As Music director Designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin kicked off the first notes of Bernstein’s Overture to “West Side Story,” audiences got to view a video showcasing the artistic design and progression toward the creation of the new Metropolitan Opera house.
The graphic design and special effects hinted at a nostalgic evening filled with a look back, some looks forward, all while enjoying the greatest artists and technology of today’s present.
And for the most part, the Met’s 50th Anniversary Gala celebration delivered on the 2016-17’s biggest night. The greatest part? The artists themselves.
Featuring over 40 artists, many of them the opera world’s greatest superstars, audiences were treated to one moment of musical genius after another. After the chorus delivered the prologue to “Antony and Cleopatra,” Plácido Domingo, the veteran of 48 years with the company kicked off the proceedings as the first soloist. He sang “Nemico de la patria” from Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier,” setting the tone of the quality we would get throughout. With his still vibrant voice, the tenor delivered a passionate rendition of the famed aria, his voice growing in stature throughout the lyrical final section until bursting with ringing sound at the climactic final note.
From there major artists took turns, some coming back for second rounds, in what amounted to one aria after another. Of the 33 musical selections on the entire night, three featured the chorus, nine were duets or trios and the remainder were arias. While I am tempted to go into detail about each selection, I am going to put a special spotlight on the ones that truly stood out for me.
The Emotional Core of the Night
But before I do that I want to highlight possibly the most emotionally riveting moment of the entire evening. Halfway through the first half of the 5-hour gala, general manager Peter Gelb came on stage to deliver a surprise announcement – Dmitri Hvorostovsky would be singing “Cortigiani! Vil Razza!” The audience exploded with passionate applause as the baritone, who has been battling cancer for the last few years, walked onstage. He delivered the opening sections of the aria with a bitter quality, his sound pointed and shrewd. But the second half of the aria, during which Rigoletto begs for clemency showcased Hvorostovsky at his most passionate, his phrasing rising with intensity at each plea. When put into the scope of his own personal plight, this scene and choice of aria really struck an emotional chord. That was undeniably the winner of the emotional moment of the night.
Other Standout Performers
The winner of the most technically-peerless performance goes to tenor Javier Camarena who took on “Ah Mes Ami” from “La Fille du Régiment.” The program notes indicated that he will be singing this role during a future season and on evidence of his work on this evening, this will be a must-see whenever it comes about. Marching in like a boy scout, Camarena sang with glorious legato phrasing and exhibited his bright tone that is simply unrivaled today. And his nine high Cs were perfect. He drew the largest ovation of the night and it seemed as if the audience was pushing for an encore.
Diana Damrau’s appearance as Violetta in “La Traviata,” was perhaps the most musically enthralling of all the performances. Critics will immediately point out that her climactic high E flat was far from climactic or some abrasive tonal quality in certain sections, but these were minor pitfalls in an otherwise ever-fascinating interpretation. I assure you that you have never heard the “E Strano” and “Sempre libera” performed this way. The opening recitative constantly jumped between quiet introspection and desperate outbursts, creating a tense dialogue between Violetta’s two competing interests. Her “O Gioia” was sung with delicate pianissimo, the tone tender before slowly growing coarse. She intensified from there, her voice growing more and more aggressive until the final notes before the first aria “Ah fors’è lui.” The aria continued this dual nature, Damrau singing the open phrase with full voice and its repetition in increasingly hushed quality. The aria had tremendous urgency all the way up to the shift into “Ah quell amor,” at which point Damrau let her voice ring through the theater. The repetitions of “Misterioso” were tiny threads of sounds and again Damrau crescendoed until delivering a climactic outburst on “croce e delizia.” The ensuing recitative was aggressive, the soprano throwing off high notes with fury and attack. All the while she moved around the stage in clear agitation and her first phrases in “Sempre libera” were harsh and bitter. After the interruption from Alfredo, her repetition was breathy in tone, expressing Violetta’s sick and agitated side. She regained strength as the final segment of the aria unraveled, leading to a climax filled with brighter sound and enthusiasm, her body twirling about in excitement. If there was a performance where every note and moment was unique and surprising, this was it.
One of the revelations of the night came at the tail-end of the program when Anna Netrebko came onstage in full geisha costume to sing “Un bel di vedremo” from “Madama Butterfly.” The soprano, who had put on a dominant display earlier in the evening in Lady Macbeth’s opening scene from “Macbeth,” was actually far more nuanced musically in this brief aria. The rubati were elegantly employed, present but never labored or exaggerated. The middle sections of the aria, from “E uscito dalla folla cittadina,” brought us a delicate and gentle color from Netrebko’s voice that is rarely heard in most of the roles she takes on. “Chi sarà?” was hushed, drawing the listener in, not something you usually need to do with Netrebko. The ensuing section, her tone slender and light, sounded like that of a young girl. The final outburst was cathartic and was ultimately the climax of the entire gala, Netrebko’s B flat roaring through the audience with incredible intensity.
Another major revelation on the evening came a few performances earlier when James Levine led the trio from “I Lombardi all prima Crociata.” Concertmaster David Chan was fantastic in the Paganini-like solo that precedes the scene. His portamenti and overall sense of dramatic pacing with regards to rhythm gave the opening lyric section a sense of freedom and movement. The virtuosic section that closes the intro, while not refined technically, was fiery and propulsive. And while that was excellent on its own, things only got better when Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, and Günther Groissböck came onstage. The trio of singers were perfectly matched, their voices soaring throughout Verdi’s glorious melody. Levine from the pit brought excellent balance from the voices and the orchestra, Chan’s violin an ever-present force. According to the program, Meade and Fabiano are slated to sing this opera in the future. But both of them, especially Fabiano, should be singing as much Verdi at the Met as possible. They both have the heft and, in Fabiano’s case, the squillo to really power sound into the auditorium with glorious effect. And while we’re at it, Groissböck, who also cut an impressive vocal form during the Grand Inquisitor Scene from “Don Carlo” earlier in the gala, needs to be doing Verdi at the Met. Ludovico in “Otello” simply isn’t enough for this kind of talent.
Elina Garanca sang “Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from “Samson et Dalila,” which she will be singing in a few seasons. Her elegant voice, polished as always, weaved one sensual line after another with her constantly rising and falling vocal intensity. She maintained a coolness and crystalline quality behind her perfect technical execution, and yet at times, her voice grew in intensity, inviting the listener to fully give into her. And when you were finally ready to do that, she would pull away and start the musical game again.
Joyce DiDonato authored riveting interpretations of completely different arias. “Va! Lasse couler mes larmes” was a solemn lament that built up into a passionate outpouring, DiDonato’s voice oscillating at an ever-quickening pace as the musical lines reached the climax. The second aria, from “Semiramide”, was luxurious in its vocal brightness and the mezzo-soprano showed off agile coloratura in the cavatina section. On the repetition, she threw in her own ornamentations and played with the tempo, reeling me in as I waited to see what kind of new trick she would pull out of the hat.
Michael Volle got to perform from two Mozart operas and showed a theatrical commitment from the get-go. He was particularly memorable as Papageno in “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” his voice bright in timbre. He moved about with agility and a massive smile on his face that made it impossible not to fall in love.
Piotr Beczala delivered a passionate “Quando le sere al placido” from “Luisa Miller” his tenor vicious in the opening recitative and then slender and broken during the aria. Joseph Calleja exhibited some impeccable technique coupled with a vibrant tone in “La Bohème,” his singing nothing but gold.
Vittorio Grigolo was equally riveting in his two selections from “Roméo et Juliette” and “Tosca” but it was “E lucevan le stelle” that really struck a chord. The opening lines were almost spoken and his enunciation of “Mi cadea fra le braccia,” with a whimper on the latter three words was heart-breaking. He was very free with tempi throughout the aria, pulling and pushing as he pleased, painting the portrait of a disoriented and desperate man, climaxing in glorious sound on “tanto la vita!”
Matthew Polenzani and Susan Graham’s voices blended beautifully throughout “Nuits d’ivresse” from “Les Troyens.” I want to just mention that the remaining cast members, René Pape, Pretty Yende, Eric Owens, Mariusz Kwiecien, Isabel Leonard, David Daniels, Stephanie Blythe, Dwayne Croft, Ben Bliss, Renée Fleming, Dolora Zajick, James Morris, Sonya Yoncheva, Kristine Opolais, Latonia Moore, Yusif Eyvazov, Zeljko Lucic, Yunpeng Wang, Sava Vemic, and Christopher Job all did fine work in their respective selections.
Contrasting Results From the Pit
But not everything was quite perfect. The chorus appeared three times in the gala, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end, and felt otherwise underused.
From the podium, we got to compare three different styles with varying qualities of results. Of course, all eyes were on Nézet-Séguin, who in a few years, will be the main man. He knows how to make the orchestra roar for sure and for much of the night, that is what he did almost all the time. The result was that many singers were overpowered by the oceanic orchestra in front of them. Nowhere was this more present than during the scene from “Don Carlo.” James Morris was inaudible at times and Groissböck, whose voice packs a punch, also had to push his instrument because the titanic orchestral sound offered him no other option. Lucic was faced with the same situation during his “Credo” from “Otello.”
To be sure, the orchestral playing was first-rate under the incoming musical director, but his sense of balance is still not fully developed, especially when compared with the other men he shared the podium with. Armiliato had a solid night, especially in accompanying Damrau and for his delicate way with Handel, but it was Levine that really shone. There was never a single moment during his run in the podium during which the Music director emeritus overpowered a singer. And while the younger maestro seemed overenthusiastic in blasting sound from the pit, Levine’s reserve made his orchestral tidal waves more effective. We didn’t feel like we were being hammered over and over again but instead taken by surprise by the sudden surges that we could see coming and yet weren’t prepared for. I loved one moment where DiDonato seemed to push ahead on the tempo in an unexpected manner and Levine kept with her as if everything were by design. Levine might be on his way out, but he still reigns supreme.
A Production That Climaxes Too Early
Now let’s turn our attention to the production itself. Julian Crouch and 59 productions undeniably put together some compelling imagery, but the entire production lacked balance and continuous flow. The first half of the program moved rather seamlessly from one scene to the next, the visual projections building on each other as we seemed to be slowly seeing more and more sets. It all came to climax halfway through the first half when, through a mix of stagecraft and video project, the first act of Zeffirelli’s “La Bohème” came onstage. It was magical and suddenly there was an anticipation that more such recreations were to come.
But sadly, that was the apex of the production, one-quarter of the way through. Suddenly projections started looking repetitive and in some cases seemed to have nothing to do with the arias they were supporting (the “Giulio Cesare” duet was a glaring example). Whereas the first half had only one major delay for a scene transition, the second half had several, creating a lull at a few instances and sucking any momentum from continuing to build. The other major issue with the projections is that they left most of the massive stage barren and exposed.
The choice of including video features detailing some of the history of the new house was a hit-and-miss affair. Seeing Leontyne Price talk about her experience at opening night was wonderful, but seeing Marc Chagall barely talk about his paintings felt like filler. James Levine got his own segment, which was insightful (his bit on the three jobs of the conductor was the best nugget of wisdom), as did President Eisenhower, who was in office when the building’s construction kicked off. And yet, it didn’t feel like it needed to be there, adding little to the overall narrative. This mainly had to do with the overall lack of cohesion in the ordering. Why should the designing and groundbreaking of the building come late in the program and well after the opening night video? It emphasized the lack of cohesive narrative that permeated the night. There was a story to be told, but without order, it felt disoriented and disorganized.
The choice of having singers wear costumes worked, to a certain extent. That is, until Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo appeared wearing gala attire, the former in an elegant black and red dress, the latter in a tux. Compounding their differing attire was the fact that the duo’s selection together, a duet from “Thaïs” fell a bit flat at the end, as the audience had no idea that the piece had come to an end. The two looked at one another in surprise and started to walk offstage, at which point the audience got the memo and delivered approval for the two iconic artists.
The repertoire was interesting. Verdi was the dominant name on the list with a total of eight pieces on the program. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Thomas Adès wound up with the same number of Richard Wagner (one), and more than Richard Strauss (zero). The bel canto repertoire got showcased twice while 20th-century opera also got two representations. French opera was also omnipresent throughout the evening while baroque music, in the form of a duet from “Giulio Cesare,” had just one showing. But to have Handel, Adès, Gershwin, and the dark and dreary “Don Carlo” scene in the long second half while the first portion was littered with popular hits, also seemed to be a misjudgement of programming.
At the end of the day, people came to hear great singing. And that is exactly what they got in this iconic night at the new Metropolitan Opera.