Sweet-Natured Moor

Ben Heppner, center stage, in Act Two of Verdi’s Otello. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Neither the Metropolitan Opera nor the New York Philharmonic likes to take chances on opening night of the season—risks and novelties are saved for later. So, the Met settled for its familiar and safely traditional gilt-edged production of Verdi’s Otello and placed it in the sure guiding hands of James Levine, whose interpretation of this masterpiece is by now seasoned, to say the least—he first conducted the opera here 32 years ago, at the tender age of 29. No, the performance’s lone question mark was Ben Heppner in the title role, a challenge he has only recently taken up, and one that had even his most ardent fans holding their breath.

Not to worry. Heppner’s tenor never once threatens to crack under pressure. Its characteristic texture remains consistently sweet but powerfully true in every scene, and there is no lack of lovely musical refinements to savor. I’m not sure, though, that a “lovely” Otello is what one really wants to hear, and Heppner seems almost too good-natured as he storms the stage in his jealous rages. Then, too, the ideal voice for this heroic part needs the sort of declamatory clarion brilliance that the Italians call squillo, a quality that Heppner’s otherwise top-quality instrument lacks. I suppose that’s quibbling. Even Plácido Domingo’s classic Moor never had much to offer in the way of burning italianità—come to think of it, there hasn’t been an important Italian tenor on hand to sing the role at the Met since Mario Del Monaco, in 1958. Never mind. In the here and now, Heppner will do nicely, and perhaps with time he will discover more of the character’s interior demons.

Not that Carlo Guelfi is especially successful in teasing out the baser nature of this Otello. Guelfi’s Iago is a dull dog, with only a native’s idiomatic command of the text to give his portrayal a sense of danger or dramatic authority. Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona, on the other hand, looks like an exquisite Venetian Madonna, using her coolly poised, unblemished soprano to shape phrases in ways that broke more than one heart. It’s actually been a while since Levine last addressed this score (the most recent Met outing of Otello, you’ll recall, was one of Valery Gergiev’s more unfortunate helter-skelter encounters with a non-Russian opera). The sabbatical has clearly been beneficial, and Levine’s interpretation is back on form, sounding much refreshed and instrumentally on the mark.

The dynamics of a symphony orchestra can often be mysterious. A hundred players may hate the man standing in front of them, and still perform like angels. From all reports, discontent with the music director is not currently a problem among the ranks of the New York Philharmonic, a famously unruly orchestra that has never been shy about telling the world what it thinks of conductors. Apparently the honeymoon with Lorin Maazel is still on, since the musicians continue to reward him with a level of technical control that is often breathtaking. And Maazel achieves all this while conducting from memory, even when the score is an obscure, rhythmically tricky, and coloristically subtle one like Messiaen’s Les Offrandes Oubliées, at the second concert of the season.

“Maazel conducts from memory, even when the score is obscure and rhythmically tricky.”

The opening-night gala held no such terrors for anyone, audience and musicians alike—Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony are guaranteed crowd-pleasers, and probably only a few grumpy music critics came away feeling that something may have been lacking. In the Beethoven, Maxim Vengerov dug into the solo part with all the romantic abandon and polished virtuosity of a young man still in love with the music, which seemed rather at odds with the chillingly perfect, micromanaged orchestral accompaniment. The Dvorák symphony, too, had plenty of instrumental drama but not much heart. It’s great to hear the Philharmonic playing at the top of its game, but a moment of reckless spontaneity would be welcome now and then.

Sweet-Natured Moor