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By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 17 JULY 2012 — Recent and current broadcasts on PBS (check local listings) have given a good indication of the current state of the Metropolitan Opera. Faust is a co-production with the English National Opera, entrusted to director Des McAnuff, who so clearly mistrusts the intelligence of most opera-goers that every bit of "back story" is clearly set out on stage for the illiterate. The opera is updated to mid-20th century, with the requisite dreary costumes and factory-like sets that in fact do little to facilitate  one’s comprehension. Yannick Nézet-Séguin clearly believes in the music and does his best to overcome the prevailing gloom. Jonas Kaufmann in the title role is having a glorious afternoon, doing no wrong, equaled by René Pape’s Méphisto. Marina Poplovskaya’s Marguerite does not efface memories of Victoria de los Angeles or Elisabeth Söderström, but she is clearly a performer to be reckoned with. Russell Braun is stretched by Valentin’s music. But would this performance have passed muster in what was once called the Faustspielhaus? Other than Kaufmann and Nézet-Séguin, I have my doubts.

René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann and Marina Poplovskaya in Gounod's Faust
Photo: Metropolitan Opera

Handel’s Rodelinda is hardly the type of work one expects to see in a house the size of the Met, particularly when two countertenors are among the principals, but in the cinema or at home on television this is less of an issue. Steven Wadsworth’s nimble production in Thomas Lynch’s sets keeps the show moving, though — common flaw in almost all productions these days — the number of extraneous figures on stage serve little purpose other than to distract us from the music. Renée Fleming in the title role has little time to sing the blue notes that disfigure some of her interpretations, while Andreas Scholl (Bertarido), Stephanie Blythe (Eduige) and Joseph Kaiser (Grimoaldo) sail through the coloratura with no difficulty. But, once more, everything is on too large a scale for a work that benefits from a smaller-scale approach.

Renée Fleming and Andreas Scholl in Handel’s Rodelinda
Photo: Metropolitan Opera

I saw the world premiere in 1980 of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha when I found the repetitious rhythms and melodic lines of the work too often soporific. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s picturesque production tries to convey a degree of theatricality that is constantly undermined by the composer, who is nonetheless extremely well defended by conductor Dante Anzolini and Richard Croft in the title role. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the opera, others may be more taken by the composer’s efforts, while there is little doubt that McDermott has put on a splendid show.

Danielle de Niese as Ariel and Plácido Domingo as Neptune in
The Enchanted Island
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

McDermott and Crouch are also part of the creative team responsible for The Enchanted Island, a pastiche by Jeremy Sams using music by Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau. It is said that Peter Gelb was one of the originating spirits, but is it really worth the time and money spent on such an extravaganza when there are so many real operas that have never reached the Met stage? Sams’s translation does not always sit easy on the music, though there is sufficient spectacle to hold the attention of the audience. And Joyce di Donato, Luca Pisaroni, Danielle de Niese and David Daniels are all stage creatures so that they make the most of what is a questionable venture. William Christie in the pit tries his best to give the Met Orchestra a baroque gloss, but to what end?

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

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