In the past several weeks, the Metropolitan Opera has unveiled new productions of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.” The two works have little in common, except that their plots don’t make a whole lot of sense. In “Il Trovatore,” a Spanish Gypsy seeks to avenge her mother’s death at the hands of a count by throwing the count’s infant son, Manrico, into the fire, but, in her excitement, she grabs the wrong baby and incinerates her own son instead. Actually, that all happens long before the curtain rises; the opera ends with the count’s other son ordering Manrico’s execution without knowing of the family connection. In “La Sonnambula,” a soon-to-be-wed Swiss woman is afflicted with somnambulism and winds up in the bed of a stranger, causing her fiancé to lose confidence in her. When she sleepwalks again, this time onto a window ledge, all are assured of her innocence.
Such unlikely goings on invite mockery. “Trovatore” inspired two famous parodies: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” and the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera.” Then again most entertainment, serious or otherwise, appears rather silly when you view it from afar. Nothing in these operas is any more implausible than the events of the average Shakespeare play, or, for that matter, of the average action movie. The difference is that the conventions of the latter are widely accepted these days, so that if, say, Matt Damon rides a unicycle the wrong way down the Autobahn and kills a squad of Uzbek thugs with a package of Twizzlers the audience cheers rather than guffaws. The wilder things get, the better. Opera is no different. Verdi didn’t seize on the lurid matter of “Trovatore” because he found it believable; rather, he relished the extremity of the situation, which forced his characters to react in extreme ways. The sonic violence of operatic singing becomes, under the circumstances, more plausible.
Yet contemporary opera directors often view the over-the-top aesthetic of mainstream opera as an embarrassment to be finessed. Either the story must be radically altered or the audience must be made aware that the story is not to be taken seriously. The result has been an epidemic of productions that reject the essential nature of the art form. Perhaps prospective directors should be given a brief questionnaire:
Do you like opera?
Do you like this opera?
If the answer to either of these questions is no, it might be wise to give the Rolodex another flick of the wrist. This is not to say that every production must slavishly follow the stage directions; but an interpretation should begin with respect rather than contempt.
Mary Zimmerman, the Chicago-based theatre director, had little contact with opera until she presented an overstudied “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Met last season. Zimmerman’s idea for “La Sonnambula” is that an opera company is rehearsing a conventional production of Bellini’s work, replete with kitschy Swiss costumes; the lead soprano and tenor are as much in love as their characters, Amina and Elvino. The conceit works reasonably well at first, with choice depictions of backstage shenanigans (the diva chattering on her cell phone, the stage manager glowering over her clipboard). But Zimmerman failed to supply the ingenious scene-by-scene twists needed to keep such a scenario afloat. When the chorus members discover Amina asleep in the rehearsal studio, it makes no sense that they’d question her morals. And those hectic opening scenes undercut one of this opera’s glories—the languid, trancelike aura of the early arias and duets. Bellini, a master of suspended time, liked nothing better than to spin out an endless vocal line over murmuring strings. “La Sonnambula” suited him precisely because it provided a minimum of incident. A sympathetic director would have relished rather than resisted that inherent trait.
Natalie Dessay, a soprano with vital stage presence and comic flair, did what she could to inject warmth into Zimmerman’s arch scenario. High notes no longer come quite as easily to her as they did when she first invaded the Met stage, singing the Fiakermilli in “Arabella,” in 1994, but she hit them all the same. The cavatinas, those oases of slow melody, were glowingly sung and beautifully detailed; she may be ready for a shift into less stratospheric repertory. Singing opposite her was Juan Diego Flórez, who, as he has in every recent appearance at the Met, triggered stormy ovations with effortless vocal acrobatics and just-so phrasing. He, too, might benefit from a modest change of course: he tends to deploy the same array of vocal colors on each outing and seems always to be playing the same character. Evelino Pidò failed to assist either singer with his conducting, which was as half-baked as the direction.
“Il Trovatore” fared better. The production, by the tastefully flamboyant Scottish director David McVicar, marks a welcome change from a string of recent Met stagings that seemed disengaged from their subjects, too cool for school. McVicar, re-creating a production that he first presented at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, trusted in the raw power of Verdi’s tale. The action has been moved from the fifteenth century to the early nineteenth, the time of Goya; the sets, by Charles Edwards, handsomely mimic Goya’s dirty skies and grimy interiors. An adroit use of the rotating stage allows for swift changes of scene. It’s a production with an earthy, lusty vibe. McVicar is a natural for the Met.
Few operas are as difficult to cast as “Trovatore,” which, as Caruso joked, requires nothing more than the four greatest singers in the world. The Met’s quartet in this run may not have quite answered that call, but the job got done. Sondra Radvanovsky sang the role of Leonora, the unlucky woman caught between the two warring brothers. She brought to bear a rich-hued, lightly tremulous soprano, reminiscent of Old World voices of yore. The high notes didn’t always fall squarely on pitch, but they sailed through the house, and, more important, they were integrated into a strongly flowing musical line. She sounded weaker in the lower register, where some of Leonora’s most wrenching music lies. “Tacea la notte placida,” the nocturnally yearning first aria, flickered out rather than smoldered in the bottom range. Yet, in all, Radvanovsky had more oomph than the last few singers the Met has fielded in this part.
Dolora Zajick has owned the role of the Gypsy Azucena at the Met for almost two decades. On opening night, she let out a couple of distressing sounds in the upper register, but when I came back, later in the run, she was as commanding as in earlier years. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as the count, delivered his principal aria, “Il balen,” with matchless lyric poise, although he struggled to project the character’s vengeful side. Marcelo Álvarez, the Manrico, was a zesty substitute for the true Verdi tenor we’re all still waiting for. Gianandrea Noseda, the conductor, imposed intricate tempo changes that caused trouble on the first night but made for an exceptionally lively interpretation at the subsequent show.
On March 15th, Radvanovsky, Hvorostovsky, Dessay, and Flórez returned to the stage for the Met’s hundred-and-twenty-fifth-anniversary gala, joining two dozen other stars for a four-hour tour of the company’s past glories. Productions from the early years, replete with giant spears and fluttering white doves, were entertainingly evoked; lavish re-creations of vintage costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, showed that latter-day theatrical values aren’t always an advance on the supposed clichés of the past. The evening began with a tribute to the Met’s inaugural 1883 production, of Gounod’s “Faust,” and John Relyea’s Mephistophelean getup, with sporty feathered cap, put to shame the weird rubber suit that René Pape had to wear in the same opera a couple of seasons back. Renée Fleming took possession of a gown resembling one that Maria Jeritza wore in 1921 and sang a deeply lovely Marietta’s Lied, from “Die Tote Stadt.” There were various highs and lows, but the evening belonged to Plácido Domingo, who, at sixty-eight, sings with only slightly reduced power and undiminished passion. In the final scene of “Otello,” Domingo accomplished the ultimate trick of making the theatrical apparatus around him melt away, summoning an imaginary world with the shuddering beauty of his voice. ♦
I didn’t spot Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday. But she would have been heartened by Natalie Dessay’s recital. Here was a beloved soprano, like Ms. Fleming — and who, like Ms. Fleming, is now shifting from the opera to the concert stage — who still sounded recognizably herself yet was still challenging herself, and who was still deliriously received by her fans.
Ms. Fleming, 58, and Ms. Dessay, 52, faced the same problem over the past decade or so. Their voices didn’t much darken or deepen in their 40s, leaving them basically stranded in the ingénue roles they’d been singing since they were young. This was a particular frustration for Ms. Dessay, whose specialty was cute, spunky girls whose vocal lines exploded into stratospheric coloratura, the likes of Zerbinetta in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
Even if your voice holds up, you seem increasingly silly playing Zerbinetta as a 50- or 60-year-old — especially if, like Ms. Dessay, you place more than the usual operatic emphasis on your theatrical bona fides. “It’s not that I’m leaving opera,” she told the newspaper Le Figaro in 2013, during her final run as Massenet’s Manon. “It’s that opera is leaving me.”
When opera leaves you, what’s left? For Ms. Dessay, it has been tours with the French pop and film composer Michel Legrand and some straight theater.
Musicals, too. In 2014, she was Madame Emery in a semi-staged version of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and has played the obsessive Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.” (Ms. Fleming will follow that lead, appearing next season in a Broadway production of “Carousel.”) In “Pictures of America,” a recording released last year, Ms. Dessay attempted a silky Streisand-style float in standards like “On a Clear Day” and “Send in the Clowns.”
But she hasn’t abandoned classical music: A new album of Schubert songs features intriguingly if unremittingly stark interpretations. She made a better impression in some of those songs at Carnegie, with full-bodied collaboration from the pianist Philippe Cassard. Live, the vulnerable yet indomitable persona Ms. Dessay likes to present — that of a victim giving testimony — rounds into a complete, often riveting performance a voice that, when recorded, can come off chilly and charmless.Continue reading the main story