My week at the Metropolitan Opera

Lincoln Center - Metropolitan Opera House

The Metropolitan Opera House at night, as the audience files out of Madama Butterfly

I have just returned from New York, a trip that was based around celebrating a ‘significant’ birthday. During the 8-day stay, we took in five operas at the Metropolitan Opera House and, since I didn’t take a laptop with me, one post-trip round-up will capture thoughts on them all.

Overall, it was great to ‘live’ a different operatic experience for a week: everything about the Met is gargantuan, including (to be blunt) its own sense of self and the resulting hyperbole. In contrast, those fellow audience members with whom we chatted were reassuringly down-to-earth, and we had some great discussions, comparing notes on singers and performances across the Atlantic. And yet, from the security guards, to the rather prickly (and not particularly well-informed) backstage tour guide, to the social conventions around the front of house, it is all just slightly starchy when compared, dare I say it, to Covent Garden: more emphasis on a ‘sense of occasion’ than a night in the theatre, perhaps.  Maybe it’s the shades of all those Rockerfellers, Astors and Vanederbilts etched into the marble foyer.

Of course, it’s what goes on in the auditorium that matters. At 3,995 seats it is a monumental great barn of a place. Over the course of five performances we sat in a stage-side box at Balcony level, in Balcony Prime seats (first three rows) and in a Dress Circle box. The acoustic was best in the latter, with sound full and immediate, and only moderately restricted side-on view. The front Balcony sounded great, very detailed and warm with a nice balance of pit and stage, although the ‘presence’ of the sound was slightly reduced because of the distance, and visually you are immediately aware of how far away you are compared to similar front Amphitheatre seats at the Royal Opera House. The Balcony box, at $42 (ca. £25) a ticket, was perhaps the best bargain, despite the slightly conventional viewpoint. When first in the theatre, the scale of the proscenium relative to the size of the house is slightly deceptive, and it is as soon as a person steps onto the stage that the real scale becomes apparent.

Some thoughts on the conventions of the audience: not one single act out of the five operas was allowed to play to a close without applause over the closing bars of the music. The same can be said for a number of ‘notable’ arias. As soon as the curtain made the slightest move, this was a cue for applause, and we didn’t ‘acclimatise’ to this convention at all. It could be quite frustrating when some of the music required reflection, or in the case of Madama Butterfly when the applause drowned one of the musical climaxes, launched on the back of Butterfly’s anguish. However, on the plus side, we only had one set applauded (the second act of Arabella), though we were braced for more such effusions.

Metropolitan Opera foyer

Metropolitan Opera foyer

Finally, the experience of intervals was also to be contrasted with Covent Garden and other UK opera theatres. Firstly, they seemed longer, with half an hour appearing to be standard. This is good because, certainly at Balcony/Family Circle level, the provision of loos is quite absurd compared to the size of the theatre: something like six stalls in the ladies’ (so our travelling companion informed us), compared to somewhere around 30 at Covent Garden’s Ampitheatre level. For both sexes, the queues are considerable. Interval pre-ordering of drinks isn’t de rigeur either, and they looked at me like I was mad when I tried to pre-order a glass of wine for the second interval towards the end of the first. As it happens, given the rather derisory quantity of wine served for $15 per (plastic) glass, I can understand why they might have thought I was bonkers. You don’t get a receipt for it either, they just sort of remember… which is easy when you emerge at interval and your one glass of wine is sat on its lonely own! We took to getting a half-bottle on the way to the theatre and sharing it at interval time: much more pleasant all round. I found it odd in a city that prides itself on service, that the Met didn’t quite hold its own on this score. The people we chatted to in the adjacent box were giving up their subscription of 45 years, partly due to their perception of the Met’s failure to provide much in the way of service to them as subscribers (and partly due to ‘too many modern productions’, though not the week we were there…!) Anyway, much was redeemed on the last night when, having lingered in our box to take photos of each other at the end, we were courteously and very chattily ushered out before the lights went out in the auditorium. Performances finish generally half an hour later than is the custom in the UK, and there is a resulting hurry to close the auditorium, which may be because the transport options run later in New York, but either way, leaving the theatre at gone 11pm is worth preparing yourself for if you’re used to earlier curtains.

Finally, a real plus: the programmes are free, in line with the ‘Playbill’ practice started in the late nineteenth century of having a standard programme up and down Broadway but adapted to each theatre. Granted, they are not as lavishly produced as Covent Garden’s, with nothing externally to identify the opera they relate to (which could get a bit irritating if you had a large collection), and they frequently miss out biographies of secondary or more minor cast members, which is a bit unfortunate. However, there are also rather fewer adverts to wade through, compensated by rather more tiers of donors’ names to be recognised. There were some very surprised looks when we told people that a Royal Opera House programme would set you back around $11-12. I guess all of the houses have different funding models, with different choices being made over how income streams are prioritised. Free programme, but less wine for your money…

So, to the operas…

Arabella, 19 April 2014 (12pm matinee; radio broadcast)

Our first Met experience was a classic big-gowns-and-grand-sets style Met production, in Otto Schenk’s 1983 take on Richard Strauss’s Arabella. The immediately noticeable thing about it was that, lavish as it was, particularly in the second act ballroom foyer that received its due applause, it never used more than a film-sized (16:9-ish) letterbox across the stage, which seemed awkwardly dwarfed by the height of the Met proscenium. People were efficiently marshalled around the space, with nice opportunities for chorus to mill about down stairs to the ballroom at the back, or congregate on hotel stairs to watch Arabella’s act 3 argument with Mandryka. It was pretty to watch, but also pretty dull I’m afraid.

Malin Byström sang Arabella, with a creamy lustre and a nice sense of the development of the character into the feisty, wronged heroine who ultimately forgives her wrongers. As Mandryka, Michael Volle was making his Met debut, with an effectively gruff and comic characterisation, vocally nicely shaded and again making an effective transition in the last scene to something more understanding and tender. Perhaps the most immediately gripping voice belonged to Juliane Banse as Zdenka, a lovely velvety, taut mezzo tone and wonderfully impassioned acting. Garrett Sorensen substituted efficiently for an ailing Roberto Saccà. The parents were vividly conveyed by Martin Winkler and Met debutant Catherine Wyn-Rogers (as a fellow northerner, it was nice to open a programme at the Met and see ‘Chesterfield, England’ by her name!) Audrey Luna applied an ample tone to The Fiakermilli’s twitterings.

Philippe Auguin kept things lithe and spirited in the pit, with nicely transparent textures, and our first impression of the Met Orchestra was a very positive one indeed.

Madama Butterfly, 19 April 2014 (8:00pm)

After an afternoon break for something to eat, it was back into the theatre at 8pm for Madama Butterfly, in the Minghella production which I have managed not to see at its outings at English National Opera. Puccini’s heroine was in the capable hands of Kristine Opolais, with a steely strength to her voice when needed, but beautifully shaded throughout to back up a persuasive account of Butterfly’s increasingly desperate fixation with the return of Pinkerton. As the American anti-hero, Adam Diegel deployed a big, fulsome tenor sound and made much of what Puccini gives him in terms of the self-deceiving, naïve love that turns to guilt at what he has done. Dwayne Croft conveyed Sharpless’s distaste for Pinkerton’s behaviour effectively, and Maria Zifchak was a sympathetic Suzuki.

From our precipitous viewpoint, in Balcony stage-side box, the stage images were a little lost on us, but there was some magic to be found in the production, and I found myself adapting after initially being a bit put off by the puppet version of Butterfly’s child. Marco Armiliato whipped up the drama in the pit and, at close quarters, the orchestra were thrilling in Puccini’s climaxes as the tragedy unfolded.

La Cenerentola, 21 April 2014 (7:30pm)

Cenerentola curtain call - Met 21/4

Curtain calls for La Cenerentola, the Metropolitan Opera, 21 April 2014

The highlight of the trip, without doubt: Joyce DiDonato essaying her winning portrayal of Angelina, alongside buffo favourite Alessandro Corbelli and newcomer Javier Camarena, who stepped in sensationally for an unwell Juan Diego Flórez. The New York Times had printed an article on the ‘new tenor’ in the run-up to the performance, quoting Peter Gelb as saying that Camarena is “a real, earnest, pure kind of artist, both in theatrical demeanour and in delivering the vocal goods.” He had made his debut in 2011 as Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and had just been finishing up a run of La Sonnambula opposite Diana Damrau when he got the call that he would be stepping in as Ramiro in Cenerentola. This, combined with the ever-wonderful Joyce and a very strong cast across the board, lent a real sense of occasion to the performance.

This is probably what the Met does well, such ‘occasions’, and the excitement was palpable. The applause that followed Camarena’s act 2 showpiece had threatened to stop the show, but the audience eventually conceded defeat (not so on the next night, when an encore was permitted). Camarena’s is a voice of consistent strength, evenness and beauty of tone, with a power capable of registering in the furthest corners of the Met auditorium. Small in stature, he acted – and reacted – with a charming naturalness as the comedy, and threats of tragedy, unfolded.

Of course, Joyce was fabulous, and easily matched Camarena in her showpiece that closes the opera, sounding in remarkable vocal health for the runs and leaps of Non più mesta. She had been utterly enchanting throughout and these two performances (hers and Camarena’s) were undoubtedly a highlight of the opera-going in New York. From an interval chat broadcast on Radio 3, I gather these are to be her last Cenerentolas, so it was wonderful to have been there.

Other performers included the irrepressible Alessandro Corbelli, ROH buffo regular Pietro Spagnoli making his debut, and Luca Pisaroni as a luxury-cast Alidoro. All were excellent, along with Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley, athletically throwing themselves into the comedy of the ugly sisters. Fabio Luisi kept things exuberantly buoyant in the pit.

Joyce DiDonato taking her applause after La Cenerentola, 21 April 2014

Joyce DiDonato taking her applause after La Cenerentola, 21 April 2014

Javier Camarena taking his applause after La Cenerentola, 21 April 2014

Javier Camarena taking his applause after La Cenerentola, 21 April 2014

I Puritani, 22 April 2014 (7:30pm)

I had high hopes for this performance, having listened to excerpts and watched the DVD. Sadly, particularly in relation to the night before, it was something of a disappointment.

Mariusz Kwieceń was ill, for starters, and his replacement sang the role of Riccardo more efficiently than distinctively. I would credit him, but no slip was given out and the Met’s website doesn’t have either a cast change announcement or his name in place of Kwieceń’s for that performance on the calendar. The ‘headlined’ act was Olga Peretyatko, making her debut as Elvira. Her voice on the lighter side, she nevertheless sang with elegance and style, and threw herself into the descent into madness and the resulting coloratura flights. Perhaps not pyrotechnics, in the Damrau mold, but she still made the notes count in delineating the heroine’s bewilderment.

As Arturo, it was a chance to hear Laurence Brownlee (apparently he was in 1984 at the Royal Opera House, but I can’t recall it to mind at all!). An impressive voice, of grace and beauty, he was well-balanced with Peretyatko. I’m not sure the top F is quite such a good idea during Credeasi, misera: however impressively it was done, it didn’t sound quite natural! He brought dramatical conviction to this rather unconvincing opera.

The staging was deathly dull, and was probably the principal reason for our collective failure to get enthused. The chorus work in particular was uninspired: they trooped on in lines, and dutifully ran off with pikes and swords to join the affray when required. Otherwise, they just sort of draped themselves around the set or stood in clumps. There seemed little attempt to give any of them anything individual to do – partly Bellini’s fault, no doubt – but with its chocolate-box pretty backdrops and relatively little going on in front, it didn’t thrill. Michele Mariotti conducted efficiently.

Così Fan Tutte, 23 April 2014 (7:30pm)

James Levine in Met orchestra pit for Cosi Fan Tutte, April 2014

James Levine in Met orchestra pit for Cosi Fan Tutte, April 2014

This was a special evening for the opportunity to hear James Levine conduct the performance, part of a run of Così that had begun back in September 2013 and which had marked his return to the Met pit after an extended absence due to ill-health. Conducting from a specially adapted podium, he led a performance brimming over with humanity and joy, sparkling and crisp. He drew a beautiful range of colours from the Met orchestra, the first time that they had really seemed to come alive as an ensemble with an individual voice: everyone was clearly very pleased to see him back.

The cast were also first rate, led by Susanna Phillips’ warm-toned and impetuous Fiordiligi and the lyrical Dorabella of Isabel Leonard. Phillips’ Per pietà was as meltingly painful as her Come scoglio was ferocious. As Ferrando, Matthew Polenzani sang impressively but with a slight over-emphasis on volume, so it became a bit unrelenting; however, he phrased Un’aura amorosa languidly and sang with consistently beautiful tone. Rodion Pogossov was also effective as Guglielmo.

As the schemers, Maurizio Muraro was a coolly calculating Don Alfonso, not quite effacing memories of Thomas Allen in the role, and Danielle De Niese brought all the necessary sparkle and mischief to Despina. Her relatively small voice was more impactful in the Met auditorium than I had expected.

The production had a summery beauty to it. It doesn’t downplay the uncomfortable misogyny in the piece, not to mention the double-standards, and some of its set-pieces moved slightly awkwardly about the stage. However, it provides atmospheric (and nicely-lit)  spaces for this sunny comic romp.

Metropolitan Opera Auditorium

Metropolitan Opera Auditorium

It was a great way to finish eight days of opera, food and sightseeing in New York. A very memorable holiday indeed!

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