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20 April, 2014

I Puritani at the Met.

I Puritani - Met Opera opening night Thurs 17th April 2014
Elvira - Olga Peretyatko
Giorgio - Michele Pertusi
Arturo - Lawrence Brownlee
Riccardo - Maksim Aniskin
c. Michele Mariotti
Dear Colleagues,
I was blown away with this performance of one of my favourite operas, despite the replacement an indisposed Mariusz Kwiecien.  Rarely since Sutherland days have I heard such a splendid bel canto pastiche on stage.  The conducting of Michele Mariotti was learned and sympathetic with the incomparable Met orchestra and chorus.  Ms Peretyatko (Mrs Mariotti in real life) is a phenomenal talent in every respect while Larry Brownlee and Michele Pertusi are at the top of their fields. 
Mr Kwiecien was replaced by Maksim Aniskin who, while not up to the standard of his eminent colleagues, was no embarrassment either.  I had also heard the dress rehearsal in which it was announced that Mr Brownlee was under the weather’, ‘marking some of his solo lines.  Mr Kwiecien normally sings supremely with his enormous, accurate and beautiful voice.  But nothing is easy in show biz! 
The 1976 production by Sandro Sequi uses a classical if somewhat faded series of settings with costumes of the era.  An indignant local reviewer wrote that the chorus members were dressed more like American pilgrims than a band of Parliamentary rebels in Devon apparently forgetting that his countrys founders were in fact rebel puritans like those in the opera fighting the establishment. 
Some people just want to know about the high notes and there were plenty.  For once there were E flats not only for soprano but also such heights from the tenor.  Mr Brownlee has a beautiful quality voice which is of sufficient size to be heard above chorus and orchestra in this enormous house.  He also interacts faithfully with his colleagues in the drama and is most dignified on stage.  He wisely omitted the falsetto high F immortalized by Luciano Pavarotti.  The replacement baritone hit an A flat at the end of Suoni la tromba, albeit a somewhat curtailed one.  For reasons unknown the conductor took the final duet section of this martial male twosome at double time, rather lowering this high point for me.  In other sections Mariotti allowed ample pauses and ralentandos for the singers, especially for his wife, just as Maestro Bonynge used to do for Joan Sutherland. 
Ah te, o cara was marvellous, followed by Son vergine vezzosa in Act 1.  The second act mad scene Qui la voce sua soave... Vien, diletto, e in ciel la luna was incomparable. 
Happily the joyous finale pyrotechnic Ah! sento al mio bell'angelo was included.  It was said that Richard Bonynge found this lost cabaletta which Callas never sang.  I recall also that it was the clip played by ABC radio when Sutherland’s death was announced in 2010.  It was for Joan Sutherland that this Met production was mounted 38 years ago – and it shows both its age and yet also its serviceability.  Another Bonynge find was a tenor-soprano duet in Act 3 used in the Pavarotti / Sutherland recording but omitted in the present Met version.  While a marvellous piece of Belliniana it does not contribute to the drama and prolongs the rescue part of the opera. 
Australian radio opera guru John Cargher used to say that this opera has three mad scenes - and it does.  Ms Peretyatko had a wonderful vocal formula for these scenes, each being close to the Sutherland versions vocally but with some original and tasteful inclusions in the coloratura.  Ms Peretyatko also had a lot more ways of going mad than just looking into space confused.  In one quiet section she giggled loudly while lying on her back. 
This was indeed a night of phenomenal singing and as with all Met performances now, if you like Bellini and you want a treat, listeners can down-load it on Sirius I understand.  But maybe wait until the wonderful baritone Mr Kwiecien is singing again.  It is extraordinary to find three bel canto operas this season in a house which used to studiously avoid them.  

Stop-press: Florez replaced by Camarena in Cenerentola, opening on Monday 21 April.  A new star is born!  More later.
Written by Andrew Byrne ..

07 April, 2014

La Sonnambula at the Met (twice).

La Sonnambula - Bellini - Saturday 29th March 2014 1pm matinée Met Opera
Amina - Diana Damrau
Elvino - Javier Camarena (Taylor Stayton last performance 1st April no fooling!)
Lisa - Rachelle Durkin
Count - Michele Perusi
c. Marco Armiliato
This welcome Met reprise of the Bellini rarity after 5 years was well worth the effort and with even better casting this time.  Happily it was not set in an idyllic Swiss village at least not until the final minutes.  Two entire acts of a traditional chocolate box production of this opera could risk descent into parody and farce, an unfortunate destination for such a masterpiece, always one of my favourite operas. 
A stroke of original brilliance put a sitzprobe rehearsal directly onto the big stage, warts and all.  Producer/director Mary Zimmerman along with set designer Daniel Ostling keep our attention by providing a private window onto back-stage, always a source of interest and mystery to opera fans. 
For those familiar with the theatre this production is close to the reality of operatic preparation.  It includes civilian clothes, diva antics, chorus movements, stage managers demands, wig fittings, costumes, shoes, personality clashes, etc.  Even coffee breaks are included.  Zimmerman is hardly the first to place plays within plays, yet here it is even better as she has added the New York factor.  Like Christmas, Jewish themes (Noah!), horses, water or children-on-stage, the Big Apple can also be a winning formula for popular productions. 
This is one of the genre of rescue operas, in this case the saving event is an entry in Websters Dictionary look up somnambulism if you dare - a great excuse for two-timing exposed.  Or burglary for that matter. 
This opera starts with an off stage chorus while the characters one by one gradually populate the vacant hall janitor, cleaners, stage manager, clip-board in hand, etc, etc.  Like Nozze measuring tape and chalk are used in the opening, if for different reasons.  Running late, the diva appears all clamour and glamour, cell phone in hand, only half concentrated on the job at hand.  Diana Damrau is one of the great singing actors of our time and this new role fits like a glove.  Humour, pathos, coloratura, beauty and even some calisthenics at the end (she did cartwheels on stage!).  Twice we heard her sing in the auditorium in front of the stage. 
For the Act I sleepwalking scene Ms Damrau entered by way of the main stalls aisle, walking in a morphistic state suitably spot-lit and into the hotel room of the embarrassed Count.  The second somnambulism commenced with a comatose Ms Damrau lurching along a narrow ledge in a snow storm outside the rehearsal room windows, presumably high above a New York street.  Not good for those with a fear of heights. 
Having been physically rescued by Lisa the final tour-de-force, Ah non credea mirati and its recitative were sung on a stage extension like a wide ‘diving board’ extending well over the orchestra.  The acoustics are noticeably different when the singer is in the Met auditorium itself.  Having an opera singer only two metres away as I did briefly in Act one is a serious auditory jolt! 
The joyous finale Ah non giunge was staggering, both vocally from Ms Damrau as well as from the chorus, dancers (now in Swiss costume) and clever staging.  Our soprano did two full acrobatic cartwheels during the short choral section before her final note - and then another in the curtain calls on the very last night. 
The tenor was the wild-card surprise of the evening for me.  Javier Camarena is the most beautiful voiced tenor I have heard since Luciano left us.  He has a fine tremolo with a smooth vocal line up and down the stave.  And his diminuendos were phenomenal too.  Every risk Mr Camarena took came off brilliantly, elegantly and tastefully.  His voice is quite unlike like Mr Florez but clearly just as capable (and I am a Florez fan). 
I was so impressed with this tenor that I attended the final performance with great expectations only to find that the season cover, Mr Taylor Stayton was taking the role as is the creditable practice at the Met.  Taller and perhaps more physically suited with this cast, American tenor Taylor Stayton, displayed a fine and supple voice for this difficult tessitura.  He commenced with a few slight bleats but any imperfections resolved and he received an enormous ovation.  However odious be Marlowes comparisons, my money is on Mexican Mr Camarena who will be hard to beat in this sort of repertoire.  He is rumoured to be replacing Mr Florez at the opening of Cenerentola in two weeks time.  We shall see. 
Michele Pertusi sang Vi raviso ravishingly as he also played the over-sexed old man in the most gentlemanly manner possible. 
Australian Rachelle Durkin played an excellent Lisa, jealous, bitter, conniving and finally getting her comeuppance.  Her steely voice, earnest stage presence and Bellinis brilliant score distinguish her from the soprano of the title.  Some of her rivalry stage actions were hilarious.  Other supporting roles were all very well acquitted including Aminas ubiquitous mother played by Elizabeth Bishop; Alessio, Lisas constant admirer, Jordan Bisch and the Notary played by Cantor Bernard Fitch, now a veteran of over 20 years at the Met. 
Marco Armiliato conducted the magnificent Met orchestra with confident style and tempi reminiscent of Richard Bonynge in his two classic recordings of this opera. 
A pleasure and a privilege to be in New York for such a marvellous treat (more travel notes below). 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. London expert Dr Colin Brewers take on somnambulism in history.