Thursday, April 5, 2007

Glorious Voices

La Traviata
Performances January 10-March 31, 2007

The Met's 40th Anniversary Gala
April 3, 2007

Andrea Chenier
March 22-April 18 , 2007

Anna Netrebko as Mimì and Rolando Villazón as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme, part of the Met's 40th Anniversary

The Metropolitan Opera
West 64th Street and Broadway

Even though the Metropolitan Opera has gotten a lot of attention for its new productions this year—including the season-opening Madame Butterfly, a clever new staging of The Barber of Seville and the world premiere of The Last Emperor—its bread and butter remains the reigning opera stars who grace its stage, drawing satisfied crowds of local and visiting opera fans, and the old warhorses, works that never lose their musical and dramatic appeal. All of these factors were on display in recent Met performances.

Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, the leading Violetta in opera houses today, sang at the Met for one performance only of Verdi’s La Traviata, and did not disappoint, giving her adoring audience the glamor largely missing from today’s opera stars. Gheorghiu is an unrepentant diva, a quality perfect for Violetta, the courtesan who, after falling for the younger Alfredo, forces him to leave so he won’t discover she’s dying.

It’s a perfectly tragic soap opera plot, and when Verdi’s sumptuously melodic music is added, the result is one of the most perfect of all operas. At the Met, Franco Zefferelli’s lavish staging adds another layer of sheen. And finally, Gheorghiu’s stunning mix of theatrical boldness, brilliant singing, and dazzling star power topped off an immensely entertaining evening.

A strikingly beautiful woman with long black tresses, Gheorghiu looks smashing dressed in Raimonda Gaetani’s costumes, but the soprano is also a consummate artist: her famous Act One arias, “Ah, fors’e lui” and “Sempre libera,” are dispatched with a forcefulness that’s combined with a sweetness showing what’s irresistible about her to men, especially the smitten Alfredo (played with appropriate vigor by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann).

American baritone Dwayne Croft is a splendid Giorgio (Alfredo’s father), and his scenes with Gheorghiu have an emotional directness missing from many stagings of Verdi’s opera. But this is Gheorghiu’s show all the way, and she knows it, giving a singular star turn that will be talked about by opera buffs for years to come.

In September 1966, the current Met Opera House opened with Samuel Barber’s luminous Anthony and Cleopatra, a small-scaled opera swallowed up by Franco Zefferelli’s extravagant production on the Met’s huge stage.

For its 40th Anniversary Gala celebration, the Met again went big in every way: two of its current superstars—Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon—sang excerpts from three popular operas: La Boheme, Manon and The Elixir of Love.

The evening was designed with the black-tie audience’s entertainment in mind; by that standard, it was a spectacular success. There’s no more enervating opera personality today than Netrebko (not even Gheorghiu); if she were to appear on every major talk-show, guest-star on “American Idol” and land on the cover of every major magazine, I have no doubt that Netrebko would give opera its greatest popularity ever. And her wonderful chemistry with Rolando Villazon is the stuff of which memorable nights in the opera house are made, and made this one of them.

The excerpts were chosen for their famous vocal moments, and the duo delivered the goods. Act 1 of Puccini’s La Boheme brings Mimi and Rodolfo together for the first time, and Netrebko and Villazon delightfully showed how smitten they immediately are. In Act 3, Scene 2 of Massenet’s Manon, both singers were intensely dramatic in this reunion of former lovers. And the second act of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love—as Adina and Nemorino are finally united—was a perfect showcase for Netrebko’s natural bubbliness and Villazon’s comedic talents.

Bertrand de Billy conducted well, and co-stars like Samuel Ramey in Manon and Alessandro Corbelli in Elixir provided admirable support, but this was strictly a showcase for two fan favorites.

Andrea Chenier was made for the Met. Umberto Giordano’s tragic romance is set during the French Revolution (outsized sets for the big Met stage), is filled with stirring music (perfect for the superb Met Orchestra), and has several big arias (wonderfully sung by the kind of stars only the Met can provide).

So it’s unsurprising that the current production works very nicely here indeed, Nicolas Joel’s staging buttressed by the elaborate but not overwhelming sets and costumes of Hubert Monloup. Marco Armiliato leads the Met Orchestra in an involving account of Giordano’s melodic score, and the Met Chorus chips in with outstanding contributions.

However, Andrea Chenier lives or dies by its cast, and the current group at the Met is first-rate. Baritone Mark Delevan, the New Jersey native who’s one of the few singers moving easily between the stages of both the Met and New York City Opera, is a formidable artist who brings dignity and depth to the role of Gerard, the servant turned revolutionary, and brings down the house with his brilliant aria in Act III.

As Maddalena, who gives her life to die with her beloved poet Andrea Chenier, Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana has a powerful enough voice to put over the part with ease, and Canadian tenor Ben Heppner—whom we’re used to hearing at the Met in Wagner operas—is a splendid-sounding Andrea Chenier, the heroic poet condemned to die by Gerard. His arias are spectacular, and his final love duet opposite Urmana is filled with the kind of heavenly sounds that only our very best singers can make.

And those heavenly sounds remain the main reason that operagoers flock to the Met again and again.

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