A Magnificent ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ Crowns a Fine Met Season But Not at Lincoln Center

Soprano Lisette Oropesa was in terrific form, and 'Bluebeard' was a mesmerizing climax to a particularly successful Met spring season.

An orchestra performs on a stage with a conductor in the foreground
Christian Van Horn, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Elīna Garanča. Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

Before his career ended in scandal and disgrace, James Levine would have been most remembered for his meticulous upgrade of the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra. Eventually, those musicians became celebrated not only as one of the world’s outstanding opera orchestras but also as one of the best orchestras anywhere. Beginning in the early 1990s, Levine brought them out of the pit for concerts, many featuring opera’s biggest stars, on the stage of Carnegie Hall—creating one of New York City’s hottest tickets. Both Levine’s first Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie in 1991 and his final one there with the orchestra in 2016 ended appropriately with the apocalyptic Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Götterdammerung.

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Since taking over from Levine as the Met’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has continued the Carnegie series. As is usually the case, two of this year’s concerts took place immediately following the close of the company’s Lincoln Center season. Last summer, they traveled to Europe; this year’s two June programs are being performed in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

The first concert, with Nézet-Séguin on the podium, featured sunny soprano Lisette Oropesa. Many orchestras begin with short contemporary pieces to assure patrons won’t flee, but Jessie Montgomery’s moving Hymn for Everyone from 2021 surely offended no one. Its pleasingly lush textures find the composer responding to a world reeling from both social upheaval and the Covid pandemic. Her meditative hymn begins and ends quietly, suggesting a hopeful outcome influenced by her late mother’s poem of the same name. The audience responded with long and enthusiastic applause for both the performers and the ebullient composer.

When Oropesa then appeared in a striking canary yellow and black gown, the audience greeted her with an exceptionally rousing ovation. It may be that her New York audience was especially pleased to see her as her local appearances lately have been few. While the American soprano has been enjoying important engagements worldwide, particularly in bel canto operas, she did not perform with the Met at Lincoln Center last season nor is she scheduled to appear there in 2024-25. Her most recent engagement with the company was during last season’s Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall when she replaced an ailing Nadine Sierra in the Brahms German Requiem. Many of her fans have been baffled and angry at the Met’s seeming neglect of an artist it readily featured during the early years of her career.

For this year’s concert, Oropesa offered two Mozart arias that were featured on her Pentatone recording “Ombra Compagna.” Mozart wrote numerous arias for celebrated singers who inserted them into operas in which they were appearing. Often prima donnas didn’t find their existing arias suitable, so they would instead perform something else more to their liking. “Vado, ma dove,” Oropesa’s first number, is a short but delightfully mercurial piece written for Louise Villeneuve, who the following year would create the role of Dorabella in the composer’s Così fan tutte. That relatively late work was followed by a much earlier one: “A Berenice…Sol nascente,” an elaborate showpiece in several sections written when Mozart was just thirteen.

A woman in a black an yellow gown sings in front of an orchestra
Soprano Lisette Oropesa sang two Mozart concert arias. Jennifer Taylor

Several recent live broadcasts and recordings of performances by Oropesa have been a bit worrying: her voice sometimes sounded thin and tired, and her interpolated high notes emerged small and pinched. At Carnegie Hall, however, she was in terrific form, her immediately recognizable soprano with its signature fast vibrato blossomed with winning warmth in Mozart’s conducive music.

She cannily avoided the highest of the composer’s concert arias, which didn’t show her at her best on the “Ombra Compagna” CD. It may well be that Oropesa’s voice simply doesn’t record well, yet another instance of an instrument that must be heard live to grasp its size and brilliance. Her voice, particularly its distinctive middle, seems to have to have grown as it gleamed effortlessly at Carnegie Hall. Her easy coloratura and trills made child’s play of Mozart’s demanding writing

The arias themselves were splendid souvenirs of Oropesa’s very individual art but her awkwardly gauche behavior before each aria was strangely off-putting. She made lots of girlish “gee whiz” faces and before both arias shook her arms like a swimmer preparing for a qualifying heat. Her demeanor looked more suited to a conservatory rehearsal than a top-flight appearance at Carnegie Hall. Despite an immediate standing ovation by many, there was no encore after just fifteen of lovely Mozart. Next season local audiences have only her Zankel Hall recital on October 23 to look forward to.

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After intermission, Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra in Brahms’ First Symphony but my severe jet lag after having arrived that afternoon from Berlin prevented my hearing it. The orchestra, however, was prominently featured three nights later when the conductor led an opera-centered program that often felt like a pointed response to recent Lincoln Center performances.

The overture to Der fliegende Hollãnder opened the evening. Wagner’s early opera hasn’t been lucky recently at the Met. A blandly inept production by François Girard opened just before the pandemic closed the Met and it proved musically “Dead on Arrival” as well thanks to Valery Gergiev’s limp conducting. Nézet-Séguin, who had earlier led an excellent run of Hollãnder at the Met, this time madly drove his musicians to an exciting if chaotic reading that spotlit some surprisingly erratic playing from the orchestra’s usually spot-on brass section.

However, the follow-up, Erich Leinsdorf’s arrangement of music from Debussy’s Pellêas et Mêlisande, found the conductor in much more sensitive form and helped temper sad memories of his past Met Pellêas performances which were sunk by unfortunate casting. The Debussy-Leinsdorf suite found the orchestra responding with ravishing care to the conductor’s delicate lead so that the loudly lusty Wagner already felt like long ago.

But the evening’s climax was an entire opera, Bartók’s haunting one-act Bluebeard’s Castle, in a riveting performance that welcomed back Elīna Garanča, one of the world’s greatest mezzos, on smashing form after an absence of four years. The Met recently performed the Bartók on a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. However, the company has both times cast the crucial role of Bluebeard’s latest wife Judith with singers who proved more compelling as actresses than as vocalists. Garanča, who just added the role in a staging at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, not only acted her role with subtly rising horror but sang it with a voluptuous command and thrilling security. Her dusky lower register has grown stronger while her blooming top soared thrillingly in the gigantic high C that greeted the opening of her husband’s Fifth Door.

Having just performed her role on stage, Garanča rarely glanced at her score, while Van Horn referred to his much more often. But he responded to her stunned, imploring glances with a brutal though sometimes caring intensity. Van Horn has been heard brashly singing his Mozart and Stravinsky roles at the Met, but Bartók allowed him to unleash his brawny bass-baritone with a haughty relish that only at brief moments was overwhelmed by Nézet-Séguin’s fiery orchestra at full cry. The conductor who can be prone to drown out his singers reined in that tendency for the most part and brought out beautifully both the score’s subtly seductive moments as well as its combustible climaxes.

Bluebeard turned out to be the mesmerizing climax to a particularly successful Met spring season. Yet dissatisfaction remains about Nézet-Séguin’s role (mostly performed in absentia) in where the company is headed. He’s conducting just four works next season beginning with the opening night premiere of Jeannine Tesori’s Grounded. But surely the conductor, who remains in charge of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and Montréal’s Orchestre Métropolitan while recently also becoming Head of Conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music and a Rolex Ambassador, is spreading himself too thin in light of the Met’s pressing state? This year he’s conducted fine performances of La Forza del Destino, Roméo et Juliette and Bluebeard’s Castle, but his investment in the company and its parlous future remains an enigma.

A Magnificent ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ Crowns a Fine Met Season But Not at Lincoln Center