The season started rockily in New York, with an even higher than usual number of cancellations and last-minute recastings. What's more, a minor scandal rocked the New York City Opera when it appeared in a local tabloid that the company's de facto prima donna assoluta, Lauren Flanigan, has filed for bankruptcy. I attended Flanigan's Roberto Devereux performance the very evening the news broke (September 28), and I must say both she and the audience seemed unshaken.
Singing Sills's signature role in The House that Beverly Built is most likely (however successful one is) a fool's errand. It is to Flanigan's credit that she approached the part with a strongly musical sensibility, a clear intention at legato (though not always successful in practice) and her familiar dramatic commitment. Her best moments were in ensemble (especially the first act "jealousy" duet with Devereux) when she responded vibrantly to musical give and take with her colleagues.
The arias found Flanigan inconsistent in intonation, with some paint-peeling high notes but cleanly projected coloratura and gutsy chest tone. She tired during the "Vivi, ingrato," a combination of trying to sing too softly and an idiotic staging that had her wallowing on the floor in a two-ton farthingale. (Mark Lamos's production, apparently set inside the old Show Palace, is beneath further comment.)
Mark Delavan (Cecil) came in sounding like a cannon and then, curiously, the volume in his voice suddenly dropped out. It's not a beautiful sound and he does tend to rant. Jane Dutton was a dramatic and musical cipher as Sara, with an undistinguished hooty middle register and squally top notes. I am afraid that Fernando de la Mora sounded to me like Mario Lanza, an attractive quality but unmusical.
Cult diva Alessandra Marc was due to return to the Met in Turandot after a decade-long absence on September 16, but jumped in two weeks early to substitute for soprano Sharon Sweet. On the occasion of her "official" first performance, Marc sounded under the weather, but a great voice and superb artist nonetheless. The instrument, while not enormous or particularly penetrating, is full and rich, with a mysterious and fascinating smoky timbre that seems to ask more questions than it answers. The soprano approaches the role in an Italianate fashion, using gradations from mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte to suggest the ebb and flow of the enigmatic princess's emotions.
For all of Marc's much-discussed problems with her physical size, she presented perhaps the best-acted Turandot of my experience, bordering on hysteria in the Riddle Scene, and then half-drunk with desire for the victorious Calaf as the second act finished. Her vocal scoops and bobbled high notes (which actually improved greatly as the evening progressed) might have annoyed coming from a less intensely involved artist, but Marc's mediocre vocal estate for one night did not detract from an otherwise persuasive performance.
Cristina Gallardo-Domas is certainly a crowd-pleaser (she won the biggest hand of the evening), but I have to say I find her cheap goods in an expensive wrapper. Surely it is alien to the character of the self-abnegating slave girl Liu to milk those rubati and pianissimi as shamelessly as Ms. Gallardo-Domas does; she would do well to 86 her incessant "crucify me" hand gestures as well. Michael Sylvester was serviceable enough as Calaf, though certainly no competition for two such high-profile leading ladies.
Opera houses do Carmen all the time despite the fact that the title part is notoriously difficult to put across. But now, for the first time in over two decades, we have a real Carmen in town, and her name is Olga Borodina. As seen October 26, the mezzo was chocolatey-rich voice, with the musical elegance so necessary to transform Bizet's guttersnipe into a tragic figure. She excelled particularly in the sinuous chromatic vocalises of the Gypsy Song and Carmen's dance for Don José, both sung with long, long breath in a bewitching thread of voice. But she did not lack for reserves of power in the last act, pealing out her denunciation of loser ex-boyfriend without ever resorting to screaming.
It will be interesting to watch how Borodina's acting performance evolves as she performs before the New York audience; she may well decide to shed some of the stereotyped sexpot posturing she does at the moment. Already she has a wonderful look; big almond eyes, high cheekbones and pouty lips, with a body just made for sin. Her self-confident Mona Lisa smile is perfect, too: just like Carmen, she never sweats.
Roberto Alagna found his own very personal way to sing and act Don José: a privileged mama's boy whose nerve endings are all right on the surface. He does tend to walk through the first couple of acts, but once he has rage to play, the performance catches fire. While the voice is too lean to be sumptuous, he does sing on the words in the classic French manner, and even his tendency to fly sharp on top seems to be under better control these days. I could do without some of his pulling the tempo around (conductor Bertrand de Billy must be a very patient man) but Alagna did achieve a lovely poetry in the big phrases.
René Pape (Escamillo) is likely this year's breakthrough star at the Met: the house went wild after the Toreador Song, refusing to stop cheering until the bass took a bow. This is a precious and glamorous instrument, and even as Escamillio he exhibited musical taste and imagination. He caressed the little phrase "Ella avait pour amant" in Act with a mezza-voce sweetness that suggested hidden depths of sentiment in the bluff bullfighter.
The weak link of the cast was Norah Ansellem: vin ordinaire, really, and I would rather have heard Emily Pulley moved up from Frasquita to Micaela. It is good to see the undramatic and listless Zeffirelli staging gradually mutating as new artists come in: Alagna in particular had some fascinating dramatic ideas for the final act, and Ms. Borodina followed suit adroitly. Is it too much to ask for a full-scale restaging? A cast this glorious deserves no less.
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