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By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 7 JUNE 2013 — The Metropolitan Opera honors two schools of opera production, one that of the late and venerable Jean-Pierre Ponnelle with the revival of Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito, the other that of the flashy Robert Lepage in his treatment of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. Both air currently on PBS television in America (check local listings).

There is no denying the grandeur of Ponnelle’s sets and costumes (he made sure he had control over the entire process), but the staging has long been in the hands of the Met’s house directors for the last several revivals, relying on the prompt book without being able to impart the Ponnelle touch. Giuseppe Filianoti’s emperor seems too weak in his clemency, also experiencing difficulty with the coloratura of his role. Barbara Frittoli’s Vitellia is camp villainess, too often evoking laughter in her extremes of behavior. Elīna Garanĉa’s Sesto shows nobility throughout, while Kate Lindsey’s impetuous Annio shows signs of a future Sesto with her smooth delivery. Lucy Crowe’s Servilia excels in the little she has to do. Harry Bicket and the Met orchestra are in good form, the two fiendish obligatos for clarinet and basset horn impeccably tossed off.

Simon Keenlyside as Prospero in The Tempest
Photo: PBS

It is good to see the Met tackling a contemporary work, and clearly no expense has been spared for Lepage’s vision of The Tempest, a work he has already staged numerous times in the spoken theater. Simon Keenlyside once again takes on the role of Prospero and his command of the stage is never in doubt, but allowing us to see the tender paternal side of his character. He may qualify as the finest singing actor of his generation. Audrey Luna’s Ariel contents herself with the vocal acrobatics of her role, leaving the most daring physical aspects to a double. Isabel Leonard (this year’s winner of the Richard Tucker Award) and Alek Shrader as the lovers are all sweetness, convincing their respective feuding fathers to reconcile. Toby Spence (Ferdinand at the work’s creation) now sings Antonio, the bad brother. It is Alan Oke’s Caliban who slithers around, a weighty counterpart to Prospero, making us aware that he is the one who belongs while the others are all interlopers. This would all be interesting to watch, but Adès has composed a work in the operatic mainstream, without losing his individuality. The composer also conducts masterfully and we can only presume that Lepage’s production has his full approval, with final scene set in the auditorium of La Scala.

Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera (also on PBS screens) was subjected to idiosyncrasies of director David Alden and set designer Paul Steinberg, with many references to the fall of Icarus in the murals on the wall or the wings sported by Oscar. Marcelo Alvarez is sadly following in the footsteps of his compatriot Ramon Vargas in taking on a repertoire that is not naturally his, so that he seems a size or two too small for the role. Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia follows in the line of Verdi heroines that have become her province, one of her best performances to date. Stephanie Blythe’s fortune teller is imposing on all counts, only lacking a certain italianitá or even gravitas that we are used to. Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s tortured Renato is unequalled today, while Kathleen Kim gives us the cute aspects of Oscar while not really being part of the action. Fabio Luisi leads a dramatic performance of this music which is in his bloodstream.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Renato)
Photo: PBS

Alas, Michael Mayer’s Las Vegas Rigoletto (PBS) was only the most recent unsuccessful attempt to modernize Verdi, the emphasis on glitz and glamor crowding out the human aspects of the drama. The updated titles still maintain that Rigoletto is a hunchback, no trace of which is to be seen. And how meaningful are cultural references to the 1960s to audiences of today – the Ratpack and Don Rickles are for the most part forgotten. Diana Damrau, looking a bit matronly, sang with total control as Gilda. Piotr Beczala tried his best to be a sort of Frank Sinatra, but at least offered a well-sung Duke. Željko Lučić offered a standard Rigoletto, his disdain for the production clearly manifested in the backstage interviews. Štefan Kocán’s Sparafucile never took on the menacing quality others find in the role, but that too is the director’s fault. Conductor Michele Mariotti’s uninspired reading offered little support to his singers. And once again, why are extraneous people hanging around at such moments as the dialogue between Rigoletto and Sparafucile, or a drunk stretched out during the Duke’s aria in Act 2.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A.) for over thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Mr. Kasow last wrote on the late British conductor Sir Colin Davis.

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