Premieres and Prioresses

The Met’s Carmelites, Dicapo success, and a Messiah

CRYING NUNS John Dexter''s Dialogues des Carmelites. Of uncommon interest at the Met was the house debut in Lucia di Lammermoor of Annick Massis, December 6. Previously heard hereabouts in some Met in the Park Lucia performances and as an admirable Giulietta to Vesselina Kasarova’s wayward Romeo for Eve Queler, the accomplished French soprano proved a charming and thoughtful interpreter. The voice is a shade light and tended to get lost in the duet with Enrico (Anthony Michaels-Moore, whose snarly edge worked better here than in previous Met assignments) and in the Sextet (when she had to compete with, among other things, the truly ghastly sounds emitted by Diane Elias’ Alisa). But elsewhere the voice sounded attractive, reasonably full and evenly placed, with slightly glassy but enjoyable acuti up to high E flat. What really distinguished her from an average light-voiced Lucia was her musicality, the play of expressive accents within the musical phrase. Tall and striking, Massis looked like a figure from a pre-Raphaelite painting and moved with skill and charm, if no great feeling of spontaneity (granted that would be a lot to ask of a cover debutante in this rather moribund production). One could imagine Massis succeeding at the Met as Donizetti’s Norina or Adina; it would also be good to hear her in some of her French 18th century or opéra comique parts in a BAM-sized house. Tenor devalorization reigned around her. As Edgardo, Jianyi Zhang (with a nice timbre in the middle but a constricted top and stiff stage demeanor) sounded like a good Arturo; Eduardo Valdes’ Arturo sounded like a good Normanno; and Roy Cornelius Smith’s Normanno did not sound of Metropolitan caliber—whatever that might mean in an era when Diane Elias and Jane Shaulis (the Younger and Elder Inexplicables) appear constantly in parts once entrusted to secondary singers with attractive timbres and interpretive skill, like Shirley Love and Ariel Bybee. John Dexter’s Dialogues des Carmélites remains one of the house’s great productions, and Poulenc’s shattering piece was given an excellent cast: Patricia Racette, Felicity Palmer, Christine Goerke, Stephanie Blythe, Heidi Grant Murphy and Matthew Polenzani. To my surprise James Conlon’s tempi dragged here and there but the score was well played especially by the oboes and clarinets, who have much Musorgskian commentary in this piece. Having heard many Met performances in two languages (and despite my love for sung French and wish that Glimmerglass, for its part, would desist in presenting French comedies in English) I think Dialogues works best in English just in terms of audience impact and immediacy. Palmer commands wonderful French declamation, and Racette and Polenzani did very well in this respect too; but having most of the public experience the subtleties of the libretto through surtitles definitely has a distancing effect. Racette gave a beautifully judged and sung portrait of Blanche, a difficult role to make as sympathetic as she did. After three decades of a distinguished career, the fabulous Palmer, with trenchant phrasing and still impressive legato shaping of lines, should be a model for any younger singer to relish; she was easily the best Mme. de Croissy the Met has offered since Crespin. In perhaps the richest part (Mère Marie), Blythe made some handsome noises and made clear the woman’s pride and anger; but both in terms of body language and phrasing there is a lot more specificity to be attained here (Mignon Dunn and Judith Forst have set the bar high indeed for Met Maries). Murphy’s voice is not quite what it was in 1994, but for me, Constance remains her best achievement with the company. Reportedly ill, Goerke gave a good character study and sang highly acceptably, though not radiant or secure enough on top. Polenzani was excellent in every way. The Younger Inexplicable managed to mar Soeur Mathilde’s few phrases. Dicapo Opera scored a coup in presenting the U.S. staged premiere of Edgar, Puccini’s second opera. A compendium of dramatic clichés, its character’s have no inner life or inherent interest; but stretches of the music are very compelling and suggest both the composer’s familiarity with French grand opera of the Meyerbeer/Gounod model and the seeds of Turandot, three decades in the future. Great singing can occur in Edgar, as Eve Queler’s Sony recording with Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Scotto in thrilling form attests. The valiant Dicapo troupe double-casts its shows. Tenor Drew Slatton (seen December 14) seemed to view his profession as that of Loud High Note Producer and did not tax himself with such frills as acting or producing a single legato phrase all night. Far more presentable an interpreter, Rosemary Musoleno as Fidelia fielded an average-sounding “red sauce” lyric soprano, though her high pianissimi were impressive. Tigrana, a slattern “Moorish gypsy” who is one part Abigaille, one part Carmen and one part Venus (and thus an ideal Grace Bumbry role!) traffics in enough racist clichés to render the piece unstageworthy even if the plot weren’t so silly; with a churning sound, Lori Brown Mirabal proved spirited if vocally uneven. Easily the best of all was baritone Gregory Keil, a Dicapo stalwart with a fine dark baritone and good presence of which the Lincoln Center companies might take notice. Conductor Louis Salemno knows the idiom but the orchestra was not especially together; the chorus, unusually large for Dicapo’s stage, proved more impressive, a good thing in this piece with its Ponchiellian ensembles. To note: Dicapo tackles Sondheim’s Passion April 25 through May 4. The New York Philharmonic’s Messiah in Riverside Church (heard December 17) was an exciting event in prospect; the venue proved a mixed blessing, festive and lovely to see but overheated and with an acoustic that rendered the fine Westminister Chorus (particularly) scant justice. David Daniels sang very well, but only two arias: “But who can abide” and (especially good) “Thou art gone up on high”. Alto Anna Larsson, striking to see but just OK vocally, did the 10-minute long “He was despised,” which Daniels does on his latest CD. Canadian bass Nathan Berg was the most impressive soloist (he and William Burden cleaned up a few days before in a fleeter Philadelphia Orchestra Messiah under McGegan), with a large sound, excellent articulation and dynamic shading. He and trumpeter Philip Smith stole the show with “The trumpet shall sound”. If the Philharmonic returns to Riverside, maybe trumpet-accompanied cantatas would be the ticket. Richard Croft, a stylish Handelian as ever, sang a shade below his best (a touch of phlegm suggested illness). Elizabeth Futral, while not bad in “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, generally sounded outclassed stylistically and a bit shallow vocally. To ears used to the sublime John Eliot Gardiner recording, Neville Marriner set plodding tempi. Though not a memorable reading, this Messiah was a well-conceived and pleasant event. The rest of the orchestra was back home at Avery Fisher shouldering what proved the less than happy or necessary task of assisting at the world premiere (seen December 19) of Rodion Shchedrin’s retrograde “concert opera” The Enchanted Wanderer. The evening was most notable for the local debut of the excellent Finnish mezzo Lilli Paasikivi, clearly a major vocal artist.