Wozzeck - Metropolitan Opera, 6 April 2011(season premiere)
The most moving moment in this brief evening came before a note had been played. As James Levine entered the pit for the first time in over a month, it seemed as if the cheers and applause might never stop. Still visibly suffering from the chronic back pain that sidelined him recently, the Met's revered maestro turned to acknowledge the audience with his hand over his heart. The scenario played out again at the end of the evening. Levine remained in the pit for his ovation, presumably too frail to ascend to the stage for a bow.
Don Pasquale, Metropolitan Opera, 10 November 2010
The Met's Don Pasqualeis all about Anna Netrebko. Otto Schenk's Met-by-numbers production is a mere four years old, though you'd be forgiven for guessing fifty-four. The other singers are, with one exception, merely competent - and what sort of conductor would boast of his Donizetti? It's Anna's minxy, knowing Norina that sets the stage on fire.
But from what I saw there last week, ideas seem to be in as short supply as ready cash. The two new productions which on paper seem the most forward-looking and adventurous of the season, La Damnation de Faustand Dr Atomic, were full of splashy technology but (for quite different reasons) surprisingly short on genuine effect.
Peter Gelb revealed the puniness of his expectations for Robert Lepage's Faust in a telling programme note:
"In the 1970s and 80s, Franco Zeffirelli made his vivid, larger-than-life brand of stagecraft a fixture at the Met. His productions.....elevated the possibilites for visual splendor that could be achieved here. This month, another visionary director makes his Met debut, and I believe that he too will help usher in a new era of theatrical excitement and visual thrills."
So Gelb's not interested in telling stories or exploring ideas, just giving folks something purty to look at. Even Zeffirelli at his most Zeffirelliesque could manage more than that. And Lepage's production fails to rise above the dismally low bar Gelb has set for it. It simply replaces the miles of curtain fabric with stacks of monitors, the corsets with leather pants and the crinolined chorines with six-packed acrobats.
To be fair, La Damnation de Faust is a challenge for any director, a sequence of tableaux not a linear narrative. But Lepage infers an overarching structure not reflected in the music by shoehorning the whole thing into a single set of shallow scaffolding across which characters process, videos play, and acrobats fling themselves. It's all slickly executed and some of the imagery is enchanting, even beautiful - a ghostly underwater dance rendered in video, Marguerite's ascension by ladder at the end. But much is over-literal - like the Rat eulogy complete with actual rat - and a potential coup de théâtre crucifixion is reduced to banality by excessive length and repetition.
There were long stretches where I felt, as with Achim Freyer's sweetly dotty Eugene Onegin in Berlin, that I really could have been watching anything, that Lepage could do, say, Don Giovanni or Les contes d'Hoffmann with exactly the same visuals and it would seem just as (in)appropriate.
But worst of all, a lot of it was just plain boring. Juddering from spectacle to spectacle without building any dramatic tension means that theatrical effect is entirely dependent on what's in front of the eyes at any moment - and as with any production, much was necessarily mundane. Lepage has some terrific ideas and a bold use of technology, but it's all just thrown in there. It needs moulding.
The musical side was more impressive, though some of the singing wouldn't win any prizes. Marcello Giordani (Faust) sounded unaccountably knackered, a pale shadow of the impassioned commitment he brought to the role at the Proms last summer.
Opera's favourite devil, John Relyea - this time got up as a foxy cockroach in a red leather suit and the traditional plumed hat - hardly sizzled. His Méphistophélès was earthbound, prosaic, though solid enough I suppose.
Susan Graham was the pick of the soloists by some distance, her angelic and charismatic Marguerite offering the only real hint that we were sitting in what likes to think of itself as the world's greatest opera house.
Ultimately it was left to James Levine to salvage standards, and although he didn't bring the precision, clarity and sheer perfectionism that he had to his Proms performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, there was warmth and focus and a total security to the sound. And not forgetting the Met chorus, who seem much improved from last year (has there been a weeding?) with clear diction and fine coordination.
The 22 November performance will be livecast, and I suspect that, more than most Met productions, it will be transformed by the process. Especially if Lepage himself is closely involved. The shallow stage, the use of vertical space, all help with vocal projection in live performance, but they also immediately lend themselves to screening, a sort of built-in framing device. As with so many Lepage productions the debt to cinema is an obvious one - and here's one opportunity for it to pay back.
Prom 70: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine - Royal Albert Hall, 6 September 2007
The BSO and chorus; Finchley Children's Music Group in blue above
This Prom was somewhat overshadowed by the sad news of Luciano Pavarotti's death earlier in the day. Conductor James Levine's long association with the big man at the Met made it more personal for him than for most. It was no surprise when a pre-concert announcement was made that the evening was to be dedicated to Pavarotti.
But in true show-must-go-on style, Levine bounced onto the stage looking chipper, and settled into a plush velvet high chair that had been set up on the podium.
The sole work of the evening was Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, performed in the original concert version. The BSO have been touring this around Europe for the past couple of weeks, London being their last stop. Their experience shone through in the immaculately polished performance they gave.
Faust is not dramatically or musically integrated to the extent of Berlioz's later work. It is more a collection of splendidly inventive and often witty musical ideas that Berlioz shoehorned into Goethe's Faust story, flexing Goethe's narrative where necessary to fit his own creations better. Dramaturgically weak, it shoots through key plot points and wallows in the incidentals that inspired (or fitted) the marvellous musical creations of Berlioz.
Levine's BSO luxuriated in these details with a precise, technically secure and perfectly balanced contribution. Brass and percussion in particular had a lot of work to do, some very exposed, and never put a foot wrong. It was as if they'd been rehearsing nothing else for the past year.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus gave the best performance of any choir I've heard at this year's Proms. Performing without scores, they had perfect diction, uniform pitch, and struck exactly the right dynamic balance both internally and with the orchestra. They even managed a certain degree of characterisation, always a challenge with vocal forces of that number.
The soloists too performed mostly without scores, though they did clutch them as a safety blanket. Marcello Giordani's very Italian tenor was perhaps not quite what Berlioz had in mind for the part of Faust, but he gave a clear and sympathetic account. José Van Dam made a somewhat detached and coldly menacing Méphistophélès, dignified but threatening. The voice is thinner now, but it still projected with an almost diffident ease across the yawning Albert Hall. The Marguerite of Yvonne Naef was perhaps the most touching performance, and her rich creamy voice most suited to the material.
Berlioz, a one-time chorus singer himself, sensitively thins out the orchestration beneath the soloists, and Levine paid close attention to the singers and made sure there were no unwanted crests of sound overwhelming them at any point. With all of them having big, well-projected voices anyway, it was the first time in this Proms series I've actually been able to hear every word that was sung.
The young Finchley Children's Music Group sat patiently through the second half waiting for their moment towards the end in Margarita's Apotheosis. They were well up to the standard of the professional musicians with perfect timing, clear French, and a lovely tone. Their two soloists were rightly brought down to the front of the stage at the end to share the applause given to the adults.
Any performance as well-drilled as this one will inevitably lack a degree of spontaneity. The hard work that must have preceded it was impressive, but it was all too visible. It was impossible not to admire the musical management, and the concentration required to pull it off. But, a few soloist moments aside, it largely left me cold.