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13 May, 2017

Andrew Byrne's take on Met Gala - "and no-one's anybody!"

Sensational Met Opera 50 Year Anniversary concert.  6pm Sunday 7th May 2017
Dear Readers, 
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 ..

Highlights from the Met in New York and early cherry blossoms!

Opera notes from New York – April/May 2017
A visit to the New York Met Opera is always a great pleasure as the season winds down until mid-May when the ballet season begins.  Pre-booking seats enabled us to see the wonderful Sonja Frisell Aida, Rigoletto set in a casino, Flying Dutchman, Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni and Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. 
How to pick a favourite with so many stars, young and old in each of these high quality productions at the Met? 
The sentimental favourite must be Renee Fleming who is doing her last Marschallin (and possibly her last opera) in a new Rosenkavalier production by Robert Carsen, sets by Paul Steinberg, updated to 1911 Vienna.  This was one of the most profound and enjoyable operas I have attended … and it was the first time the opera really ‘clicked’ for me.  It is an amusing epic romance from teenage flirtations to deviant adult mores and then painful but necessary separations to allow new ‘normal’ liaisons.  There were elegant conventions broken as well as avuncular buffoonery.  Matthew Polenzani sang the Italian tenor to a tee (as Pavarotti did 45 years ago in the previous production’s premiere).  Elena Garanca not only sings brilliantly but plays her gender-bender role with boyish charm as well as feigned feminine awkwardness.  Sofie is played by Erin Morley with great aplomb.  Baron Ochs was played by Günther Groissböck and the opera conducted by Sebastian Weigle. 
Anna Netrebko is Tatiana to Peter Mattei’s Eugene Onegin.  Dmitry Hvorotovsky is still getting over brain surgery.  Alexie Dolgov sang a most satisfactory Lensky. 
Don Giovanni had a dream cast headed by Mariusz Kwecien and Erwin Schott, conducted by Placido Domingo.  Angela Mead sang Donna Anna who has some amazing vocal fireworks towards the end.  Matthew Polenzani was a great Don Ottavio, lily-livered though he is in the story.  Both Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro were beautifully sung. 
A magnificent Flying Dutchman is conducted by the new Met musical director French Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin who seems extremely popular with audience and performers alike.  Aptly named Ms Amber Wagner sang Senta and is the dramatic soprano to watch – with a major presence and penetrating voice and crystal (not quite the right word) top notes.  Franz-Josef Selig was a fine Daland and Michael Volle sang the title role, much of it standing on mid-air ship's gantry.  Ben Bliss was an excellent steersman.  AJ Glueckert was Erik, equally good.  A fair review would take pages considering all the detail of this giant production, evocative of craggy coastlines and misty outlines in snow.  Most effective perhaps was the Ducthman’s crew’s awakening near the end.  Eerie and spooky souls like ghosts in vast contrast to the raucous celebration of the Norse townsfolk on the docks. 
Joseph Calleja as the Duke of Mantua in the 'casino' Rigoletto was in extremely good vocal and dramatic form.  Mr Lucic as jester was great 'in parts' while Miss Peretyatko’s voice might be a bit too light for Gilda.  This up-dated, fluorescent Rigoletto uses every trick imaginable in the gamblers' cabaret paradise including Playboy Bunny Girls, wheel-of-fortune, roulette, lap dancers, mobile cocktail bar, cards, poker machines and … just when you thought you had seen everything, some rehearsed dandies solemnly parade in an ornate Egyptian sarcophagus which suddenly reveals a female stripper, very much alive!   The intruders to the first act party, Count Monterone and side-kicks, were here turbaned Arabs, very annoyed about gambling and drinking going on next door to their harem (plus having the daughter raced off by the sleazy casino owner).  They got their comeuppance in the next act by being shot at point-blank range by in-house security, only a slight deviation from the original. 
Alfano was a very serious composer who wrote in several very different styles.  His ending of Turandot is well known and now his Cyrano de Bergerac is being performed after Domingo first sang it at the Met 12 years ago.   To my mind it is one of the great vocal and dramatic feats for the tenor to compare with Siegfried or Siegmund.  And Roberto Alagna does a stentorian job of this declamatory and dramatic work opposite Roxanne of Jennifer Rowley.  The Met production is a major undertaking, starting in a staged theatre and moving to a balcony street scene followed by a battle field, then a monastery.  Bravo the wizardry of the Met stage hands. 
So who was the star of the month? Well, I have to say I derived vast pleasure from the wonderful Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan who excelled in his three roles: Sparafucile, Gremin and Commendatore.  I have never heard such a long, low bass note as the Mantuan (Burgundian) hired gun repeating his own name down the stave: ‘Sparafucile!’ as Rigoletto sings ‘Va, va, va, va’.  And Gremin’s aria was exceedingly moving and dignified while Onegin looks on in horror.  Don Giovanni’s first victim’s father also sings from the dead, using two voices from the one larynx.  Fantastic feats and Met would be wise to sign up this man for life (and maybe they have). 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
More about Hello Dolly with Bette Midler and 50 year Met concert later.