Opening Notes

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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