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Strong casting brightens Met season

For the first time in several seasons, the Metropolitan Opera is coming forward with casting that is worthy of the premier opera house in America. The Met now seems aware that last season, in particular, was severely undercast, and, to judge from recent performances, someone in the company is specifically addressing this problem. The evidence: This year's cast triumphed over Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's oppressive staging of Mozart's ``Le Nozze di Figaro,'' which defeated last year's singers. And, later on, Eva Marton was on hand to show New Yorkers what a great Tosca should be.

Along the way, Renata Scotto also made her directorial debut with ``Madama Butterfly,'' in which she also sang the title role.

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Mr. Ponnelle returned to restage his ``Nozze'' production so that it works in the theater as well as for televison cameras.

The best Figaro of today, Jos'e van Dam, gave an object lesson in acting and singing Mozart in a big theater. Susanna was once again played by Kathleen Battle, but in a new guise. Gone is the cooing and the self-consciously pretty singing she displayed earlier in the role. It has been replaced by a pert, multi-faceted characterization, backed by gorgeous, expressive singing.

Also returning was Frederica von Stade -- charming as Cherubino last season, superb this year in every way.

Thomas Hampson, making his debut as the Count, possesses a light baritone that carries well enough, but lacks a real tonal core. He had a hard time making it seem that the arrogance he radiated was true to character.

Elisabeth S"oderstr"om was finally given a chance to offer her much-acclaimed Countess to Met audiences, but how sad it could not have happened when she still had control of her fragile soprano. As it was, her comic timing, refreshingly straightforward acting, and vivid grasp of the recitative style appropriate for Mozart made many moments shine. The arias, though, were at best nip and tuck.

The Franco Zeffirelli staging of ``Tosca'' has been criticized for overshadowing the singers. And with either Hildegard Behrens or Montserrat Caball'e in the title role, that was indeed the case. Given an imposing Tosca (rather than just a big-framed singer), however, the production becomes thrillingly realistic, as Eva Marton demonstrated, despite an unexpected blow to her jaw, which threatened to force her withdrawal from the performance. Even with some vocal blemishes during the first performance, she proved that hers is the best Tosca on the boards today -- imaginatively acted, richly and expressively sung.

Juan Pons came across as a small, hollow-voiced villain who couldn't ride the numerous orchestral climaxes. Pl'acido Domingo was in unusually ringing voice, singing with ardent power (except in a sour third-act aria), and acting with more than his usual all-purpose style. Sad to say, Michael Smartt made a conspicuously poor Angelotti -- unidiomatic of voice and presence. Garcia Navarro conducted the score in a style that allowed for no moments of repose along the way.

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As for ``Madama Butterfly,'' Miss Scotto's staging was traditional, and it was clear she hadn't had enough time to work with the Met chorus.

There's no doubt that Scotto was the greatest Madama Butterfly of the '60s and '70s. But unfortunately, the voice is no longer a manageable instrument, and her acting has taken on an unexpected restraint far too severe for the expanses of the Met.

Vasile Moldoveanu was a solid Pinkerton and Richard J. Clark a routine Sharpless. Nello Santi's erratic ideas about tempos and dynamics seemed more a hindrance than a help to the singers.

At the fifth ``Die Walk"ure'' of the season, it was especially rewarding to note how far conductor James Levine's grasp of Wagner's score has come. The first two acts are now grandiose, richly textured, dramatically gripping, and positively gorgeous to listen to. This ``Walk"ure'' is clearly on its way to being the best there is today.

Most of the cast at this performance was different from opening night. Donald McIntyre as Wotan may not sing the role as well as he used to, but he acts and declaims it affectingly. Jeanine Altmeyer as Br"unnhilde sang effortfully and ended up in total vocal distress by the last act. Thus it was left to Johanna Meier to give a really Wagnerian account of a role: Her Sieglinde was eloquent, forceful, poetic, and strongly sung - in every way an important performance.

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