Tenor Neil Shicoff brings his European know-how home to the Met
New York — The current revival of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur at the Metropolitan Opera promises far less than it actually delivers. It serves to reaffirm that Renata Scotto in her repertoire is second to none today. It also serves to reintroduce Met audiences to Neil Shicoff, a young American tenor who had to go to Europe to learn to become a finished performer.
''Adriana'' is one of that handful of silly, empty works that holds onto its repertory status because it has a few crackling scenes, some superior melodies, and a title role glove-fit for a soprano whose voice has seen better days but whose star power and artistry remain intact.
Which is not to say that the roles for tenor and mezzo don't pack quite a wallop when sung by important talents. At the Met, the revival was indicative of the current state of opera worldwide - to experience the good, one must endure the bad. Unfortunately, Viorica Cortez's mezzo (in this case as Princess de Bouillon) has never been of the right quality for a premiere house like the Met.
Renata Scotto in the title role repeated the performance she brought to the Met several seasons ago. Now the voice is more worn, less manageable, but she still turned in a riveting performance, because she was born to interpret this repertoire. The sad part of it is that had she not willfully assaulted the dramatic roles her voice could not manage, she would still be singing this role wonderfully well. An emerging tenor
The revelation of the evening was Neil Shicoff - and his Maurizio. The American tenor has not been heard too often at the Met these past few seasons. He has been learning his craft in Europe, and has returned a full-fledged artist. There was never any question from the day of his Met debut as Rinuccio in Puccini's ''Gianni Schicchi'' that a talent of major potential was on the scene. Within the next few seasons he offered Dukes in ''Rigoletto'' and Lenski in ''Eugene Onegin,'' which spoke more of an accelerated career master plan than of a singer coming to terms with his instrument and his artistry.
The years in Europe have been doing him so much good. Cilea gave Maurizio many showy moments and the most demanding extended singing in the opera. It demands a warm voice with a cutting edge and the ability to sustain high-lying phrases with expansiveness and dynamic shading. From beginning to end, Mr. Shicoff met every challenge head on and was not found wanting at any point. He knows his voice, knows its strengths and limitations, and he knows his Italian vocal styles. Perhaps more crucially, he seems now to know what roles are good for him and what are not.
Clearly Europe has been exactly what he has needed. I am saddened to have to say that it really is what most young Americans need. Because of the fragmentary nature of the domestic opera scene, American singers cannot sing the same role enough times in a season to acquire the requisite vocal and artistic insights. Nor do our companies offer the sort of intensive stylistic coaching found in so many of the European houses. Mr. Shicoff returned to New York an international-star tenor well on his way to a resplendent career. Few of his contemporaries can boast the same thing, as most of them have stuck it out in the States in repertoire totally unsuited to them.
In any age, welcoming a young tenor to the international scene is a happy occasion. That Neil Shicoff is an American is particularly nice. That he comes at a time of serious crisis in the tenor world places ferocious demands and pressures on him. I believe, based on the way he husbanded his resources throughout the performance - giving here, saving there - that he knows his limitations and that he will not be eaten up by a system that tends to chew up young talent and spit it like a mulcher grinding up autumn leaves. (He can be heard on the radio broadcast of this opera Feb. 26.) A musician's musician
Conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli has been making a huge name for himself in the opera houses of Europe. He made his New York Philharmonic debut in two installments armed with a recently announced exclusive Deutsche Grammophon recording contract.
He's a burly man with a bushy beard and out-of-control frizzy hair. He lumbers to the podium, and when there, tends to flap enthusiastically. Happily, it is an enthusiasm linked with deep-felt ideas about the music at hand, and a clear sense of how he wants those ideas projected. In the Schumann Second Symphony, those ideas tended to the energetic, almost frantic, yet it was an energy and freneticism fully justified in the music.
Sinopoli, be it in Mozart, Mahler, or Maderna, is a musician's musician, and this is not really surprising, since he is a celebrated composer on the other side of the Atlantic. He has provocative rather than merely willful ideas that elucidate aspects of the music one had either never heard or had forgotten were there. And he has the ability to communicate those ideas to the New York Philharmonic (a notoriously unresponsive group at times).
It would be unfortunate if an opera conductor could not support a soloist in a concerto, and there appears to be nothing unfortunate about Mr. Sinopoli. The soloist on this occasion was Malcolm Frager; the work, Mozart's popular D minor Piano Concerto, K. 466. Each stimulated the other.
Mr. Frager is rare among today's pianists in that he understands Mozart's inner messages, and knows how to communicate them in all their subtle varieties and colors. His ability quietly to unfold the drama and mood of the music, wedded to Mr. Sinopoli's highly theatrical view of the work, made for a bracing, refreshingly unhackneyed view of an oft-heard concerto.
Earlier this season, Mr. Sinopoli debuted in an account of Mahler's Sixth Symphony which was 80 percent magnificent, and otherwise surprisingly bland. He unfolded the first three movements with an unrelieved blackness of mood, even in the Andante, which is usually perceived as a respite rather than a continuation. He proved that that unrelievedly maniacal mood must continue through the symphony right to the final shattering pages.
He made the devastating final movement a somewhat prosaic study in Mahlerian colors, however, rather than the continuation of seething, raging black despair. So fine was the best of his performance that he could be forgiven the peculiar way he closed the symphony - slighting the sense of oblivion that is written in.
A Met debut for Sinopoli is in the offing a few years from now, and a recording of Verdi's ''Nabucco'' is due out later this year, so his career has clearly been launched in a big way. And make no mistake, Sinopoli is clearly a maestro to watch.