Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MET Opening Night: Controversy & Figaro

If a work of art is deemed controversial, the passage of time will surely erase whatever ills people accuse it of. It happened with W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's 1786 masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro, which opened the 2014-2015 season at the Metropolitan Opera last night, and it will eventually happen with John Adams and Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer, a 1991 work that the MET is presenting later this season, and which brought hundreds of protesters to Lincoln Center. The opera depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Many feel that the work is sympathetic to the Palestinian hijackers, and have thus condemned the opera as anti-Semitic.

Away from the turmoil on the plaza, where arriving opera patrons in evening dress were taunted by demonstrators, the MET presented a new production of Mozart's work, directed by Sir Richard Eyre and conducted by James Levine.  If out on Broadway the scene was chaotic, inside the opera house there was bliss. Levine led the well-known score with a firm hand that also allowed for some genuinely beautiful, transparent playing from the MET orchestra. At this stage in his career, Levine continues to grow as a musician, delving deeper than ever into the score, and finding surprises in the inner harmonies of this precise score. He's found the sparkle and charm in the perfection of form and utter spontaneity of Mozart's work, and his approach infects the cast, all of whom get their moment to shine in their respective roles.
Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro, who triumphed last year as Prince Igor, has a dark voice, but it is an inherently small instrument. He warmed considerably as the evening progressed, adding some volume to his portrayal without giving the feeling that he was forcing himself. Marlis Petersen was a sweetly-voiced  Susanna, while Amanda Majeski, making her MET debut as the Countess, allowed her wide vibrato to interfere with beauty of sound. In contrast, the Cherubino of Isabel Leonard was a joy to listen to. Her acting as a hormonal teenager was top-notch from beginning to end. The evening belonged to handsome Peter Mattei, who as Count Almaviva proved that he is one of the great Mozarteans of our time. He is simply marvelous, stealing the show with his velvet voice and commanding stage presence. He just doesn't sing the role, he caresses it, and lovingly delivers it back to us.

Set designer Rob Howell presented us with a unit set that updated the action to the beginning of the 20th century. Dark revolving towers with bronze walls turn the Count's house into a labyrinthine maze. The idea might have been that the mechanics of the set comments on the machinations of the plot, but this conceit is far from a requirement.

In general, this opening night was a triumph for the MET.  After months of bitterness and instability that took the institution to the brink of a labor strike, it is good to have this New York institution opened again doing what it does best.

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