Opening Notes


Wednesday, September 28, 2011 - 03:22 PM

Outside the opening night gala of the Met Opera Outside the opening night gala of the Met Opera (Stephen Nessen)

The opening night of the Metropolitan Opera is one of those signal events--like the first crack of the bat in baseball season, the arrival of the first cherries of spring, the turning of the leaves in autumn, and Thanksgiving--that suggests that things can still be all right in a confusing and turbulent world.

I had attended every Met opening between 1979 and 2009. When the Met opened its 2010 season with its new production of Das Rheingold, I was in Greece on important business, but my thoughts and heart were back home in New York. Everybody was talking about “The Machine” that has become the omnipresent centerpiece of the Met’s new Ring Cycle production and the glorious singing from a cast led by Stephanie Blythe, Bryn Terfel and Eric Owens. For me, these were but a distant Facebook echo.

I resolved to start a new streak of opening night attendance this season as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena finally joined the Met repertory. As someone who adores bel canto, it was an auspicious way to resume my opening night tradition. On Operavore, most reviewing is the purview of my colleague Olivia Giovetti, so this dispatch is a report of impressions from an opening night veteran.

The cast was more Moscow than Manhattan. It was led by three Russian speakers: Anna Netrebko (Anne Boleyn), Ekaterina Gubanova (Jane Seymour) and Ildar Abdrazakov (King Henry VIII). I began to think of the opera as Anna Bolenskaya until someone told me that bolen means “ill” in Russian. Thankfully, all seemed in robust health and voice. But it must represent some kind of breakthrough for singers from the former USSR that they would so dominate the stage of this great opera house on its gala opening.  

While I have heard a fair amount of bel canto in Russian theaters (including a young Netrebko as Lucia in St. Petersburg), it is an entirely different experience in New York where a large contingent of Italians at the Met should wield some influence on style and content. In this production, the only Italian was the much-admired conductor Marco Armiliato in the pit.

This leads me to a couple of delicate topics. I have described previously the worrisome lack of great singers coming out of Italy and one feels that acutely when bel canto is being sung. But I have a concern that is strictly about the Met. In the Anna Bolena cast, just about everyone desperately needs to go for some Italian language training, although tenor Stephen Costello (right, who sang Lord Richard Percy) was better than his colleagues.

This problem is not specific to Anna Bolena, but something that has grown in recent seasons. I speak fluent Italian and have a good working knowledge of French and German. Yet, at the Met, I find myself consulting the projected titles much more at Italian-language performances than I do in opera’s other two chief languages. The Met seems to have excellent coaches in French and German, so I can listen for long stretches and know exactly what they are saying in Bizet, Offenbach, Wagner and Strauss. By contrast, I often cannot make out a word when Italian is being sung.

Now I can hear some of you say, “What does it matter how well they pronounce the Italian if they can sing the notes? We can always read the titles.” To which I would reply that all composers, and certainly those who wrote bel canto, were inspired not only by the meaning of the words but the sound of the words, which is where part of the music resides. When you hear recordings of bel canto performances by the Italians Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti and Ferruccio Furlanetto and the Americans Maria Callas and Marilyn Horne, you know that they are singing about something

Listen to Horne sing a live performance of “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Even if you do not speak Italian, you can repeat what she is saying because every consonant and vowel is clear, even when she delivers a cascade of note-perfect coloratura. The words become music, and that is what real opera singing is all about.

I have observed in previous posts that Italy is producing many great conductors right now. Once upon a time, a maestro whose native language was Italian, French, German, Czech or Russian would rehearse his singers and participate in the shaping of the performance in linguistic as well as musical terms. Few conductors now have the time to carefully train singers in language, but I do wonder if an Italian conductor at the Met would feel empowered to take a singer aside and help her improve her diction and usage in at least the major arias. This would have made many recent performances of standard repertory such as Aïda and Tosca much more meaningful.

Traditions, Both Bygone and Emerging

There is an older Metropolitan Opera tradition that has vanished from recent opening nights, and it is lamentable. Once upon a time, a photographer would arrive on stage and take a pre-performance picture of the orchestra and conductor in the pit and the four thousand members of the audience. These photos are precious documents that represent a form of continuity. It is a way for the people in the future to see who was there, what they looked like, and how the auditorium looked (there have been design changes through the years, but that is for another post). Please bring back the annual opening night photo!

There are very nice new traditions being formed at recent Met opening nights. The live video transmission to a screen on Lincoln Center plaza and other venues has created a sense of occasion that is all to the good and is much-copied elsewhere. The host was the always charming Deborah Voigt. It is also a delight that the cast, after having taken their bows onstage, come out to the Grand Tier terrace in costume and get a standing ovation from the three thousand people seated outside.

I have enjoyed, especially in recent seasons, seeing opera stars in the audience. I spotted Barbara Frittoli (looking beautiful), Ramón Vargas and Bryn Terfel. Seeing them there provides a sense of reassurance that we will soon have these treasured artists onstage in works such as Don Giovanni and Siegfried.

One also notes who was not in the audience. I keenly felt the absence of Agnes Varis, who died this summer. Dr. Varis is my idea of what a board member of an arts organization should be. She had strong egalitarian instincts and played a major role, with her money and influence, in making tickets available to people young and old at manageable prices. She also underwrote new productions of operas such as Dr. Atomic and Satyagraha that more traditional funders would consider too esoteric or controversial. I had some contact with her at the Jazz Foundation of America, where she was known as Saint Agnes for her benevolence in helping elderly and destitute jazz and blues musicians who never profited from the great art they created.

Although James Levine was not scheduled to conduct Anna Bolena, one always thinks of him while listening to the Met orchestra that is his greatest achievement. His medical challenges in recent times have been well-documented and he has withdrawn from leading the new productions of Don Giovanni and Siegfried. May his recovery be swift and thorough.

Photo credits: Stephen Costello as Lord Percy in Donizetti's 'Anna Bolena': Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Simulcast on Lincoln Center Plaza: Stephen Nessen


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Comments [15]

Fred Plotkin

To Anne Mendelson: Joan Sutherland's Italian diction was far from perfect (and she was often criticized for it), but it was much better than the current cast of Anna Bolena or just about every other Met performance in Italian. At the moment I am listening to a 1962 live Met performance of Tosca on WQXR. I can understand every word Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli and Cornell MacNeil are if it were a play.

Oct. 08 2011 03:00 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

How could I forget Lady Macbeth walking on chairs. What stupid staging. And they were dressed to look like Serbs. Part of the charm is that it is about Scotland. Verdi even wrote some bagpipe music when images of future kings of Scotland would rule. Yes, too much staging is influenced by Europe. I actually saw a Traviata whereby Violetta is a bag lady living on the streets. It was on Italian tv.

Oct. 02 2011 11:04 AM
Anne Mendelson from North Bergen

Bad Italian diction -- has anyone ever been more unintelligible in any language than Joan Sutherland?

Oct. 01 2011 07:00 AM
william pagenkopf from flushing, ny

Yes diction can be bad but staging is what bother me/ Mr. G. picks very few that have respect for composer intentions.
I do not think Lady Macbeth was supposed to walk on chairs as she sleep walks.
Donizetti says in score that during sextet all should remain still, yet we have a photo session taking away the attention of singers expression, those that have them.
It seems these directors have studied what we cakk Euro trash, updating to the point of ridiculous. On a more personal point, except for Wagner which we prepare for, Alfred Hitchcock said a film should not exceed the capacity of a bladder, Putting together acts results in people leaving during performance, disturbing all, and not getting back in.

Sep. 30 2011 10:07 AM
Christine from New York City

I attended the open dress rehearsal of Anna Bolena. I'm only slightly fluent in Italian and I admit my ears were pricked to listen to if Ms. Netrebko was able to trill or not (... mostly not) so I can't really say how good her Italian pronunciation is. I have some excerpts from her Salzburg Traviata, and it seems fine to me, but then again, I know every line of that opera so someone could be signing it in Chinese and I would know what they're saying.

There are some Slavic singers with high amounts of italianita in their singing- Edita Gruberova and Dmitri Hvorostovsky come to mind.

Also, the Simone Boccanegra of January 2011 was probably the best night of Verdi singing and Italian enunciation I've heard at the Met. It's wonderful when that happens.

Thanks for your observations.

Sep. 29 2011 02:18 PM
Mike Robbins from New York City

I was fortunate to be in the plaza Monday evening to see and hear this sparkling performance. Thank you Mr. Gelb. As far as diction is concerned, just listen to Carlo Bergonzi singin Italian songs and you will know what supremo means.

Sep. 29 2011 02:11 PM
Concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

appropro of the bad pronounciation(?). I listened to a recording last week on QXR featuring Ms. Netrebko (forgot which aria) and could not understand her. I am fluent in Italian and have read many scores in the past so that I know quite a few of the words. Was wondering which language she was singing in. Was too busy to send a comment about this.

Sep. 29 2011 10:04 AM
Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti from Florence

It is veary sad that here in Italy there is not enough music going on in schools, that would lead to form more italian singers...... tu metti il dito nella piaga..... caro Fred
I am fine with non italian born singers doing italian opera, but treating the music just as notes with only a superficial proounciation of italian is not good enough....... the understanding of the deep ties between the language and the notes is key to any interpretation and the only way to render the deepest feelings and emotions in opera

Sep. 29 2011 04:13 AM
Frank Feldman

Dazzling and disappointing seem appropriate words to describe Ms. Voight. Except for the dazzling part.

Sep. 29 2011 02:38 AM
meche from MIMA

I'm so glad you said that Fred. I thought the problem was ME or the fact that I watched and listened via HD--but I had trouble understanding also and it impaired my appreciation. I agree that SC was the best of the bunch. But the entire production seemed static to me. And does a "dark" story truly need such a dark production. I will see it live on Monday and withhold final judgment.

Sep. 29 2011 02:20 AM
michael from usa

so wish they would do a visual webcast of opening nights. as they obviously have cameras in place for the plaza and times square showings i would think a webcast quite feasible.

Sep. 29 2011 01:13 AM
val saalbach

Thank you, Fred, for this insightful article. I am struck by your candor in speaking about the Italian language that pours over the pit. It is so important that the vowels are clear and brilliant, as they carry the emotion of the the phrase. Too often, with non Italian singers, the emotional content is exaggerated, and therefore inauthentic, without clarity of vowel.
And for your sake, please get out that camera for opening night!!

Sep. 29 2011 12:33 AM
Esteban from Spanish Harlem

Anna Bolena is an Italian language opera??? I was at opening night and that was far from clear to me. Part of the problem may have been that the singers poor diction was further clouded by the fact that they spent most of the performance singing with their backs to the audience!

Sep. 28 2011 09:28 PM

Thank goodness they had Debbie Voigt as the host this year. The first year, whomever was running the red carpet didn't know who Marilyn Horne was... it was horrifying.

Sep. 28 2011 08:36 PM
R. Neil Haugen

Thank you for your article on the 'feel' of the Met opening. For so many of us, living thousands of miles away and surviving for our "Met" fix on the Saturday radio matinees and now an occasional 'movie theatre' b-cast, it is a joy to hear from someone actually in the house.

I understand the comments about language ... I am NOT an Italian-speaker, but as an amateur singer, do work at being as good in other languages as possible ... and yet even I have noted recent Met b-cast performances where the Italian of a singer was no better than mine ... and it saddens me. Yes, the proper SOUND of the language is an intentional and integral part of the musical/artistic/emotional experience of the performance.

And yes, the new year has begun, the Met's in the house!

Sep. 28 2011 07:29 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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