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MET Opera Simulcasts
  By Stewart Hume
Your Protocol Professionals, Inc. Opera Critic

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It might be fun to plan a quick trip to New York, see a play or two, visit the Frick Museum and catch a couple of operas at the Metropolitan. But, that would take some time and cost rather a lot of money, not to mention aggravation at the airport. So how do we get our culture fix from the Big Apple? We buy tickets for the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts at a theater near you. And, so we did this past week and attended the Met’s new production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann and the Met’s old but wonderful production of Der Rosenkavalier. For about twice the price of a movie, we could sit back in comfortable, orthopedically designed seats and watch live opera in high definition and excellent sound. Unlike most movie audiences, the people who attend these simulcasts are amazingly well behaved, cell phones are rarely heard, and chatter by anyone is shushed at once. Opera protocol prevails.

The Met’s new Tales of Hoffmann was a delight. Conductor James Levine, returning after back surgery, was fully in charge, and he always makes a difference. Offenbach’s score is full of complicated pitfalls, but the Maestro and his glorious Met Orchestra rose above them in true “opera comique” fashion. His cast was superlative. Tenor Joseph Calleja (from Malta) as Hoffmann had mastered the French style of singing and his performance of this difficult role warmed with each scene. Kathleen Kim as the dancing doll Olympia embellished her coloratura with many notes I had never heard sung before by anyone. It was spectacular vocalism and certainly didn't need the distraction of her jumping up and down in time with the music. Anna Netrebko as Antonia (and Stella) was vocal and visual perfection. As a great singing actress she has few equals. Ekaterina Gubanova sang the seductress Giulietta but did not erase my memories of better mezzos in this role.

Bass-baritone Alan Held sang all four villains of this work and rose to the challenge in grand style. But fond memories of Lawrence Tibbett and George London (on Met broadcasts), and James Morris and Sam Ramey on stage remain intact. Nicklausse beautifully sung by Kate Lindsey was visually a puzzlement. As Hoffmann’s muse he was sometimes supportive but at other times seemed to conspire with the villains to bring his friend down – a strange and frustrating interpretation.

This production by Bartlett Scher, with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber seemed to meet the visual demands of this complicated opera. Lighting by James Ingalls was rather dim at times, but choreography by Dou Dou Huang was quite imaginative, and the Met Chorus was superb as usual. There is little doubt this is a long and difficult opera to produce, but the Met rose to the occasion and we didn't have to go to New York to enjoy it.

A few days later, the Metropolitan Opera again covered itself with glory. It was the Saturday matinee performance of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, simulcast in HD. It reached our expectations in nearly every respect. First and foremost, Renee Fleming created the perfect Marschallin, both in voice and appearance. Only Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Kiri te Kanawa could be compared in the same breath. Lotte Lehmann created her own legendary stir, but based on recordings, her vocal delivery was far short of the divine Fleming. The Met production created by Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hare over forty years ago was as perfect as I remembered it to be. Why mess with perfection? The wonderful Met Orchestra under the baton of Edo de Waart reached its usual greatness.

The other musical elements of this performance were as fine as can be heard anywhere today. Octavian was beautifully sung and acted by Susan Graham and in the opera house it must have been convincing. But with close ups in high definition there was no way she could look seventeen or even thirty-seven. And so, there is a trade off with these simulcasts; you must sometimes suspend your disbelief for the sake of the great artistry you are seeing and hearing in live performance.

Christine Schafer looked and sounded lovely as Sophie. Kristinn Sigmundsson was a delightful Baron Ochs and delivered well the high notes of his bass role but could not quite reach those two lowest notes usually considered essential for Ochs. Thomas Allen reached his usual high standards as Faninal. Tenor Eric Cutler delivered his famous Italian aria effectively. All other roles were well performed.

Most of the interviews during the two intermissions were conducted by none other than the jack-of-all operatic trades, Placido Domingo -- absolutely charming. And so he adds yet another jewel in his crown as the greatest and most durable of all opera stars in the history of this art form. With his record number of great tenor roles performed during the past forty years and his many achievements as a conductor of opera, not to mention his management of two major opera companies, he really has no peer. When asked if he didn't find the hours at the Met rather long and exhausting, he responded that there could be no better or more enjoyable place to spend long days than at the Metropolitan Opera. And, what devout opera fan could argue with that sentiment.


Copyright © 2010 Stewart Hume. All rights reserved.




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