Karen Miller told me that I needed to start writing about opera. So here I am. Thanks for the encouragement, Karen!
I have tickets to NINE operas at the Met this year! And one bonus opera at the City Opera! Insane! I’m seeing all of the Met’s seven new productions, not because I feel like I have to see them all, but because they’re all things I need to see. Do you see the difference? Here’s the lineup, and my date for each:
*Lucia di Lammermoor*, 10/13 - - Richard
*Vanessa* (at City Opera), 11/9 - - Karen
*Iphigenie en Tauride*, 12/14 - - Claudia
*Hansel and Gretel*, 1/24 - - Richard
*Manon Lescaut*, 2/1 - - with Karen and Susie
*Peter Grimes*, 3/7 - - Richard and Paul
*Tristan und Isolde*, 3/14 - - Paul and Lisa
*Satyagraha*, 4/25 - - Karen, Jere, Dale
*Daughter of the Regiment*, 5/2 - - Karen
*Macbeth*, date TBD - - Richard
Another reason I can see them all is because Peter Gelb, the new guy running the Met, made a marvelous change last season in the ticket prices: he made the most expensive tickets more expensive and the cheapest cheaper. He figured if you’re paying $250 for a ticket, you won’t mind paying $270 - - but you might go more often if tickets are $15 instead of $35. Which is exactly what happened with me.
Richard and I started off with *Lucia* on Saturday. This was the new production that opened the season, and it got great reviews. I was totally pumped.
NATALIE DESSAY: Lucia, soprano
This is one powerhouse performer. Check her out on youtube, she’s something else. I saw her in Handel’s *Alcina* in Chicago about eight years ago, she played the cute sexy little French maid and stole the show. She’s a dynamo.
She had a little vocal crisis a couple years ago, so I was anxious to hear how she sounds now. She sounded a little cloudy in the first act, but either she started singing better or I stopped noticing. Her performance was out of this world - - great singing and a totally engaged performance. Her mad scene was stellar.
The one fault I’ll find with her singing is that she has a tendency to scoop. Not a lot, not in a tasteless way, but more than I’d like in this rep. Just a little catch going up to a note. It’s more of a vocal mannerism than anything, and someone needs to cure her of it.
MARCELLO GIORDANI: Egdardo, tenor
I heard this guy in *Tosca* a couple years ago (opposite Aprile Millo, who was so old school she seemed to be channeling Tebaldi on *Bell Telephone Hour*) and he blew me away. Totally full, juicy, Italian sound. This guy is the real deal. I was surprised to hear he was doing this opera, because he usually does roles that need a meatier voice - - but he was fantastic! It was exciting to hear such a big, virile sound in this role. As an added bonus, he had the most sublime morbidezza in his death scene (this is a snotty opera term for singing like you’re dying, but still with beauty). And he’s a good actor.
MARIUSZ KWIECIEN: Enrico, baritone
He was the only one of the leads who I hadn’t heard before, and he was great. Gorgeous, macho sound, perfect for the part. His aria in the first scene, which is sometimes a bit of a snooze, was a blast. His high G was delicious. Good actor, knows how to work his overcoat.
JOHN RELYEA: Raimondo, bass
I heard him at the Sills tribute in September. Lovely voice, rich and strong and ripe. Young guy, probably not even 40. Beautiful singing. Not much acting required in his part, but what he did he did well.
It was the Met debut of director Mary Zimmerman, who’s done a lot of theatre work (she won a Tony for *Metamorphoses* in 2002) and a little bit of opera. It was an imaginative production, but not wacky. Richard had problems with the fact that she set it in 1835, because the story is set in the early 18th century, and he knows his history enough to know that there are problems when move it out of that period.
In Lucia’s first act aria (“Regnava nel silenzio”), she sings about having seen a ghost. Zimmerman put the ghost onstage. Some people were bothered by that - - I wasn’t. I didn’t feel like it really added anything, but it was OK.
One of the most exciting moments was in the second act, and to explain it I need to give you a little bit of the story: Lucia is in love with Edgardo, who’s from a rival Scottish family. Her brother, Enrico, forbids her from having anything to do with him and pushes her into marrying another guy, from a suitable family, who can restore their honor and their bad credit rating. So at the start of the second act the brother is in his study, which was a big room with all the furniture covered in drop cloths. At the end of the scene he and the bass have talked Lucia into going along with the marriage - - they forged a letter from her tenor boyfriend, proving that he’d been unfaithful. So in the transition from the first scene (convincing Lucia) to the second (signing the marriage contract), a fleet of servants showed up and removed all of the drop cloths, hoisted the chandeliers back up to the ceiling, and spruced up the joint. It was an exciting transformation, and added to the sense that Lucia had no choice. All of this machinery was put into motion, and she couldn’t do anything to stop it.
So her dopey husband shows up and the two of them sign the contract. At that precise moment, Edgardo (her forbidden boyfriend) makes a surprise appearance, leading to a sextet! This sextet is one of the most thrilling ensembles in all of opera, and is generally staged with all six singers standing still and facing forward, what my friend Sam calls Park and Bark. And ya know, that’s all you need - - the music is thrilling, and the moment is so tense and full of drama.
Clearly Mary Zimmerman isn’t a Park and Bark director. She started the sextet with the forbidden boyfriend center stage with the baritone, the two of them snarling at each other. But over in the corner of the stage, a photographer was setting the scene for Lucia’s wedding portrait. He sat her in one chair with the husband in the other, and the baritone and the bass behind them. The boyfriend was over on his own side of the stage, looking rather lost. And the chorus moved forward to take part in the wedding portrait as well. At the end of the sextet, Lucia sang her high D and passed out, falling out of her chair and hitting the floor. This whole wedding photographer concept was very interesting and well executed, and supported the theme of Lucia being forced into the situation, not by just her brother but by the whole community, and the whole institution of marriage - - but it didn’t quite gel. It detracted from the music. I spent the whole sextet watching the stage, wondering what on earth she was trying to accomplish, and wasn’t able to really enjoy the music. She put the drama before the music, and in this particular case, I don’t think it worked. And, if I may make a prediction, I bet it won’t be staged that way in future Met revivals (you read it here first).
One quick gripe, while we’re on the subject of Lucia on the floor: she was thrown to the floor twice in the second act (once by the brother, once by the boyfriend), and a third time in the third act (by the brother again). I recognize the dramatic potency of throwing a woman to the floor, and I support sopranos spending time on the floor, but three times is two times too many.
They started the third act with a scene that’s always cut, a scene between the boyfriend and the brother, more snarling. I can see why it’s always cut - - the music is nothing special and it adds nothing to the drama. But the reveal for the next scene was one of the most exciting moments of the whole opera: the set for the first scene was a drop with a hole cut out of it on the side, with the end of a stairway peeking out under it. When the next scene started, the scene of Lucia’s wedding night (chorus celebrating, etc), the drop went up and Lucia and her husband were already on the stairs, headed upstairs to their bedroom. It was a big curved staircase in the middle of an empty room, leading to a landing and hallway that spanned the stage, hanging in the air. They got up to the landing and Lucia picked up the skirt of her wedding gown and RAN down the hallway, like a crazy lady (which, indeed, she was). The husband was a little flummoxed, but calmly walked down the hallway after her. Creepy.
Lucia goes crazy and stabs her husband and kills him. The mad scene was stunning. The chorus, as usual, was onstage the entire time, but by the end of the mad scene, instead of just standing there looking like wallpaper, they started moving in a little closer and looking at poor Lucia with curiosity. Again - - creepy.
The final scene belongs to the tenor, and it’s always seemed like an afterthought to me. Why do you want anything after the mad scene? But with Giordani singing the role, and with the scene staged as brilliantly as it was, how could you do without it? The tenor is in his family’s graveyard, being mopey. The male chorus and the bass come onstage and tell him that Lucia went nutty and died. The tenor kills himself. The mad scene ended with Lucia, dead, being carried up the curved staircase by three anonymous men. Everyone left the stage, and the stairway slowly started moving offstage, with Lucia and the guys still going up it. The stage was bare and a big arch dropped down and tipped forward, leaving a ghoulish shadow on the stage. The tenor sang his stuff, the chorus told him the news, he stabbed himself - - and Lucia, now a ghost (dressed and made up like the ghost in the first act), came onstage, walked up to him, laid down next to him on the floor, and comforted him. He died in her arms. I was in tears.
The audience went BONKAS during the curtain calls. Totally sold out house, total pande-freakin’-monium.
First off, both of the intermissions in this show were at least a half hour long! Out of control! And the set was not terribly involved, I can’t imagine why it would take more than fifteen minutes (at most) for them to change the sets. I think the whole show would have been even more powerful if the intermissions had been shorter.
Now for one of my favorite topics: Audience Behavior. We sat in the nosebleed seats, which I love. When the houselights went down the row ahead of us, five seats, was empty. Just after the overture, four people scurried down from the rows above us and took the seats. Why not?
The woman right ahead of me was a boil on my ass. She was perched on the very edge of her seat and moving around like she was doing The Locomotion. It was a struggle to see what was happening on the stage. I decided I needed to have words with her at the intermission. Richard and I went out into the lobby and hung around for a while, did some people-watching, and when we got back to our seats we saw that five little old ladies were sitting in the row ahead of us. I said, “Hm, looks like we have new neighbors.” The little old lady sitting in front of me was about four foot eight and was wedged right back in her seat, and not going nowhere. This is what I call an upgrade. After a while, the couple who had been sitting in front of us came to our stairway and looked at each other. The jig is up! Richard and I were thrilled to witness their demise.
You would not believe what happened next. The boil-on-the-ass woman walked up to the little old lady and said, “Is this your seat?” The old lady said, puzzled, “Yes, it is.” The boil said, “We were sitting here in the first act.” The old lady said, “Well I’m sitting here now. This is my seat!” “Are you sure?”, said the boil. At this point, Richard was getting ready to knock her block off. The old lady said, with a frosty finality, “Yes. I’m sure.” And the boil gave a “Harumph!” and continued walking up the aisle to her seat in Row GG. The NERVE!