Saturday, March 23, 2024

Postcards from New York - The Metropolitan Opera

Is there a more difficult job than running a major opera house? Minutes before the curtain was supposed to rise for the Metropolitan Operas production of Turandot, General Director Peter Gelb walked on stage and informed the audience that the stage machinery for the operas complex set had jammed, and that the performance would be semi-staged, which meant only a single set would be used throughout the evening. Refunds would be offered to anyone who wanted it. Quite a few in the audience did rise and walked out. My wife and I decided to stay, and were treated to a truly great performance of Puccinis final masterpiece, musically as well as dramatically.


Turandot is an opera of extremes  from music of the utmost brutality that foreshadows Bartok and Stravinsky, to arias and ensembles so beautiful that makes our goosebumps stand erect. It does take an exceptional conductor to hold together all these elements and make the performance convincing. Conductor Oksana Lyniv conducted a fluid performance of the opera, holding together all the disparate elements in the score. I did find that she was more convincing in the more lyrical parts of the score, with the more dramatic, even brutal, elements of the music somewhat underplayed. Nevertheless, the final result was a performance that moved, even without Franco Zeffirellis famously over-the-top sets. The great MET orchestra was in fine shape indeed, with great playing in every department of the composers complex score, and the chorus was truly a glory of this great house.


I am happy to report that great singing is alive and well at the MET. SeoJong Backs Calaf was dramatically convincing as well as musically vibrant. Amazing, Mr. Back began his musical journey as a baritone and becamea tenor only later on! He has an ease in tone production that was beautiful as well as unforced  and the famous Nessun Dorma was indeed convincingly delivered, well-paced and with an effortless high B. After the well-deserved bravos, the conductor called for the aria to be encored. I did find his second delivery a little less convincing, because I had the feeling that he was trying a little too hard to top that first performance. Encores in opera, in spite of its long tradition, is something I never understood - one would never imagine, or expect, a repeat of the To be or not to be soliloquy in Hamlet.


Elena Pankratovas Turandot was equally impressive, and she indeed rose to Puccinis incredible vocal demands and sailed above the orchestral textures. Dramatically, she was convincing in her transformation toward the end of the drama. Aleksandra Kurzak nearly stole the show in her portrayal of Liu, with this characters palpable sense of innocence and vulnerability. The trio of Ping, Pong, Pang  Joo Won Kang, Tony Stevenson and Andrew Stenson was well-matched as well as well-blended as an ensemble. What was incredible  and I suppose one only hears this in major opera houses  was that the minor roles were equally well sung, including a musically and dramatically commanding performance as Timur by Vitalij Kowaljow, as well as Carlo Bosi as a convincing Emperor Altoum. 


In the end, this semi-staged presentation of Turandot indeed overcame the limitations of the lack of lavish sets, turning out to be a moving musical as well as theatrical experience. 


The next evening, we returned for the houses new production of VerdiLa Forza del Destino, an opera that is always difficult to stage because of the many and improbabilities and coincidences in the story. I was greatly anticipating the performance, as it was conducted by music director and star conductor, Canadas own Yannick Nezet-Seguin.


Musically, the performance was of an impressively high level  the orchestra rose to Verdis demands under Nezet-Seguin, and the singers all delivered unimpeachable performances. 


Brian Jagde was vocally spectacular as Don Alvaro, with a beautiful, emotive voice as clear as a clarion call. He was well-matched, vocally and dramatically, by Igor Golovatenkos Don Carlo di Vargas, both individually as well as in their many ensemble moments. 


I always find it incredible that as an agnostic, Verdi was able to write the most beautiful and reverential religious music, such as Donna Leonoras prayer for guidance in Act One, her plea to enter religious life and the subsequent apparition of the Virgin Mary in Act Two, the music of the pilgrims in the same act, as well as her forgiveness in Act Four. I was convinced and greatly moved by Elena Stikhinas performance and reverence with which she delivered these crucial moments in the drama. As in Turandot, the smaller roles were vocally and dramatically equally magnificent. The fortune teller Preziosilla was one of the evenings highlights, wonderfully acted and sung by Maria Barakova that was truly show-stopping. 


Director Mariusz Trelinski updated the opera to a contemporary setting, with the story being set in an unnamed city and country. After the accidental death of the general, we were told, the country was plunged into a devastating war. Here is where the set was transformed into a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape.


I think in updating any opera, one has to ask the question of whether such a change would serve the score, enhance the drama, or make it more logical. In this case, I would say that it does not. Although the emotions on display are indeed universal  love, hate, jealousy, etcetera  the code of behaviour is very much of an earlier time. To have the drama set in a modern setting would make this code of behaviour illogical. 


I am quite aware that we live in a post-Christian, or even anti-Christian age, but whatever the personal belief of the director, art should not be used to reflect his or her personal bias for or against anything. In Act II, when Leonora was imploring the Father Superior to allow her to enter religious life, the two characters displayed a physical closeness that is out of order and illogical between penitent and religious. Later on, before Guardiano allowed her to remain in the monasterys hermitage, Guardiano inexplicably slapped her in the face. During Leonoras initiation rite, when she was passing among the friars to the hermitage, she was surrounded by this group of friars, and the friars were flogging her using some form of a whip. The entire image, the message, of this image, suggests something abnormal, even sinister. No Catholic religious order ever had such an initiation rite.


The production made very effective use of both foreground and back projections, and the apparition of the Virgin Mary could have been done very effectively. However, the image of the Virgin Mary projected looks more like some sort of new age deity  with red lipsticks  nothing like any image of the Virgin Mary I had ever seen. Were these the directors deliberate efforts to disparage the Church? Whatever his motives were, it was downright inappropriate, if not deliberately insulting to the Catholic Church. If Verdi, as an agnostic, could write convincing, even reverential, religious music, could the director not at least show respect to the creator of the work? More importantly, such personal interpretation of the drama does nothing to highlight the genius of the opera, but rather took away the even greater power it could have conveyed. In the case of this production, I think the directors concept took away the central message of the drama, which in Verdis final concept of the opera, is not even how ones life is bound by the forces of destiny, but the power of forgiveness and redemption, even in the midst of great tragedy. One could argue for a certain concept in the name of artistic licence, but no degree of artistic licence should distort the original intent of the creator.


Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted with great passion, commitment to the score, and a total identification to the Verdis idiom. The famous overture was performed with great drama and passion, with great attention to the layering of the instruments, always beautiful brass playing, and gorgeous woodwind playing in the Andantino section, and especially felicitous playing of the clarinet solo in the Allegro brillante section. He is indeed a worthy successor to James Levine, who had done so much to elevate the level of the music-making at the MET. 


In spite of my reservation about the staging of the opera, the performance remained one that was impregnable. It was indeed a treat to have the privilege to hear such great singing and playing, including again the great MET chorus, all under the direction of one of todays major conductors.


I am already starting to save for our next outing to the Big Apple.




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