You may remember, gentle readers, that last year about this time Peter Gelb decided to enter into an unholy alliance with Target to benefit their mountainous number of opera loving customers by pre-releasing two Met performances exclusively in their fine emporiums. A couple weeks ago, by sheer accident, I caught a posting on Facebook by the Met Gift Shop on a new release topic that was then withdrawn an hour later. When I asked for clarification I was pointed to my (not so local) Target for these performances of La fanciulla del West and Il trovatore.  

I could write a book about how I finally purchased these DVDs but no one would read it. Target initially couldn’t locate them in their own warehouse and kept summarily cancelling my orders. The two stores I called knew they had them in stock but couldn’t find them. Let me tell you, nobody knows opera like Target or, better yet, nobody at Target knows opera.

It must have taken me at least 15 minutes of searching their website to locate these DVDs because they haven’t been listed under their actual titles–that would be much too easy. So, respectively, they can be found as “Puccini Live at the Met – Only at Target” and “Verdi Live at the Met Opera – Only at Target.” Searching the names of the exalted participants brings up only the rest of their respective recordings.

I’ll spare you all the rest but here’s the really, really, great news. They’re both only $13.99 apiece and these are full bit-rate Deutsche Grammophon international releases with all the add-ons, i.e., not like the knock off copies burned on the cheap they sold last year of the Aida and Turandot. The Fanciulla is even spread over two-discs for optimum sound and picture. Sweet!

For those of you who may be concerned over my level of enthusiasm over a mere dvd release please keep in mind I live in an operatic wasteland, commonly referred to as L.A., and I’ve promised my friends and family I’ll enter into a 12-step program for opera fanatics the moment someone opens that clinic. So, here we go.

First, the Fanciulla. It’s always interesting how music affects the listener based on the how it’s being heard. I have enjoyed Fanciulla since my very first exposure to it with the most excellent recording from Covent Garden led by Zubin Mehta and it affords many, many pleasures musically and dramatically. I think it is Puccini’s most superb orchestrations and his tangible gift for melody wrapped in passion.

I adore this Met production with unbridled devotion, pardner. Gian Carlo del Monaco’s original 1991 playbook has been kept pretty much intact and the sets and costumes of Michael Scott are perfection. Gil Wechsler’s lighting is magnificent in catching the twilight to sunset of Act I and the dusk to dawn in Act III. It’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer all the way. Sure the Act I saloon is huge beyond reason but I really love the way he solves the problem of Minnie’s cabin in Act II and not making that huge. The ghost town finale is especially resonant with the forced perspective street and the Sierras in the distance.

The only technical problem with this production, truthfully, is the snow. I saw these sets and costumes here in L.A. in 2002 borrowed from the Bonn Opera and during Act II LA Opera used a system that was some sort of flake or foam that fell in slow motion, behaved like real snow, and was mesmerizing. The Met is still dropping confetti from the flies, which, especially in high definition, looks ridiculous. Also, someone needs to get under the roof and insulate Minnie’s cabin because it’s snowing inside and that looks silly too.

Meanwhile, the performance itself is nearly glorious. Baritone Lucio Gallo apparently got his start acting in silent movies. He does have Jack Rance down, however, all greasy, self-absorbed and muy macho. Vocally, he starts out a little rough and stays there. I wouldn’t call him a perfect singer but this role is a ton of parlando and he certainly has the language down.

Marcello Giordani’s Dick Johnson seems like such a nice guy, downright unthreatening, in fact. I could never, ever, imagine him as the mastermind behind a ring of thieves. But, after all, his “other” aria is about how unhappy he was to inherit the family business and he’s determined, once he meets Minnie, to get out. This was Giordani’s role debut in 2010 and hopefully he’ll grow in the part. He sings well enough, especially his two big arias, and his interaction with Deborah Voigt’s Minnie is really charming at times.

You can tell that Voigt really enjoys this role because it’s written all over her face. I find her dramatically more involved here than anything I’ve ever seen her do. I wasn’t too impressed with her when I heard the radio broadcast but seeing her whole performance makes a huge difference and I have to change my opinion on her Minnie. Vocally, she isn’t perfect either– but, who ever has been in this role? Her tone isn’t what it was and there are times when pressure on the voice can make her sound a tad shrewish. It’s a treacherously written part but she’s meets the challenges and I appreciate her best efforts here. Our girl’s good with a rifle, I’ll give her that.

The finale of Act III has always been a little problematic for me, as most of the time it fails to rise to the level of the rest of the score, just missing the transformative moment that I think Puccini intended. That said, something was really happening on stage that day because after Ms. Voigt finishes her plea to the miners she throws down her gun, and in a new bit of staging, holds her Bible up in the air. The chorus and orchestra really let loose and I felt the emotional tug, honestly, for the first time. Dwayne Croft, pleasurably, overcast here as Sonora is particularly touching. The final,”Addio’s” lingering off stage always get me. Hanky, please.

There’s much to commend in Nicola Luisotti’s energized conducting. It’s a difficult score to bring off, especially the orchestral silences like the card game in Act II, but he has a firm grip on everything and the Met players really bring out this scores special American tinta. All this, plus Sondra Rodvanavsky interviews the horses at the intermission.

The performance of Il Trovatore is something else altogether. We’ve got insanity, blood, violence against women, copulation and the most harrowing soprano death scene since Maria Ewing got savaged with a meat hook by Luis Lima in the Covent Garden Carmen.

First off, magnificent production design by Charles Edwards in a kind of Goya meets Dali on a turntable in a shadowy castle graveyard. Trouble is with all the spider-cams whizzing about the proscenium edges it’s hard to tell when the stage is actually moving. Excellent costumes for the men by Brigitte Reiffenstuel include lots of embroidery and braid. She might have swung a little wider with the women and our poor Leonora is stuck in a empire shift all night. Not even a sash or ribbon, and Manrico has to lend her his coat at their wedding, poor thing.

I’ve always appreciated David McVicar’s work because I think he does respect the composer’s intentions while still trying for something a little untraditional. His work here is exemplary in developing the relationships between the characters, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen delineated as clearly in a Trovatore before. The drawback is that he seems to think singers have more sincerity on their knees.

Bass Stefan Kocan opens the evening with a vivid rendering of Ferrando’s scena replete with excellent fioratura.

Sondra Radvanovsky enters and fervently polishes off her cavatina and cabaletta, with repeats, thank you very much. It’s a nice-sized voice and she has all the requisite technique required by Verdi that is so often missing from voices too big for this role that still insist on singing it. She’s playing it like she’s a giggly, bi-polar, school girl and it isn’t necessarily age appropriate but she makes it work.

Then our Di Luna and Manrico, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marcelo Álvarez, show up for the same date and it’s on. I love when Di Luna grabs Leonora’s hand and she bites him to get away and then he pushes her down on her back. Not the Sutherland and Pavarotti staging. High notes go flying at the end of Act I.

Excellent gypsy camp with a crucible-forge-anvil station manned by a bunch of half-naked  muscle guys. Good call, Mr. McVicar! I have a couple of problems with Dolora Zajick’s Azucena. First, she’s been singing this role for 24 years now, and very well, I might add. Why in the hell is she looking at the conductor so much then? It’s Trovatore, for God sake, she’s gotta know it backwards. None of these tempos took me by surprise. My second gripe is that there seems to be a lack of presence that is doubly frustrating since at this point in her career she should be ruling the earth with a voice like that. She has more than everything this role needs yet she appears almost timid at times. It’s a magnificently sung but slightly earthbound portrayal.

Then it’s time for the abduction from the convent and Hvorostovsky totally goes into the zone for “Il balen” and lays down the bel canto pipe. He’s working the come-hither melismas and cadenzas and even manages to outsing himself from the Covent Garden DVD from a decade earlier. (Those of you with good memories may recall when he won Cardiff Singer of the World in 1988 and the wags were predicting his voice’s early demise from singing too dark and heavy. He shouts a little on the top G but I forgive him.)

Now Álvarez comes under scrutiny because, after some excellent singing in the early part of the evening he starts displaying some bad habits. It’s a fine voice for Manrico and the things he does well are exceptional but, at points he’s exploding the notes above the staff and breaking the line completely. Color me surprised when he’s interviewed at the intermission and he actually talks the same way. Nerves? He doesn’t melisma at all in ‘Ah si ben mio’, when some tenors have actually rendered up honest-to-goodness trills but, he does give a muscular and very exciting rendition of ‘Di quella pira’ down a half-step and the crowd goes wild.

Now, you can keep all the rest of Trovatore and leave me with a good Act IV, Scene I. Radvanovsky proves herself to be a human breath machine here but it does seem at times that she vocalizes well more by accident than design. It’s a long sing at this point and her intonation can be suspect. Still, she’s attentive to Verdi’s markings and even performs the cabaletta ‘Tu vedrai’ instead of cutting it like the lazy sopranos do. She also takes a high option at ‘Lo guiro a Dio’ in her duet with Di Luna just to prove me right, brava. They both really catch fire here and it’s a pleasure to hear singers this passionate in performance. Dramatically she shows real revulsion over Hvorostosky’s advances (which couldn’t have been easy) brings a vividness to her portrayal that I really enjoy.

The final scene almost plays like an opera in itself. The anvils have been cleared away and we’re left with the scorched pit with Marico and Azucena tied to the stakes they’re scheduled to be burned at. They proceed to give one of the most delicate and beautiful accounts of “Ai nostri monti” I’ve ever heard and all is forgiven. Most of the audience doesn’t want to applaud and break the spell. The very best moment comes when our Leonora appears and begs Manrico to get away with his life. This isn’t your routine soprano death scene with a fluttering of eyelids and a delicate fainting away. Oh no, Radvanovsky starts losing control of her limbs and for once this really does seem dangerous and horrible. I won’t give away the end because it’s fabulous.

I would not have minded in the slightest if our evening’s conductor, Marco Armiliato, had taken a stronger hand here and there. I really love it when the double basses get muscular and lean hard into this music but that’s not part of his interpretation, he is definitely conducting Verdi and not Bellini which is the other side of that problem. There is real fire and excitement throughout with a cast that can’t be bettered and a staging that makes sense. I can hardly believe I even wrote that sentence about Trovatore. The audience cheers long and loud at the final calls.

Renée Fleming asks those hard-hitting questions at the intermission about why people find Trovatore so doggoned confusing.

Barbara Willis Sweete is the excellent video director for both of these performances and DTS Sound and picture are excellent plus, we get all the subtitle options. For $13.99 a piece, my friends, what have you got to lose?