I had the pleasure this past week of seeing the Metropolitan Opera on its best behavior. And not once, but twice. This doesn’t always happen—as yesterday’s broadcast of “Il Trovatore” can attest—but when it does, the results are amazing.
First up was the live HD telecast of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” that five-and-a-half hour marathon of war and peace. I was supposed to see this ten years ago at the Met, but a blizzard stopped me from even getting to the train station (Had I made it into New York, I would have seen the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Dido. Talk about a missed opportunity). So after a very long intermission I finally got to see this epic, the length of which rivals “Götterdammerung.”
Susan Graham’s performance as Dido was astonishing. It’s not often that a singer’s voice, intelligence and characterization all come together at such a high level of artistry. I had seen her in “La Damnation de Faust,” I’ve got her recording of “Béatrice et Benedict,” two other Berlioz operas, but what she brought to “Les Troyens” was in another realm altogether. Her voice has lost virtually nothing over the years; she was the Queen of Carthage.
Fortunately her Aeneas was worthy of her. Bryan Hymel, a 33-year old native of Lousiana, stepped in to replace Marcello Giordani, and the result couldn’t have been better. He’s a powerful tenor who should have a great career ahead of him—he can act and he’s got presence. When he and Susan Graham sang their love duet in Act Four, you believed it. Joyce DiDonato was the host of the HD telecast, and I particularly enjoyed the intermission interview with Graham and Hymel. It seemed to be refreshingly unscripted—the two mezzos, alluding to their many trouser roles, traded joking compliments (“You look good in a dress.” “So do you.”) and the discussion that followed regarding Hymel’s Met debut in such a killer role was a great deal of fun.
Three days after the telecast I saw Joyce DiDonato as Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at the Met. If ever there was a performer who held an audience in the palm of her hand, she did. No coughing or program rustling from the audience when DiDonato sang an aria—the entire auditorium went dead quiet just to hear what embellishments she would bring to the vocal line. The intense attention has been well-earned: she’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard on the opera stage. When she sings a line I can almost see the notes on the music staff. DiDonato certainly delivers.
However, I found the opera itself to be a bit of a letdown. While the first half, ending with Maria’s hurling “vil bastarda!” at Queen Elizabeth (soprano Elza van den Heever with shaved head in her Met debut), is excellent, the second half, after the Elizabeth/Leicester duet, does drag. And I wasn’t all that crazy about the production, especially the last two scenes. When did properly lighting a scene become a lost art? Yes, I know Maria is imprisoned and I don’t expect the set to look like high noon, but the audience should be able to see who’s on stage with her. I thought Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” was a lot more fun. Anna gets a historically inaccurate mad scene before she marches off to the headsman, which I prefer to Maria’s saintly exit, no matter how lovely the music.
There’s been some carping about “Maria”‘s casting switcheroo. Although mezzos have portrayed the title role in the past, it’s usually a soprano Maria paired with a mezzo Elizabeth, a role Joyce DiDonato has in fact sung. Yes, she’s transposed some of the music down, but then Joan Sutherland used to transpose arias up to put the line in her soprano range. And is total adherence to historical tradition always a plus or even feasible? The countertenors singing today are not castrati, who were able to produce a sound the likes of which we’ll never hear. Luckily no one gives up that much for their art these days.
And speaking of tradition and departures therefrom, the Met’s new production of “Rigoletto,” set in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, will soon make its debut. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.