The old Met is gone – gone are the hams that filled the stage with museum clutter and stiff walruses dressed in brocade, belting out sound from throats of gold. Thanks to Peter Gelb we now have a Met in synch with the media culture of the 21st century, simulcasting a large portion of its productions to the world. I have shared my enthusiasm before (see "Opera and Popcorn"). Having watched many Met productions in the past on TV, live in New York, on Laser disks and DVDs, I checked out telecasts from San Francisco Opera and from Europe, for example La Scala, for comparison. But there is no comparison. I am still astonished, after two entire seasons of "Live At the Met" that such a transformation has taken place.
The two Met simulcast seasons had only very few duds. One could almost say they were a chain of one exciting surprise after the next, combining all the elements necessary for the Gesamtkunstwerk of grand opera: impeccable casting in every role (the chorus is always above suspicion); singers with the capacity to move and act; intelligent production and video design; and the invitation to come backstage between acts and meet the stars as well as the technicians of this new era. If you aren't lucky enough to have a Met-linked cinema near you, public TV lets you catch up and partake in today's most passionate, romantic, accomplished art form.
It takes cockiness and daring to do what the Met has done. To cite just a few examples from the latest season: the Met let a mature star like Karita Mattila create a sensation as the 16-year-old monstre sacré, Salome. It let Nathalie Dessay dictate a charming update of La Somnambula to her director, Mary Zimmerman. It let cineaste Anthony Minghella direct his first – and unfortunately last — opera, Madama Butterfly, and take it "beyond brilliance" (as Scene4 Editor Arthur Meiselman put it). It let young Russian diva Anna Netrebko (who even got school kids "psyched" over her beauty in Romeo and Juliet, in 2007) reveal herself as a world-class singer-actress in Lucia di Lammermoor.
Anna Netrebko is the rare case of a singer who has got it all: voice, emotion, beauty, sex appeal. Everything seems in balance with her: solidity as well as the expressivity of her dramatic soprano; dark hues and a mother-of-pearl luminous sheen, muscular flexibility and a tight vibrato that lets her notes float and soar, seemingly without an effort. In addition, she has a musical intelligence that knows how to hold back, to keep energy in reserve and pour it on when it's needed – in those high notes of emotional drama that beg for high-risk, no holds barred engagement. Netrebko never seems to miss these moments. For the rest, she is subtle and amazingly relaxed.
Minimal effort for optimal effect in her acting makes her the perfect object for the camera; moreover, her face does not betray the difficulties of operatic voice control. Netrebko almost looks as if she were speaking when she sings. Like any truly gifted actress, she speaks through her eyes and body and she is not only uninhibited, but trained in acrobatics and ballet. No wonder there is such a wave of excitement over her in Europe and everywhere else. (Her CD "Sempre Libera" has many of her best bel canto arias and a thrilling, hair-raising Desdemona.)
Director Mary Zimmerman made magical use of Netrebko's star qualities in her Met production of Lucia di Lammermoor. (The fact that Netrebko had put on weight just having given birth to her first child did not in the least affect her attractiveness.) Catherine Honig (Scene4, April 2009) reviewed the opera and gave us an interesting overview of Zimmerman's work. I want to add a few notes here about a production concept that struck me as unusual and brilliant when I saw it at the cinema and recently again on PBS.
In the first act, while Lucia tells her lady companion about seeing the specter of a murdered woman in the fountain, Zimmerman conjures the specter up onstage. The dead woman appears as a fascinating, moon-beam-white double of Lucia. She fastens upon Lucia with morbid interest and touches her face as if to mark Lucia as her very own. She encircles and beckons her, before "drowning" again in the fountain. It's a mesmerizing scene as both women, the dancer and the singer — one in white, the other in black — have equal intensity and grace in their mirrored movements and gestures. Lucia's companion is spooked and urges her to renounce her secret love for Edgardo, her violent brother's arch-enemy. "But he is the light of my days," Lucia pleads. The raptures of Bellini's music for Lucia's passion ("in the throes of burning ardor…") appear as an almost delirious crescendo after the close encounter with the specter of death. Netrebko plays this rapture, and one experiences it, as too intense for her own good. Love, in this interpretation, fore-shadows Lucia's madness.
The specter reappears briefly in Act II, while the brother arranges for Lucia's forced marriage to his political ally. The full purpose of Zimmerman's idea reveals itself, however, in the last scene at the graveyard, where Edgardo learns that Lucia has died. He wants to end his life right there, among the mourners. The specter appears again but now it is Lucia, a white, waxen figure in the specter's dress, with a wedding veil. Netrebko seems totally transformed, lifeless and yet burning with a single intent: to pursue her obsession to unite with him, take him over, see his life flow out of him. She guides his hand with the dagger to his heart.
Edgardo, in this production, is Piotr Beczala, a rising tenor who jumped in at the last minute for an indisposed Rolando Villazón and revealed himself as a dashing romantic partner for Netrebko. Edgardo usually sings his intense last aria to himself as he is dying. This time, he sings it to the specter of Lucia, "O bell'alma innamorata," the strange, embodied vision of his dying breath. Netrebko repeats the specter's uncanny ritual of beckoning, and it is even more heart-breaking this time. With an expression of pity and yet unrelenting purpose the specter stretches out over him and, at the last note, unites with him in a kiss – an urgent, bewitching, devastating kiss of death.
KITSCH AS KITSCH CAN
With this string of highlights, Peter Gelb hopes to captivate and win over a post-Boomer audience that is notoriously scared of opera, ill-informed, perhaps willing to hear the Three Tenors in a sports arena, but unwilling to watch walruses in brocade on a dusty stage. Five years ago, the average age of opera goers was 60, Gelb recently admitted in the documentary The Audition. With a fine sense of humor he added that today, five years later, the average age is… 65. So is it perhaps momentary despair when he turns to the salesmanship of fashion kitsch? To open the season, the Met launched a gala with Renee Fleming that had all the trappings of the old Met, disguised by a thick dose of designer perfume. If it weren't so shocking in its bad taste and self-celebration I would not want to waste a word on it. But looking back on the last season and having just seen the Encore of the Gala on PBS, I feel the Emperor's nakedness has to be pointed out — and the Empress's as well.
When you go to a fine restaurant and have no clue what to order, you may get the sampler platter that usually caters to the lowest-common-denominator-taste of guests who don't know any better. Here the Met served the corresponding sampler platter with random excerpts from three operas, La Traviata, Manon, and Capriccio. This operatic "triathlon" (as mezzo Susan Graham enthused in front of Lincoln Center), has little to do with opera as art, but everything with media hype. What did the brave American audience sitting outside on stiff little chairs on Times Square, staring at the giant screen, or sitting at home on the sofa, know about these operas, their music or even their stories (apart from perhaps having seen Greta Garbo as Camille, the Hollywood equivalent of La Traviata's wayward heroine)? Massenet's Manon is not an audience favorite; Capriccio by Strauss is even less performed, and it is a rather highbrow, conceptual opera about opera – l'art pour l'art. What is this audience going to make of the Met's "Reader's Digest" of operas?
The answer to this puzzle is the Met's very own diva, Renée Fleming. "These are my favorite operas," the soprano claims back-stage. (Are there other people in the room who have Manon as their favorite opera? Please step forward.) The gala is Fleming's show-case; she sings each main role, and for each one she is dressed by another fashion designer. In the first sample scene of La Traviata, Christian Lacroix presents Violetta as a pink-ribboned, frou-frou-frilly bonbonniere. Manon, upon entering a church, is wrapped by Karl Lagerfeld into a monkish cape with a hood that could hold the entire cast.
Countess Madeleine in Capriccio is dwarfed to comic invisibility by the gigantic ostrich feather collar of a John Galliano coat-jacket-thing as if she were the heroine of Sunset Boulevard. (Never mind that the Countess wears this glittery "crab-shell" for a private dinner at home…) The concept seems to be: Here comes an outfit that wears a diva. The whole affair was fittingly accompanied by a Vogue magazine feature on Renée Fleming with photos by Annie Leibovitz.
Fleming has a gorgeous lyrical voice but not much dramatic force, and her acting capacity is limited, alas. She is very good at being sweet and beautiful and sometimes vulnerable, but that's it – unless some director manages one day to drive the devil into opera's prototypical "Girl next door." Of course, there are quite a number of roles in the repertoire that let a singer get away with purely beautiful sound without ruining the experience, even while depriving it of its depth. An example would be Rusalka, Fleming's signature role, Thais (also reprised last season) or even the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. But La Traviata, Manon, and Capriccio are in an different league and demand an entirely different diva scale. It is painful to watch Fleming struggle to get even near it. The slightly pudgy young duckling she once was has slimmed down and somehow, mysteriously, matured into America's air-brushed, made-over glamour-swan. But "America's most popular diva," as the gala calls her, is still just the girl next door who awkwardly pretends onstage to be someone she is not.
Nothing shows this more cruelly than the two-hour potpourri of Fleming's over-acting, gesticulating, grimacing, and helplessly fidgeting in order to create drama, seduction, or cultivated, aristocratic presence. In La Traviata, when the lover's father enters, Fleming pulls her shoulders up and gasps like a school girl in class going "oh no, I've been caught on it!" Then right away she doubles over with pain at her desk. But as a whole long dramatic scene has just started, she has nowhere to go; she can't take it any further and therefore reverts to holding her head and doubling over, and over. To communicate that she will soon die she repeatedly holds out her handkerchief for inspection to Alfredo's disgusted father. When he doesn't "get" it she rolls her eyes at him.
Manon, according to Fleming, is "a rock star, she is so much fun!" But in the role, when she enters with a fan and an elegant 18th century walking stick she keeps nervously fumbling with both, which is no fun at all. She simpers and minces for the effects of charm and shows her eagerness to convince her doubt-filled lover by clenching her jaw and balling her fists. Her entrance into the church, huddling under her hood, is laughable as she exclaims in her speaking voice (in French, with a thick accent): "They are praying over there!!" Her tone and inflection make one wonder if praying in a church is to be understood as some arcane activity that causes major alarm.
The worst case – expectedly — is the most deceptively simple one, Madeleine, the Countess in Capriccio. Another famous Countess, Kiri Te Kanewa, also couldn't act but she managed this long monologue with aristocratic dignity and conveyed the mysterious beauty in a woman who has the power of her class. She is a patroness, courted by and falling in love with a musician and a poet who compete in writing an opera for her. In Fleming's portrayal, after a lot of agitated walking about, picking up and dropping props by the minute, Madeleine still can't decide between her two suitors. "I want an answer!" Fleming belts out to herself as if she were an American teen-ager in a temper tantrum. However, the greatest apparent drama in this scene belongs to the sloshing of the martini in her glass as the audience, with baited breath, wonders if the Countess is going to spill it over her Galiano gown. Finally the cringe factor grows as big as the stage when she caresses herself with a rose and starts making love to herself in front of a mirror, again and again smoothing out her hair with a sorority girl's smile.
A Karita Mattila, Nathalie Dessay or Anna Netrebko could have pulled off this ill-advised opera sampler (although one hopes they would never agree to such a proposition). At least they would have raised it beyond soap-opera. The sheer force of their interpretive power and personality would have brought the three very different characters to life. Renée Fleming, in an intermission, confided to the camera that these roles "are so much alike!" No kidding. In the Met Gala they are indeed alike. They are all just like Renée Fleming.
Photos - Courtesy Metropolitan Opera