Triple-header at Met Opera reveals company's strengths

Finally got a chance to report on the Metropolitan Opera portion of my New York weekend (I know you've all been positively breathless with anticipation). The big news in town, of course, was the reopening of Alice Tully Hall after a nifty makeover, but there was a lot happening at the Met to write home about, too.

First up on Friday night was a production of Verdi's Il Trovatore that managed to minimize the holes in the notoriously overwrought plot, thanks largely to an appropriately dark, Goya-inspired staging designed by Charles Edwards that moved with cinematic fluency under David McVicar's fresh direction. (One test of a director in this work comes in the second scene, when Leonora mistakes di Luna for her boyfriend Manrico in the dark. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard audiences giggle at this, but McVicar’s solution avoided that pitfall entirely; Leonora’s mistake looked perfectly plausible. Maybe a small detail, but worth a lot to me.) The most noteworthy thing, in these days of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Verdi singers, was that the cast managed to ...

generate a great deal of expressive heat, with admirable sensitivity and dramatic understanding from conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

Sondra Radvanovsky was a riveting Leonora. Take all the points away that you like for her sometimes edgy tone, but you still would have to give her high marks for the intensity and theater-filling power of her singing, the uncommon attention to words and phrasing (even while sprawled on the floor for part of her Act 1 aria). The soprano has remarkable presence, and she used that quality to command the stage and deeply humanize the character. You can't ask for much more than that.

Marcelo Alvarez was getting over bronchitis on Friday, but the tenor still sang the role of Manrico with considerable elan and stylish detail. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as di Luna, pushed his velvety baritone to the limit, and the effort sometimes showed, but he turned in about as warm an account of Il balen as you're likely to hear today. And Dolora Zajick, despite some thinning in the upper reaches, fleshed out Azucena's music with authoritative flourish. Yeah, I know, singers today can't measure up to the glorious days of yore, but I'd say the present measures up pretty darn well on nights like this.

Saturday afternoon was filled with Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, that deliciously old-fashioned, over-the-top romantic opera so beloved of prima donnas. I don't really think of Marina Guleghina as true diva material, but she’s a vivid singer and actress, and she clearly relished the title role. I missed the lovely, floating high notes and truly tender phrases associated with interpreters of  times past, but the soprano's dynamic characterization proved consistently effective.

As Adriana’s beloved Maurizio, Placido Domingo was returning to the

role that served as his unexpected Met debut 40 years ago, subbing for an indisposed colleague. (A few updated adjustments aside, this was even the same physical production he was in back then.) The nattering opera bloggers have their knickers in a twist over the fact that Domingo had his music transposed down for this production, arguing that he’s past it and just satisfying his ego now. Oh, please. The man has paid his dues, can still get up there high enough for genuine tenordom, and can still produce a vibrant, exciting tone in the process. He’s still a very decent actor, too. Why not let him have the fun of returning to this opera? On opening night earlier in the month, Domingo was said to be recovering from a cold. On Saturday, he sounded hale as he created quite a persuasive Maurizio.

As the Princess, Adriana’s vengeful rival for Maurizio’s affections, Olga Borodina poured out big, compelling vocalism. A supporting full of astute singing actors enhanced the production. Marco Armiliato conducted with a lyrical sweep.

It’s easy to denigrate Adriana Lecouvreur as a silly confection, the operatic equivalent of a Death by Chocolate dessert (Death by Milk Chocolate, at that), but the melodies are really quite beguiling, the orchestration deftly crafted, the whole thing remarkably assured. A guilty pleasure.

On Saturday night came Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, in the stunning Robert Carsen production with sets and costumes by Michael Levine – a brilliant study in minimalism, where plain walls and a few pieces of furniture become far more expressive than the most ornate Zeffirelli scenery. Jiri Belohlavek conducted superbly, always allowing the music to breathe.

Karita Mattila revealed all the charm and vulnerability of Tatiana, singing in a pure tone that cut to the heart of each line. Thomas Hampson sounded pressed at times as Onegin, but his performance was rich in nuance and insight. It was actually possible to sympathize with the seemingly heartless character, which says plenty about Hampson’s abilities. Lensky was winningly sung and acted by Piotr Beczala. And Baltimore’s own James Morris offered a refreshing, thoroughly ingratiating portrayal of Prince Gremin, singing his aria with considerable eloquence. The rest of the cast was on the same intense wavelength as the principals. Here, as in the other two performances I heard in that 27-hour span, the Met’s justly celebrated orchestra did exemplary work.

At a time when the company has sold a million tickets to its simulcasts at cineplexes around the country and beyond, it was good to be back in the house itself, experiencing opera the old-fashioned, in-the-flesh way, and getting so many aural and visual rewards out of it.

PHOTOS FROM METROPOLITAN OPERA AND AP: Sondra Radvanovsky and Marcelo Alvarez in 'Il Trovatore'; Placido Domingo in 1968 and 2009 as Maurizio in 'Adriana Lecouvreur' at the Met; Thomas Hampson in 'Eugene Onegin'

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