Andrew Stenson and Ying Fang in the Juilliard production of Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Aulide.” | MARTY SOHL
BY DAVID SHENGOLD | The Metropolitan’s seemingly endless run of the 1982 Zeffirelli “Bohème” resumed January 15 after more than a month’s lapse. Riccardo Frizza had trouble holding together ensemble; rehearsals for cast members new or returning from past seasons must have been minimal. The performance dragged and just didn’t quite gel.
French tenor Jean-François Borras — who memorably jumped in last year for Jonas Kaufmann in “Werther” — won himself a return as Rodolfo. It’s a clean, pleasingly heady sound, perhaps better suited here to slightly lighter French or Italian works, but he performed capably. Unlike most Rodolfos, he bravely essayed “Che gelida manina” in its original key; he made its climactic high C, briefly lost it, and then found it again. Thereafter he pointedly let loose on high notes. Overall, Bourras offered a good characterization.
The much-ballyhooed Kristine Opolais continues a puzzlement. She is certainly telegenic, presenting Mimi as a kind of goth Nicole Kidman, unsparingly realistic in showing her physical weakness even in the early acts. Opolais commits to enacting her characters with maximum conviction. But, though she plainly knows what she’s singing, I heard no particular mastery of verbal infection. More troublingly, even for increasingly looks-driven audiences, she just didn’t sing very well. Opolais’ upper octave is quite lovely and allows bloom on high notes. Lower down the sound was cloudy and empty. She did improve, managing a gracefully done Act Three (the heart of this drama), but the essential low notes for Mimi’s searing “Sono andati” emerged manufactured. Can this talented “singing actress” muster the purely vocal chops to succeed at the Met?
Verdi’s “Requiem” a highlight of Philharmonic season; Juilliard treats with Gluck’s “Iphigénie”
Musetta was Marina Rebeka, fresh from a run of satisfying Violettas. Curiously inaudible at first, her voice clicked in just in time for a solid enough Waltz Song with lots of personality; she did better thereafter. Mariusz Kwiecien’s sexy Marcello was welcomely detailed in both motion and verbal point; he drove his fine baritone a little harder than needed. In Alessio Arduini, the company has found a suitable, stylish Schaunard. This wasn’t a special evening.
The next night marked a high point of the New York Philharmonic season: a wonderful performance of the Verdi “Requiem,” truly one of the most enjoyable classical vocal pieces extant. Critics have long pointed to the work’s “operatic” nature — if you’re looking for an inward evocation of Heavenly Peace, head for Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem” — but the theatricality of Verdi’s score, best experienced in a live concert, just adds to its magnificence and power. The trumpets were arrayed in the balconies of Avery Fisher Hall and Alan Gilbert stressed the showy aspect of the music, but the smooth and precisely coordinated New York Choral Artists brought forth the needed dignity and fervor.
Angela Meade proved in remarkable form, her dark soprano attractive and even thrilling over a high dynamic span. Her precise attacks were most welcome. I heard several audience members make comparisons with Montserrat Caballé, and they were merited.
We rarely hear Finnish star Lilli Paasikivi in this country, and that’s a shame as she boasts one of the most beautiful mezzo-soprano voices to be heard today, notable for a rich supply of tone colors and outstanding technical ability.
Tenor Russell Thomas subbed well for Brandon Jovanovich. Already the veteran of several Verdi roles, his high notes are magnetic and full. If not quite the master of dynamics his three colleagues were — the sound in the (ideally) floated “Hostias” section emerged a bit throaty — Thomas made an impressive showing.
Eric Owens’ expressive bass-baritone limned the music’s contours — trill and all — with remarkable intensity, uttering the Latin text with a deep feeling rare in performances of any sacred music.
If Meade emerged the special vocal dazzler of the quartet, Paasikivi and Owens shared honors for musicianly channeling of Verdi’s masterwork’s emotional wallop.
Original stars Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna returned to Richard Eyre’s rather ugly, risibly over-choreographed “Carmen” production after several years and — thanks in large part to Louis Langrée and his orchestra, giving Bizet’s genius its due — it made a very pleasant Met evening (February 9).
Garanca must be one of the most purely sonorous Carmens in recent decades, and one longs to hear her luscious voice in the heavier repertory she’s promised to undertake. She looked beautiful and danced at least respectably. But one didn’t believe her as dangerous or fate-obsessed for a single moment.
Alagna by contrast conveys José’s journey to ruin with convincing passion. His French diction is always a joy and, for a 51-year old tenor who’s been risking heroic repertory for some time, he sounds in very secure — though not precisely youthful — form, with blazing high notes and some ability to float.
Ailyn Perez was canny to debut at the Met as Micaela, which shows off her appealing presence and very pretty lyric voice very well. Good to hear mostly free, secure, full-voice high notes, until recently a sticking point for the gifted soprano from Chicago. The other newcomer, Hungary’s Gabor Bretz, fared rather roughly as Escamillo, but any frequent “Carmen”-goer has heard worse. Had he not oversung the climaxes he might have pleased more.
The most distinguished smaller roles were Richard Bernstein’s sturdy Zuniga and Danielle Talamantes’ sweet-voiced Frasquita. The only disaster was a rough, rasping Dancaire unworthy of the Met stage.
The next night Juilliard served up Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Aulide,” a wonderful score, in David Paul’s spare but effective semi-staging. Jane Glover imparted some Gluck style to the cast but under her the Juilliard415 orchestra, so often impressive, lacked both ensemble — string tone especially suffered — and precision.
In roles demanding mature, brilliant singing actors, Yunpeng Wang (Agamemnon) and Virginie Verrez (Clytemnestre) both gave it a good shot, though he sounded a tad stiff and she favored incisiveness over vocal beauty. Brandon Cedel’s Calchas showed off a mighty bass-baritone, while we heard too little of legato-savvy baritone Takaoki Onishi (Patrocle), Achille’s heroic friend. The central young lover roles, Iphigénie and Achille, written for two key Gluck creators, Sophie Arnould and Joseph Legros, were in good hands. Andrew Stenson aced the needed high range and breath control, if not yet the total stylistic command or theatrical chops, for his challenging part. But Chinese soprano Ying Fang, so wonderful as the Met’s Barbarina this Fall, was just enchanting to hear: a limpid, always musical stream of gorgeous lyric tone. Her extremely thoughtful, touching performance will surely remain among the season’s highlights.
David Shengold ([email protected]) writes about opera for many venues.