Sunday, May 25, 2014

New York's Opera Season Ends (II)

Back to the Met: I'll let Mr. Tommasini describe the singing (splendid - no disagreement there!). I'll share my thoughts about several wonderful highlights, including Nico Muhly's "Two Boys," a fresh and very modern spooky story set to a lovely score. Muhly writes in a wide-variety of "styles" and I'm especially taken with his choral music. Very important work (coming to New York - with slight revisions - from a 2011 premiere at the English National Opera) and I'm pleased we had it here.

We had three Strauss jewels, and since I'm a major Straussian I was very happy. I had missed my Strauss when his works were excluded to make room for the 200th-anniversary Verdi and Wagner performances (and truth to tell, the new Wagner "Ring" in the 2011 and 2012 seasons sort of got the lion's share of the attention - 'way too much for what we had in the cycle itself). But we made up for it this year, with the splendid and almost overwhelmingly beautiful "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" in the autumn. This has to be one of the most beautiful operas ever written, and this thirteen-year-old Herbert Wernicke production - not seen for ten years - must be one of the loveliest to look at of all the productions done for this opera. So well performed, and if the season had had a single highlight, this would have been it.

And we also had the last performances of "Der Rosenkavalier" - the beautiful but, yes, worn-out Robert O'Hearn production of 1969. A great, great lavishly visual production, but it was time to go and - quite coincidentally - we were there for the last performance. Of course I loved every minute of it, and since it was the first of many productions of this great opera I ever saw, I will miss it, but I will do without this production. And it will be great fun to see what the new production - when it comes - looks like. I'm wondering if any other production at the Met has lasted 45 seasons and still looked this good.

Our final Strauss was the gorgeous "Arabella," sung so well at the house just last month. Another well-done and long-lasting production (by Otto Schenk in 1983), the show looks good. I felt the cast was very good, although there were some commenting on these performance who would not rank the singing with Tommasini's singing highlights of the season. I didn't feel that way, and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

What else? Two very special new productions, in addition to "Two Boys," made us sit up and take notice. Like the Las Vegas rat-pack "Rigoletto" of last season, the new "Falstaff" blew us away. Replacing Franco Zeffirelli's 1964 production (yes, even older than that "Der Rosenkavalier" I referred to above!), this was set in post-WWII England and - as much as we resisted - it worked, with splendid singing and, well, just an overall fun and musically satisfying evening. The new "Werther" also pleased, and once again all of us were impressed with the overall ensemble work done at the Met.

And the happiest opera experiences, it seems, came at the end of the season. We had a great time with "La Cenerentola" and even though it wasn't a happy-ending opera like "Cenerentola," the last night performance for the season was "I Puritani," another one of the greats. And clever scheduling, on the part of the Met (although I'm joking - I'm sure it was only coincidental) the last day of performances was "standing-ovation" day at the opera house.

The afternoon performance was "La Cenerentola" and it proved - from the first performance in April - to be the popular hit of the season. We were at the first performance, with Javier Camarena singing the prince for an ailing Juan Diego Florez. Camarena was spectacular, and the ovation went on so long we thought we would have an encore (that happened in future performances). For the last matinee, Florez had come back to the performances, so that afternoon seemed to generate some excitement that carried over into the evening.

As I said, the last performance of the season was "I Puritani" and this time the spectacular tenor was Lawrence Brownlee in a performance that had us all on the edge of our seats with excitement. No encore this time, but his singing definitely ranked with that of Camarena and Florez in "La Cenerentola," giving lots of talk in New York about a new version of "the three tenors." Silliness aside, they were all just terrific as we ended the season. I think Mr. Guy gives a little bit of edge to Brownlee.

And what memories that old 1976 production brought back. Starring Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, and James Morris, it was one of the highlights of my opera-going younger days. And when brought back ten years later to celebrate Joan's 25th anniversary at the Met, it was still a delicious experience to hear. No matter that the production is not one of the Met's best productions, it works (and it worked then) and whenever I hear this splendid opera I can't help but remember the glorious singing of Dame Joan. Ah, she is missed.

So we move on. I love to hear older opera lovers talk about the "golden age" of opera (it's always the time when they were nearing middle age and were hearing that generation's best singers), and I love to think about how what we hear is different for all of us. I'm not threatened by the Met's sharing house performances with audiences in "movie theater transmissions," and, yes, for me and most of my generation, we prefer the opera house. But whatever the situation is, for viewing and hearing the opera, I think we're pretty lucky, as this past season proved. And for those of us living in New York, I continue to be amazed - and appreciate - what is done for us at our great opera house here in New York. We're very lucky.

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