the Nazzari role, giving Florez less predominance. Just a theory. But if somebody could mount Ermione with Di Donato (or Pendatchanska or Antonacci if she still sings it), Barcellona as Andromaca, John Osborn as Pirro and Florez as Oreste, I would be in heaven.

    • semira mide

      I am in total agreement about Barcelona, the producting, etc. Florez sang in Otello at La Scala last summer, so I’m not sure the reason for has to do with the size of the role. I don’t think we’ll see Ermione at the Met -- ever. I believe that Angela Meade had a crack at Ermine in Spain recently.. not sure it’s a good fit for her. But Semiramide would be nice, with a soprano singing the title role. Yes, there is a lot of neglected first rate Rossini out there.

  • isoldit

    funny Bartlett Sher story, I went to see FIDDLER ON THE ROOF yesterday afternoon, was seated in the next to last row in the orchestra, who should be sitting in the last row, but her majesty, B. Sher with his assistant, well they insisted on talking all the way through the first act. I finally said ” I don’t care who you are, can you please be quiet” the response from the assistant is “we are working and he is the director” he then said in an equally obnoxious tone, “I am the director”, fortunately the person next to me said “We know who you are, and we are paying customers!” they shut up, at intermission his obnoxious assistant insisted on saying they were working, the person next to me said they should not have sold the seats in front of them if that was the case, I commented then, rather exasperated, ” It is too late to fix the mess you have on that stage, he fucked this the way he has fucked up everything he has done at the Metropolitan Opera.” She was rather horrified. as a few of my friends said, It is about time someone told him the truth. BTW, Fiddler is an entire bore, he cannot move the chorus around any better on Broadway then he can in an opera house and is equally unimaginative. I realized Kelli O’Hara has saved his ass on the other shows he has done as she is such a gifted performer and can work under any conditions. I understand he gives his actors, and especially his singers no guidance, he creates stage pictures and works as a a traffic cop directing action. Not just mediocre, but obnoxious

    • Hippolyte

      Wow! Good for you!

      • armerjacquino

        Nope, sorry. Not liking someone’s work is no excuse for being randomly abusive to a stranger. That’s not how adults behave.

        • I dunno. It sounds like Sher and his companion were the rude ones. If it had been a dress rehearsal, then yes, they would have been entirely within their rights to talk through it. But to disrupt a performance – that’s rather astonishing. Think about it. You are the director of a show and your example is to disrupt the paying public’s experience by talking through a performance?? If anyone in that theatre should have respect for the audience (not to mention the performers) but keeping his mouth shut, it’s the director.

          Mind you, I only condone the first part of the exchange which was putting the two of them in their place for talking through the performance. The lashing out about him fucking up this and that is uncalled for (even if true).

          • armerjacquino

            We’ve said more or less the same thing at the same time but in different places, kash. I have no problem with asking them to stop talking. But I think it’s fairly astonishing to throw in random insults and then say that *they* were the ‘obnoxious’ ones. Nobody comes well out of this story.

            • Yeah, I started typing my response and got distracted, and by the time I hit post on it, there were already a couple of comments. I still think the rudeness started with Sher and assistant. And it was that rudeness that probably provoked the emotional, if inappropriate, response.

            • armerjacquino

              Oh, there’s no doubt that Sher and his assistant sound awful. That’s what I mean about nobody coming well out of the story.

              But for fairly obvious reasons I object to this idea that if you dislike someone’s work, you should march up to them and say so (in this case, in a pretty offensive way). People have every right to do that, of course, but all it achieves is making someone’s day a bit or a lot worse. ‘I can if I want to’ is an attitude that ignores manners or courtesy or decency.

          • isoldit

            did you see the OTELLO, did you see FIDDLER, he did fuck them up, why shouldn’t he hear what the audience thinks, we are the one’s who buy tickets and get stuck with his ego being imposed on works and screwing them. I went to FIDDLER to give it a chance despite all the word of mouth I had heard about how it was a mess, decided to judge for myself. His assistant insisted at intermission after myself and the other audience member had told them to be quiet to justify their behavior. the arrogance was disgusting. We are stuck with his awful OTELLO and HOFFMAN and barely adequate and unimaginative productions of the Rossini operas, why shouldn’t he be told what people think of his productions.

            • armerjacquino

              Oh, you certainly *can* go up to a stranger and be rude to them, that’s not in question. Whether you *should* is another matter.

              But you’re proud of being abusive to someone because you don’t enjoy the way he does his job, and I’m not going to change that, so there’s not much point to this conversation.

    • armerjacquino

      TL:DR- ‘I met a director and was rude to him’.

      • isoldit

        I think you need to learn to read, do you read what happened. or are you just trying to be contrary for the sake of being contrary. I really have to dismiss someone as a fool who cannot read.

        • armerjacquino

          Cool, now you’re being rude to me too.

          I’ve read your post, yes, and no, I’m not being contrary. You had every right to complain about people talking in the auditorium. But you didn’t leave it there. You were unpleasant and abusive to another human being and you expect to be applauded for it?

      • mrsjohnclaggart

        “TL:DR” -Amerjaquino, I Have hurled myself to the floor sobbing and now have to wait for the block and tackle to come and lift me up! You have no idea how often those very words are used about my endlessly expressed wisdom and kindness!

    • Gualtier M

      I have seen good and bad work from Bartlett Sher -- on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera. This is not Bart Sher’s first run in with a disgruntled audience member deriding his work. (Though it may be the assistant’s who it seems got the brunt of Hippolyte’s tirade). A friend of mine goes to early previews and attended the first preview I think of Bart Sher’s 2006 LCT revival of “Awake and Sing!” by Clifford Odets. (Amazing cast: Zoe Wanamaker, Jonathan Hadary, Pablo Shreiber, Ben Gazzara, Mark Ruffalo and Lauren Ambrose).

      My friend was hanging out in the lobby during intermission when he was approached by a tall, long-haired man and asked what he thought of the show. My friend then went into a long, emotional critique complaining that the actors were all performing in different plays, nobody seemed to belong to the same family, there was no pacing and several of the actors seemed to be at sea in their roles. The tall thoughtful looking man then stopped and said “I am sorry to hear that, I am the director” and walked away.

      I saw the play some months later during the regular run of performances. A lot of these problems seem to have been corrected by Sher at that point. I agree with Hippolyte that if this is a regular preview with a paying audience the director and his assistant should not be talking loudly and giving each other notes as if this was a dress rehearsal.

      • Hippolyte

        ‘Twasn’t my “tirade”!

        • Gualtier M

          Oops! Sorry Isoldit’s tirade which seems to have been directed at Sher’s assistant after Sher had left the room?

      • Gualtier M

        Whoa! I checked with my friend who corrected my story. Bart Sher’s behavior and response were much more childish. He approached my friend and asked his opinion like he was another audience member. My friend made his critique and finished it with “I think they need to fire the director.” Sher became petulant and told my friend “Okay I’ll tell the producers to fire me and by the way who is your boss, so I can tell him to fire you.” (My friend was retired by that point) This friend still gets the shivers when he sees Bart Sher in the audience and says that Sher has looked at him quizzically as if saying to himself “I know that guy but from where?”

        • bluecabochon

          What a strange story. Perhaps they should bring back the practice of “audience cards” during previews rather than approach a random stranger to ask what they thought. But if you’re going to ask, then you have to be prepared for any response.

        • BB

          Never ask questions you don’t want to hear the answer to.

    • BB

      Hat off in salute, isoldit. As Jean Sibelius said to Marian Anderson, my roof is too low for you. You got guts.

  • isoldit

    the assistant was equally rude as Sher and continued the confrontation with myself and the other audience member at intermission, we had no intention of talking to her.

    • Laura Amorosa

      technically what you bought tickets for was a “preview” which indicates that some of this stuff might happen. I agree that Sher and the assistant could have handled it better. And the theater should have probably reserved them seats where they could have been talking without disturbing paying customers.

      • quoth the maven

        No, “preview” means that you can’t expect to see the show in its final state, not that production personnel can behave any way they chose while the show is in progress. A “rehearsal” is different from a “preview”; if isoldit were at something that was billed as a “rehearsal,” then there’d be no grounds for complaint. But audience members who have bought tickets to a preview have every reason to expect to see a show professionally presented in full.

        Having sat through Sher’s clueless productions of Hoffman, Comte Ory, L’elisir and Otello, I’m also inclined to forgive isoldit for the temper tantrum.