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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Verdi, Falstaff: Metropolitan Opera, New York and Bizet, Carmen: Metropolitan 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.

Terfel's Falstaff 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 of.

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 and smile.

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.



Harvey Steiman


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