Met Season Wraps Up with Tosca and Cendrillon

Netrebko, photo @ Ken Howard
Unless something major happens tonight was my last performance of the Met 2017-18 season. The role debut of Anna Netrebko in Tosca has created such hype that tickets are completely sold out for every performance standing room included. In addition there was buzz because the original Cavaradossi (Marcelo Alvarez) canceled and Yusif Eyvasov aka Mr. Netrebko was predictably the replacement. This is the NY debut of the Mr. and Mrs. together in an opera. In other words this was an Event. The people sitting next to me had traveled from Israel just to see Anna as Tosca.

So ... how did the performance stack up against the hype? Pretty well, all things considered. Anna Netrebko is a Superdiva and Tosca is a Superdiva and the singer and the role were well-matched both musically and temperamentally. Netrebko's voice has grown so much in volume and richness but lost a lot of flexibility. I saw a recent video of her Lady Macbeth in London and while it was exciting she struggled in the passagework of the role. Tosca makes no such demands. It allowed Netrebko to do what she does best, which is flood the auditorium with huge waves of sound. And her instrument is still a miracle. You can quibble with the suspect pitch, mushy diction, weird dipthonged vowels, and occasionally loosened vibrato. But to have a voice that can sing high, sing low, can fill any house with surround sound stereo volume, and with a gorgeous, plush timbre to boot -- that's God's gift.


Netrebko's portrayal was rather generalized in the first act. She doesn't really do the coy jealous lover thing very well. She has too much strength and personality to pull that sort of teasing love duet thing off. It was in the second act where she surprised me. I didn't think she could play the terrified victim -- in a recent interview Netrebko made it clear she was not exactly the most sympathetic person towards the #metoo movement -- she said "All this sexual bullshit, we don't have it. I'm sorry, I think it's total shit. If you don't want it, nobody will force you to do anything, never. If you did it, it means you allowed that."

Volle and Netrebko, photo @ Ken Howard
But I guess that's the difference between real life and performance -- onstage Netrebko made a very convincing victim. When Scarpia squeezed her from behind Netrebko's eyes popped out, her face cringed, and she cowered in a corner. There was fear and revulsion in her body language as she tried to avoid any contact with Scarpia. After she stabbed Scarpia she retched and her hands shook so much she could barely hold onto the safe passage papers. Trauma was written all over her face. Vocally she was also on point. Her high C's in the duet with Scarpia were huge and so secure she sounded like she could have stayed on those notes forever. Her "Visse d'arte" was more a quiet meditation a la Tebaldi rather than Maria Callas's primal scream of desperation. A gorgeous piece of singing. I do wish she had declaimed the "Muori's" to Scarpia the way Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi or any of the old-school divas would have done. But overall, great performance.

Part of the success of Netrebko's second act has to go to Michael Volle's Scarpia. Volle was dynamite as the depraved Roman police chief. Volle's voice is not the most beautiful but my does he understand how to convey that 'law and order' authority even when making the most perverted demands. His Te Deum was chilling. His voice sounded like a sheet of ice. He and Netrebko had great chemistry -- they were listening to each other, feeding off the other's energy, and so as a result the second act packed a wallop. I expect them to improve even more in further performances.

Eyvasov and Netrebko, photo @ Ken Howard
Yusif Eyvasov (Cavaradossi) did not have the triumph of Netrebko or Volle. Eyvasov's voice is what we might call provincial, and I don't mean this in a bad way. Every house needs tenors who have a large voice with a wide range who can sing the meat and potatoes Italian repertoire.  Eyvasov is that sort of tenor. There's just no beauty to his singing. "Recondita armonia" started off promisingly enough but then exposed the least appealing thing about his voice --  his intrusive, goat-like vibrato in his upper register. Also he made no attempt to act and doesn't have much stage presence -- in Act Two he made his entrance and I didn't even notice him.
"E lucevan le stelle" had no float, no shine. He gets the job done but when he's singing with his wife who has one of the most beautiful voices in the world, the gap in ability is glaring. There is also very little onstage chemistry between husband and wife. "O dolci mani" was way too cozy and lethargic. In fact the whole third act was listless. Netrebko spent too much time staring at the prompter when she was supposed to be singing to Cavaradossi. Netrebko jumped to her death without any posed dive -- she simply ran off the parapet. It was an interesting choice -- more spontaneous and less fatalistic. Not so much thinking about a meeting before God as much as "I don't want to be tortured and executed."

The supporting characters were all fine. Patrick Carfizzi was nice comic relief as the Sacristan. I enjoyed the Shepherd Boy of Davida Doyle. The song of the Shepherd is the one moment of delicacy in this otherwise blood and guts opera.

The cast at curtain calls, de Billy next to Netrebko
One huge reason for tonight's success is the conducting of Bertrand de Billy, who gave this score all the momentum and energy it needs. This puts the Netrebko/Eyvasov/Volle cast at an advantage over the Yoncheva/Grigolo/Lucic cast as de Billy just brought out way more of the score than Emmanuel Villaume.

Audience response was surprisingly muted for a 4000 seat sold out house. Usually Netrebko gets screaming, stomping, endless ovations. Tonight she got a big pink bouquet and a warm ovation but the audience response wasn't crazy. I think the anemic third act took the wind out the performance's sails. Eyvasov even got a few scattered boos. But overall I think Tosca is a great role for Netrebko and that her future is in verismo. I can't wait to see her Adriana Lecouvreur next season.

Cendrillon, photo @ Ken Howard
There's a conventional wisdom that the Met can't do small, delicate operas. That the 4000 seat house and huge stage swallow the beauties of those kinds of operas. And for the most part this trope is true. I've never seen a Mozart opera at the Met where I haven't wished that the opera was playing in a much smaller house.

Therefore it's a testament to the charm of Jules Massenet's Cendrillon that this fairy-tale with its wistful, lovely score played so well in such a huge auditorium. I saw it on Friday night (4/20) and while the cast was not perfect it was a very enchanting evening. Interesting footnote: Kenneth MacMillan's bloated, tawdry ballet Manon lifts most of its tunes from Cendrillon.

DiDonato and Naouri, photo @ Ken Howard
Part of the succcess has to do with Laurent Pelly's surreal, funny production. Pelly's production has been staged in Santa, Barcelona, Brussels, London and now New York and it's easy to understand the popularity. Throughout the opera Pelly captures both the magic and the humor of Massenet's work. Some moments are just flat-out funny. The opening scene has the servants running and hiding behind the doors to avoid the overbearing Madame de la Haltière/Stepmother. The Stepmother (a wickedly funny Stephanie Blythe) and her stepdaughters prance around in dresses that resemble easter eggs. When Prince Charmant (Alice Coote) is at the ball a procession of women do a choreographed catwalk across the stage in unflattering red dresses. Laura Scozzi's choreography is delightful throughout the opera. But Pelly also captures the sweetness and magic of the fairy tale. One of my favorite moments was when Cendrillon is driven to the ball by two white horses and a coach that spells out "Carosse." And the duet between the Prince and Cendrillon is on a set that suggests a Parisian rooftop. Enchanting. The main set is two walls with several doors. On the walls is the story of Perrault's "Cendrillon" written as they would be in a book. Yes, this is actually a "story-book" fairy tale. Pelly also designed the wonderful costumes of this production.

DiDonato and Coote, photo @ Ken Howard
The singing was more mixed. Both Joyce DiDonato (Cendrillon) and Alice Coote (Prince Charmant) are fine singers but both of their voices have lost quite a bit in color and beauty. It's a shame the Met didn't stage this for them earlier. DiDonato is such an expressive singer and convincing actress that I wanted to like her more than I did. But the voice itself has an unpleasant, intrusive vibrato when pushed in her upper register, and the timbre can sound harsh. This clashed with the delicacy of Massenet's music. In music like Cendrillon's elegiac aria "Reste au foyer, petit grillon" DiDonato's voice just didn't have the bloom to make its full effect.

Coote is also a scrupulous singer with a pleasant, soft-grained timbre. But her voice doesn't soar -- it stays in this even flatline. She's also not very expressive -- "Allez, laissez moi seul" came and went without registering much. And there's no getting around this but both Coote and DiDonato at this point in their careers read as very mature both physically and vocally. This was a problem in the duets between the Prince and Cendrillon. "A deux genoux" had none of the glow and blush of young love. It was too low-impact to register as anything but just "nice."

Blythe and her two Stepdaughters, photo @ Ken Howard
It was up to the supporting cast to liven up the evening. Stephanie Blythe's imperious, pretentious Stepmother stole the show from her first entrance to her curtain calls. Blythe has a lot of fun with this role and her large, commanding contralto fit the music like a glass slipper? She's a large woman but she was maybe the most mobile singer of the cast -- she was always marching around as Miss Bossypants and never stopped moving the entire evening. Her aria "Lorsqui'on a plus de vingt quartiers" as she rattled off her family's nobility titles deservedly earned a huge ovation. I've seen Blythe in a variety of roles and it seems that what she does best is comedy. She was a hilarious Quickly in Falstaff a few seasons back.

Kim as Fairy Godmother
Kathleen Kim was also very charming as the Fairy Godmother. Her slight stature belies a voice that has surprising volume and a great upper extension. This role has rather old-fashioned coloratura music which Kim dispatched with ease, trills and all. The direction for the Fairy Godmother was one area where Pelly's production failed. Kim didn't have much to do besides wave her wand and sing. Surely since the production has so much offbeat humor they could have made her role more quirky and funny? Veteran bass-baritone Laurent Naouri's voice has a few moments of unsteadiness but was a sympathetic, pitiable Pandolfe. The tender duet between father and daughter ("Tous les deux") has to be the loveliest moment in an entire opera filled with beautiful moments. Ying Fang and Maya Lahyani were very funny as the stepsisters although they overdid the screeching.

Super-ubiquitous conductor Bertrand de Billy led a sweet, sensitive account of the score. He was careful not to drown out any voices and contributed to the intimate feel of the evening, 4000 seats and all.

And so that's a wrap for the season. It started off slowly but the Parsifal, Luisa Miller, Tosca and Lucia di Lammermoor made for some great memories. And now, in no particular order, some random shout-outs:

Best New Voice - Jessica Pratt in Lucia. I know she's actually been on the scene for many years but this the first time I heard her in a major role and you don't want to know how much time I've spent tracking down recordings of hers.

Most Welcome Return to Repertory - Luisa Miller after a long absence. This revival did justice to Verdi's beautiful haunting opera with protagonists who had all mastered the Verdi style.

Most Moving Experience - Parsifal. I cried nonstop from the Good Friday Music to the final chord. What a healing, uplifting opera.

Greatest Scene Stealing - Stephanie Blythe as the Wicked Stepmother in Cendrillon and Elsa van den Heever as Chrysothemis in an otherwise disappointing Elektra. Both ladies absolutely stole every scene they were in.

Most Welcome Return - Lisette Oropesa after several years' absence as a delightful Gretel in Hansel and Gretel.

Most Shattering Performance - Peter Mattei as Amfortas. One of those life changing portrayals that will have me bragging for the rest of my life that I saw Peter Mattei as Amfortas. Blood poisoning was never so beautiful.

Best Superdiva Turn - Anna Netrebko in Tosca. Duh.

Favorite image of the 2017-18 season: the four ladies-in-waiting giving Semiramide some major bitch-face and side-eye:


Comments

  1. Hi Ivy,
    The shimmering floating beauty of the then unknown Netrebko's first notes in "War and Peace" @ the Met a number of yrs.ago almost propelled me out of my Family Circle Box seat. Yes, amazingly gorgeous singing.
    Best
    Madison

    Oh,PS,
    From your review in which you wrote, "- that's God's gift", I think you misspelled the word "genetics"!

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    Replies
    1. Hahaha good one :) Are you planning to go to her Toscas?

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  2. Unfortunately, I won't be able to see her in Tosca.

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  3. Excellent commentary - I was at both performances and appreciate what you have captured and critiqued.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! I have heard that the "tba" tenor might be grigolo.

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  4. I enjoyed your excellent review of Tosca. I so wanted to see Netrebko but couldn't get to N.Y. The pirate clips on youtube of the big tunes and scenes were a tiny consolation. I think her interpretation will become richer. I also wished she had intoned muori alla Callas! Eyvazov was not great but adequate. I've certainly heard far worse tenors at the Met. However I didn't like Grigolo as Cavaradossi either, not his role. He was far superior as Edgardo!

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    Replies
    1. Grigolo and Cavaradossi were an awkward fit. Grigolo's voice is surprisingly large but it doesn't have the heroic ring. I think I said "Where you wanted a trumpet you got a bugle." Anyway thanks for the well-wishes.

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  5. I also wish she had taken a slower, more declamatory "e avanti a lui tremava tutta roma"

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