Opera, New York and
Opera, New York, 15.10.2005 (HS)
Oh what a difference
priorities make. Seen in the same day -- the Metropolitan
Opera offers both matinee and evening performances on Saturdays
-- these operas demonstrate what happens when a company with
the resources of the Met lavishes the full treatment on one
opera vs. something more, um, routine.
I went to the matinee
performance of Carmen
for the soprano Ruth Ann Swenson's first whirl at Micaëla.
The rest of the cast was new to me, and the idea of hearing
a good singer for the first time is always a lure. Falstaff
was a chance to compare the incomparable Bryn Terfel's
fat knight in the context of a serious cast with what I heard
earlier this year in Los
Angeles. Franco Zefferelli designed
both productions, the Falstaff
dating from 1964 (at the old Met).
Zefferelli's sets are,
as his always are, a feast for the eye. The first and fourth
acts are brightly lit and set on what seems like a hilltop
plaza, never mind that it seems a bit too fancy for a cigarette
factory courtyard (Act I) or too high for a bullring (Act
IV). The middle acts, which focus on the smugglers, are dimly
lit and set against a rocky mountainside. This makes Lillas
Pastia's tavern seem like a grotto (Act II) and the smuggler's
hideaway (Act III) like the entrance to Fafner's
Cave, but no matter. It works.
The director's design
for Falstaff was
revived in 2001, also for Terfel.
The Garter Inn looks appropriately frayed around the edges
and the Elizabethan courtyard and interior of Ford's house
really does evoke a rich merchant's abode. The forest scenery
is appropriately magical, complete with flying bats, and there's
even a white horse done up with a unicorn horn.
To dispense with the
Carmen first, there was nothing really
wrong with the performance, except that it lacked fire vocally
and dramatically. Other than Swenson, none of the singers
seemed interested in phrasing, and Philippe Jordan's brisk,
business-like conducting did nothing to help in that regard.
Jordan got none of the magic in the pastoral entr'acte to
Act III, either, and the prelude felt like a 100-meter dash
instead of a fireworks display.
Milena Kitic in the title role looked cute rather than seductive,
and her voice showed none of the drama so necessary to make
Carmen a flesh and blood character. Marco Berti
displayed a sturdy tenor as Don José, but he observed none
of the dynamic shadings, neither finishing off the Flower
Song with a pianissimo nor summoning the power for the confrontations
in the third and fourth acts. Jean-Luc Chaignaud
looked tall and dashing as Escamillo,
ringing out some beautiful high notes. The low notes, always
a bugaboo for baritones, missed heft.
Swenson, however, seems
made to order for Micaëla, with
the creamy sound, innocent look and silken phrasing to make
her scenes count for the most.
The Falstaff cast was splendid, top to bottom
the best I've ever encountered for the 10 significant roles
in this opera. With principal conductor James Levine in the
pit, the musical results were nothing short of revelatory.
It was also an uncannily natural and funny group.
is one of the great operatic characterizations of our time.
His old knight creaks but still can muster a spring in his
step for "Va, vecchio
John" and leering attitude for "Quand'ero un paggio." But it's
the vocal fireworks that make his Falstaff so wonderful. He
can sing it all without forcing anything, and he's not afraid
to let the voice morph into a menacing growl on "Ladri"
in the Honor Monologue. If anything, this performance has
a little extra depth, a little more snap, than what I heard
earlier this year in Los Angeles.
Verdi writes scena after scena for Falstaff plus one other character; it takes a strong cast
to share the stage with a force of nature like Terfel
and not get lost. These singers were up to it, most impressively
mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe's Mistress Quickly. Her clarion
sound and astonishing range, from top to solid bottom, matched
Terfel phrase for phrase, especially
in the Act III confrontation, and those organ-like low notes
anchored the women's ensembles and gave them splendid richness.
What a pleasure it is
to hear a voice like Patricia Racette's
sing Alice's soaring lines, too often handled by washed-up
Verdi sopranos. Racette's pure sound brought clarity to Alice's music, and
she looks ravishing in Elizabethan garb. Maria Zifchak
as Meg would have stood out in most other casts. Here she
was just a reliable part of the team.
Nannetta is usually
sung by a young debuting soubrette, but Heidi Grant Murphy
brought more than a decade's experience on the Met stage to
the role with absolutely no loss of freshness or creaminess.
Her call to the fairies in the final scene was as magical
as one could want, and her little love duets with tenor Matthew
Polanzani's plangent, sweet Fenton were totally charming.
Roberto Frontali's burnished, beautifully focused baritone made Ford's
music into something special, his "É sogno"
monologue expressing the anguish without losing the musical
line. Peter Bronder sounded appropriately whiny as Dr. Caius. And even tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
as Bardolfo and bass Mikhail Petrenko
as Pistola enunciated the music
of Falstaff's henchman with more depth than one usually hears.
Fouchécourt's diminutive stature
made for comical moments that Shakespeare directors dream
The only musical quibbles
involved the intricate ensembles in Act I, Scene 2, which
several times lost the rhythmic thread only to regain it after
a few measures. This was the seventh of nine performances,
so it should have been better. Racette's arching soprano line made us forget the problems
Levine chose tempos
that felt so natural and comfortable, it would be easy to
forget how critical that is to the success of this music.
The jigsaw puzzle of a score fit together smoothly and snugly
-- and naturally -- right up to and including the final fugue.
Every line in it was clear, standing out as if in relief.
This is what the Metropolitan
Opera can do when it puts a priority on a production. It isn't
always this good, but when it is, opera seldom gets better.