Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Golden Night at the Met

Well, order is restored on the world, the opera season has officially started in the USA (don’t tell the guys at KY Opera though) with the official opening of the 2010-2011 season at the Metropolitan Opera. Not being from NYC, or living there, I had to be content with joining the festivities through the web and connect to the the free web stream the Met offered (and will continue to offer through the season with at least 1 free webcast a week in addition to the Saturday matinee broadcasts sponsored by Toll Brothers). Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s Manager, with his astute sense of occasion, has said that a new season should be opened with a new production. So in that spirit he unveiled the Body Tosca last year (the first one completely planned by him) and this year he unveils the first installment of the company’s new Ring Cycle.

I have to give the man credit for what he is doing. In the 4 years he has been general manager he has proved that he is fearless. In the space of 3 years he has spared no-one’s feelings and gone ahead on replacing 2 of the Met’s most beloved productions and has made it perfectly clear that no one should get too attached to anything because everything is fair game. This has drawn the ire of several patrons from the old guard who liked their operas safe and non-challenging. Then he has drawn the ire of people who are still asking themselves why are we not doing what Europe has been doing for 20 years (if it doesn’t work in Europe, why would we want it here? but nobody has asked me) pissing just about anyone off in the process. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of Gelb myself, but not because he is replacing productions, but for something else entirely different that, if he were to call me or write, I would be happy to discuss with him. So depending whose camp you ask, Gel’s regime has been a failure either because he is trashing productions that are sacrosanct (the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it camp) or it is a failure because he has not exported the “new” trend from Europe (the why-aren’t-you-buying-this-broken-down-rusty-vehicle-at-a-premium-price camp). So, according to some, Gelb desperately needed a success to finally signal his arrival, an opinion that Gelb likely does not share, given the HUGE success of the Met in HD series; but that might be espoused by some who look at successes from the past 4 years as either being orchestrated by Volpe or just flukes (I know, I am still trying to figure that one too). I’m not sure about you, but what I heard today would qualify and a success in every aspect.

Unfortunately, I had to rely on the visuals of the Times Square cam 10 to help me understand what was going on with the staging, but the little I saw in the blurry images certainly is making me ache to go to the HD transmission to see the rest. I will wait until then to cast judgment on the actual production (click on the link to read the review of the HD performance), but so far the pictures that have been published inspire a great deal of excitement in me.  So if you want to accuse me of being positively biased from right now, go ahead, I am not one to care much for what others think of me (as a reader discovered recently).

The first thing I am going to say is that this was my first Rheingold EVER. I own the Solti Ring on audio and some personal friends in Europe shared with me the Victorian Ring that was done in Amsterdam not long ago; but I have been lazy and have not felt ready to tackle Wagner and the Ring yet. I am going to go further and confess that had I not volunteered to moderate Parterre.com‘s chat I would have sat in front of the TV, watched Dancing with the Stars and Castle without a second thought. I am here to tell those who did that you made the biggest mistake of the week. To say this performance was fabulous is like saying that dark chocolate is just tasty or that the Grand Canyon is a hole on the ground. This performance could and SHOULD change the way Wagner is sung all over the world. With very few exceptions, there were no weak links in the cast and God knows the singing today was at a level that has not been heard in Wagner in a LONG time. But more on that later.

The good news is the return of James Levine to conduct this opera at the Met. After the several cancellations that his health forced on his last season, many of us were worried that Maestro Levine would either be a no-show or that he would be pushing himself too early and risk having to miss even more performances this season. Now, we do not know whether our fears are just silly dreams yet, but Maestro Levine was out conducting with the ardor and the vigor of a man a third his age. Commenters at the chat were saying that this performance was faster that he usually conducts. I do not have a comparison stick, but I can tell you that the performance never lagged. It had drive, it had energy and above all, it had polish. Maestro Levine is well known for his love and mastery of Wagner and to this neophyte’s ears that fame is more than deserved. If this was the only performance of Rheingold I ever listen to (and I hope it will not be) I would say I have heard perfection.

Part of that perfection must also be attributed to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the maestros that populate its ranks. I have heard this orchestra both on radio and live and I can attest that this is one amazing ensemble, but what I heard today was just the stuff of legends. Every detail, every nuance, ever silence had meaning. Today the orchestra did not accompany the singers; today they sang along and I would be a fool if I do not sing their praises. I know, it is like this is not said in every review you are going to read, and yet it would be such an injustice if it is not said, because this orchestra is worth their weight in pink and red diamonds. They played, no, sang gloriously tonight. Bravi.

Top honors in the singing department I will have to give (no surprise there if you know me) to Richard Croft, who sang one of the most luscious, beautiful and amazing Loges one could be so lucky to hear. Through my opera reading experience, I have been aware that Loge is a role that can be sung lyrically and the fact that an artist the caliber of the late Philip Langridge sang it made me realize, at least intellectually, that you do not need to have an ugly voice to sing the role. Mr. Croft, an artist among artists, pretty much walked with the show in my opinion. After witnessing his Gandhi several years ago I was already a fan, but what I witnessed today was even more amazing, and  after Satyagraha I thought that was not even possible. (Gelb, wake up! bring that man back and give us an HD of that production!) Every word he sang was pregnant with meaning, and beauty.  Loge in his hands went from a Siegfried-in-waiting role to art. I do hope many young tenors were listening today, because his performance has the potential to radically change the next generation’s idea of what Wagner singing is and make them realize that Wagnerian roles are not voice wreckers, or something that you do on your way to bark your way through Sigmund/Siegfried or that being a Wagnerian singer means only singing Brunnhilde and Wotan. People take notice, what he gave us today was Wagner singing of the highest caliber. If you are a young tenor, you need to get yourself a copy of this broadcast and listen attentively.  I would have screamed myself hoarse if I had been in the house. I am still in awe…

Now, some people will argue that the night belonged to Eric Owen’s Alberich. You are not going to get too much of an argument from me because Mr. Owen gave a career making performance. I will bet his agent has been woken up several times already, and (s)he should. Mr. Owen’s Alberich might have been physically ugly, but his singing was anything but. He gave us a performance of conviction and beauty so strong vocally that the audience have him a bigger  ovation than the night’s top dog.

Speaking of the top dog, what about Bryn Terfel? Well, judging by the comments made during the chat, the jury is still divided on that one. I did not hear any of the mythic Wotans beforehand, so I will have to say that in my opinion he did not embarrass himself. That being said, I am still not sure this is a role that suits him the way Alberich might. He tried to sing with authority, and for the most part he did, but at the cost of loosing some of the beauty and sounding a little rough in places. Towards the end he sounded a little tired, but you know, who wouldn’t? Rather than go down as a naysayer, and probably because I am tabula rasa when it comes to my Wotans, I am going to say that I will wait until the HD transmission and see how  I change my mind on it. I have the impression, also, that he will be better suited to latter appearances of this character (Walkyre being the one foremost in my mind), where the needs are not (as it is my impression) for power and might but for cantabile and narrative. As I get better acquainted with the Ring, I am sure I’ll join the pro and/or con camp. In the mean time I’ll let it rest and give the guy and A for effort, he survived where many have fallen on their faces.

Stephanie Blythe as Fricka proved why is she one of the preeminent American mezzos of her generation.  Her Fricka was more than beautifully vocalized. it was a long soft caress to the ears The blurry picture from camera 10 gave me the impression that she looked quite beautiful too. It seems ineresting that after taking this role so successfully in Seattle that this is the first time NYC audiences get to hear her in the role. I’d say the wait was worth it. This woman has gold in that throat and what better place to pour it than in Valhalla. Brava.

When I said that there were few to no weak links in this cast, I was not kidding.  Every role was cast with suck care and gusto that this felt like the night of a thousand stars. The Rheinmaidens were entrusted to Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson and Tamara Mumford and goodness gracious they were fabulous. I can not wait to add the visuals to what we heard tonight, as the description made the whole thing incredibly interesting; but I have to tell you that these women sang like goddesses. The harmonies were tight as they could be, the balance and the quality of the ensemble singing was top notch too.  The same could be said for Franz-Josef Selig’s Fasolt, Hans-Peter König’s Fafner, Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Freia, Adam Diegel’s Froh, Dwayne Croft’s Donner and the evening’s Mime, Gerhard Siegel. Their contributions made the evening feel, as I already said, Like the night of a thousand stars.  I wish I felt as strong about Patricia Bardon, but for some reason, amidst such glorious singing, her Erda felt out of place; I am still trying to figure out why. Bravi all.

All in all, I think the Met has in their hands an unqualified success, which made the boos at the end of the performance seem idiotic; but to each their own. If you are in NYC, I encourage you to hang around the Met and see if you can get yourself a ticket (the run is sold out, but there is always standing room and people who are looking to sell their ticket for one reason or another) . If you, like me, are outside of the NYC area, make sure you call your local movie theater and buy yourself a ticket for the Oct 9th HD transmission. I have a feeling you will not regret it. By the way, if you need to look for  a participating movie theater close to you, here are some links: readers in the USA check this list (PDF, 11 pages) for your city and state; here are also some independent venues if you can not find one close to you on the first list. International readers please check this list for your country, you will be forwarded to the site of the Met’s local partner where you can find out more information.

And, Mr. Gelb, I know I have said in the past that you would not be able to recognize talent if it walked up to you, kicked you in the balls, slapped you across the face, pinched your left nipple and, while you were on the floor, left a business card and a piece of chewed gum for DNA profiling . While I am not ready to take it all back, I do have to say that tonight’s Rheingold was the strongest casts I have seen at the Met since you took over (this and Satyagraha). THIS is what happens when you put singers on stage that can sing their roles like the professional singers they are and not like some sort of gimmick meant to dazzle people with STARDOM but who can not get through their roles with a minimum resemblance of authority either vocally or stylistically.  This is how it’s done bro.  Take your casting dept out to lunch and tell them to get you more of this, ’cause right now, it is more the exception than the norm. The Met needs more casts like tonight’s, without totally forgetting the other (I know you need to sell tickets), this is what opera is all about.

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September 28, 2010 - Posted by | Opera Review

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