In terms of box office, the season has not been satisfying at the Metropolitan Opera. Sold-out new productions of The Magic Flute and Rodelinda notwithstanding, overall attendance still hasn’t bounced back from 9/11, which made stay-at-homes of Met lovers in Japan, Europe and the rest of the United States. As the 2004-5 season enters the homestretch, the Met’s box office has been running at roughly 10 per cent lower than it did before 9/11, when more than 90 percent of the hall’s 3,800 seats were regularly filled. Although nothing short of Armageddon would keep local opera fans away, many out-of-towners for whom a visit to New York used to be unthinkable without a pilgrimage to Broadway and 65th Street have apparently found that they can lead a perfectly happy life by spending the same amount of money on, say, a beach in the Caribbean. Even at a time when the dollar is down, going to the Met remains an expensive habit; once broken, it’s easily kicked.
The absentees are missing out: This season has produced Julie Taymor’s enchanting Magic Flute (which is currently enjoying a spring revival) and made the big house congenial to the Baroque charms of Stephen Wadsworth’s Rodelinda-a batting average with new productions twice as high as one expects from the Met. (Still to come are a new Faust, on April 21, and a rarity-Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac-on May 13.) But even more noteworthy is the extraordinary level of performance, which has refreshed one revival after another. There’s a vividness of singing and acting onstage that I haven’t seen with such regularity at the Met in years. And it’s been coming not simply from Great Dependables like Olga Borodina’s formidable Carmen, Karita Mattila’s harrowing Katya Kabanova or Ferruccio Furlanetto’s magnificent King Philip in Don Carlo, but from newcomers who show promise of having the quality that’s always been the Met’s lifeblood: star power.
“The real thing” is the cry of recognition when someone fresh has just reaffirmed the future of this impossible art form. That “thing,” of course, is elusive. Beauty of sound, dramatic presence and personal magnetism help, but what pulls us toward one singer and not another is as mysterious as what makes us fall in love. The voice is the most unmediated of musical instruments, and great opera stars share a capacity to deepen our sense of what it means to be human. With a performer like Caruso, Callas, Pinza, Pavarotti, Stratas, Terfel or Hunt Lieberson, we aren’t just listening to glorious singing, we’re hearing truth.
I heard it last October at the opening night of the new Magic Flute in the radiant oomph of Dorothea Röschmann’s Pamina. Ms. Röschmann, a German soprano who made a beguiling Susanna in last season’s The Marriage of Figaro, was visibly pregnant, both with child and voice, and the bloom she brought to Mozart’s plucky damsel in distress outshone even Ms. Taymor’s most spectacular stage inventions.
A few weeks later, I heard it again during the opening night of I Vespri Siciliani ( The Sicilian Vespers), when the stage was taken by Sondra Radvanovsky, a young American soprano who’s been climbing the treacherous slope of Verdi dramatic heroines with increasing aplomb since winning the Met’s National Council Auditions in 1995. Ms. Radvanovsky’s pitch sometimes lost focus when she was going all out, but she cut a most alluring figure, and when she whipped up the courage of the long-suffering Sicilians in the opening scene with a fusillade of full-blooded coloratura, some old-timers were saying that they hadn’t heard such inflammatory brilliance since Callas was in her prime, 50 years ago. In March, she showed that she’s also a trouper by stepping in at the last minute as Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlo, deepening the role’s regal pathos as the run progressed. Expect considerable buzz around her next appearance-as Roxanne, opposite Plácido Domingo’s long-nosed chevalier in Cyrano.
I’m still undecided about Angela Brown, a young African-American soprano whose Cinderella-like assumption of the title role in Aïda last fall was sufficiently wowing that The New York Times featured her on the front page. I was warmed by Ms. Brown’s unaffected delight in her good fortune and the opulence of her top register. But she seemed to be trying on several different voices-from the dusky to the shimmering-and a distinctive vocal personality is still in the making.
As for the men, John Relyea, a tall Canadian bass-baritone with good looks, an athletic figure and a splendid arsenal of menacing colors, more than held his own as the villainous Garibaldo in the starry Rodelinda-and he was sharing the stage with Renée Fleming, David Daniels, Stephanie Blythe and Bejun Mehta. A fellow Canadian, Gerald Finley, is currently giving as thoroughly convincing an impersonation of the title role in Don Giovanni as I can recall in more than 40 years of Don Giovannis. Dark in every respect-from Mr. Finley’s saturnine good looks to the burry-edged steel of his baritone to his swaggering, black-cat narcissism-this is a Don Giovanni who loves playing Don Giovanni even more than he loves a pretty skirt.
On a much smaller scale, I was also much taken with a light American tenor, Tony Stevenson, whose singing of Beppe’s serenade in Pagliacci had a sweet elegance of line and spirit that conjured up the Golden Age ghost of Tito Schipa. Mr. Stevenson is a highly refined young singer of whom the Met should demand more.
Perhaps the most luminous figure in the Met’s rising vocal pantheon is Deborah Voigt, whose recent radical surgery for weight reduction also made the front page of The Times. Ms. Voigt has been one of the world’s leading dramatic sopranos for some time, and it’s a pleasure to report that her loss of pounds hasn’t been accompanied by any loss in that gleaming Cadillac of an instrument. It’s an even greater pleasure to report that she seems to have shed a psychological cloak that, in previous years, kept her at a certain remove from the audience. Her deeply vulnerable Amelia in the current revival of A Masked Ball (which also features Marcello Giordani’s powerfully sung Riccardo and announces the arrival of a genuine Verdi baritone in Carlos Alvarez’s Renato) reminded me of another thing that great opera stars have in common: the ability to take us inside the workings of their art. When that happens, I can’t think of a better place to be.