The Metropolitan Opera Gala 1991 – 25th Anniversary at the Lincoln Center
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto (Act 3)
Duke – Luciano Pavarotti (tenor)
Rigoletto – Leo Nucci (baritone)
Gilda – Cheryl Studer (soprano)
Sparafucile – Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass)
Maddalena – Birgitta Svendén (mezzo)
Stage Production: Otto Schenk

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello (Act 3)
Otello – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Desdemona – Mirella Freni (soprano)
Iago – Justino Díaz (baritone)
Cassio – Uwe Heilmann (tenor)
Lodovico – Paul Plishka (bass)
Stage Production and Set Design: Franco Zeffirelli

Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus (Act 2, truncated)
Eisenstein – Hermann Prey (baritone)
Rosalinde – Barbara Daniels (soprano)
Prince Orlofsky – Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo)
Adele – Barbar Kilduff (soprano)
Dr Falke – Dwayne Croft (baritone)

Gala Sequence
Hermann Prey: “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” (Mozart, Die Zauberflöte)
Frederica von Stade: “Ah! Que j’aime les militaires” (Offenbach, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein)
Thomas Hampson: “Largo al factotum” (Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia)
June Anderson: “Je suis Titania” (Thomas, Mignon)
Sherrill Milnes: “Maria” (Bernstein, West Side Story)
Aprile Millo: “La Mamma morta” (Giordano, Andrea Chenier)
Ferruccio Furlanetto: “Maddamina, il catalogo e questo” (Mozart, Don Giovanni)
Kathleen Battle: “O luce di quest’anima” (Donizetti, Linda di Chamonix)
Samuel Ramey: “The Impossible Dream” (Leigh, The Man of La Mancha)
Mirella Freni: “Io son l’umile ancella” (Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur)
Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo: “O Mimi tu piu non torni” (Puccini, La Bohème)

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Levine
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York 23 September 1991
Region Code 0, Aspect Ratio 4:3, PCM Stereo and DTS 5.1
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00440 073 4582 [82:06 + 97:25]

If the Metropolitan Opera did not exist then it would be necessary for someone to invent it. It is comforting to opera-goers that there is still a place in the world where traditional orthodoxy rules and where sumptuous is the norm. Other houses may react and reinvent, but not the Met - or, at least, until recently: since 2006 Peter Gelb has done a lot to renovate the Met’s arguable stodgy image. I’m a huge fan of these glittering nights when the budget is thrown to the winds and extravagance rules the roost – I loved the centennial gala and James Levine’s anniversary gala too – but for me this one felt somehow hollow. Paradoxically this brought out, for me, the Met at its best and worst.

The Met has always been regarded as a singer’s house and on evenings like this you can throw dramatic integrity out the window and celebrate good old “stand and sing”. The most obvious example is the celebrity gala sequence inserted into Prince Orlofsky’s party in Fledermaus where stars line up to sing their party-piece, though it’s also present in the luxury casting for the excerpts. However, you can’t deny that staging three distinct acts of entirely different operas makes for a very bizarre evening, no matter who is singing in them. Furthermore the sheer weight of tradition seems almost to bear down on the stagings. Sparafucile’s tavern looks as though it may well have been lifted out of real life, and no one could question the magnificence of Orloksfy’s house in Vienna, but Zeffirelli’s Otello just looks daft, groaning under the weight of its own splendour. The costumes in particular are just ridiculous: Domingo struts around in red tights and various jewel-encrusted cloaks, while Freni’s two outfits, complete with tiaras, seem purposely designed to trumpet the wealth of the wardrobe department. It looks like something of a throwback nowadays when the emphasis is more on psychological enlightenment rather than on showing off the size of your furniture budget. All this meant that I couldn’t quite take this DVD seriously, and it wasn’t helped by the surprisingly mixed quality of the singing.

Pavarotti is undoubtedly the big draw for Rigoletto and his voice can still ring: this was 1991, one year after his triumph at the Italian world cup. However anyone with any honesty has to admit that his voice was way past its best by then and he makes La donna e mobile sound somewhat effortful. He was also laughably enormous by this stage: Maddalena can’t even get her arms around him! Studer has the vocal power to soar in the quartet but her voice demonstrates obtrusive vibrato which is increasingly distracting and robs the final duet of much of its beauty. Nucci has lots of character but not a lot of beauty. It is left to Svendén to excel in the quartet, her throaty mezzo providing the most interesting vocal colour. None of this matters a jot to the New York audience who still cheer to the rafters at the end of the act.

Similarly, Mirella Freni sounds strained as Desdemona, uncomfortable in the duet with Otello and under pressure in the big ensemble. Happily, though, Domingo is fantastic as the Moor, demonstrating palpably the fever which is consuming him. His vocal strength is remarkable in Dio, mi potevi, and the cries of Spento e quel sol are thrilling. He rides the crest of the ensemble thrillingly and Díaz’s Iago is a devilishly exciting foil.

The singing is also better for Die Fledermaus. Hermann Prey’s Eisenstein is a lovable rogue for whom we feel a good chunk of sympathy and his vocal colour is marvellous. The women are great too, each in their different ways. Von Otter is a marvellously tongue-in-cheek Orlofsky – her aria is tremendous fun – while Kilduff’s Adele sparkles in the flighty coloratura of the Laughing Song. Daniels’ Rosalinde is perfectly fine in the duet with Prey, though not particularly thrilling in the Csárdás.

The Gala Sequence is the part of the evening with the most fun built in, though here, again, the vocal displays are mixed. Prey sounds gritty and out of tune as Papageno – very surprising given his success as Eisenstein – and Sherrill Milnes is obviously having a tough time with Maria: he struggles with the lower passages and things don’t improve in the higher ones. Pavarotti and Domingo’s duet is fun enough but just plain daft and, while Thomas Hampson has all the vocal equipment required for Figaro, his manner is entirely wrong and he can’t cope with the Rossinian quick-fire patter. Things are better elsewhere, happily. Frederica von Stade sounds fantastic, a beautifully rich voice with a knowing smile and coy manner which bring the Grand-Duchesse alive, and the same living pulse is evident in Furlanetto’s Leporello, though curiously he gets a relatively muted reception. June Anderson was at her peak when she was captured here and her command of coloratura and technique is extraordinary: this is perhaps the finest account of this aria you’ll find anywhere. Kathleen Battle exudes diva-dom in her manner (and her dress) but in 1991 her voice was undeniably spectacular and Linda’s aria sounds absolutely fantastic in her hands. Likewise, Freni is a far more assured Adriana than Desdemona, achieving creamy beauty in the aria and a miraculous climax at the end. Ramey oozes authority and dark beauty, though Millo is not the most ideally steady.

The artist who comes out of the evening with the greatest integrity is conductor and Artistic Director James Levine. He shapes the orchestra’s sound to fit each contrasting piece like a glove and his hand on the tiller means that the contribution from the pit is never less than outstanding.

There is plenty to enjoy here, but this remains a mixed offering. The finest indications of the Met doing what it does best will always be the complete performances on DVD, but if you want to allow yourself a guilty treat at their expense then indulge in the centennial gala instead.

Simon Thompson

Plenty to enjoy here… see Full Review