Cher Public

Fifty shades of gold

Anticipation of events like the Metropolitan Opera’s 50th Anniversary bash turns me back into the newly opera-soused kid who begged his parents to let him watch the highlights of the Bing Gala on the family color television since the little black-and-white set in my bedroom just wasn’t good enough. (They agreed!) 

Since becoming an “adult” I’ve been lucky to attend a bunch of these aria-and-ensemble parades and remain besotted with them despite their usually being both wonderful and terrible, too much but not enough, exhausting yet exhilarating. Sunday’s Met extravaganza was all of these things but also unusually thoughtful and moving.

Although most of my gala-going has been at the Met, the first one I attended was the concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Since it was taking place on my birthday and Chicago is in easy driving distance from Ohio, how could I not go?

As poor college students, we got the cheapest seats in that cavernous place and I got to hear Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Alfredo Kraus, Leontyne AND Margaret Price for the very first time. And it proved to be the only time I witnessed Jon Vickers, Carlo Cossutta and Geraint Evans live.

Still being pretty green, I realized only in retrospect that the most special part of that afternoon were the retired artists who introduced each musical selection—great singers whom I never could have heard perform—Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe di Stefano, Bidu Sayão, Eleanor Steber, Leopold Simoneau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (yes, even her little speech was terribly mannered) and more. During the long drive home, my head was spinning!

I probably didn’t even know what opera was when the closure of the old Met in 1966 was commemorated by a star-stuffed occasion. By 1983 though I had already attended a few performances at the Met when the colossal all-day Centennial Gala took place and I sat transfixed in front of my television that entire afternoon and evening.

I moved to New York in 1990 and although these events don’t occur all that often I didn’t have to wait very long. The Met celebrated the 25th anniversaries of the debuts of Freni, Kraus and Ghiaurov with a lovely and touching gala in March 1991. A number of my fellow standees were audibly sobbing during the final portion of that afternoon when Freni sang Butterfly for the first and only time on stage—just the third act unfortunately but we were all grateful to be there.

Since then I’ve attended the marathon Levine Gala in 1996 (so enervating that when I jumped into a cab at 2AM I could scarcely remember my address), the Volpe Gala a decade later and then in 2009 Peter Gelb’s first big Met wingding, the ambitious but uneven 125th Anniversary Gala.

The latter was directed by Philem McDermott and co-directed by Julian Crouch who also designed the sets. Crouch was invited back to be the sole producer and set designer for Sunday’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the opera house at Lincoln Center and it was his contribution in particular which made this long evening such a success.

Rather than the usual format of singers parading in and out in concert dress performing in front of sets drawn from the Met’s repertoire, Crouch placed each number within a particular design conceit drawn from productions seen at the Met during the past 50 years using a few traditional set components but mostly filling the stage picture with eye-popping projections.

The “set” for the big chunk of the first act of La Boheme for exampled looked remarkably like the long-familiar Franco Zeffirelli production. Crouch, in collaboration with the projection design team 59 Productions and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt beautifully evoked August Everding’s Boris Godunov and both Marc Chagall’s and David Hockney’s Die Zauberflöte as well as Otto Schenk’s Tannhäuser and Don Pasquale among many others. This often astonishingly effective use of technology made one wonder why the Met doesn’t make more use of it.

In addition, nearly all of the performers wore costumes designed for the “production” in which they were appearing (presumably Kevin Pollard supplied amended designs for costumes that no longer exist in wearable condition). The odd exception was Renée Fleming who sang her selections from Le Nozze di Figaro and Thaïs (where she was joined by Domingo in black tails) in a striking black gown with red highlights and long black gloves that jarringly had little to do with either Mozart or Massenet.

Looking thin and a bit wobbly, Dmitri Hvorostovky also arrived in concert dress to sing an excerpt from Rigoletto. Needless to say, his brave appearance introduced by Peter Gelb was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation that clearly touched the ailing baritone.

After a dazzling montage relating to the opening of the Lincoln Center house, fascinating film clips mostly devoted to that topic were scattered throughout the event, beginning with a short interview with a radiant looking (and sounding) Leontyne done several weeks before her 90th birthday earlier this year. The most delightful and surprising segment told the story of the accidental creation of the design concept behind the Met’s glorious signature chandeliers.

During the final number from Aïda s shower of black-and-white images of nearly 80 of the greatest performers from the past 50 years (listed in the program) cascaded behind the six soloists and full chorus in ersatz-Egyptian costumes from the current Sonja Frisell productions. I spotted Mignon Dunn, Martina Arroyo and Justino Diaz among those attending the performance.

The excerpts from a number of James Levine interviews and footage of him at work with the orchestra and various singers shown just before his entrance late in the gala was apt and effective and not too hagiographic given the Met’s recent annoying tendency to describe its past Music Director in only god-like terms.

A most arresting transition from film to stage came after remarks delivered by then President Dwight Eisenhower at the ground-breaking for Lincoln Center about the power of the performing arts to transcend international differences. Perhaps not by accident, immediately thereafter beaming Mexican tenor Javier Camarena entered to sing an astonishing “Ah mes amis” from La Fille du Régiment to an ear-shattering ovation (but no encore).

Some Gelb-haters decry him as a marketing man rather than as an artistic leader, and it must be said that the 50th anniversary gala had some canny planning behind it. Putting on a pleasing chunk of Adès’s The Tempest might encourage some to attend next season’s The Exterminating Angel.

The printed program included asterisks next to the name of singers who are scheduled to appear in their roles in future Met seasons. So it was pleasing to learn that Pretty Yende will be singing Norina, Camarena Tonio, Elina Garanca Dalila and Angela Meade and Michael Fabiano Giselda and Oronte in a revival Verdi’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata. However, anticipation of a Kristine Opolais Tosca, a Diana Damrau Violetta and an Eric Owens Porgy proved more a cause for real distress based on their alarming performances on Sunday.

As it seemed that most of the opera-loving world listened in to the Met’s streaming audio of the gala (I saw no cameras so I doubt there will be a video of the event), I will try to briefly note some responses to the performances in the house. Domingo’s Gérard sounded better than any 76-year-old should sound (although still nothing like a baritone) but his Athanaël just didn’t work and one is grateful that Gerald Finley will instead be singing the role in next season’s revival.

Piotr Beczala, Susan Graham and Zeljko Lucic were in as good a form as I have heard them recently (and a shout-out to Matthew Polenzani for learning Énée to beautifully partner Graham in a marvelous Troyens duet). René Pape, having pulled out of an excerpt from Boris Godunov at the 125th Anniversary Gala, redeemed himself with a powerful “mad scene.”

I usually love Joseph Calleja but his Rodolfo was sadly prosaic and relentlessly forte and was shown up by Sonia Yoncheva’s ravishingly poetic Mimi although I remain troubled sometimes by her tight high notes. Wagnerian Michael Volle showed impressive Mozartian ease as the Count, less so as Papageno, while Joyce DiDonato’s doleful Werther aria was more impressive than her dramatically commanding but vocally mannered “Bel raggio.”

As I missed Vittorio Grigolo’s Roméo earlier this season, I was grateful to hear his “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” (replacing an ill Juan Diego Florez) as well as a preview of his Cavaradossi, but he remains a far too self-aggrandizing artist for my taste.

Revisiting the past can be a chancy thing but to my surprise Stephanie Blythe sounded lovely in the duet from Handel’s Giulio Cesare with David Daniels with so spellbound the audience at his Met debut in 1999. He was in better voice than the last several times I’ve heard him but it was very fragile and careful.

Dolora Zajick never sang the Principessa in Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met but memorably did so at Carnegie Hall with Opera Orchestra of New York in 2002. Although less free and opulent than Jamie Barton in her rendition of the aria at this year’s National Auditions Finals, Zajick, with reduced resources at age 65, still packed a punch.

James Morris, whose recent performances have sometimes verged on the unpleasant, appeared refreshed in an intense Philip-Grand Inquisitor scene from Don Carlo alongside a more and more impressive Günther Groissböck who had stepped in for an absent Ferruccio Furlanetto both here and in the inescapable Lombardi trio (also featured at the closing of the old house and at the Levine Gala). Fleming whose final Met (and last ever?) Nozze Countess occurred in 1998 returned to it for an excessively morose and slow “Porgi amor” which was otherwise quite lovely, as was her plaintive Thaïs.

If there was ever any doubt that Anna Netrebko is queen of the Met, there wasn’t after she literally crowned herself during the extended scene from Macbeth that ended the first half. Many singers have sung that demanding music with more accuracy but her flamboyant abandon was mesmerizing.

I was less convinced by “Un bel di” which began badly but rose to a powerful climax. I’m always reluctant to revisit audio recordings of Netrebko performances that I have attended in person as the flaws in her singing, notably the wayward intonation and increasingly gusty style, bother me less than when in her galvanizing presence. I expect that next season’s Tosca will be one of the most essential—and controversial–events of next season.

The heroic conducting duties of the over five-hour show were shared by Levine, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Marco Armiliato. Except for a bad stumble in the Troyens excerpt, the indefatigable orchestra played splendidly and the chorus and its director Donald Palumbo earned their well-deserved applause after a stirring “Entrance of the Guests” from Tannhäuser vividly conducted by Nézet-Séguin whose sensitivity and dynamism throughout boded well for the Met’s future.

Armiliato was a surprising choice for Mussorgsky and Handel but acquitted himself decently. Levine didn’t seem to really be on his game particularly in the Lombardi trio which plodded despite David Chan’s bravura violin solo.

All in all this was a well-planned and -executed evening that despite some really dicey moments exceeded my inevitably unreasonable expectations. I expect that more than a few opera-lovers remain disdainful of this sort of fancy circus, but I’m already wondering what will be the next big Met event—Domingo’s 50th (due in 2018) or Levine’s 50th (due in 2021)?

A final urgent question: should one say “gay-luh” or “gal-uh”?

All photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, except Jonathan Tichler for Aïda.