Mid-winter at the Met: Casting is stronger

In one of the better-looking weeks the Metropolitan Opera has had recently (at least on paper), the house was able to offer Hildegard Behrens, Teresa Zylis-Gara (twice), Montserrat Caballe, Jon Vickers, Sherrill Milnes, Birgit Nilsson and Leonie Rysanek (the latter two in "Elektra" already reviewed in these pages).

The strongest looking cast turned into one of the more disappointing evenings at the Met -- Behrens, Vickers, Catherine Malfitano, and Paul Plishka, all together in Beethoven's "Fidelio". The problem was not in the casting, though Franz Ferdinand Nentwig, a newcomer as Pizzaro, was not really the sort of voice the Met should be offering in major roles. Vickers was his usual vibrant self, and Behrens was superb as Leonore -- committed in every facet, strongly vocalized from top to botom.

Plishka could have sung a bit more tidily, though his Rocco was well characterized -- more kingly and believable than is often the case. As his daughter, Catherine Malfitano was as animated as ever a Marzelline could be (a real plus) but in somewhat hard voice (which took away from the warmth of the role). James Morris was the imposing Fernando, James Atherton the effective Jacquino.

The problems were not on stage. Even the direction as overseen by newcomer David Alden (Otto Schenk's name has inexplicably been removed from the credits though the staging is still very much his) had vigor, except for the final scene , where it spoke more of high-school pep rally than the embodiment of universal liberty.

No, the problem lay in maestro Erich Leinsdorf, usually so commendable of instinct and idea. Here, he seemed more intent on showing the ponderous nobility of the music at the expense of both passion and humanity. There was no vigor to the performance. And even more questionable was the decision to bring the curtain up before the end of the "Leonore No. 3" overture and cut from the final bars of that overture straight to the first choral "Heil." I find the interpolation of "Leonore No. 3" works perfectly well, for it gives the audience a good rousing interlude before the utter thrill of the final scene. Granted Beethoven never intended that it be spliced into the opera at all, but it meets the needs of audiences and of stage productions requiring that time for a scene change. An audience should be able to applaud, then move on to the last scene with the march music Beethoven wrote. Leinsdorf's approach truly robs that scene of its impact: No one has a chance to break enough of the tension, so that the finale becomes anticlimactic.

Conducting was the strong point of the revival of Wagner's "Lohengrin." Giuseppe Patane brought a vibrant lyricism to the score, suffusing it with energy and warmth, and always being alert to the needs of his singers. Unfortunately, the August Everding production does not move along very swiftly these days. The Mining Cho Lee sets have been particularly ill lighted, and the taut energy that helped one to gloss over flaws when first seen has been supplanted by a longuer that only focuses on the numerous difficiencies.

Teresa Zylis-Gara's Elsa was the only Met-scaled performance of the evening. She brought warmth and a creditable amount of intensity to the role. Peter Hoffman, who had just made his Met debut in this role, was rather less than heroic in stature, and it was most disappointing to discover that Europe's leading heldentenor is really little more than a penetrating lyric with too limited a sense of vocal color.

Donald McIntyre's Telramund was not up to par. Mignon Dunn has made her Ortrud too overwrought for credibility. Nor was Bonaldo Giaiotti's King as imposing as last time around.

Patane was also in charge of "Tosca" in what proved to be an entertaining, old- fashioned performance. The maestro ferreted out the volatile tensions of the score with impressive power.

Cornell MacNeil has refined his menacing Scarpia into something even more evil and malevolent than it was last season. As Cavaradossi, Giuseppe Giacomini was in splendidly secure voice -- rare for him. But he tended to substitute mere emoting for sheer poetry.

In the title role, Montserrat Cabelle made more of an effect than might at first be expected. It is the first time in years that a prima diva has assumed the role at the Met (Leonie Rysanek's ill-fated 20th anniversary date excepted, though she redeemed herself on the Met tour later that spring). And if she proved not to be in the grand theatrical tradition of a Rysanek or what Nilsson or Callas must have been, she at least coped creditably with what she had for histrionic resources. Vocally in fine fettle, her top rang out strongly, truly, (some startingly fine high "C's" in Act 2) she moved with as much of a sense of the drama as her placid temperament allows. And always the emotions she was singing about were very clear, even if some of the words were not.

There was nothing casual or indifferent about this Tosca, and Cabelle came forth with her finest effort in recent seasons -- a grand old evening of fun on the scale the Met is noted for.

Would that "Eugene Onegin" could have ended its run at the Met with glory rather yhsn indifference. Honors went to Benjamin Luxon, in his Met debut. He proved to be a very compelling actor -- expertly delineating all the brooding shifts of the title character. The voice is small, unimposing, and quite colorless however, so his was primarily a visual performance. Wieslaw Ochman's Lenski had a rough Slavic charm, and some genuine peotic feeling when he sang softly. Teresa Kubiak once possessed a strong voice (witness her performance on the Solti recording of this opera). Now it is the hollowest shell and no amount of histrionic impulse (of which there was a good deal) could compensate for an intrument that no longer responds to shading, color, or dynamic. In the pit, Emil Tchakarov seemed even less able to ferret out the deep-rooted tensions and richness of the score than he was earlier this season. But at least the orchestra played most handsomely, as it did for all the condutors this week. This is indeed tribute to the remarkable work James Levine is doing as music director in building this pit ensemble into something consistent, reliable, and responsive to any conductor.

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