Saturday, November 24, 2007

Disappointing "Norma" at the MET

Lightning has struck so many times repeatedly at The Metropolitan Opera since the arrival of Peter Gelb that when something goes awry you really feel it. A sense of disappointment envelops the house and it doesn't let go. When it happens to an opera that is a well-known standard, then the feeling is even more. Thus it was last night at the current revival of Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini; clearly, the first mishap of what thus far has been a prodigious opera season.

Norma is not an easy opera to produce. In my lifetime, I cannot say that I have experienced a totally fulfilling performance of this work. Historically, Norma has fallen in and out of favor since its composition in the early part of the 19th century, and at the Metropolitan Opera it was first performed in German, and then in Italian as a vehicle for the great Rosa Ponselle. The postwar period went on to prove that powerhouse performers such as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland can catapult a work into the repertory. Their mesmerizing performances of this work (both live and recorded) taught us firstly that Norma is one of the greatest works in the Italian repertory, and secondly that you need a titanic performer in the title role in order for the work to come alive.

Last night proved that Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian is not a Norma. She managed all the notes fairly well, but everything sounded the same. In such a role (in any role!) it is not enough to sing the notes: one has to create character through the voice. This she did not do. What most people will remember best about her Norma were those wonderful costume changes, and how good she looked in that fiery, blood-red number. And as far as the tenor is concerned, the least said about him the better. Should Franco Farina be singing these roles at a house like the MET? His bio in the playbill warns us that he will be singing Otello (Verdi or Rossini?) at Hamburg this season -- Yikes!

The real culprit in all of this was conductor Maurizio Benini who after leading a bubbly reading last year of Bartlett Sher's Il Barbiere di Siviglia decided to put on a serious hat and treat Norma as if it was a lead balloon. The evening crawled to a halt more times than I care to remember. Instead of propelling the music forward, as James Levine succeeded in doing earlier this season with Lucia di Lammermoor and Macbeth, Benini selected tempi that seemed to slow everything down. Now and then there were interesting touches of life from the orchestra, but his conducting turned out to be a heavy-handed affair throughout the evening. This approach can be deadly in a work like Norma. Even the great Dolora Zajick, who vocally was clearly the best performer on that stage, seemed hampered by Benini's lackluster reading.

Maybe one day I will get to hear a great Norma live at the MET. Unfortunately, not this season.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Verdi's "Macbeth" at the MET

Macbeth is a 500 dollar opera written by Giuseppe Verdi at the time when Italian composers were churning out 30 dollar jobs that are now all but forgotten. What's great about this new production at the Metropolitan Opera is that James Levine makes it sound like a million bucks! In his hands it's not just a score that promises the greatness that would come from this composer: it's already great, and he makes us believe it.

Metropolitan Opera audiences discovered this work in 1959, more than 100 years after it was composed, when it was mounted as a vehicle for baritone Leonard Warren and soprano Maria Callas. Callas was fired from the MET, and Leonie Rysanek filled in. The production was hailed as a masterpiece, the opera was deemed a neglected masterwork, and the whole enterprise was recorded by RCA Victor in what many still consider to be the best recording of this work.

Based on Shakespeare's play of the same name, Macbeth is the Bard's shortest tragedy, one of his bloodiest, and throughout its history it has had its share of misfortunes involving fires, illnesses, and deaths attached to its performances. Old actors refer to it as "The Scottish Play" whenever they are in rehearsal inside a theater. This ill luck seems also to have spread to its operatic counterpart. The most recent calamity involved with "The Scottish Opera" was in 1988 when a New York singing coach plunged to his death at the MET in a suicide leap during one of the live Saturday MET radio broadcasts.

Since the debut of this production by Adrian Noble, it has been nothing but successful, which I attribute largely to Levine's respect for the work. He is becoming quite the bel-canto interpreter these days. First there was the MET's opening night of Lucia di Lammermoor and now this early Verdi work; and although you can argue that Macbeth is no longer a bel-canto opera, it has enough of this genre's attributes, to make many conductors flee from the work, fearing that all they will be relegated to do in the pit is beat out tempi, giant metronome style. Levine, on the other hand, understands the work's inherent language, and draws from it all the power and beauty that he can. He ends up imbuing these early Italian work with a driving force which is rarely accented in the hands of others. He makes Macbeth have the gravitas of Don Carlo: no easy feat for any conductor, and if at times the cabalettas do seem to be a bit mechanical, the spirit of the work is indeed rescued from a dull reading.

On stage, Mr. Noble has done a superb job updating the work to modern times. There are jeeps and guns, and green laser effects. The clever unit set is made up of six pillars (which look like the giant pipes of a gigantic Scottish Highland bagpipe) which move about to recreate the different settings.

The witches in this production look either like contemporary frumpy bag ladies complete with disheveled coats and hats, or they look like something out of a 1940's documentary about the London Blitz. They are also accompanied by little girls, who must be on-the job training for membership in the coven. The witches were quite memorable, and danced (yes danced!) and, of course, sang/shrieked their music with just the right sense of supernatural fun.

But it is the staging that over and over again delighted the audience. It was a powerfully sung performance, but it was also an intelligently directed one. A banquet table, its white linen unspotted, appears out of nowhere during Lady Macbeth's brindisi, and it disappears with a swoosh that was so fast and so scary that you immediately knew that this would be no ordinary banquet.

All the principal singers were stellar: what a cast! In the title role Zelijko Lucic was tremendous. A Macbeth who can sound noble, ugly, defiant as well as defeated. What a wonderful performance he gives, and what a marvelous secure voice to accompany this characterization. Maria Guleghina used her powerful instrument to convey the character's strength. Likewise, this was the best singing I have ever heard from John Relyea, who in one scene can sing a noble interpretation of the character, and who can turn it around and play a silent ghost of himself in the next scene.

I hope that you have a chance to see this new production of Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera. It is one of the best of the season.