Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dynamic Duo

Met Opening Night Gala
Music by Verdi, Massenet, and Strauss
Conducted by James Levine, Marco Armiliato, Patrick Summers
Starring Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, Thomas Hampson, Dwayne Croft, Robert Lloyd
Performance on September 22, 2008


Composed by Richard Strauss
Production by Jürgen Flimm
Conducted by Patrick Summers
Starring Karita Matilla, Ildikó Komlósi, Kim Begley, Joseph Kaiser, Juha Uusitalo
Performances on September 23, 26, 30, October 4, 7, 11, 16, 2008

The Metropolitan Opera
West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues

Fleming in Capriccio (photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Matilla in Salome (photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
The Metropolitan Opera’s 125th anniversary season couldn’t have begun more auspiciously than by showcasing two of today’s most notable sopranos—Renée Fleming, the current face (and voice) of American opera; and Finland’s remarkable Karita Matilla, a fearless dramatic performer who throws herself into whatever role she plays, like Strauss’ Salome.

The Met’s Opening Night Gala featured Fleming in three sections of a trio of operas—Act II of Verdi’s La Traviata, Act III of Massenet’s Manon, and the final scene of Strauss’s Capriccio. New Met general manager Peter Gelb would prefer complete operas on opening night—Madama Butterfly and Lucia di Lammermoor did the honors the past two seasons—but apparently Fleming was promised this gala by the old regime, so Gelb honorably honored it.

These three operas gave Fleming the chance to display her unparalleled singing and performing chops—as Verdi’s courtesan, then as Massenet’s courtesan, and finally as Strauss’s Countess, who chooses between a poet and a composer (settling the age-old question: which is more important, the words or the music?)—and she acquitted herself beautifully, having sung these roles before. (However, this was her first time at the Met singing Capriccio—one can only hope she does the entire opera there soon.)

Fleming’s musical collaborators were also on their “A” game—Thomas Hampson in Traviata, Dwayne Croft in Manon, and Ramón Vargas in both Traviata and Manon (he sounded thrillingly in his element in the last duet with Fleming, “Ah! Viens, Manon, je t’aime!”)—and the conducting was aptly handled by, in order, James Levine, Marco Armiliato and Patrick Summers. Sets from current productions were brought out of mothballs, and there was one gimmick: noted designers dressed Fleming for each opera. This worked well, with typically florid gowns for Traviata by Christian Lacroix and Manon by Karl Lagerfeld, and an understated, elegant black number by John Galliano, perfectly fitting the Countess in Capriccio.

In Strauss’s exotic and exciting Salome, what the teenage anti-heroine wears is immaterial; instead, the big question is: does the soprano playing her take it all off during the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils,” when she enticingly gets her stepfather Herod to give her what she wants after finishing her dance—and she asks for John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter.

As she did when she first sang in Jürgen Flimm’s otherwise silly Met staging, Karita Matilla takes it all off with no qualms. Brief as her full nudity is, it’s of a piece with Matilla’s utterly convincing portrayal of this young woman who’s discovered her sexual power over men—her singing and acting is so emotionally naked throughout the 100-minute opera that real physical nakedness fits snugly.

Matilla’s onstage fearlessness also extends to her willingness to climb around Santo Loquasto’s dangerously askew, modernist set—the left half, Herod’s palace; the right half, a desert, with the underground cell holding John the Baptist (called Jokanaan here) in between—scampering across a narrow board separating the two sections and climbing upon the shaky-looking contraption above the prisoner. She appears none the worse for wear afterwards, but it’s difficult to watch without becoming nervous for her safety. (Too bad the singer can’t scamper to the rear of the set and do away with the ridiculous black-robed, white-winged angels who ominously appear as unnecessary reminders of the horrible ongoing debauchery at Herod’s palace.)

Patrick Summers conducts a sumptuous account of Strauss’s violently earthshaking score—compare it with the wonderfully subdued autumnal music Strauss penned forty years later for Capriccio, which Summers and the orchestra made sound meltingly lovely on opening night. The entire cast, particularly Kim Begley’s Herod and Juha Uusitalo’s Jokanaan, provides the vocal strength to support Matilla’s fiery heroics, which are the real reason to see (and especially hear) the Met’s Salome.

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