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Send in the Clowns

The Met goes with the tried-and-true, opening its fall season with Plácido Domingo and the Zeffirelli "Pagliacci" and "Cavalleria Rusticana."

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The comedy is finite: Veronica Villarroel and Plácido Domingo in Pagliacci.  

Can the Metropolitan Opera open a new season festively and still make an artistic statement? It should be possible, but this year the Met didn't even try. Instead, the company dusted off its 30-year-old production of everyone's favorite double bill, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, looking very seedy now but still a memento of Franco Zeffirelli's opera work before it declined into empty window dressing. At some point early in the planning stages, the evening was apparently intended to be a celebration of tenors: Luciano Pavarotti as Canio in Leoncavallo's shocker, José Cura in his Met debut as Mascagni's Turiddu, and Plácido Domingo on the podium. No doubt late-career discretion persuaded Pavarotti not to risk such a taxing role, so Domingo went on in his stead, Carlo Rizzi took over the conducting duties, and Cura appeared as scheduled.

Mostly by default, then, the whole occasion turned into yet another homage to Domingo, and much was made of the tenor who has now surpassed Enrico Caruso's Met record of singing seventeen opening nights. Ah, another meaningless statistic. Even Domingo, who will whip out a date book and give you his astonishing career statistics at a moment's notice, had the grace to point out during a post-performance presentation that Caruso died at age 48, and that, had he lived, he would surely have gone on to set a record no one could ever beat. In any case, Domingo, at 58, can just manage a respectable Canio, although only with the downward transpositions he so frequently makes these days -- sometimes even just for a brief phrase -- that result in some pretty excruciating up-and-down key shifts in the orchestra. Otherwise, his performance was business as usual: carefully husbanded, shrewdly vocalized, and without a shred of spontaneity.

Turiddu may be too short a role to make a fair assessment of Cura, a Domingo protégé and already in hot demand around the world. His basic vocal personality bears a strong resemblance to his mentor's: a voice more lyric than dramatic, with an attractively burnished but covered tone that robs him of the free, ringing top notes an Italian-style tenor should ideally possess. He also takes a rather nonchalant, even slapdash attitude toward the music, perhaps to emphasize the sleazy side of this spoiled Sicilian stud. That Cura can easily do -- he is a born stage animal with built-in sex appeal -- but there's no reason why he couldn't sing with more consistency and achieve the same effect. Save for Dwayne Croft's elegantly vocalized Silvio in Pagliacci, there was not much else to admire, certainly not Dolora Zajick's monotonous bellowing as Santuzza, Veronica Villarroel's hooty Nedda, Juan Pons's crude Tonio, Nikolai Putilin's pitch-shy Alfio, and Rizzi's perfunctory conducting.

Perhaps to atone for this tacky opening night, the Met revived last season's production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron the next evening. The composer's most profound, most moving, and, for some of us, most beautiful twelve-tone score, this opera will always be a work of limited appeal, and the Met deserves credit for staging it at all. I had hoped that a second viewing might win me over to Graham Vick's production, but the whole affair still strikes me as hopelessly inappropriate and trivial. When not wallowing in tiresome private symbols, Vick's cartoon approach just seems deeply silly, especially in the ridiculously staged Golden Calf orgy where West Side Story meets Samson et Dalila. At least James Levine's lovingly prepared interpretation has more emotional core and instrumental color than it did last time, and the two protagonists, John Tomlinson and Philip Langridge, have sharpened their performances considerably. Even so, this lamentable collection of cheap shots surely set the cause of Moses und Aron in New York back a generation.

Domingo returned later in the week for a revival of Verdi's Otello. To groans from the house, Met general manager Joseph Volpe appeared before the curtain to announce that the tenor was suffering from a cold and craved the audience's indulgence. That hardly seemed necessary. Aside from the occasional nonexistent high note snatched at and quickly abandoned, Domingo gave his familiar efficient statement of the part, one that we will all surely miss when he finally retires. Actually, I could name several Otellos from the recent past that I miss far more, all of whom found greater depths of terror, tragedy, and pity in the character than Domingo, not to mention more sheer vocal splendor. Right now, though, in these lean times, Domingo still owns the role, and no successor is in sight.

Iago should not be such a problem to cast, which makes James Morris's stiffly stalking presence here a mystery. Not only does the music lie too high for him, but his bass is also now sounding washed-out and monochromatic, and his ideas about how to play this arch-villain are embarrassingly stagy. Aside from the orchestra under Levine, who seems to have fallen in love with this miraculous score afresh, the evening's principal redeeming feature is Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona. Since Italian sopranos have all but vanished from the international opera scene, it's a pleasure to encounter one whose voice is so clear and unblemished, who phrases with such musical grace, and who makes her language sound so expressive.


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