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05 May, 2014

Cenerentola - Auspicious Gala at the Met - new 'king of the high Cs'?

La Cenerentola - Rossini - Met Opera, New York City Monday 21st April.
Angelina - Joyce DiDonato
Don Ramiro - Javier Camarena
Dandini - Pietro Spagnoli
Don Magnifico - Alessandro Corbelli
Alidoro - Luca Pisaroni
Clorinda Rachelle Durkin
Tisbe Patricia Risley
c. Fabio Luisi
Production:  Cesare Lievi (1997)
Set & Costume Designer:  Maurizio Balò
Twice in the last month I have had the privilege of hearing Mr Javier Camarena at the Metropolitan Opera House.  First as Elvino in La Sonnambula then as Prince Ramino in the Cinderella opening.  Neither is a top-of-the-pops role for tenor, yet this man shone at every vocal opportunity in each opera. 
Even with an ordinary tenor this would have been a commendable opening night.  Joyce DiDonato is probably Americas most sought after mezzo-soprano currently and she gave a magnificent performance indeed.  From her entry as the humble but sweet servant girl to the dignified and yet compassionate princess bride in the finale we heard her phenomenal dramatic and vocal talents.  Her colleagues were all excellent including the debut of Mr Pietro Spagnoli as the valet and Mr Corbelli in the buffo role.  Even the ugly sisters excelled, although their antics were almost over-the-top.  Capable Australian soprano Rachelle Durkin is in her tenth role at the Met. 
Mr Javier Camarena stood out as a tenor with some very special attributes.  Even those unaware must have noted the rapturous reception given to the tenor by the Met audience both during and after the performance.  I have not heard such screams, applause, encores’, bravo and the like since Pavarotti retired.  The conductor, orchestra and other singers also joined in applauding the tenors curtain call. 
Mr Camarena has a velvet tenor timbre, as comfortable in Rossinis rarefied complex tessitura as with simply filling the house with full bodied spinto nailed endings.  He was even able to smile in the middle of singing a long high C.  His smooth, effortless legato line and great breath control allows great expressive singing, soft and loud.  While superstardom may be premature, this man is already a member of High C royalty as in this occasion he was replacing an indisposed Juan Diego Florez (intriguingly, with some three weeks notice).  The many ticket holders who were initially disappointed at the replacement were indeed rewarded as events unfolded on this auspicious night at the theater.  
This 1997 production, mounted for Cecelia Bartoli, is a fantasy in blue stripes.  The faded tattiness of Magnificos mansion emphasises his urgent need for dowry funds.  It has never been cheap to maintain a palazzo.  Magnificos only real asset is his female offspring and everybody knows the rest of the story.  The Princes palace by contrast was perfect in the same parallel blue stripes - and with cupboards full of giant clocks, all showing midnight.  The program warns patrons about “fire effects”: the storm scene sees rain coming through the derelict palazzo roof.  Cinderella perfunctorily places buckets at strategic points then passes an umbrella to the Baron who is then struck by lightning sparks, smoke, singed hair, skeletal ribbed remnant umbrella frame and all!  Hilarious! 
The production also dwelt upon food and drink to the extent that one clever New York critic did an entire review in the form of a food review.  The prince and Cinderella met in Act I over a broken coffee cup.  The ‘beggar’ in act one is given hot chocolate and fruit.  Magnifico is made Ramiros cellarmaster.  And the first act ends with an formal pasta dinner on stage with one place setting too few, causing an excuse-me parade akin to musical chairs.  The last scene is in, on and beside an enormous triple deck wedding cake (in blue and pastel, of course!) and there is champagne all round. 
Camarenas colossal performance deserved all the cheers it received.  I was told that his Act II cabaletta was given an encore on the following performance.  This would only be the second time in 50 years that the Met has allowed such a thing (I heard Florez do one in Fille du Regiment).  It was a wonder with all the cheering to an empty stage the Mr Camarena did not come out and taken a special bow Florez once came out of character and did so in Don Pasquale I recall. 
I found the balance between orchestra and singers to be perfect ... also noting a few minor timing mishaps as others have pointed out a greater risk on opening nights.  The ever elegant Maestro Luisi took the evening at a measured pace and the Met chorus was impeccable.  So much of Rossinis humour comes straight out of the orchestra pit, starting with the most brilliant overture where the woodwind become like the Marx Brothers at the opera.  The Rolled ‘R’ Rondo “Questo è un nodo avviluppatto” was superlatively done as a literal ‘tangle’.  Such was Mr Camarena’s success that I wondered if he might be asked to do the HD video slated for 10th of May.  We shall see. 
Almost uniquely but most appropriately, there was a review of this performance on the New York Times web site before lunch the following day, and mostly in praise of the show.  As with Ms Opelais singing Mimi and Butterfly back-to-back recently (also due to illness), the Met must love getting into the front section of the newspaper rather than just the arts pages.  With lots of empty seats most nights these days it certainly could use the added publicity (although one hopes that is not the main driver of Met casting decisions). 
The excitement of this Met opening will remain in my memory as one of those rare events.  I was there at Carnegie Hall for Carlo Bergonzis big come-back as Otello (the less said the better) and for Sutherlands last night as an opera heroine in Sydney.  This opening of Cinderella was the confirmation to me and 4000 others that a new special tenor had arrived, singing his third role at the Met.  I was delighted to note that long-serving Australian opera chorus member Robert Mitchell was also in the audience, as was my nephew Hal Cullity, my partner Allan Gill along with opera fan and good friend Ms Terry Kobel. 
Vivian Liff, respected English opera writer, has said that following the three great tenors of the last era we have heard numerous great white hopes but only a few have been able to keep up the standard for long.  Messrs Florez, Kauffman and Calleja can fill opera houses both vocally and box office-wise.  Jose Cura has done some amazing performances, mostly in a different fach.  Salvatore Licitra died tragically while Rolando Villazon has dropped from view of late.  Of course there are many other fine tenors aspiring to greatness. 
One can only hope that Mr Camarena is able to keep things together and maintain his current professional momentum in New York and elsewhere.  He has few competitors in quite the same class I believe he is more than a tenore di grazia.  Camarenas contributions to YouTube are worth watching, especially Ah mes amis from Daughter of the Regiment in Mexico City despite the sub-optimal quality. 
This week I read that Canadian tenor Ben Heppner announced his retirement after many years at the highest level.  The king is gone: long live king Camarena! 
Written by Andrew Byrne ..