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03 April, 2007

Netrebko and Villazon - 'a chemistry lesson' at the Met

Metropolitan Opera 40 year anniversary Gala with Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko.

7pm Tuesday 3rd April 2007.

La Boheme Act I

Manon (Massenet) Act III Scene 2

L’Elisir d’Amore Act II, Scenes 1&2

(one interval, between Manon and Elisir)

Ms Netrebko has an enormous and accurate if somewhat innominate voice while Mr Villazón has a distinctly smaller, immediately recognisable, rich, smooth voice with a tight, natural vibrato. However, it would be wrong to suppose that he was out of place in the Met since his voice is more substantial than many Met regulars and is also well focused and projected. There was little doubt, however, that on occasions he was ‘pushing’ which could not be said of Ms Netrebko whose voice sailed out effortlessly to fill this huge house. They interacted to perfection.

Act I of Boheme was as Latin and Bohemian as it could be. Initially an all-boy show, the final three ‘set pieces’ sung by our stars, ‘Che gelida’, ‘Mi chiamano’ and ‘O soave fanciulla’ were incomparable dramatically and vocally. The high passage near the end of his aria left some notes lacking colour and slightly pushed. Some who were listening to the radio broadcast heard these as ‘cracked’ notes which was certainly not the case in the theatre. Despite some diminished beauty, equilibrium was restored for the end of this famous aria and the rest of the night was unblemished.

Partly true to the Boheme libretto, the next scene was also in Paris as we found ourselves transported to the vestry of L’Eglise de St Suplice (rather than Café Momus). Here, a chorus of doting female parishioners praises the new trainee priest, Des Grieux the younger, who told his father that he had renounced the world since his life has been so cruel and unrewarding. As Des Grieux senior, Samuel Ramey had a pronounced vocal wobble of about 2Hz. And in this brief scene he had no full aria to show off his incomparable bass baritone powers and it was a surprise to see him in this walk-on role.

Next, following his soulful solo ‘Ah fuyez, douce image’ Manon arrives unexpectedly and seduces him using a motif first heard in Act I (‘N’est-ce pas la main’).

Like the present Met Julius Caesar, The Elixir of Love is a splendid production from the genius of John Copley. It incorporates the fun and beauty of the piece as well as the charm and innocence of an idyllic Italian village in the 1800’s. And the young lovers gave us another surfeit of mature vocalism and dramatic innocence. Amongst my earliest operatic memories were my father playing Caruso 78’s, including the duetto ‘Venti sciudi’ and solo ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. The latter was taken particularly slowly by Mr Villazón – yet NOT encored as it was in Vienna – to great effect and deserved acclaim. However, he ends with slightly different words: “Si puo morir (pauss) .. morir d’amor … d’amor”. Caruso and Pavarotti sang ‘Si puo morir, si puo morir … d’amor’.

Although enthralled by his recordings for some years, this was my first live Villazón. I may have been happier if it had been in a smaller theatre. The vocal colouring which figures so prominently in his recordings was only evident occasionally during the Gala and mainly when the orchestra was thin. Mr Villazón can bring a slow diminuendo into a full open note it again to full voice. Also, his breath control is such that he takes whole legato brackets where other top singers break. And there always appears to be reserve for more. His stage presence is natural, both comic and serious. Most effective were his interactions with Belcore, his military rival. The emotion conveyed in his voice is impossible to describe in simpler terms. Suffice it to say that his single word in Don Carlo “rubato” (robbed) is as expressive as 1000 pictures of ‘love lost’.

Ms Netrebko took some coloratura options, each of which came off. There appeared to be some extra soprano music in the Elisir but maybe I am dreaming that. While her high C was fully audible in the joyous finale, Villazon was not. He wisely (and correctly) did not take the high C ‘option’ at the end of the Boheme duet.

Another star of this Gala evening was Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien who we also saw in Don Pasquale last year. He performed Marcello and Belcore with flare and style. I hope we hear more of him.

Old timer Paul Plishka was an irritating if appropriate landlord, Benoit, in the Boheme. Other soloists were just fine and Bertrand de Billy presided over the wonderful Met orchestra whose members must know these pieces by heart.

The audience was almost as interesting as the performance. Renata Scotto, Barbara Cook and Beverly Sills were all in the audience. I was also told that Mignon Dunn and Lucine Amara were also in the house. Martin Bernheimer, the sometimes caustic critic, was at the ready. The rich and prosperous/idle were there, recognisable in expensive furs and pearls which would not be on show in a ‘normal’ town. The needy and the operatic greedy were also present. There were a few orchestra stalls seats left on the evening at $250 while some premium tickets had been sold for $750, over $1000 including dinner with the stars in the foyer which was all set up beautifully by the caterers, but impeding patrons’ exeunt … and probably contrary to city fire laws.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..