Verdi Ve Go From Here?

Gala: Plácido Domingo and Veronica Villarroel in Otello at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Metropolitan Opera’s opening night, titled A Celebration of Giuseppe Verdi, inevitably had a very different tone than the gala event originally intended. Art always takes on a special meaning for a nation under stress, a fact that Verdi knew better than most composers and the reason why he was a hero to his countrymen when Italy was in extremis during the nineteenth century. Would that we now had an opera composer who, at one stroke, could both express the national feeling and explore the human heart and mind with comparable lyric genius. That ability is why Verdi’s operas continue to belong to us all, and their compassionate understanding of who we are and why we do what we do makes them more valuable than ever right now.

That certainly occurred to me more than once as I watched the Met’s potpourri selection from three great operas: the opening act of Un Ballo in Maschera, Act III of Otello, and the final act of Rigoletto. The central panel of this triptych was the most moving, in part because this is the scene that shows a great hero at his most tragic, a man whose exceptional capacities for leadership, love, and responsibility have been poisoned, perverted, and sidetracked beyond recall. Despite his long association with Otello, Plácido Domingo has never fully penetrated the passion and terror that lie at the heart of this character, but on this occasion he allowed himself to get closer to the core than I’ve ever seen him do before. Not only was his acting nuanced and committed, but his vocal command of the notes, some admittedly transposed down for comfort, was also complete. With Veronica Villarroel’s achingly expressive Desdemona, Nikolai Putilin’s vicious Iago, and James Levine’s eloquent conducting, the whole sequence was simply shattering.

The remainder of the evening was never less than satisfactory, although there were frequent reminders – if more were needed – that we do not live in a golden age of Verdi voices. Even at that, I heard enough of Neil Shicoff’s Gustav III in Ballo to be curious to hear him sing the complete role, preferably in a smaller house; his assured vocal presence and dramatic grasp of this complex personality promises much. Larissa Diadkova’s formidable Ulrica was another plus, but Deborah Voigt’s billowy soprano does not sculpt a Verdian phrase with the same precision and naturalness it does the music of Wagner or Strauss, while Frederick Burchinal sounded strictly minor-league as Anckarström. The less said about the final act of Rigoletto the better, although I hope we will be hearing more from Daniela Barcellona, who made her Met debut as Maddalena. That small role hardly begins to show the full range and quality of this deluxe coloratura mezzo-soprano voice, one that has recently starred in Rossini’s florid operas at the Pesaro festival.

It was thoughtful of the City Opera to mark Bellini’s 200th birthday with one of his less frequently seen works, The Capulets and the Montagues, a joint production with companies in Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Israel. This, of course, is the composer’s Romeo-and-Juliet opera, although it has no direct relationship to Shakespeare’s play – Bellini’s librettist, Felice Romani, borrowed from the same Renaissance sources as the Bard and devised a drama that shares only the basic plot details. Unsuspecting operagoers expecting a more literal Shakespearian experience will be further baffled by the production itself, directed by Thor Steingraber and designed by Robert Israel. A bizarre concept is at work here, one that relocates the action to pre-Fascist Italy, when feuding families presumably went after each other with rifles and rich-cat Capulets, dressed in tuxedos, read the daily stock returns. None of this sheds the slightest illumination on what Bellini was after, a classic case of updating an opera just for the hell of it.

Luckily, the singers do not seem unduly distracted by their irrelevant surroundings. Sarah Connolly, in fact, looks quite smashing as an ardent teenage Romeo dressed in her stylish prep-school suit. She sings the music exquisitely, too, spinning smooth-as-silk bel canto phrases with her evenly modulated, expressively textured mezzo-soprano. Her voice blends to perfection with Mary Dunleavy’s silvery soprano, which glistens like a ray of moonlight in Giulietta’s gorgeous arias. As long as these two are onstage, the production’s brainless premise hardly seems to matter. There is strong support from tenor Raul Hernandez (Tebaldo), John Marcus Bindel (Lorenzo), and Jan Opalach (Capulet), while the orchestra, led by Joseph Rescigno, sings and breathes naturally with the singers, precisely as an ideal Bellini accompaniment should.

Both of Alban Berg’s operas rank as James Levine specialties, and both are in the Metropolitan’s repertory this season for a few performances each. Wozzeck has already come and gone – apparently, selling this haunting study of a wretched soldier who murders his sluttish mistress to Met subscribers continues to be a challenge – but the memory is still worth recalling. The orchestral work only improves with each repetition, as does Levine’s own commitment to the opera. I find that heartening in a conductor whose engagement with music is often more focused on obtaining instrumental excellence than on discovering the interior life of a score. In this revival, though, Levine seemed to be looking well beyond the notes for once, and the savage power of his interpretation was deeply moving.

It’s now the sensible custom to play this brief three-act opera without intermissions, 100 minutes of unbroken, concentrated intensity for which the singers must be grateful as well as the audience. I still find the production – direction by Mark Lamos, sets by Robert Israel – excessively remote, an abstract approach that succeeds only in turning the drama into a bizarre comic-strip nightmare. Even at that, Falk Struckmann’s Wozzeck emerges as a deeply disturbing figure, partly because he sings the part so beautifully, and Katarina Dalayman finds poignancy in Marie that her predecessors missed. In the end, though, the evening belongs to the Met orchestra.

A Celebration of Giuseppe Verdi
Opening night of the Metropolitan Opera.
The Capulets and the Montagues
The opera by Bellini, at the New York City Opera.
The opera by Berg, at the Metropolitan Opera.

Verdi Ve Go From Here?