Sensational Met Opera 50 Year Anniversary concert. 6pm Sunday 7th May 2017
There was electricity in the air before this night of nights – some of the singers were still in the foyers before the concert, mingling with patrons, donors and invited guests. There was a red carpet and photographers. The program was secret but 33 of the Met’s named singers would be giving their own, along with the chorus, orchestra and three conductors for the home crowd in Manhattan. There were lots of tuxedoes and women’s fashions were very much on show.
Having announced her retirement from the opera stage, Renee Fleming would have to be the sentimental favourite while old-timers’ prizes went to James Morris and Placido Domingo. Morris sang the Grand Inquisitor as well as Ramfis in the Triumphal March. There was no need for any allowances for age as both men held their own with others half their age. I wondered that Charles Anthony was not there.
The carefully chosen operatic excerpts were interspersed with brief interviews and old newsreels related to the Lincoln Center. In B&W footage we saw President Eisenhower turn the first sod for construction; Leonard Bernstein conducted an open-air ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus on the building site; we heard a recent interview with 90 year old Leontyne Price whose regal photograph as Cleopatra’s adorns Met programs during May. We learned how an accidental paint spill on the foyer's plans indirectly caused the design for the unique ‘galaxy’ light fittings, contrary to the wishes of Rudolf Bing and management who had wanted traditional chandeliers. In another clip Mr Chagall asked for his murals to be lowered (!). Too late!!
The stage setting for each item was a re-creation using projections onto moving curtains, scrims and giant flats sliding in from the wings. The manner by which this was done was like rapid painting with an invisible brush causing columns, walls, arches, wall-paper, etc to appear before our eyes - each time to finally reveal a familiar Met scena. Most impressive for me was the classic Act I Boheme attic garret, doors, balcony, chimneys, roofs of Paris, etc, all a projected illusion apart from a small raised platform, student table and two chairs from which Ms Yoncheva and Mr Calleja performed. It was trompe l’oeil after a fashion. Some settings even got their own applause such as for Tosca (interiors of Palazzo Farnese), Aida (Nile colossi, etc) and Boris Godunov (gilt arched chambers). There were representations of many Met production scenes for the evening, put together brilliantly by Julian Crouch. Costumes were either original from the production or tasteful gowns, etc.
In the middle of the second half there was a projected bio of James Levine from his student years right through his very long association with The Metropolitan Opera. Then the spotlights moved to the podium where Maestro himself appeared in his chair, waving to an adoring crowd. “Jimmy” then conducted the remainder of the concert.
I mention the evening’s wonderful selections in no particular order … each item could have been a perfect music lesson. Inevitably there were some crowd-pleasers: Un bel di (Anna Netrebko); E lucevan le stelle (Vittorio Grigolo); Vissi d'arte (Kristine Opelais); Sempre libera (Diana Damrau); Che gelida manina, Mi chiamano Mimi, O suave fanciulla, (Joseph Calleja, Sonya Yoncheva).
Mozart: Papagano's aria (Michael Volle); Porgi amor (Renee Fleming); Count's Aria Nozze di Figaro (Volle);
And from left field: Overture from West Side Story (started proceedings); Chorus from Antony and Cleopatra (Samuel Barber’s opera was commissioned to open the Met); Bess, you is my woman now (Eric Owens, Pretty Yende); The Tempest (by Ades) love scene (Isobel Leonard, Ben Bliss with Dwayne Croft); Julius Caesar 'Sempre piangero' (David Daniels, Stephanie Blythe).
For the serious consumer: Nemico della patria (Domingo – the French election result had just been announced); Iago's credo (Zeljko Lucic); Leve-toi soleil (Grigolo standing in for Florez); Mon coeur s'ouvre (Elena Garanca as Dalila); Guests' Entrance, Tannhauser (with trumpets on stage); Quando le sere al placido (Piotr Beczala); Don Carlo: Grand Inquisitor's scene with Phillip V (Groissbock / Morris).
For the connoisseur: Boris's Mad Scene (Rene Pape); Troyens duet (Susan Graham, Matthew Polenzani); Thais duet with Fleming and Domingo; Charlotte’s aria from Werther (DiDonato).
For the Guinness record book: Bel raggio lusinghier (Joyce DiDonato); Ah mes amis (Javier Camarena) with 9 high C’s! All pitch perfect, alternating staccato and sustained – and all with ease and a Mexican smile!! Lady Macbeth’s scene, Act I (Netrebko in amazing form).
Just for fun: Don Pasquale duet (Pretty Yende, Mariusz Kwiecien); Triumphal March, Aida with full chorus (but no final 'Mexican' E flat as we heard on Sydney Harbour last year with the same wonderful soprano, Latonia Moore).
About 7pm to our great surprise Mr Gelb announced that ‘a very brave Dimitry Hvorostovsky’ would sing Cortigiani vil razza – which he did, brilliantly. The popular baritone received a standing ovation even before he opened his mouth – still recovering after brain surgery. He seemed delighted with the reception, even shedding a tear as did many in the audience I suspect. I noted many Russian accents in the foyers during the single intermission.
Just after the Thais excerpt the orchestra started playing a violin obligato which I thought momentarily to be the Meditation. It was actually the final scene of I Lombardi in which the violin features as a solo instrument just as the ‘cello does in I Masnadieri. It is hard to know if Verdi was simply showing off his orchestral skills or showcasing a particular instrumentalist, or both. Yet in this scene the melding of the strings, vocal and dramatic lines indeed shows his unique genius and was highly appropriate to show it off again. Like numerous items, it heralds the newly announced season for 2017/8. Here we heard Michael Fabiano, Angela Mead and Gunther Groissbock sing the trio. The fiddle was played by David Chan with great virtuosity, showing off the most difficult manoeuvres of that instrument. I was sorry Mr Fabiano did not sing La mia letizia infondere from Act I … this was one of Pavarotti’s favourite show pieces. I heard Luciano Pavarotti, Lauren Flanagan and Samuel Ramey in this scene on this stage many years ago, reminding me that I have been attending this house for half of its life (since 1992).
The quality of the singing goes without saying. Each singer put their heart and soul into each piece and adrenalin levels were high, despite most performing familiar pieces. Just as people were starting to seriously look at their watches near 11pm we had the selection from Aida and it was all over, barring the huge curtain calls which were also very emotional. I pinched myself yet again. What can one say?! “Thank you”, say I.
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..