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By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 21 JUNE 2011 — For those awaiting repeats of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts, another three are currently airing on PBS stations across the United States in its series Great Performances at the Met (check local listings). Most appealing of the lot is Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor featuring Natalie Dessay in Mary Zimmerman’s updated production. The updating to the Victorian era is in itself not especially disturbing, but the entire Scottish element has been pushed aside and we are treated to such directorial oddities as a photographer doing his work during "the" sextet, or Lucia being injected with a calmant during the mad scene. While many of the standard cuts have been opened (aria for Raimondo, Wolf’s Crag scene), second verses of cabalettas (other than those sung by Lucia) are jettisoned. Dessay sings the cadenza of the mad scene without the usual flute accompaniment, for which perhaps historical justification can be found.

Natalie Dessay in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
Photo courtesy of PBS

Joseph Calleja’s (Edgardo) quick vocal flutter is not flatteringly caught by the microphones, but it is far less intrusive here than on some of his recordings. Ludovic Tézier’s Ashton does not go beyond the libretto’s one dimensionality, but his singing offers sufficient presence. Patrick Summers may be a bit over-indulgent in the rubato he allows on occasion, but otherwise offers an excellent reading.

Zimmerman sometimes prefers a startling image (the umbrellas for the chorus during the final scene while the principals otherwise remain dry without) to true drama, but with Dessay on hand there is no need to worry about any lack in that area. But do we really need the surpopulation of ghosts (Lucia’s mother in Act 1, Lucia herself during the final scene)? 

Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride has never been an audience favorite but Stephen Wadsworth’s overwrought production should convince audiences that there is much to appreciate in this classical drama. Once again, there is a surfeit of characters mentioned but not necessarily in the cast list (Agamemnon, Clytemnestra) and a great deal of activity to keep the attention of what might otherwise be a restless audience, but is in fact, a distraction. Susan Graham in the title role is impressive in both lyrical and declamatory moments. Paul Groves (Pylade) matches her, never indulging in tenorial outburst. Placido Domingo once again takes on a baritone role (Oreste) to which he brings his experience, though the most harrowing performance I ever saw was Simon Keenlyside in concert with Marc Minkowski (subsequently recorded by DGG). Gordon Hawkins is a bloated Thoas, but whoever was responsible for the obsessively repetitive "modern dance" gesturing of the chorus should have exercised more restraint.

Susan Graham as Iphigénie and Placido Domingo as Oreste
in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride
 Photo: courtesy of PBS

John Adams’s Nixon in China has been around since 1987 but finally was given its premiere at the Met this past season. Presumably little has changed in Peter Sellars’s over-blown production, including James Maddalena in the title role, but does the work really stand up despite the enthusiasm of a segment of the critical and general public. Of drama there is little; each of the characters is given an aria but the minimalist music is certainly not to this critic’s taste. Occasionally, Adams breaks away from the minimalist straitjacket and our attention perks up. Despite the performances of a dedicated cast (Janis Kelly, Kathleen Kim, Robert Brubaker, Richard Paul Fink, Russell Braun) and the composer himself conducting, this is not an opera to which I will return.

John Adams: Nixon in China
Photo: courtesy of PBS

In the same week I also received a DVD of Adams’s Doctor Atomic, his third opera (SONY 88697 80665 9), and experienced difficulty in paying attention. When virtually every one-syllable word ending a line is stretched out over two notes, when prosody would suggest otherwise, and when the musical line is not especially memorable, boredom sets in. There are exceptions, such as Oppenheimer’s peroration at the end of Act 1 (a Donne sonnet), but they are too few. And again, there is little drama for most of the work, except the last section where tension builds as we wait for the bomb test to go off. And when it does, the stage effect is almost a fizzle, at least as seen on DVD. Gerald Finley is heroic in the title role, well supported by Richard Paul Fink (Edward Teller), Eric Owens (a particularly dense General Groves), Sasha Cook (Kitty Oppenheimer) and especially Meredith Arwady (Pasqualita), whose Erda-like tones made her even more of an earth mother. Alan Gilbert shows another facet of his talent, at home in the world of opera. Penny Woolcock’s staging makes the most of the limited opportunities offered by Peter Sellars’s static libretto.

John Adams: Doctor Atomic
Singers: Sarah Cooke, Richard Paul Fink, Gerald Finley, Thomas Glenn, Eric Owens, Meredith Arwady, Roger Honeywell, Earle Patriarco
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Directors: Gary Halvorson, Peter Sellars
Choreographer:  Andrew Dawson
Sound:  Mark Grey
Producers: Peter Gelb, The Metropolitan Opera
Sony Classical 88697 80665 9 (2 DVDs) 

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Long before the existence of "blogs", Mr. Kasow kept an Opera Diary for Culturekiosque. Opera fans can access the archive of his intensely personal, ongoing commentary on the opera world here.   

For collectors of opera and vocal recordings, please click here to access Operanet's archive of CD and DVD reviews

Headline image: Natalie Dessay in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
Photo courtesy of PBS

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