Met’s Brilliant Young Singers Offer Pleasure-and Hope
In all the talk about how to rebuild in the rubble of the World Trade Center, how to restore Wall Street’s confidence in the economy and how, in general, to revive our faith in a brighter tomorrow, I have a suggestion: Pay heed to what’s happening in our opera houses. After the New York City Opera was obliged to cancel its opening-night performance of The Flying Dutchman on the day of the terrorist attacks, the company bravely raised its curtain four days later, and it hasn’t stopped since. On the following weekend, the Met injected a dose of opera power into the city’s streets with a benefit preview of its opening-night Verdi gala that was shown on a big screen in Lincoln Center’s plaza for thousands of passers-by. In Chicago, the Lyric Opera opened on schedule with an Otello of exceptional force. During the three opera performances that I attended over the past week or so, the passionate discipline of the sort of people who have made American opera so vital in recent years took on a heroic cast.
Perhaps the brightest indication of a healthy future, operatically speaking, was Ben Heppner’s stage debut in Chicago in the most demanding tenor assignment in the Italian repertory, the title role of Verdi’s Otello . In the past 20 years, the tragic Moor has been so fully inhabited by Plácido Domingo that it has seemed foolhardy for any other tenor to even think about it. On opening night, Mr. Heppner, who is the leading Tristan and Lohengrin of the day, was as moving an Otello as I have seen. His gleaming, bell-like timbre has always carried a wound in it; its straining for volume is tinged with an inborn anguish. A man of Bunyanesque heft, Mr. Heppner comes across as the most vulnerable of big men, a slightly lost giant. All these qualities were put to riveting use in a production by Sir
Peter Hall that made up in dramatic intimacy what it lacked in visual allure.
Rather than the overwhelming opulence one sees in the Met’s staging, the Hall production employed a set more appropriate to the play’s setting in its evocation of a somewhat rickety garrison in Cyprus. Yet the action was pointlessly updated to some vague period centuries later than the Venetian Renaissance of Shakespeare’s imagination. Otello’s soldiers were outfitted for the Battle of Waterloo and the ladies were dressed Empire-style, as if for a sitting with Ingres. If the events of the past several weeks have taught us the error of our indifference to historical understanding, I hope that directors will temper their misguided enthusiasm for transporting operas out of their original settings into a more familiar period that only confuses matters.
An Italian baritone of considerable swagger named Lucio Gallo made a crudely effective, if rather monochromatic Iago, but Sir Peter’s work with the other two principals was stunning. Renée Fleming’s Desdemona has grown over the years into one of her most richly detailed characters. At the start of her career, Ms. Fleming was a somewhat diffident actress who relied on the ravishing beauty of her voice to express emotion, without much resort to the telling physical gesture. In Chicago, she allowed all of her natural warmth and femininity to come through, not as a girlish pawn in Iago’s schemes but as a burgeoning woman who literally finds herself, as she goes from yielding trust to self-protective anger to uncomprehending fear, with an ever-deepening hold on her own integrity. In the production’s most remarkable bit of invention, she was hurled to the floor and nearly raped by her towering husband, whom she fended off with a series of kicks before regaining her feet and fleeing the stage; all of this she accomplished without sacrificing an ounce of vocal power. In her great “Ave Maria,” she seemed to be praying for the whole world’s salvation, as she inflected one of Verdi’s most beneficent melodies with a wealth of caressing color.
The mood at the Met two nights later was somber: Among the women, bare skin and glitter were the exception; among the men, a preference for dark suits over black tie. But there was a standing ovation for Mayor Giuliani’s before-the-curtain speech, in which he thanked the Met for having raised $2.1 million for the World Trade Center victims at the preview performance. And once the singing got underway, the evening turned out to be one of the Met’s most agreeable opening nights in years.
To celebrate the centennial of Verdi’s death, the program was devoted to three acts of three of his operas, a guarantee that the sum would be less than the parts. The decision to begin with Act I of Un Ballo in Maschera was unwise. This is an opera that is slow to accumulate, and though the first act is laden with hit tunes, nothing much happens of dramatic interest. Still, there was much to cheer in the exuberant Riccardo of the Met’s lately returned prodigal son, Neil Shicoff, and in the Ulrica of the Russian mezzo-
soprano Larissa Diadkova, who sang the fortuneteller’s dire incantations with lurid conviction. The third act of Otello produced the evening’s high point (and secondstandingovation):Mr. Domingo’s well-patented but still magnificent reading of his signature role, which he delivered with a clarion strength that was remarkable even for him. The evening ended with the third act of Rigoletto , in which the real excitement came, unexpectedly, from the two villains of the piece. Although the act’s central business concerns the callowness of the Duke (nicely sung by Roberto Aronica) and the impending disaster that will befall Rigoletto and Gilda (ably performed by Franz Grundheber and Hei-Kyung Hong), I found myself far more interestedinthewickedallureofSergei Koptchak’s Sparafucile and Daniela Barcellona’s Maddalena. With evil so much in the air these days, it is perhaps inevitable that one pays greater attention to characters with murder on their minds.
The night after the Met’s opening, I attended the first performance of City Opera’s new production of a Bellini rarity, I Capuleti ei Montecchi , which is loosely derived from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet . Although I found much to deplore in yet another updated staging-for no discernible reason, old Verona became a never-never land of John Ford skies and turn-of-the century Merchant-Ivory whimsy-the plight of the two star-crossed lovers was gripping. As Giuletta, the fast-rising young American coloratura soprano Mary Dunleavy made her strongest showing to date, tossing off the role’s bel canto by-the-yard challenges with crystalline accuracy and unflagging urgency. Even better in the less showy role of Romeo was Sarah Connolly, a young British mezzo-soprano who is new to me. Cutting a remarkably persuasive figure as a handsome, lanky youth, she sang with an unusual purity of line and a consistent richness of sound in a part that demands a daunting vocal range. In a time of fearful uncertainty, how good it feels to encounter brilliant young talent that promises to give so much pleasure in the years ahead.