As God and Monsters

Two from the Met’s “Ring” bookend a strong season’s end

Much as I enjoy hearing the Met orchestra play Wagner, I didn’t feel up to a full “Ring” traversal so I elected for the one-off “Das Rheingold” of April 22 and through a friend lucked into May 8’s “Götterdämmerung,” always an apt season closer, though the final stage-collapsing tableaux seemed a little muted this time around.

In “Rheingold,” the vocal honors went—as they often do—to Loge and Alberich; Philip Langridge artful if busy as the flitty Fire God (the clever outsider, what’s more the original flamer) and Richard Paul Fink, whose dense baritone and Edward G. Robinson looks work perfectly here, as the malicious dwarf. James Morris, growly and nasal, but still with something to offer as Wotan, sang louder after every utterance by Alan Held’s stentorian Donner. Held looks and sounds like a Heldenbariton contender but tends to push unduly at the top; his Gunther (in “Götterdämmerung”) made an unusually strong impact for this weak character, but began to tire near the end of an assignment not overly long by the standards of this opera.

I had heard dire accounts of Gabriele Schnaut’s “Walküre” and “Siegfried” showings, and parts of this final Brünnhilde were pretty hard to take (as with many pushed-up mezzos, the middle voice is almost entirely collapsed, and the top is chancy) but she does nothing thoughtless, at least animates her character, and got things together vocally for a satisfactory immolation scene. Jon Fredric West offered energy and creditable vocal substance as Siefgried; Met patrons have heard a lot worse, from more famous names.

The big success here was—as from the production’s beginning—Matti Salminen’s craggy, towering Hagen. This voluminous-voiced Finnish bass made one of the great Met debuts of my experience (King Marke in “Tristan,” January 9, 1981) and has since been one of the company’s true heroes, though seldom sufficiently acknowledged as such. If, as rumored, these “Ring” appearances indeed mark his final performances here, he passes from Met history with honor and strength, powers intact; he will be greatly missed.

Evgeny Nikitin was excellent as the giant Fasolt. This striking Russian bass-baritone seems to fare best in important secondary roles. Yvonne Naef seems a capable stage artist but as both Fricka and Waltraute sounded like an overparted lyric mezzo. Where are the heiressess of Christa Ludwig and Mignon Dunn in such roles? Bring on Stephanie Blythe (who sings the Seattle “Ring” this summer) and Jill Grove. Elena Zaremba looked sexy as Erda and wobbled alarmingly as that Earth Mother and as the First Norn. Whoever cast Jennifer Welch-Babidge as Freia doesn’t understand her pleasant light coloratura voice or the requirements of the role. The company acquired a fine, idiomatic new Mime in the debuting David Cangelosi. James Levine conducted with (sometimes ponderous) grandeur; the orchestra, apart from some horn trouble, sounded generally magnificent.

A brief word on the Met’s second-cast “Don Giovanni” (April 28): I thought the ensemble worked better as a totality than the generally more vocally glamorous first cast, and Andrew Davis’ swift reading was a most welcome change.The tall, lanky Swede Peter Mattei sang the part better than I’ve ever heard it sung and oozed sex appeal and laddish humor—you could almost sense him thinking, “Cool!” when the commendatore’s ghost appeared. Lovely Solveig Kringelborn managed a touching Elvira even though her voice is now in ruins—at times sounding like the legendarily off-form Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on the 1966 Met broadcast. Matthew Polenzani was a major step up from Gregory Turay as Ottavio. The silly, inconsiderate run upstairs Ottavio is asked to do—which excited certain critical praise for Turay—came harder for Polenzani. Why build something like that into a staging? What if, say, the now pretty hefty Stanford Olsen could ever be induced to return as Ottavio? Anyway, Polenzani’s clarion contribution to the Sextet suggested that he’ll be moving on to heavier roles very soon.

On May 1, Carnegie Hall played host to a splendidly impressive concert by Robert Spano’s Atlanta Symphony; the centerpiece was Vaughn Williams’ Whitman-texted “Sea Symphony,” a work of high calorie optimism that’s one of this orchestra’s Grammy-winning showpieces. As on the CDs, Canadian baritone Brett Polegato made a good showing. Christine Brewer sounded, as is her wont, just fabulous—soaring through the high soprano tessitura like Leontyne Price. Brewer, too, made one of the great Met debuts of recent years, as Ariadne last season. When is the company bringing her back?

But the real star attraction was the magnificent Atlanta chorus, built by the legendary Robert Shaw and clearly well-maintained by Norman Mackenzie; their soaring power and remarkable pinpoint dynamic control are experiences not soon forgotten.

Manhattan School of Music pulled off something of a coup with the first U.S. staging of “Mirandolina”—by Bohuslav Martinu, the 20th century’s second-greatest (after Janácek) and most eclecticly cosmopolitan Czech opera composer. Completed in 1954 and first staged five years later, the piece draws on a Goldoni comedy of the 18th century, and must represent one of few successful attempts by a non-Italian since Mozart to pull off an Italian-language operatic comedy—basicallly an amatory farce about an irresistable innkeeper who wins all male hearts, including that of a Benedick-like woman-hating Cavaliere. This “Mirandolina” (May 2) must be one of the best-designed conservatory stagings I have ever seen—David Newell’s set, with an ever-changing window/door/wetbar unit, and Miranda Hoffmann’s costumes were fresh, bright and witty, with wigs (Gerard Kelly) and make up ( Jayson Hayes) better than one sometimes sees at Lincoln Center. After an opening scene in which it seemd like all of Morandolina’s suitors were going to be onstage all afternoon, Sam Helfrich’s production was inventive and lively, but always at the service of the dramaric through line—there was none of the “funny business for its own sake” that ruins so many comic opera stagings.

Both leads showed considerable vocal accomplishment and promise for the future. In the title role, Elaine Alvarez held center stage with unfakeable charm, pointed phrasing, and language in her eye. Her big bright soprano has an individual timbre that’s quite impressive. One can hear her stepping into Musetta, Nedda, and Alice Ford—with maybe Strauss on the horizon if she can rein in the vibrato in her uppermost notes a bit. Liam Bonner, pale and bearded like the Flying Dutchman or Amfortas, made a sexy foil as the Cavaliere, showing a well-produced baritone—a potential Onegin here.

As the two other aristocratic suitors, Charles Temkey fielded an imposingly booming basso buffo and Trey Cassels (as dapper as a Noël Coward hero) let fly a very fine lyric tenor, with good control of line and dynamics. In this lively company, Jinho Hwang did not register a sharp enough profile dramatically as the faithful servant Mirandolina eventually settles for. But Meredith Flaster (with a nicely focused soprano) and dusky-voiced Nicole Mitchell proved great fun as actresses pretending to be noblewomen; they moved like gigantic gift-wrapped perfume bottles in two of Hoffmann’s greatest inspirations. The level of the Italian diction was commendably high. One would never have guessed that conductor David Gilbert took this assignment on short notice when Martinu devotee Neil Goren had to drop out for medical reasons; his considerable experience with these players and in non-mainstream twentieth century scores clearly held him in good stead.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes for Playbill, Time Out New York, and Opera News, among other venues.

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