After taking in Jonathan Miller's fleshy, nostalgic, utopian Le Nozze di Figaro, to which the audience heaped-on endless praise during Saturday night's Metropolitan Opera performance, Opera Chic understands (even more) why Luc Bondy's vision for a lean, merciless, unapologetic Tosca was so despised by the same crowds. It's okay. We don't hate the player or the game.
In Wolford matte black tights, Givenchy towering black heels & white ribbed tank, Azzedine Alaia black knit wool miniskirt, vintage Cartier, and a Diane Von Furstenberg trench (and Paul Smith umbrella), OC (elegantly) stomped her way into the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday night for the second replication of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (la prima was on Tuesday night) presented in Jonathan Miller's classic version of an idealized, 18th century generic Italy, palazzos with miles of moldy, paneled windows (lovely and spacious sets as visualized by Peter J. Davison).
Dr. Miller's stalwart vision premiered in 1998 with Bryn Terfel's Figaro, Cecilia Bartoli's Susanna, Renée Fleming's Countess, Dwayne Croft's Count, Susanne Mentzer's Cherubino (and yeah, Danielle de Niese's Barbarina) and has been through many revisions in its
20 11 years on the Met stage. Gregory Keller now responsible for direction, he's moved the production further away from Miller's essential vision to one of unsubtle and ungraceful comic relief, frankly at times, painfully unessential.
Israeli Maestro Dan Ettinger, already two shows under his belt for his Fall 2009 Metropolitan Opera debut, understands the deep humanity of Mozart's score with an inspired, musical interpretation. The former baritone, now Kapellmeister at the Berlin State Opera and MD of the Israel Symphony Orchestra, takes his Mozart with a light, delicate touch -- stirred, not shaken -- although O.C. prefers the snappier, crisper, more upbeat, ruthless tempi of Riccardo Muti, the exciting and excited Salzburg 1937 Bruno Walter, or say, the glistening grace of Ferenc Fricsay's and Guido Cantelli's Mozart, but Ettinger gave us a nice compromise with his light-on-legato servings and a mastery of dynamics, easily shifting between whispering pianissimo and rich forte with a subtle hand.
And we're eager to hear how Maestro Fabio Luisi fares in his Metropolitan Opera Nozze debut, as he relieves Ettinger for six Nozze performances starting November 23.
O.C.'s beef with Jonathan Miller's production is the clumsy comedic tinkering that Gregory Keller has foisted on Mozart & Da Ponte's elegant, graceful opera, turning it from the inspired work to witless opera buffa. Mozart's Nozze features stirring moments of complete transcendence, and Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto encapsulates profound themes: forgiveness, repentance, and humility. Here, Mozart's sublime composition is milked for comic relief, cheap laughs, and affected pantomime. Textual nuances within the libretto are manipulated, stretching the Italian words for comedic effect, which alters the musical grace and strips the narrative of subtlety. Turning the characters into one-dimensional caricatures depletes them of sympathy, and even the final, earthshatteringly contrite "Contessa, perdono" fails to provoke.
Jonathan Miller's Nozze -- somewhat of a streamlined, British version of Zeffirelli if Frengo had a smaller budget and locked-out of the props department -- is predictable; a sterilized, non-threatening, antiseptic version. Not a centimeter of bewbs showing. Seriously, would a little cleavage kill anyone? Even prudish Frengo shows more cleavage than Miller's James Acheson does with his conservative costumes...although we're not dissing Acheson's pretty wardrobe with gorgeous splashes of color, like Susanna's adorable red shoes and Figaro's robin egg blue knickers.
The highest-billed singer of the evening was American soprano Danielle de Niese as Susanna. Miller's Nozze became essentially the tale of Susanna and Figaro, everyone else a runner-up. De Niese has come full circle, her MET company debut as Barbarina in the 1998 premiere, and now eleven years later comes her Susanna premiere. Her voice is uncharacteristic of Susanna's sweet, clear, musical fach and instead is a harsher, crustier lower/middle register with a nice top. The one thing that de Niese excels at is in her acting. In this production, she makes her priorities apparent: actor first, singer second -- so much so that she swallowed her lines while suffusing dramatic emotion into her role. During Act II, Scene seven's duettino with Cherubino "Aprite, preso, aprite" she is so focused on being breathless and panicky that there's no music left to her voice. Act I, Scene 7's trio with Susanna's "Che ruina, me meschina!" becomes all about the fainting pantomime, nothing else existing -- not the music, nor the libretto. De Niese should be praised for staying one step ahead of even her most practiced contemporaries, consistently "on" with an enchanting magnetism. She forges a lasting connection with the entire audience and treats them as close allies, which can only work to her advantage.
Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea sang Figaro with a mellifluous, deep, secure baritone, reprising the role that he premiered at the Met in 2006. His cavatina "Se voul ballare, Signor Contino" was, trills and all, gorgeous. Three hours later at the challenging, emotive Act III, Scene 8 "Aprite un po'quegli occhi", Relyea turned it out well for such a demanding aria.
New Yorker mezzo Isabel Leonard slammed her Cherubino MET debut with a ringing, clear, clean, healthy tone and acting with gusto to accompany her delightful pants charade. While her "Non so piu' cosa son, cosa faccio" started off just a little bit on the shaky side, she recovered fully with "Voi che sapete", performing seamlessly with Ettinger, who whispered the orchestration in a show of unselfish musicianship.
Danish baritone Bo Skovhus was Count Almaviva, which he last sang at the MET in the same production a decade ago. His voice was in full command and Act III's "Vedro' mentr'io sospiro" was a standout.
Emma Bell also had her MET debut singing the Countess. Her "Porgi, Amor" showed off nothing but vibrato, a deep(ening) voice hidden under layers of costume and Ettinger slowed down the aria to an unsavory tempo. "E Susanna non vien... Dove sono" fared better.
Bit characters were all well cast: Maurizio Muraro's Don Bartolo had nice color for a dry voice while Marcellina's Wendy White kept high spirits and clear notes. Philip Langridge's Don Basilio blended well into the cast of misfits. Ashley Emerson's Barbarina was too adorable, like a pocket-sized version and her "L'ho perduta... me meschina..." and she won us over.
So what did you come to the Metropolitan Opera for? Mozart's lofty, heaven-bound score? Da Ponte's dignified libretto? Better if you came just for the laughs and you weren't disappointed. Miller's production is a risk-free crowd pleaser for sure. So New Yorkers, here are your candlesticks, your knife, your stabbing, your heroic desperate leap to suicide, while the piety and non-threatening, safe posturing should make up for Tosca's three whores.