Cher Public

The party of Lincoln

Gala concerts are much like life in general. You do not want the wonderful parts to end, you know the unpleasant parts will pass quickly enough, and there are always bad outfits to make fun of. The Metropolitan Opera has returned regularly to the format through the years, with star-studded concerts in 1966, 1972, 1983, 1991, 1996, 2006, 2009 and 2017 to mark a change of address, a general manager’s retirement or a significant anniversary. 

Four of those earlier concerts were commercially released on audio or video recordings, and now the latest one has been given the 3-CD set treatment. Recorded on 7 May 2017, 50 Years at Lincoln Center: A Gala Celebration features three dozen Met singers of the present decade, from A(ngela) to Z(eljko). Their arias, duets and ensembles are supported by Met music directors past and future and by a third conductor with more than 400 company appearances over 20 years.

The discs are housed in a gatefold soft pack with a booklet containing track/personnel information (no texts or translations), eight pages of color photographs from the event, and an oral history of the move from 39th and Broadway to Lincoln Center, with quotations from the living and the dead.

The set’s cover is a photograph of two of the three maestros of the evening, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Marco Armiliato, with hands clasped and arms raised as they soak up applause from the singers and the unseen audience.

The other conductor, former music director James Levine (“perhaps the single most important artist of the company’s past 50 years,” says the booklet), is seen only in a small photograph within. I would assume the recording was pressed, packaged and ready to ship before the news of December 2017 broke, but the optics suggest a turning of the page. A Levine 50th-anniversary gala in 2021 seems unlikely.

50 Years at Lincoln Center serves as evidence that, in a time when opera-house orchestral standards worldwide are higher than they were even 25 years ago, the Met’s orchestra holds its place in the top echelon. I should also take a moment to acknowledge the fine work of the chorus under its director since 2007, Donald Palumbo.

In one sense, reviewing this kind of set is easy. The reviewer can call what he liked best the “highlights,” remark on a few things he did not consider good, and make a summary judgment based on proportions.

In another sense, it is hard to say something really useful about it. Factors of shape and continuity are not in the equation, and with 18 composers and twice that many singers represented, my highlights will not be yours exactly. I can report that nothing here is embarrassing, and much is good or great. What I have tried to do is set aside my likes and dislikes in music and in singers, focus only on what I am hearing, and ask, “What are they getting out of what they have to work with?”

By that criterion, Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra make a promising break from the gate with a thrilling swagger through the West Side Story overture. Pretty Yende‘s pearly tones as Don Pasquale‘s Norina give a promise of longer term, and Mariusz Kwiecien is in handsome voice as her co-conspirator, Malatesta.

Joseph Calleja and diva-in-ascent Sonya Yoncheva make a highlight of the over-familiar Bohème Act One arias and duet, which are imbued with poetry and fantasy. Rodolfo really sounds like a proud young man suppressing uncertainty, and Mimì like a fragile young woman taking sustenance from pleasures that belong to us all. The two bring these characters to life in a way I often have missed in performances of the entire opera.

I can pay Susan Graham‘s stylish and transporting Didon (Troyens) no higher compliment than this: immediately upon hearing the duet here, I ordered the Blu-ray of a 2003 Paris production that will allow me to hear her in the entire role. She is partnered in the concert by Matthew Polenzani, once an Iopas in Met performances of Troyens. He learned the Didon/Enée Act Four duet for the occasion, and holds up his end without suggesting Enée would be a good pickup for him.

The 65-year-old Dolora Zajick‘s bravura showing in the Princess de Bouillon’s aria from Adriana Lecouvreur is a testament to the value of learning how to sing and taking care of one’s voice. Young singers with an eye toward longevity should take note of what is possible; the rest of us can simply enjoy how much she has left.

Javier Camarena‘s Fille du régiment aria has ease and elasticity and the suggestion of real joy in singing, and the listener can share in that joy. Elina Garanca‘s tastes and savors “Mon coeur” from Samson et Dalila, with vocal glamour that could make the reported 2018-19 season opener a hot ticket.

Renée Fleming, who at the time was in the midst of her final Rosenkavaliers, lovingly lingers over Nozze di Figaro‘s “Porgi, amor,” and on this night the years seem to fall away. This, one feels, was a truly great voice and a Mozartean for the pantheon.

If Joyce DiDonato‘s Werther excerpt is too brief and too wan to make much of an impression in this context, the mezzo’s flamboyant “Bel raggio lusinghier” (Semiramide) reaffirms her standing as a bel canto specialist who can put technical brilliance in the service of expression and meaning, while the facility is staggering on the face of it.

All of the above by themselves would be enough to move me to gratitude for the release, but there is a strong second tier. Occasionally a juxtaposition is flattering. I have seen René Pape as Boris Godunov and found him less interesting than many of his illustrious predecessors, but when his Act Two mad scene immediately follows a dry, pitch-imperfect “Vissi d’arte”(from Kristine Opolais), I am more inclined to appreciate the beauty and security of the singing.

Piotr Beczala, a little below best form, and sounding at moments much like the tenor-turned-baritone who precedes him in the running order (with a full, darkening middle register and a tight top), comes through with the right kind of feeling in an elegantly spun and emotionally generous Luisa Miller aria.

Met veteran James Morris, an experienced Filippo here singing the Grand Inquisitor, sounds better than I have heard him in years, but the scene proves an uncongenial assignment for Günther Groissböck as the King. Groissböck is only a little better used in a trio from Verdi’s I Lombardi with Angela Meade and Michael Fabiano, in which Fabiano’s impassioned contribution is the outstanding element.

Vittorio Grigolo goes one for two, his sweet-toned and artfully phrased Roméo impressing more than his Cavaradossi, which is fussed over and a size too small. Reigning decibel queen Anna Netrebko‘s familiar Lady Macbeth and less familiar Cio-Cio San may lose something without her in-person charisma as part of the package, but it is a pleasure to hear Butterfly‘s “Un bel di” delivered with amplitude and breadth.

Plácido Domingo‘s Gérard (Andrea Chénier) is a “For a man of his age…” performance, neither baritonal nor as smoothly produced as his best recent singing, but vigorously delivered in creditable style. Domingo also joins Fleming in a Thaïs duet, reminding me that as host of a 2008 Met HD of that opera, he had commented that he would love to sing Thaïs with Fleming, but unfortunately for him, Massenet had made Athanaël a baritone. Now he does sing Athanaël. Domingo has made many of his own dreams come true this decade.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare (Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels) and Adès’s The Tempest (Isabel Leonard, Ben Bliss and Dwayne Croft) are sampled, presumably to remind the audience that occasionally the Met programs music before Mozart or after Britten. Both excerpts are well performed, but three times through will probably be my enduring total for the Adès. Ms. Blythe is poignant in effect in the Handel.

In one of his final public appearances, and his last at the Met, the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings Rigoletto‘s “Cortigiani.” The tone is huskier than before, the delivery effortful, but his fans will want this bittersweet souvenir. One can hear the words in a different way this time—the baritone raging at implacable forces, then pleading with them, a valiant battle giving way to a mournful acceptance.

Of course, there are disappointments. The significance of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra to the Lincoln Center house need not be dwelt upon, but I cannot say the included choral excerpt has me clamoring for the opera to be given another chance.

Diana Damrau‘s Traviata aria and cabaletta actually sound better than my memory of the live stream, but this is still a Violetta in suboptimal condition leaning hard on dramatic effects to put the piece across. When Polenzani’s luxury Alfredo takes over for the few serenading lines, Damrau can be heard coughing. It is a toss-up whether this is for theatricality or necessity.

Valued Wagnerian Michael Volle has expressed in an interview that he would like to be given the opportunity to sing more Mozart. I should not expect offers to come pouring in based on the two arias he sings here. Volle’s vivid characterization just gets him through as the Nozze Count, although the aria is rough and approximate. As for the long-in-the-tooth Papageno that shortly follows, well…his German is excellent.

Eric Owens has been the foremost Porgy of recent years, but sounds tremulous and craggy in this “Bess, you is my woman now.” His soprano colleague, Ms. Yende, is better represented by the earlier Donizetti duet; Bess needs a more voluptuous sound. Latonia Moore, heard here only in the rousing racket of the Aïda Act Two finale that closes the concert, might have given the Gershwin duet a lift.

One can catalog hits and misses as I have done, but a set such as 50 Years at Lincoln Center may have greater value as time passes and it settles as an overview of A-list opera in our era.

This is the way of such things. Many of the singers we hear on the CD set of the 1972 Rudolf Bing sendoff, the DVDs of the 1983 Centennial celebration and the 1996 James Levine anniversary marathon are gone now. Some have retired; some are gone in a more definitive sense. So are many of the people who responded to those singers with applause and exclamations.

I am a member of a numerically small generation flanked by two larger ones. When I discovered opera, the internet discussions tended to be dominated by people of a certain age. “You shoulda heard Zinka.” “You shoulda heard Big Renata.” “You shoulda heard Mario.” There still are many listeners of that cohort with us, but, inevitably, not as many. I have heard of the passing of some of them; with others, I can make educated guesses.

I do believe young people are still discovering opera and getting excited about it, as I did almost 20 years ago, because I see it happening. Many of the luminaries of 50 Years at Lincoln Center will be their great singers of firsthand experience. You shoulda heard Renée. You shoulda heard Anna. You shoulda heard Queen DiDo.

This is encouraging to me, because any enduring art form is like a big book that can be joined in progress. You pick the page to which it is opened, and there you are. No one can skip ahead, but if we like, we can turn the pages back and see what we missed.

When I listen to Susan Graham on this set, and to DiDonato, Fleming, Garanca, Camarena, and others here, I do not believe that great singing is a thing of the past, and I do not think it ever will be. If you have enjoyed going to the opera in the second decade of the 21st century, you may want this.