Heroic Tenor

BY DAVID SHENGOLD | The wonderful final performance of “Die Walkuere” on February 9 proved the theory that the most important factor in operatic performance is the conductor. The work was prepared and led for five strong but — on the live evidence of the second show and from broadcast snippets — rather odd performances by Lorin Maazel.

The maestro is no tyro when it comes to opera, yet his central focus was clearly orchestral. Donald Runnicles, stepping in while leading rehearsals of this coming month's “don't miss” new production, “Peter Grimes,” assumed the reins for this last “Die Walkuere” only.

Maazel made odd ritardandi in some of Wagner's most forward-charging music; from the first bars of the stormy Prelude to Act One it was clear that Runnicles' reading would be more propulsive. The galvanized orchestra, which had another show to play that night, made it a point to stay and cheer his solo bow, which doesn't happen all that often.

Simon O'Neill provided the surprising wows at the Met.

Runnicles also showed more sensitivity to the singers' needs. James Morris, more moving and effective as Wotan now than when in the full flood of his voice, needed careful dynamic support. Lisa Gasteen has seemingly permanent problems on top that made Bruennhilde's Battle Cry a trial; hers is a generous, likable if hardly Apollonian conception of the part, and Runicles allowed her the breadth to maximize her assets.

Of the “second cast” singers, Michelle de Young sang a dignified, even-voiced, rather soprano-toned Fricka, highly acceptable; her predecessor, Stephanie Blythe, had blown her auditors away in one of the greatest feats of singing the house has recently witnessed.

The big news, however, proved to be the remarkable Siegmund of Simon O'Neill, a tall, burly New Zealander who's been kicking around the house for some time as Placido Domingo's understudy and who had appeared only in the brief, unshowy duties of the High Priest in “Idomeneo.”

I had heard O'Neill clean clocks in the tiny theater at Ireland's Wexford Festival, but this first Met leading appearance confirmed both the arresting size and pleasing tonal quality of his tenor. Completely at home in Wagner's idiom, he sang with a combined fervor and lyricism that made me hope the company has snapped him up for future appearances in roles like Parsifal, Erik, and Laca. O'Neill is a major asset, as other theaters seem to have grasped. Let's hope the current industry obsession with body type does not limit his New York career.

Deborah Voigt, looking great as Sieglinde, sounded happier than she did on the radio under Maazel. Some of the bloom has indeed gone from her tone — due to time or weight loss, one wouldn't care to guess — but when able to phrase broadly her ecstatic farewell to Bruennhilde, she summoned up radiance in her upper register. Her evident collegial pleasure in O'Neill's success was also winning.

Much “looks casting” hype surrounded the Met debut of young Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca, Deutsche Grammophon's latest hope to find another “cover girl” diva á la Anna Netrebko. Garanca, indeed very photogenic, figures prominently in the Met's plans. I wish I had enjoyed her Rosina more in “Barbiere di Siviglia” on February 7. She certainly has a striking tone quality in the lower two thirds of her voice – the top emerged less pleasantly – and demonstrated excellent coloratura. But even without comparison to Joyce DiDonato's ideal performance this spring, Garanca lacked warmth both tonally and as a stage figure — she flounced decently through the motions DiDonato had enlivened on the telecast, an “as if ” performance.

The main problem is her inability to phrase words meaningfully on the musical line. As one friend noted, her reaction to the unexpected, potentially trouble-spelling entrance of Basilio in Act Two might as well have been, “Please pass the mustard.” Those who follow operas only by surtitle might not care – but lack of verbal incisiveness takes its dramatic toll.

Nor could Garanca channel pathos in the several vulnerable moments when Rosina can really warm the heart. This weakness hardly argues for her deployment as the emotional center of “Cenerentola” next year. I'd like to hear this still very young singer in roles like Dorabella and Annio while she grows more fully into her craft.

Franco Vassallo, faceless and dull in “Puitani” and in Philly's “Don Carlo,” showed some animation here as Figaro, and it's certainly a highly presentable italianate baritone, keenly focused on top. Shorn of his testing final aria, José Manuel Zapata was still far less compelling than either of last season's top-notch Almavivas. Has the Met lost track of Kenneth Tarver, who made a fine debut in the part opposite Vassallo in 2005?

The most interesting performances came from two veteran basses maximizing limited tonal resources — Paul Plishka (Met debut 1967), jumping in credibly as Bartolo, and Ruggero Raimondi (Met debut 1970), returning after 19 (!) years. Raimondi's Basilio did some vocal slipping and sliding, but without wobble and with dramatic focus. Both were absolutely on the words.

Textual clarity and intention tell. Knowing no Hungarian, I could still relish the colors that Ildiko Komlosi and Laszlo Polgar brought to their work in the overwhelming “Bluebeard's Castle” that Ivan Fischer and the formidable Budapest Festival Orchestra brought to Avery Fisher on February 10. Bartok's 1911 stunner is not rare in local concert halls, but Fischer's reading was a triumph of stirring playing.

Polgar is a practiced, expressive Bluebeard with a noble, not quite top-flight bass-baritone. Komlosi's rich, complicated timbre, easy high C, and dramatic flair argue for her swift re-engagement by the Met. “Great Performers” like these justify the Lincoln Center Series' name.

David Shengold shengold@yahoo.com writes about opera for many venues.