Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Opera’

Götterdämmerung, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, February 2012

12 February, 2012

Rossini is said to have commented that Wagner had some beautiful moments, but terrible quarters of an hour. Whether this is genuine, I don’t know, but Rossini never heard Götterdämmerung, which is riveting, from the Norns with their rope of fate at the start to Brünnhilde’s immolation at the end. In the right hands with the right singers Götterdämmerung is magnificent, and the Met gave us a whole string of superlatives.

The final scene, all images MetOpera/ Ken Howard

Robert Lepage’s production with its set of long planks on pivots, along with Etienne Boucher’s lighting, allows transformations that in the final scene show Brünnhilde riding her horse onto the funeral pyre and disappearing into a mass of flames washed away by the Rhein. The set allows the Rheinmaidens to swim up and slide down those planks as they tease Siegfried about the ring, and after Gunther has got blood on his hands by cradling the dying Siegfried in his arms, he washes it away and we see the river run red. Glorious effects, but I only wish the translated sub-titles were more accurate. Hagen’s final words are Zurück vom Ring! (Get back from the ring), not ‘Give me the ring!’ And if that was a choice made in the context of the production the same excuse does not apply in some other cases. My point is that we heard such fine diction and it jars when the words are mangled in translation.

Brünnhilde and Siegfried

This is a minor quibble of course because the singing and character portrayals were unbeatable. Jay Hunter Morris is the most convincing Siegfried we are ever likely to encounter. He imbues the role with a joy and vivacity I have never seen equalled. Such a sweet smile he gives the Rheinmaidens when they ask for the ring, and his retelling of past deeds during the hunt was enchanting. Lepage’s production even brought the shadows of those ravens onto the stage before Hagen struck the fatal blow. And what a Hagen we had here in Hans-Peter König. His soliloquy Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht at the end of Act I scene 2 was hugely powerful, with the production providing added value by seating him between two pillars, in a great chair that finally disappeared through the floor. His call to the vassals in Act II was terrific, and this extraordinary singer portrayed his character as a cunningly smug operator who, despite the dark make-up, reminded me of that Scottish politician attempting to pull Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

Hagen and Siegfried

The Alberich of Eric Owens looked so shrivelled as he appears to Hagen at night, a clever transformation because Owens is a large man. And that other dialogue between Brünnhilde and her sister Waltraute was full of angst. Waltraud Meier showed fearful determination as she visited her sister, yet gradually exhibited a sense that she was out of her depth with Brünnhilde’s newly found passion. Such a tragedy that Brünnhilde is then accosted by an unknown stranger who has walked through the fire, and this was cleverly done with Siegfried’s head covered by the net of the Tarnhelm, which he helpfully removed at one point so the audience could be sure of who he was.

His blood brother Gunther was superbly sung and portrayed by Iain Paterson, who looked very much the part, far slimmer than his recent Don Giovanni at the English National Opera. With Wendy Bryn Harmer as his sister Gutrune, the pair of them were attractively eligible, exhibiting determination and weakness at the same time.

Gunther, Brünnhilde, Hagen

Finally there was Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, who opens things up immediately after the Norn scene, and brings it all to a close at the end. She was magnificent and one can see her as the wife of the man who will now rule the world after Wotan’s will has been broken. But like Siegfried she is cleverly deceived by Hagen, giving him the secret of how to kill her hero,and only when the scales have fallen from her eyes can she find the right course of action. Her immolation scene brings all to a close, and the lighting does the rest, as the flames recede into the distance carrying the gods away, and the Rhein purifies the world of Alberich’s transgressions and Wotan’s plans and deceits.

Wonderfully sensitive conducting by Fabio Luisi throughout, ranging from pellucid chamber opera to a full-throated roar of polyphony. I eagerly await broadcasts of the full Ring cycle in 2013.

This broadcast in 2012 is rather well-timed in terms of the Euro crisis — see my Eurodämmerung essay comparing the Ring with the Euro.

The Enchanted Island, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, January 2012

22 January, 2012

Shakespeare’s Tempest with the lovers from Midsummer Night’s Dream thrown in, all to music by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, et al, with fabulous costumes, sets, and even mermaids. This enterprising creation by Jeremy Sams, following an original idea by the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb, is an innovative project that really succeeds, particularly in Act II.

Neptune's World, all images MetOpera/Ken Howard

When I first went to opera, back in the days before surtitles, I would avoid reading the synopsis, and enjoy the story as it unfolded, which for something like Tosca was absolutely thrilling. I did the same here, but found Act I overlong, and a bit confusing with these strangers from Dream appearing on Prospero’s Island — perhaps an extra intermission would have helped, but Act II was super.

Prospero and Ariel

Caliban and Sycorax

The singing from some of the cast was inspired, and as soon as Luca Pisaroni made his vocal entrance in the role of Caliban the performance moved into top form. He was terrific, and so was Joyce DiDonato as his mother, the sorceress Sycorax — here she is a real character, rather than an unseen one as in Shakespeare’s play. David Daniels made a wonderfully convincing Prospero, as did Lisette Oropresa as his lovely daughter Miranda, and Danielle de Niese was brilliantly cast as Ariel. Her body movements are flowingly musical and she is such a teasingly good actor. This was a hugely strong cast of principals, with wonderful performances from the lovers:  Layla Claire as Helena, Elizabeth De Shong as Hermia, Paul Appleby as Demetrius and Eliot Madore as Lysander. All were excellent and I thought the two ladies were vocally outstanding. These characters from Midsummer Night’s Dream arrive from the tempest commanded by Prospero, Ariel’s magic spell having gone awry, but Miranda’s future partner Ferdinand is yet to be found. Help is sought from Neptune, whose magnificent appearance in an underwater world complete with chorus and glorious floating mermaids was given vocal heft and buckets-full of gravitas by Placido Domingo. His intervention succeeds, and in Act II countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo made his entrance as Ferdinand singing with a lovely tone.

The lovers from Midsummer Night's Dream

Musically, Jeremy Sams has combined arias and recitatives from various sources, and created a remarkably unified whole, but then that is partly what those masters of the baroque did, poaching from their own earlier compositions. It was all played under the baton of baroque expert William Christie, in a stunning production by Phelim McDermott, who was responsible for the excellent Satyagraha I saw on stage at the English National Opera two years ago (and which was later a Met ‘live in HD’ relay). On this occasion, Julian Crouch was responsible for the clever set designs, and Kevin Pollard for the glorious costumes. Fine lighting by Brian MacDevitt and I loved the dance choreography by Graciela Daniele. Handel would surely have approved, though perhaps with some envy at modern technical abilities to create such an extravaganza. We may no longer have the castrati, but my goodness we have singers who can turn their vocal expertise to the baroque, and our modern lighting and stage effects are unbelievable. Mr. Sams’ creation could start a trend — I rather hope so.

Finally, Shakespeare returns as Prospero speaks those wonderful lines, Our revels now are ended … And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on …

Faust, Metropolitan Opera live relay, December 2011

11 December, 2011

The huge power of this performance was the work of the devil.

René Pape as Faust, all images Met Opera Ken Howard

And as Mephistopheles, René Pape was not just vocally superb, but had a stage presence oozing power and devilment. An immensely smooth operator of huge gravitas who could nevertheless move across the stage while lifting a leg as if in a grand jeté, in this well choreographed production by Des McAnuff, which even included some pirouettes in Act II as the chorus sings Et Satan conduit le bal!

After the interval, as Act III starts, Siébel’s soliloquy was beautifully sung by Michèle Losier, both she and Pape repeating their wonderful performances from a different production of Faust this past September in London at the Royal Opera House. Here at the Met they were joined by the incomparable Jonas Kaufmann as Faust, his high notes and diminuendos superbly sung, and his Quel trouble inconnu … in early Act III strongly emotional.

Marguerite and Faust

In Act IV Marina Poplavskaya finally came into her own as Marguerite. In the first interval when interviewed by Joyce Di Donato — an excellent host — she gave the impression that she too had suffered loss. Perhaps this is why she came over so emotionally in Acts IV and V, though I found her less convincing as a simple young girl fascinated by the jewels appearing in Act III. Her singing was beautiful but it was in the later part of the opera that she really convinced me, and her performance was riveting.

Marguerite with the dying Valentin as Siébel looks on

As Act IV came to its conclusion, Russell Braun came through with great effect as Valentin, fighting and losing against Faust, and cursing his sister Marguerite. He sang so strongly, while looking so seriously wounded, you wondered how he did it. Moving into Act V as the chorus sings S’allume et passé un feu qui luit! we see an atomic explosion projected on the backdrop, all part of the production idea that Faust works in a mid-twentieth century laboratory where the nuclear bomb was being designed.

It’s the same production I saw at the English National Opera in September 2010, but with a few tweaks. Care had been given to details and I liked the way a young woman ran across the stage at the start of the big scene in Act III, somehow managing to move in time to the music. Then as the male chorus roared into action it felt as if we were suddenly in a powerful French rendering of the Marseillaise.

Conducting by Yannick Nézet-Séguin was terrific. He brought out the drama in music that can sometimes sound too beautiful and melodramatic, and with an all-star cast this was a glorious performance.

Filming by Barbara Willis Sweete, by the way, was excellent, incorporating occasional full views of the stage with the right amount of detail of the singers.

Performances at the Met continue until January 19 — for details click here.

Rodelinda, Metropolitan Opera live relay, December 2011

4 December, 2011

The Met first produced this Handel opera in the same production in 2004 with Renée Fleming in the title role. In this live cinema screening she took on the role again and gave a wonderful performance, showing the anguish of the queen who has apparently lost her husband Bertarido in battle, and is now wooed by Grimoaldo, the man who has taken over as ruler. Joseph Kaiser gave an excellent performance as this usurper, who is loved by Bertarido’s sister Eduige, but falls in love with Rodelinda.

Rodelinda with her son, all images Ken Howard

The emotions are complex: desire, scheming, suffering and constant love, but everyone ends up happily ever after, except the nasty Garibaldo, confidante of Grimoaldo who is scheming to acquire the kingdom for himself. Shenyang sang strongly as this unpleasant character, showing him to be a cunning, emotionless power-seeker who over-reaches himself and is killed by Bertarido just as he is about to murder Grimoaldo.

Rodelinda with Berterido

Iestyn Davies as Unulfo

Joseph Kaiser, who sang gloriously as Grimoaldo, amply demonstrated the insecurities of this would-be king, particularly in the face of Renée Fleming’s evident strength as Rodelinda, offering her own son as sacrifice, knowing full well that such a proposal will place the usurper in an impossible position. With Stephanie Blythe singing a very powerful Eduige, the two ladies in the cast had enough strength to carry the entire opera, but they were brilliantly backed up by the other performers. Apart from the tenor and bass parts (Grimoaldo and Garibaldo), there were originally two roles for alto castratos, sung here by Andreas Scholl as Bertarido, and Iestyn Davies as his confidante Unulfo. The latter moves seamlessly between the new court and his exiled master, who anxiously awaits an opportunity to regain power and be reunited with Rodelinda and their son. Iestyn Davies gave an incredible performance as Unulfo, singing as if this were his natural voice, and making the very capable Andreas Scholl sound an unnatural falsetto by comparison.

Grimoaldo with Eduige, Rodelinda and Berterido at rear

The conducting by Harry Bicket was a joy to hear. He gave a wonderful buzz to the overture, and continued to produce a fine clarity of sound, making the musicians of the Metropolitan opera sound like a baroque orchestra. It was he who conducted this opera when Stephen Wadsworth’s excellent production was new in 2004, the beautiful sets and costumes updating this story of a 7th century Lombard king to Handel’s time of the early eighteenth century.

Siegfried, Metropolitan Opera, Met live cinema relay, November 2011

6 November, 2011

In the final part of the intermission feature from the second interval, as Renee Fleming went to meet Bryn Terfel in his dressing room, he said he was wondering when she would get round to him. Was he feeling left out? Perhaps so, but never mind because in the third act he was superb as the Wanderer. When Siegfried asks, who are you then, who wants to restrain me? Terfel’s lengthy response came over superbly, with a strong focus on Wotan’s psychological angst, ‘wer sie erweckt, wer sie gewänne, machtlos macht’ er mich ewig!‘ (whoever wakes her, whoever wins her, would render me powerless forever!).

Mime and Siegfried, all images Ken Howard

This production by Robert Lepage, brilliantly conducted by Fabio Luisi, brings nuances in the score and the libretto that had previously passed me by, and in Act I, Gerhard Siegel gives one of the finest portrayals of Mime that I have ever seen. After his encounter with the Wanderer, and his failure to ask the one question he really needs answering, he muses on what he has just learned: that only one who knows no fear can kill the dragon. He has already forfeit his head to the Wanderer and knows that Siegfried will lop it off unless he learns fear from the Dragon Fafner. But how can he kill the dragon if he learns fear? “Verfluchte Klemme!” (Damned dilemma!) he sings, and you feel for the poor fellow who has devoted eighteen years to bringing up the boy who will kill the dragon, but will also finish his own ill-fated existence. Gerhard Siegel acts everyone else off the stage, making me think of him as an Asperger’s victim embroiled in teenage fantasies that he can never fulfil.

Siegfried and the Sword

As for the real teenager, Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris sang the role with huge conviction. There are not many people in the world who can do this well, but their number has just increased by one with this great new Heldentenor, and the intermission features showed he was utterly dedicated and loved what he was doing. He looked the part too, as a Christ-like figure full of spirit, rather than the rambunctious oaf he sometimes appears.

Alberich and the Wanderer

Eric Owens reprised his wonderful Alberich from Rheingold, and Patricia Bardon looked and sang a beautiful Erda, with Deborah Voigt bringing back her Brünnhilde from Walküre. After a mythical eighteen year sleep, and a real absence of over four hours while the other singers have warmed up, or even died, she has to come in with Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht! and it’s a tough call. As she began expressing her love for Siegfried, the voice took on more confidence and she was terrific.

Brünnhilde and Siegfried

One of the odd moments in the last scene is when Siegfried loosens the breastplate of the sleeping hero, and cries, Das is kein Mann! This sometimes sounds foolishly naive but the way Jay Hunter Morris tackled it, facing the audience with this revelation, it all made sense. Making sense is a vital feature of this production, and Terfel helped bring out the subtleties of Wotan’s dilemmas. Technically I regret that the shards of the sword looked fake, unlike the eventual sword itself — an important point when you have close-ups on the cinema screen — but the Woodbird flitted around like a well-rehearsed pet animal, and we shall doubtless see more of these clever 3D-projections in other productions.

Don Giovanni, Metropolitan Opera live relay from New York, October 2011

30 October, 2011

For Don Giovanni lovers it doesn’t get much better than this.

Leporello and the Don, all photos MetOpera/ Marty Sohl

The Met’s new music director Fabio Luisi gave a sparkling account of the overture, and the performance never looked back. Mariusz Kwiecien combined noble aplomb with demi-world charm as the Don, and Luca Pisaroni was the perfect foil as his sidekick Leporello. Their early dialogue was superbly done, and Barbara Frittoli as the Don’s erstwhile lover Donna Elvira showed huge vulnerability in her portrayal. Later in Act I when Donna Anna suddenly realises Giovanni was the man who seduced her and killed her father she recalls going outside to stop him and her disingenuous, arditamente il seguo … remains curiously unquestioned by her would-be husband Don Ottavio. Marina Rebeka as Anna makes it sound as if she really is lying about her feelings, but Ramón Vargas continues to sing in loving adoration and concern, and his voice and breath control are remarkable.

Ottavio, Anna and her father

The peasant dancing at the party that Giovanni puts on for the wedding couple Zerlina and Masetto, was delightfully done, so far as one could see from the cinema screen, and Mojca Erdmann’s lyrical Zerlina was prettily flirtatious with the Don, and cleverly seductive with her husband-to-be. With Joshua Bloom as a red-blooded and anxious Masetto they made a superb couple, and her vedrai, carino … in Act II, after he has been beaten up, was beautifully delivered.

Wedding dancing at the Don's

As the Commendatore, Štefan Kocán gave a fine performance before his death in Act I, and then made a dramatic entrance at the end, with his bluish make-up helped by Paule Constable’s lighting. The flames are real and Kwiecien’s insouciant Don goes down like the captain of his ship, bowing to no-one, not even the powers of the afterworld. It’s always difficult to tell on the cinema screen, but this production by Michael Grandage looks very good indeed, and with Fabio Luisi keeping everything on track musically it was a wonderful Giovanni.

Anna Bolena, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, October 2011

16 October, 2011

This was the work that finally put Donizetti on the map. Having already produced over thirty operas in Italy, he suddenly became famous across Europe after the first performance in Milan on 26 December 1830.

Anna Netrebko as Anne Boleyn, all photos Brigitte Lacombe

The first Anna was the amazing soprano Giuditta Pasta, who less than three months later created the role of Amina in La Sonnambula, and exactly one year later on 26 December 1831, the role of Norma, all in Milan. Italian operas in what later became known as the bel canto style were all the rage at the time, but they went out of fashion in the late nineteenth century, and a serious revival had to wait until after the Second World War. By that time  Anna Bolena was a forgotten work. It needed a great soprano, and when Maria Callas raised the possibility of reviving it at the Met, Rudolf Bing dismissed it as “an old bore of an opera”. Fortunately La Scala was willing, and with Visconti as producer, Gavazzeni in the orchestra pit, and Callas in the main role, it was a huge success — the live recording was issued by EMI.

Anne and Percy

Now we have Anna Netrebko as Anne Boleyn, and what a queen she is. Sincere, emotional, and not to be trifled with, though that’s exactly what her husband Henry VIII does, setting her up to sweep her aside in favour of her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. After all the emotion of meeting her previous lover Percy she is still ready to give a powerful rendering to “Ah! segnata è la mia sorte” (Ah, my fate is sealed) at the end of Act I, seeing the prospect of her accuser (the king) being the one who condemns her. Percy was brilliantly sung by Stephen Costello, his high tenor having a heroic timbre, and the wretched Smeton (Mark Smeaton), a twenty-four year old musician who is secretly in love with the queen, was convincingly portrayed by Tamara Mumford. As for the king himself, Ildar Abdrazekov sang this bass role with excellent gravitas, and demonstrated power and cunning in equal measure. The role of Jane (Giovanna) Seymour was sung by Ekaterina Gubanova, whose voice was quite different from Ms. Netrebko, and the Met did well to produce such a strong contrast.

The king and Anne

In Act II it only got better, and Anna Netrebko came through with the emotions every time. So sincere in her soliloquy as she sings of how Catherine of Aragon was wronged, yet suddenly when Jane Seymour tells her she can save her own life by admitting guilt, she is furious, easily winning the exchange between the two women while not yet knowing that Jane is her rival in the king’s affections. The nobility of Anne and Percy shone through in the sincerity of their singing, and it’s hard not to feel that Henry VIII was a rogue, but then … he was an immensely powerful monarch, and David McVicar’s production emphasises this very well. In Act I as Percy returns from exile at the king’s wish, and bends to kiss the monarch’s hand he whips it away at the last minute.

Anne awaiting execution

Details like this help create a convincing atmosphere for this historical tale of two of the six wives of Henry VIII. For those unfamiliar with the list, just remember: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. Anne Boleyn was beheaded and Jane Seymour later died after giving birth to the king’s only son, the future Edward VI.

Musically this was a wonderful team effort with Marco Armiliato in the orchestra pit, but it was of course Anna Netrebko who gave it the diva touch. Congratulations to the Met for broadcasting it, and for extending their relays to Russia, which is highly appropriate in this case as the three main roles were sung by Russians!

Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, May 2011

15 May, 2011

The second act of Walküre is the axis about which the whole Ring turns, and I’ll restrict my remarks mainly to that part.

In the first Ring opera, Rheingold, Wotan is persuaded to give up the mighty ring that he stole from Alberich. This is when the earth goddess Erda appears from the depths warning him to Flieh’ des Ringes Fluch! (Flee the curse of the ring). Now his own wife, Fricka appears demanding he rescind his support for Siegmund who has broken the bonds of matrimony by taking Sieglinde from her loveless marriage. So often this comes over as a petulant moment, but Stephanie Blythe as Fricka exhibits a powerful presence, and in Robert Lepage’s brilliant production she rises from behind the stage set and, like Erda, compels Wotan to change his mind.

Wotan and Fricka, all photos Metropolitan Opera/ Ken Howard

The dialogue between her and Bryn Terfel as Wotan is superbly done, and as she demolishes his claims that Siegmund is a free agent, he is aghast. Yet Blythe manages not simply to demand, but cajole, becoming emotional and shedding tears. As she does so, Terfel’s Was verlangst du? (What do you ask/desire?) came through with heartfelt anguish, and by the time he sings Nimm den Eid! (Take my oath) he is utterly defeated. He then countermands his orders to Brünnhilde, who will later tell Siegmund of his fate. In scene 3 of Act II we find Siegmund and Sieglinde, superbly portrayed by Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek, as they reappear following their magnificent love scene in Act I. They showed wonderful chemistry together and after she falls asleep, and Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund alone, Kaufmann gave a riveting portrayal of his determination not to be defeated by Hunding, nor be a victim to Wotan’s change of heart. He showed immense nobility as he responded to Brünnhilde with So grüsse mir Walhall (Then greet Valhalla for me), and when he realises his fate is to die in battle, and tries to bring down the sword to kill both himself and Sieglinde, it is only Brünnhilde’s shield that stops him.

Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I

This is a second turning point in Act II. If Brünnhilde had obeyed Wotan then the lovers would die and the gods would live on while Fafner continues guarding the ring. But it is not to be. Siegmund’s love has moved Brünnhilde to disobey Wotan, allowing Sieglinde to escape after the battle with Hunding, and as Siegmund lies mortally wounded she is spirited away. Wotan’s anguish was palpable as he cradles his own son, the dying Siegmund in his arms. Terfel is remarkable, brilliant, outstanding in his portrayal of Wotan. As he sweeps his arm sideways to dismiss Hunding, his emphasis is on the second Geh! Here is a god whose anger and frustration will lead eventually to the twilight of the gods.

Brünnhilde arrives on high carrying Sieglinde

In Act III the Valkyries tremble before Wotan’s arrival, declining to help Sieglinde. Brünnhilde then takes charge, deciding to send her to the East with the shards of Siegmund’s sword, and naming her unborn baby, Siegfried. Eva-Maria Westbroek then launched into Sieglinde’s O hehrstes Wunder! (Oh, most sublime miracle) as if it were the high point of the entire ring, and for her it was. We do not see her again. Yet although I may praise the singers for bringing out these high points to perfection, it was only through James Levine’s sensitive and powerful conducting that all this was possible. He brought huge emotion from the orchestra, building up to the great moments so that they came on the audience with enormous force. Levine’s conducting of the so-called Ride of the Valkyries was done without any of the bombast that sometimes spoils this orchestral prelude to the third act. His sensitive support of the singers, along with the staging in which the Valkyries could sing front-stage made the first two scenes of Act III come over beautifully.

The rather thankless role of Hunding in Act I, and briefly in Act II, was strongly sung by Hans-Peter König, and the entire cast sang superbly, including Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, though her facial expressions did not always suit the emotions she was expressing in the music. She was such a wonderful Isolde for the Met in 2008, but she is singing Brünnhilde for the first time, and I’m sure she will bring more depth to the role in the last two operas of the Ring next year.

This new Ring is already showing a unified sense to the staging, as the Valkyries and Rheinmaidens both appear at the top of a slanting set, and I look forward to Siegfried in November, and Götterdämmerung next February.

Le Comte Ory, Metropolitan Opera, live cinema relay, April 2011

10 April, 2011

This uniquely Rossinian opera — his penultimate — is wonderful fun, and I’m delighted the Met has put it on, and done so in a cinema screening for the whole world to share. It’s not often performed because it needs three superb singers — in the roles of Count Ory, his page Isolier, and the Countess Adele — and the Met did us proud by having Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato, and Diana Damrau in these roles. The superb singing and acting from all three was a treat.

All photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

In its original form this was a one-act vaudeville production by Scribe and Delestre-Poirson, produced eight years previously, and they turned it into an opera for Rossini in 1828. The story is based on the exploits of the libidinous Count Ory, a medieval Don Juan who featured in a well-known Picardy legend. Ory and his page are both enamoured of the Countess Adèle whose husband has departed on one of the Crusades. In Act I, Ory disguises himself as a hermit whose religious virtue and ascetic background can help sad people, such as the lonely Countess, to regain their composure. He does this by telling her she needs a lover to give her a zest for life, and the page Isolier sees his chance. Ory soon dissuades the Countess from such a liaison by telling her the young man is page to the terrible Ory, but then he himself is unmasked by his tutor, who’s been searching for him, and the plan fails. But Ory is a man of ingenuity and in the second act he and his companions dress as nuns and gain entrance to the Countess’s home in the midst of a storm. Lots of fun, particularly in a bedroom scene with Ory, Isolier and the Countess all together in a bed. When the Crusaders return it’s all over.

Rossini’s music is partly adapted from his wonderful earlier creation Il Viaggio a Reims, a sort of cantata-opera written for the coronation of Charles X. It may lack the vitality and flow of L’Italiana or Il Barbieri, but as that great Rossini expert Francis Toye writes, “No score of his shows such elegance, such piquancy, such grace”.

The page and the Countess

The production by Bartlett Sher was set in the eighteenth century, with suitable stage props operated from the side by a master of ceremonies who tapped his stick to tell the orchestra when to start. His comings and goings started before the overture as he walked over the stage within the stage. The glorious costumes by Catherine Zuber came from several time periods, and those for the Countess were magnificent, well matched by Diana Damrau’s brilliantly assured singing of the role, particularly in the top range. As her amorously insistent lover, Juan Diego Flórez made a superb entrance as Ory, disguised as a hermit with an obviously fake beard. His presence was riveting, and in the interval conversation with Renee Fleming we learned that he’d been in attendance at home as his wife gave birth a mere half hour before the performance. Congratulations to the Met for magically transporting him, and presumably his dresser, to the theatre on time!

Ory and the Countess

The page is a trouser role, and though it’s not easy for a woman to appear as a young man, Joyce DiDonato’s performance was as good as it gets. She was utterly convincing, and this is a woman I’ve seen as Rosina in Il Barbieri looking the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen — even in a wheelchair, which she used at Covent Garden in July 2009 after a stage accident. Superlatives fail me.

These three principals were well aided by Stéphane Degout as Ory’s friend Raimbaud, Susanne Resmark as the Countess’s companion Ragonde, and Michele Pertusi as the tutor. Fine conducting by Maurizio Benini kept the singers together beautifully and the ensemble at the end of Act I was simply terrific. A better performance of Le Comte Ory is difficult to imagine, and I would love to see the Met do more Rossini in live screenings.

Iphegénie en Tauride, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, February 2011

27 February, 2011

The Trojan War informed Greek literature, which  then informed a European culture that read the great plays by Sophocles and Euripedes. They in turn inspired opera composers such as Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87) whose new form of opera used music and drama to support one another in a way hitherto unseen. Gluck inspired Wagner, Berlioz and others, and when Iphégenie en Tauride was produced in a German version two years after its premiere in Paris, Mozart attended almost all the rehearsals.

Graham, Domingo and Groves

This was Gluck’s penultimate opera, and the purity of its music endows the story with enormous clarity. The background is that when Agamemnon was ready to embark with the Greek forces  to Troy he was denied a fair wind, and demands were made that he sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia. He acceded and the ships set off. When he returned home ten years later his wife Klytemnestra killed him, and their daughter Elektra yearned for her brother Orestes to return and take vengeance on his mother. Orestes eventually made his return, committed the deed and was pursued by the furies. In the meantime, in a second version of the story by Euripedes, the goddess Artemis replaced the sacrificial Iphigeneia with a deer at the last moment, transporting the real one to the land of the Taurians, where it was her duty as a priestess to sacrifice any foreigners who landed on the shores of her new land.

In this excellent production by Stephen Wadsworth we see, just before the overture, Artemis intervene to save the life of the sacrificed Iphigeneia, and during the opera we also see the murder of Agamemnon by Klytemnestra, performed by two actors, appearing in a nightmare to Orestes. He was beautifully portrayed by Placido Domingo, well supported by Paul Groves as his comrade Pylades. With Susan Graham giving a wonderful performance as Iphigeneia, Domingo and Groves were superbly matched, and the stresses they suffer, as the two men vie for the honour of being sacrificed to let the other one go, were gloriously portrayed. All three were ably opposed by Gordon Hawkins as the wicked King Thoas of the Taurians.

Pylades and Orestes, all photos by Ken Howard

Gluck’s glorious opera, with its excellent libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard deserves a superb production, and it got it. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz were excellent, and the choreography for the Taurian soldiers, by Daniel Pelzig, was forcefully danced. These are Scythians from the central Asian steppe, so the Russian-style dancing was entirely appropriate. Gluck is little performed these days, but what a great opportunity this was to see one of his greatest operas, and with fine conducting by Patrick Summers, along with Domingo, Groves and Graham in the main roles one could hardly do better. Susan Graham gave a convincing portrayal of Iphigeneia’s attempts to sacrifice Orestes, and for a moment it looked as if the curse of Atreus would succeed in having her unwittingly kill her own brother. Fortunately she could not manage it, so Pylades had time to bring in Greek warriors to rescue Orestes, enabling him to return and rule his native Mycenae. In Greek tradition the furies (erinyes) were replaced by the eumenides, and Orestes was redeemed.

Iphigeneia and Orestes

This opera by Gluck gives a peerless representation of the conflicting emotions and tensions in this story, and as Schiller wrote, “Never has music moved me so purely and so beautifully as this music has done, it is a world of harmony that penetrates the very soul and causes it to dissolve in sweet and lofty sadness”.