Leaving on a High Note: After 42 Years, Volpe Bows Out

You don’t spend 16 years giving orders to the biggest stars in opera without having an opera-size personality of your own. All that the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Joseph Volpe, who retires at the end of the current season, lacks as a rival to Luciano Pavarotti is a voice capable of bringing an audience to its feet. Full disclosure requires that I confess to having spent much of the past year helping Mr. Volpe write his memoirs, about how he joined the Met 42 years ago as a stagehand and rose, by dint of prodigious energy and wiliness, to become the company’s capo di capo. Like the mentors and colleagues to whom he’s been closest (Mr. Pavarotti, Rudolf Bing, John Dexter, Franco Zeffirelli), Mr. Volpe is a man of the theater. No surprise that for his farewell production, a new staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale—the last of the 73 new productions he’s overseen at the house—he’s pulled out the stops and delivered a winner.

During Mr. Volpe’s four decades at the Met, five directors of diverse nationalities and personalities set the standard for new productions: Mr. Dexter, the English paragon of stripped-down theatricality; Mr. Zeffirelli, the Italian paragon of opulent excess; August Everding, the German paragon of mythic grandeur; Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, the French paragon of stylized elegance; and Otto Schenk, the Austrian paragon of romantic realism. Mr. Volpe entrusted his swan song to Mr. Schenk, who came out of retirement to oblige his old friend.

Mr. Schenk’s 16 Met productions, which range from a bubbly, sardonic Die Fledermaus to sturdy, picturesque realizations of most of the Wagner repertory, are distinguished by, among other things, a keen eye for the human foibles that bring gods, monsters and mortals to life. In Austria, Mr. Schenk is perhaps even more revered as a comic actor than he is as a director. His staging of Donizetti’s comic masterpiece is a bravura demonstration of how to wring fresh laughter from a hoary conceit (a foolish old bachelor getting his comeuppance at the hands of irrepressible young lovers) through a combination of inspired singing and inspired silliness.

During the Volpe years, the Met has probably embraced a greater variety of production styles than any other major opera house, but Mr. Volpe has been outspoken in his dislike of the sort of regie oper (as it’s called in Europe) wherein the director seems more intent on commenting on the piece than on presenting it. Mr. Schenk’s Don Pasquale is resolutely old-fashioned in appearance: a luridly shabby palazzo in a Rome of sun-drenched tiled roofs, courtesy of the set and costume designer, Rolf Langenfass, and the lighting designer, Duane Schuler. The cast reinforces the Met’s pre-eminence as a house of stars: the heartthrob Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez and the drop-dead glamorous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as the young lovers; the veteran Italian bass Simone Alaimo as Don Pasquale; and the fast-rising Mariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta.

But there was nothing tried-and-true about the alchemy achieved by Mr. Schenk and his brilliant players, under the marvelously nimble baton of Maurizio Benini. Like most Italian folktales, Don Pasquale is a comedy of trickery in which deception undoes delusion. As such, it glorifies performance for performance’s sake—never more so than in the character of the heroine, Norina, the agent of Pasquale’s downfall. From the moment Ms. Netrebko appears, reclining on a chaise lounge, reading a sappy romantic novel of which she’s heartily contemptuous, it’s clear that henceforth everyone onstage will be putty in her exceedingly pretty hands.

Nothing in the soprano’s previous performances at the Met—her luminous Natasha in War and Peace, her urgent, desperate Gilda in Rigoletto—prepared me for the comedic seductiveness of this dazzling young Russian beauty. Singing with the full-bodied, sweeping lyricism she brings to her Donna Anna, she banished memories of the formidable prima donnas (including Beverly Sills and Mirella Freni) who have made this “ina” into one more girlish soubrette. When she teasingly spanked Mr. Kwiecien’s wonderfully prankish Dr. Malatesta with a frying pan, I could feel every man in the house longing for the same punishment. Confronted by such formidable femininity, I thought, who among the enfeebled males in the audience could fail to identify with Mr. Alaimo’s marvelously exasperated Pasquale when he practically ordered an exterminator to get her out of the house?

Indeed, Ms. Netrebko may have been too much for Mr. Flórez, another stage animal who, with his vocal bravado and nimble athleticism, isn’t used to being eclipsed by a co-star. Even though the role of Pasquale’s long-suffering nephew isn’t given anything like Norina’s opportunity for histrionics, Mr. Florez sang the first two acts with unfailing beauty and comported himself with appealing magnetism. Before the curtain rose on the third act, however, Mr. Volpe appeared onstage to announce that the tenor was quitting the performance due to “an allergic reaction”; he was replaced by the tenor Barry Banks, who acquitted himself beautifully in the great serenade and duet that followed.

“Reaction to what?” my companion muttered, mulling over Mr. Flórez’s sudden departure. “Netrebko-itis,” I replied. “It’s in the air.”

The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera, by Joseph Volpe with Charles Michener, will be published by Knopf in May.