Posting about Monday night's circus maximus at the Metropolitan Opera at this point seems so...redundant? Pointless? Self-indulgent? I mean, really, it's a sign of Peter Gelb's initial success that the first reports were hitting the wires and the web while the primary cast members were taking their second curtain calls out on the Grand Tier balcony. (A very nice touch, by the way, for Gelb and his players to acknowledge the hundreds who watched the big show out on the patio.) Still, I was there, I saw it and I have my opinions on what worked and what didn't just like everyone else, so what the hell?
I have little sympathy for critics who panned the production; let's just get that out of the way up front. As Maury D'Annato pointed out, this was the most beautiful conception to appear on the Met's stage since Herbert Wernicke's Die Frau ohne Schatten in 2001. The stage was saturated in painterly colors, subtly adjusted to underscore mood. Minimal sets were employed to masterful ends. Powerful images were revealed one after another: the Act One love duet, set in a darkened void amidst paper lanterns and a shower of petals, and Pinkerton's literal disappearance at the beginning of Act Two were two of the most striking. And the final scene left me speechless, practically unable to breathe, for a good 20 minutes. (Minghella also choreographed the most artful curtain call I've ever seen.)
Debate over the use of bunraku puppets -- in particular the one that represented Butterfly's son, Trouble -- continues to rage. I am firmly in the "pro" category here. The character, if you can call it that, is a cypher, a symbol; portraying it in so obvious a symbolic manner does no harm to this work unless you're dead set on some sort of old-fashioned verisimilitude -- and an opera that coasts so close to banality can definitely stand a bit of freedom in its visual interpretation, anyway. It's a choice, not a child...and so what? Kudos to Mark Down, Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell for creating one of the most deft portrayals on that stage.
On camera, I'll just bet that Cristina Gallardo-Domâs was spectacular, all uncertain, quivering girlishness and slightly hunched deference. At times, her mannerisms seemed to verge on nervous tics, but for the most part you could tell that she'd genuinely put a great deal of time and effort into creating the character. That just made her vocal performance all the more disappointing. I would not go so far as to suggest that it was fatally flawed, although others certainly have. As it happens, just yesterday I was discussing via e-mail my impressions of Gallardo-Domâs's singing with a very dear old friend, my original operatic enabler. In response, he pointed out something he'd written in a review of Harnoncourt's Aida that I'd commissioned for Time Out New York in 2002:
In the title role, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs is vividly dramatic. When called upon to sing softly, she has some lovely moments.... Elsewhere, however, it's painful to listen to her fling her lyric voice repeatedly against Verdi's large orchestra and choral forces. Her tone curdles, and the top of her voice wobbles alarmingly for a singer so young.
Too true, and a fair analysis of what we heard Monday night, as well. Her colleagues fared better. Marcello Giordani, slimmed and virile, was a potent Pinkerton; the top notes were thrilling, as you would expect, but what no one seemed to have commented upon was the genuinely creepy, almost feral quality that he brought to his physical bearing in the Act One love duet. Some have suggested that Giordani's Pinkerton was almost too polite and respectful, but his wolfish clutching and pawing during this scene made no mystery of the character's real motivation.
Dwayne Croft was a sturdy, sympathetic Sharpless, and Maria Zifchak's Suzuki was every bit the success that everyone else has claimed. As for what went on in the pit...well, it was wonderful to see Levine back in action at last, and it was this, more than anything else, that compelled my presence on opening night. (Seeing Salman Rushdie and Jimmy Fallon pass by within five minutes of one another during intermission was simply icing on the cake.)
But in the end, Levine's participation redoubled my intention to see this production again later in the run. His slow, deliberate interpretation may well have paid dividends in the kaleidoscopic colors and vivid textures produced by his orchestra, but at the expense of sapping momentum and urgency. Asher Fisch demonstrated a greater affinity for Puccini in a few relatively brief interludes during the New York Philharmonic's otherwise rather dire Andrea Bocelli engagement a few weeks ago than Levine managed to do all night here.
On the whole, the positive very much outweighed the negative on Monday night. And while bringing this particular production into the Met for opening night was surely far less of a risk than it was made out to be, the fact that Peter Gelb was able to command the city's attention for an evening was a major coup. This company may be sustained by the mighty force of its traditions, but it's buzzworthy productions like this one -- and, most likely, the forthcoming Bartlett Sher Barber of Seville and Zhang Yimou's The First Emperor -- that stand the best chance of bringing new energy and blood into this old house.
In the two days prior to the Met opening, I caught productions at New York City Opera that were very nearly as innovative and noteworthy, even if they didn't attract a fraction of the attention. On Saturday night, Semele extended this company's winning way with Handel. True, the overall impact wasn't as striking as that of Alcina a few seasons back, but the production made its point in a not-overbearing manner. Summoning the shades of Marilyn Monroe and JFK was a playfully smart move; I also enjoyed the brief invocation of Dubya's bomber-jacketed bravado, but felt that an obvious opportunity was missed in the final scene by the absence of a chunky brunette in peacoat and beret -- stained blue dress optional.
As others stated of previous performances, the Baroque is hardly Elizabeth Futral's metier; she got by on presence, boldness and force of will, but as Sieglinde noted, she definitely sounded like a visitor on these shores. Vivica Genaux, on the other hand, simply killed, and looked stunning as well. Matthew White made less of an impression than I'd expected, Robert Breault grew stronger as the night wore on, and Sanford Sylvan claimed top honors for style and presence. Constance Hauman was vocally solid and visually daring.
The following afternoon brought the season prima of Frank Corsaro's innovative take on Korngold's gloomy, spooky Die tote Stadt. Ronald Chase's films and projections provided a novel vision of scenery, which very nearly made the notion of watching an entire stage production through a gauzy scrim palatable. George Manahan steered a heroic rendition of this rich score, but even with his orchestra covered by a hood, the two primary singers -- Dan Chamandy as Paul, Susan B. Anthony as Marietta/Marie -- had trouble cutting through the opulent din. Some of Anthony's early lines were completely inaudible; how much more rich and secure she sounded when delivering Marie's lines offstage, and amplified. Kathryn Friest Allyn and Weston Hurt, in the secondary roles of Brigitta and Frank, fared far better.
Still, overall this, too, was an effective production, especially when choral parts in the final act seemed to emanate from various points throughout the theater. Korngold's music proved more superficial in some respects than my memory of the Leinsdorf recording had maintained. But on the whole, this is an opera worth reviving from time to time, and the New York City Opera production does a good job of illustrating why that is so.
Vivica Genaux - Handel and Hasse Arias - Les Violons du Roy/Bernard Labadie (Virgin)
So Percussion - Amid the Noise (Cantaloupe)
Evan Ziporyn - Frog's Eye; The Ornate Zither and the Nomad Flute*; War Chant; Drill** - Anne Harley*, Evan Ziporyn**, Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose (Cantaloupe)
Tito Schipa - Lebendige Vergangenheit (Preiser)
Titta Ruffo - The Early Recordings 1906-12 (Preiser)
Isis - In the Absence of Truth (Ipecac; due Oct. 31)
Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Quintet - ONJQ Live in Lisbon (Clear Feed)
Cordis - Here on Out (Playnice)
Sunn O))) - Black One (Southern Lord)
Peter Evans - More Is More (Psi)
Pissed Jeans - Shallow (Parts Unknown)
Metallica - Master of Puppets (Elektra)
Anton Bruckner - Symphony No. 5 - Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eugen Jochum (Deutsche Grammophon)