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20 April, 2007

Trittico Gala at the Met - splendid opera on a grand scale

Metropolitan Opera

8pm – 12.20am (!) Friday 20 April 2007


GiorgettaMaria Guleghina
MichelePatrick Burchinal
LuigiSalvatore Licitra
TincaDavid Cangelosi
TalpaPaul Plishka
SongsterJohn Nuzzo
FrugolaStephanie Blythe


AngelicaBarbara Frittoli
NunsWendy White,
Heidi Grant Murphy,
Maria Zifchak,
Patricia Risley
PrincessStephanie Blythe


ZitaStephanie Blythe
SimoneDonato di Stefano
RinunccioMassimo Giordano
SchicchiAlessandro Corbelli
LaurettaOlga Mykytenko
RelativesPatricia Risley,
Jeff Mattsey,
Jennifer Check,
Bernard Fitch,
Patrick Carfizzi,
Jacob Wade
DoctorPaul Plishka
LawyerDale Travis


ConductorJames Levine
ProductionJack O’Brien
SetsDouglas W. Schmidt
CostumesJess Goldstein
LightingJules Fisher,
Peggy Eisenhauer

Dear Colleagues,

Il Trittico had its world premiere at the Met in 1918 and had only one new production here since, in 1975. This much touted recreation, by Jack O’Brien, is said to be one of the most ambitious ventures of the Met.

Billed as a ‘night of nights’, there was a half page item in the NY Times the day of the Gala. And few could have been disappointed. The three contrasting works were put on with care, skill and excitement to a rapturous applause.

Each of the four stage settings (yes, Schicchi had two sets), was spectacular and received applause – something I always find irritating – but it was hard not to want to join in. The barge on the Seine was massive and realistic in its dreariness, and adjacent loading wharves, skyline of Paris in the background at dusk. An enormous steel pedestrian bridge surmounted the entire setting, from stone steps on the quayside.

Suor Angelica occurred in what looked like an idyllic monastery with two matching cloisters on left and right of a chapel. Huge double doors had a gilded Filipo Lippi-esque nativity which turned ‘3-D’ in the last minutes of the heart tugging story. The latter could easily have been missed due to an intense white beam shone from the chapel roof at the end.

Gianni Schicchi took place in a large Florentine studio apartment with spiral staircase to glorious Boboli type garden on the roof. This only appeared in the last minutes of the opera as the entire set sank to reveal our lovers and muse, Schicchi overlooking the whole of Florence and the Tuscan valleys. We are in the 1960s so much is very familiar to baby boomers. Specifically there were cocktail frocks, shirt sleeves, an old ‘portable’ television, oxygen cylinder, face mask (to obscure face from lawyer) etc.

I never thought that Frugola would ever be the star of the night, yet Stephanie Blythe sang and acted life into this quaint character.

Juan Pons was replaced by Frederick Burchinal as Michele in Il Tabarro. He was adequate but hardly in Pons’ class.

Salvatore Licitra also sang impressively on the night as Luigi. The duet with Ms Guleghina was electric. She was shrill and somewhat uneven but still very exciting - while his death and exposure was painful as it was shocking.

Frugola’s husband was played by wobbly veteran Paul Plishka who forgot his shared exit lines. It is intriguing to this outsider that the Met keeps on some of these old-timers (Ramey, Plishka, Anthony) while reportedly dropping popular singers in their prime like Hong and Swenson. Old men are kept on but women in their vocal prime are dropped!

Ms Blythe also excelled in two further roles (the Princess and Aunt Zita) which meant that her extremely large and beautiful voice became a bench-mark for the evening.

Suor Angelica, starring Barbara Frittoli, was most moving with handkerchiefs at the ready as the heavenly baby boy appeared at the chapel door, beckoning.

Schicchi, played by booming master of comedy, Alessandro Corbelli, was highly enjoyable. Not a single detail was lost from the brilliant libretto and many new details added. These included an adjoining bathroom where the youngest Donati suddenly had to relieve himself (and subsequently flush the chain to the score). The (visible) bath also doubled as a repository for Buoso’s body.

I was delighted to find that the Met has finally taken my advice and installed subtitles in other languages (German and Spanish so far) for all new productions this season.

Was it enjoyable? Yes, sure. Each of the pot-boilers was beautifully sung, some especially so: Perche non m’ami piu?; ‘Nostalgia’ duetto; Senza mama; Oh mio babbino caro; Firenze e come un albero fiorito. The program denotes 9 principal roles yet there are at least another 9 smaller solo roles, all well acquitted.

The orchestra played well under Mr Levine who took things on the slow side at times, usually to good effect. The sets, costumes and direction were effective and original. A roar of applause occurred as the 4 progenitors appeared at curtain call.

Opening night had a few hitches, timing being one of them. Each intermission was about 10 minutes longer than planned and the evening went on until 12.20am. Some of the stage sets and machinery creaked and clunked at times. The stage elevator used at the end seemed to take a false start but then operated to brilliant effect, taking us from a cavernous bed-sit boudoir to an expansive balcony showing us the entire Tuscan skyline, centered on the tower of Giotto and Duomo dome of Brunelleschi. I don’t know why the curved centre balustrade was green.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

14 April, 2007

Andrea Chenier at the Met. Verismo at its very best. Wed 11th April

11 April 2007

Dear Colleagues,

I am surprised at all the carping criticism of this new Met production and the lack of an ‘Italianate’ tenor for the title role. I enjoyed it enormously, especially Ben Heppner (although he is NOT my favourite tenor). The production is realistic - but with a twist. We open to a magnificent upward sloping royal blue carpet with a fleur-de-lys motif. A lop-sided, centrally placed, outsized gilded over-mantle mirror was facing us. In front was a six-seater Empire sofa, as required by the libretto and this was the only prop used on the expanse of blue carpet on this set (by Hubert Monloup who also did the costumes).

The party scene emphasised the chasm between rich and poor as every guest was dressed in yellow of every hue from deep cream to canary finery. The contrast with the poor street people was similar to the Manhattan juxtaposition which still happens today. France and America have each had at least one revolution … but best not for an Australian to go there!

Ms Urmana was magnificent, using a resonant chest register up accurate high soprano notes. Mark Delavan was solid and at times exciting.

Act II took place in a Paris street-scape which was effective and beautiful. The devious events which took place were vehicles for Giordano’s marvellous melodies and vocalising.

Act III also ‘worked’ as a courthouse, albeit à la Kangarou, leading to Act IV after a ‘brief pause’. This final scene had a set and direction which just did not make sense to me. The music is so glorious that I did not let it worry me and just revelled in the spectacular duet. The ending had Heppner in full voice, taking all his high notes (apart from his second last one eschewed, with Urmana ‘covering’).

One did not have the feeling, as in his Lohengrin, that he lacked confidence. As Chenier, he was still being ‘careful’, regularly taking a separate breath before a high note, but then placing each perfectly and bringing his customary volume and velvet tone to the note.

A privilege to be in New York to hear such singing. A sadness that only about three quarters of the house was sold.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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 ..