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Golden Oldies

With Plácido Domingo onstage and James Levine in the pit, the Met opened its season with a heavy dose of the tried and the true -- a sound decision, as it turned out.

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Highlight Night: Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni in Act 2 of Giordano's Fedora.  

Like the fabled old lady who carefully chooses which jewels to display on grand occasions, the Metropolitan Opera traditionally offers nothing new, risky, or potentially vulgar during the opening weeks of the season. Instead, audiences are presented with a judicious selection drawn from the company's most admired assets -- singers as well as productions. That almost guaranteed yet another opening-night gala starring the indestructible Plácido Domingo, now indisputably the opera world's leading star attraction, this time singing opposite a trio of beloved Met divas: Mirella Freni in Act Two of Fedora, Olga Borodina in Act Two of Samson et Dalila, and Renée Fleming in Act Four of Otello, all lovingly conducted by James Levine.

If there were any complaints about the evening, I didn't hear them, and as far as galas go, this was a cut above most in terms of musical quality. Disturbing reports of Domingo's failing resources have been circulating, most recently from Los Angeles, where he had just sung the strenuous role of Dick Johnson in Puccini's Girl of the Golden West, but all was well at the Met. The tenor began a bit gingerly with Loris's florid song of love to the beauteous Princess Fedora, but he soon limbered up, and the heated duet that ends the act could scarcely have been more secure, vocally centered, or ardently delivered. Perhaps even more amazing was Freni, who freely admits to 67 and asks for no concessions to age. My only problem is that the softly brushed texture of this lovely lyric soprano was never meant to do heavy verismo duty at any time during a long career. Even at that, it is always good to hear such a classy singer still so firmly in charge of her voice, whatever she chooses to sing.

Ever the cautious performer, Domingo seemed more generic and subdued in the Samson hair-cutting sequence, more or less giving Borodina center stage. She took it eagerly, vocally at least; her Dalila never has had much dramatic dimension, but her creamy legato, seductive phrasing, and easy top are just about ideal for this luscious music. The same could be said for Fleming's Desdemona, still the Verdi role that responds most naturally and expressively to her deluxe soprano. She continues to add interesting nuances to the character -- this stressed-out Desdemona hardly went gentle into that good night. If Domingo truly has retired Otello from his repertory, that might explain the extra measure of poignancy he brought to the Moor's eloquent death throes.

Did I say that the Met invariably avoids vulgarity during opening week? Well, I passed on the revival of Franco Zeffirelli's Turandot, still a gaudy tourist trap cluttered with Chinese kitsch the last time I saw it, and opted for the more austere pleasures of Strauss's Elektra. Since she last sang the opera here in concert several years ago, Deborah Polaski has learned much about the title role and her often intractable voice, mostly in terms of how to adjust an unlovely sound to accommodate (fake, some would say) passages that ask for more than she can comfortably handle. Polaski now manages this killing part very shrewdly indeed, and that, along with her declamatory force and a frightening golemlike physical presence, makes her performance an absorbing one. And I've never before seen an Elektra show a sense of humor -- her giddy twitting and teasing of Aegisth as she leads him to his bloody doom is positively hilarious.

Perhaps Polaski's studied Elektra helps make Karita Mattila's Chrysothemis seem an even more frantic thing than it actually is -- like her great predecessor in the role, Leonie Rysanek, Mattila suggests that the younger sister is the real nutcase in this family. She also pushes her voice to its limits -- an exciting piece of singing, but this instrument is too gorgeous to be put to such dangerous uses. Why it has taken so long for Marjana Lipovsek to make a Met debut mystifies me, but it's a treat to see her Klytämnestra at last, another craftily underplayed, richly sung interpretation that tells a great deal more about the character than the usual exaggerated caricature. Alan Held's obsessively driven Orest makes it very clear that he, too, is a member in good standing of this dysfunctional family. While the orchestral playing is hardly flawless, Levine seems to have discovered how to build musical tensions more steadily in an opera he used to conduct in bits and pieces.

Although she's on one of her rare visits to America, Cecilia Bartoli has apparently removed the Met from her itinerary for the time being, so the current revival of Rossini's La Cenerentola, originally staged for Bartoli five years ago, must make do without her. Sonia Ganassi now takes the Cinderella role, with Juan Diego Flórez as her Prince Charming, and those who have seen this couple perform the opera at the Rossini festival in the composer's hometown of Pesaro or have heard the live recording are unlikely to be disappointed.

Ganassi may lack Bartoli's fizzy vocal virtuosity and neon-lit stage personality, but her Angelina conveys its own quiet charm, and Rossini's florid coloratura writing never fazes her. Flórez is, if anything, even more remarkable than he was last season in his Met debut as Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville: an impeccable technician, musical to his fingertips, and a disarmingly natural actor. The three buffo roles are in the expert hands of Simone Alaimo (Don Magnifico), Alessandro Corbelli (Dandini), and John Relyea (Alidoro) with Edoardo Müller and the orchestra providing singer-friendly if rather soggy accompaniments.

Cesare Lievi's production, as rehearsed by Sharon Thomas, continues to be a marvel, full of intelligent wit and wry humor but always with an edge that suggests the opera's darker implications. This is, after all, no fairy story as Rossini tells it, but a domestic tale of an unpleasant household in which Angelina-Cinderella barely survives her stepfather's grasping venality and her stepsisters' abusive behavior. Lievi avoids irritating slapstick and focuses instead on those uneasy relationships that give the action its comic energy and human warmth. It's a wonderful show, and the present cast conveys its vocal and dramatic spirit with barrels of skill and charm.

The Metropolitan Opera Opening Night Gala

Elektra
The Richard Strauss opera; conducted by James Levine.

La Cenerentola
The Rossini opera; conducted by Edoardo Müller.


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