In Opera, Artistry Matters More Than Size

Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 09:47 AM

'Idomeneo' returns to the Met in March with a brilliant cast. (Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.)

In my most recent article, in which I analyzed the Metropolitan Opera’s 2017-2018 season announcement, I mentioned that the Met seems to be concentrating on a group of talented young sopranos. I probably should have elaborated on a consequence of this that was obvious to me: Because these artists are mostly in the same age group and voice type, the repertory they perform is not as broad as what a world-class opera company might present.

My assertion is not meant as a negative judgment on these singers, including Maria Agresta, Anita Hartig, Angela Meade, Ailyn Pérez, Marina Rebeka, Nadine Sierra, Pretty Yende and Sonya Yoncheva. They are all marvelous. Rather, I was asking myself why there are many kinds of opera that did not find inclusion in the forthcoming season. The answer is that these artists seldom perform early music, contemporary operas or works from Slavic or English-language repertory.

Let’s start with Mozart, which many of these young sopranos have sung. Only seven of his 22 stage works have been given at the Met since 1883: Idomeneo (returning March 6 with a fantastic cast), Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte and La Clemenza di Tito. I have long believed that the next one the company should present is Mitridate, Re di Ponto.

Eight years ago I asked James Levine which Mozart opera he would want the Met to do next and, to my delight, he quickly said Mitridate. He added that it takes time to build a new work into the DNA of the orchestra, which I understand, but would politely reply that the Met has added many new works but they have mostly been more contemporary. I love modern and new opera but wonder whether we are missing a lot by not having masterpieces from the first 150 years of opera, which was born in 1597.

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi, the first great opera composer. The Met has only performed his L’Orfeo, in a single concert performance in English in 1912 (LoftOpera will produce it in June). Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria and L’Incoronazione di Poppea are masterpieces the Met could do honor to.

I think the Met is far behind leading European theaters in not having presented an abundance of works by Handel, whose operas and oratorios are in a class by themselves for their gorgeous music and gripping, often sexy stories.

The first Handel opera at the Met was Rinaldo in 1984, a century after the company was born. It was a vehicle for the talents of a wonderful cast led by Marilyn Horne that included the sensational Met debut of Samuel Ramey. Two years later was a staging of the English-language oratorio Samson with a remarkable performance by Jon Vickers and excellent work from Leona Mitchell and Carol Vaness. Then came Giulio Cesare in 1988 with Tatiana Troyanos in the title role and Kathleen Battle as Cleopatra. It also included countertenors Jeffrey Gall and Derek Lee Ragin. Rodelinda, in 2004, starred Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe and countertenors David Daniels and Bejun Mehta. Finally, in 2013, a new Giulio Cesare with Daniels in the title role, Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra and the excellent mezzo Alice Coote as Sesto. These different works had fine conductors such as Trevor Pinnock and Harry Bicket and directors such as Frank Corsaro, John Copley, Stephen Wadsworth and David McVicar.

What all of these Met Handel productions had in common were singers who were superb musicians possessing one other attribute: big stage personalities. By this I mean that they are charismatic, know how to act without overacting, and how to move in costumes that are often fanciful. These singers all have presence, which has nothing to do with their physical size, looks or other attributes by which too many performers are evaluated nowadays. Different though they are from one another, they are all ideal Handelians, which says a great deal about the genius of this composer.

The other night I attended Handel’s Agrippina in a small space at the Juilliard School. It was a fabulous night, with performers you will hear about again: sopranos Nicolette Mavroleon and Onadek Winan; mezzo-sopranos Avery Amereau and Samantha Hankey; countertenor Jakub Józef Orlinski; baritone Jacob Scharfman; bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum; and bass Andrew Munn. Excellent work was done by conductor Jeffrey Grossman, director Louisa Proske, Beth Goldenberg (costumes), Kate Noll (scenery) and Oliver Wason (lighting).

The scheming Agrippina and all of the opera’s power- and sex-hungry Romans are ready for a bigger audience. Agrippina may one day reach the stage of the Met and, if produced intelligently, will lose nothing in the transition. The set design for such a production does not have to recreate the grandeur of ancient Rome. Most of the story takes place in intimate settings and that is what we need to see. Joyce DiDonato (a great Handelian) would be terrific in the title role with Alice Coote as Nero and Pretty Yende as Poppea.

The excuse I hear for why the Met and other big American companies don’t do more Handel is that their stages and auditoriums are too big. In fact, “large” operas do not have to be in big theaters and “small” operas (whatever that means) do not have to be in small ones. London’s Queen’s (later King’s) Theatre, with a seating capacity of about 1200, saw the premieres of more than 25 Handel operas. In contrast, Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, which has 700 seats, hosted the premieres of Verdi’s Ernani, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra, all of which we now associate with large opera houses. I have seen Aïda (starring Daniela Dessì and Fabio Armiliato) and Falstaff (with Ambrogio Maestri and Barbara Frittoli) in tiny, historic Italian theaters. They were marvelous because great artistry was used to make intimate experiences.

For opera to be compelling on our stages, we should not care about thinking big or thinking small. To honor these masterpieces we must think creatively.

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Comments [5]

Cameleon Live from Dhaka

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Feb. 27 2017 05:16 AM
La Cieca from NYC

Your anecdote about Levine and "Mitradate" is just another example of how the beloved maestro is so desperate for approval he will say anything to anyone. Another example is the smaller Met theater he babbled about for more than 20 years while not lifting a finger to get the project off the ground.

A piece like "Mitridate" would need a major conductor championing it, an A-list star or preferably two, plus an extremely imaginative director. Now that Levine is finally being dragged kicking and screaming out of the Met, you might get your wish, Fred.

Feb. 25 2017 07:59 PM
E. A. from Caribbean

Tamerlano?! Saw it at the ROH in London some years back...full, of beautiful music, true. But an almost uninterrupted and unrelenting procession of TWENTY-EIGHT da capo arias saps the dramatic energy of the story (and that of the unfortunate opera-goer) long before the work draws to its end after what seems like like an eternity!

Feb. 25 2017 08:07 AM
Paul Capon from Thunder Bay, ON

Hi Fred: I like your suggestion about Handal but how about Talermano? This English opera is unique in that it has a juicy part for the tenor, Bajazet. This was actually one of the last tenor roles Placido Domingo picked up - when he was tenor - and preformed in Valencia and Washington/LA. The theme of the opera is also rather timely - conflicting cultures, despots and family relations.

Feb. 23 2017 11:36 PM
Michael Rogers from Vienna

There are a lot of small opera companies serving this role. Check out Opera Lafayette in DC. I attended their marvelous production of Leonore, ou L'Amour conjugal this past Sunday, which is being performed tonight in NYC. Often these smaller companies don't get the support they deserve.

Feb. 23 2017 02:47 PM

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