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‘A LIVING, BREATHING ART FORM’
Says Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera of New York: ‘‘The overarching theme of any Met season is one of eclecticism.’’ Indeed, the 26 operas offered by the Met this year are a diverse group. There are rarities by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss. Six new productions are on offer, two of which are Russian operas, including ‘‘Eugene Onegin,’’ which opened the season on Sept. 23.
Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met.
© Brigitte Lacombe
‘‘Onegin’’ arrives in a handsome new production staged by Deborah Warner and directed by Fiona Shaw, who stepped in after Warner had to bow out because of unexpected surgery. This tragic Tchaikovsky story tells of an ill-fated love triangle and stars Anna Netrebko as Tatiana. The production is a collaboration between the Met and the English National Opera.
Also at the end of September, the Met welcomed back ‘‘The Nose,’’ an absurd Shostakovich comedy in a striking, visually innovative staging by William Kentridge. ‘‘The Nose,’’ one of the great successes of Gelb’s administration, will also be presented in a live, high-definition broadcast to theaters, allowing opera lovers around the world to see what happens when a man’s nose runs away.
The third Russian offering is ‘‘Prince Igor,’’ the lone (and unfinished) opera by the composer Alexander Borodin. A stylish slice of early Russian history, ‘‘Igor’’ is reimagined in this new production as the title character’s own psychological journey. Visuals will include a field of 12,000 wireand-cloth poppies, the scarlet setting for the opera’s ballet: the ‘‘Polovtsian Dances.’’ Ildar Abdrazakov sings the title role.
The production brings the sweeping epic of the steppes to the Met stage for the first time in a century. One challenge of staging Borodin’s unfinished opera is making the unconnected scenes dramatically coherent. ‘‘For Dmitri Tcherniakov,’’ the director, ‘‘this is a piece he grew up with, it’s a piece that all Russians know,’’ says Gelb. ‘‘Together in collaboration with Gianandrea Noseda,’’ who is conducting, ‘‘they have come up with a new dramaturgical structure of the piece which makes it more of an internal psychological journey.’’
New shows, in addition to ‘‘Igor’’ and ‘‘Onegin,’’ include ‘‘Two Boys,’’ Nico Muhly’s bold first opera about Internet chat rooms and teenage angst; ‘‘Die Fledermaus,’’ with new dialogue by the Broadway playwright Douglas Carter Beane and new lyrics by Jeremy Sams; and Massenet’s ‘‘Werther,’’ starring Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.
Jonas Kaufmann is Werther in a new production of the Massenet opera, directed by Richard Eyre.
© Brigitte Lacombe / Metropolitan Opera
Of the new productions, the most eagerly anticipated is the new production by Robert Carsen of ‘‘Falstaff,’’ starring Ambrogio Maestri as Shakespeare’s most famous comic creation.
‘‘In Ambrogio Maestri,’’ says Gelb, ‘‘we have one of the top two or three Falstaffs in the world today.’’ An all-star cast includes the sopranos Lisette Oropesa and Angela Meade. The production also marks the bicentennial year of Giuseppe Verdi, whose ‘‘Rigoletto’’ also returns to the schedule in its Las Vegas-themed production from last season. The show is a co-production by the Met, the Royal Opera House of London, Teatro alla Scala of Milan, the Canadian Opera Company and De Nederlandse Opera of Amsterdam.
‘‘I believe no opera production should last forever,’’ Gelb says firmly, ‘‘even if the scenery doesn’t collapse. It’s healthy to know that opera is a living, breathing art form. Obviously, we have to keep pace with society and the world. If opera is to have a future it has to be alive on the stage, and the way to keep it alive is through new productions.’’
He adds, referring to Franco Zeffirelli productions: ‘‘Other than the ‘Bohème’ and ‘Turandot,’ everything is fair game.’’
Another major thread of 2013 at the Met is the eagerly anticipated return to active conducting duties of James Levine, the music director. Levine will lead three operas at the Met this year: ‘‘Così fan tutte,’’ ‘‘Wozzeck’’ and ‘‘Falstaff.’’
Levine’s return after a leave ‘‘is an exciting moment in recent Met history,’’ says Gelb. ‘‘He’s returning so energized and on top of his game. He hasn’t conducted opera in two years. Although he is confined to a wheelchair, he has enormous upper body strength, and he is conducting like he hasn’t in 20 years. The cast of younger singers are so excited that he is back.’’
THE RETURN OF THE MAESTRO
When James Levine returned to conduct the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in May, the effect was immediately audible. The players sounded energized, with the 10 minutes of Wagner’s ‘‘Lohengrin’’ prelude seeming to shimmer and expand on waves of sound.
Levine isn’t conducting any Wagner at the Met this year, but make no mistake: the company’s music director is back in action, and the company is the better for it. Although battles with numerous health issues have left the maestro confined to a wheelchair, this season sees him conduct revivals of ‘‘Così fan tutte’’ and ‘‘Wozzeck,’’ along with an eagerly anticipated new production of Verdi’s ‘‘Falstaff.’’
Levine has been the instrumental heart of the Metropolitan Opera for the past 40 years, serving as music director and shaping the company’s orchestra into a world-class ensemble. A combination of illnesses and injuries, however, aggravated by a fall suffered in September 2011, prevented him from conducting for the past two years. This season, he is in a wheelchair but resuming his duties as the company’s music director and most eminent conductor.
James Levine, the Met’s music director, conducting the company’s orchestra at Carnegie Hall on May 19.
© Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera
Danielle de Niese, the soprano who appears in September and April performances of ‘‘Così fan tutte,’’ couldn’t be happier. ‘‘It’s so great with Jimmy coming back,’’ she said in a telephone interview, adding: ‘‘I called him Jimmy — could you please change that to Maestro Levine?’’
De Niese first sang for Levine as Barbarina in 1998, in the premiere of a new production of ‘‘Le Nozze di Figaro.’’ She is currently in the middle of intensive rehearsals for ‘‘Così fan tutte,’’ the bubbling Mozart comedy of disguises and switched identities. As Despina, she is a kind of female Figaro,amaster of disguise.
‘‘The preseason rehearsal process at the Met is very different,’’ she notes. ‘‘You have these spikes with heavy concentration and performing with the orchestra the same day. It has kept us at a hyper-focused level.’’
‘‘I love doing Despina,’’ she says, discussing the character who turns herself into a quack doctor and a shrill notary to help bring the opera’s plot to a boil. ‘‘For the doctor, I’ve got this very big sound. For the notary, completely nasal. I tried to change the body language between the doctor and the notary — one slouches and the other’s a bit full of himself.’’
When working with Levine — ‘‘Jimmy’’ to his colleagues — the smallest details are important. ‘‘What I find remarkable,’’ De Niese says, ‘‘is that his contributions even to the smallest staging details so greatly improve the effect of the story and draw the audience’s attention to where it needs to be. That can be done with the smallest things. Which way you’re turning your head can mean turning away from the audience, or sharing with the audience rather than turning away.’’
She elaborates: ‘‘He’s got such a keen eye for that, not only musically but architecturally, in the shape of the staging. He gets involved in a beautiful way and not an overbearing way. He’s a sculptor, like a Rodin.
‘‘He’s spot-on. He can work on the finest points of singing with you. We’ll gather in musical rehearsals, and he’s able to slowly but surely pinpoint the places where we need more energy, more time, more intention. Those things are the icing on the cake, really.’’
Lisette Oropesa, like De Niese, is a product of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. In December, she’ll sing Nannetta in the company’s new production of Verdi’s ‘‘Falstaff.’’ She’s happy about Levine’s return, but for slightly different reasons.
‘‘He’s the type of conductor who knows how to bring the best out of you,’’ she says. ‘‘He’s like a psychiatrist.’’
She explains: ‘‘Instead of him saying ‘You’re flat on this note,’ he’ll say, ‘You need to keep the breath on this note.’ Some conductors of his status would not hesitate to blow up at people. He says, with human kindness, ‘You’re making this mistake,’ and says it in a way that you can fix it without feeling that you’re a failure. It brings up your confidence, which helps you bring out your best as a singer.’’
Nannetta is the high soprano part in Verdi’s last opera, one of a pair of young lovers whose duets and romances add whimsy to the comedy’s already piquant warmth. This year’s offering is a new production by Robert Carsen, opening on Dec. 6.
‘‘Verdi knew what he was doing,’’ Oropesa declares. ‘‘All the progress in style — to take a piece like ‘Falstaff’ that is so exciting and bright and full of energy, and to think that was his last opera. The opera really has got everything. There’s not a moment to be lost.’’
That’s not to say the experience of working with Levine is easy for a young singer like Oropesa. ‘‘When we were Young Artists,’’ she says, ‘‘every time I went to sing with him it was like being audited by the I.R.S. Although he’s the most kind and gentle person on the planet, you never showed up unprepared. It instilled in me a great sense of duty and making sure that level of discipline is very high. I can’t come less than prepared. I’m not going to show up with less than my best. But when you come with your best, he can give you a different kind of coaching.’’
LOVE AND DEATHLY ATTRACTION IN A CZECH CLASSIC
Renée Fleming is the most famous American singer of the last two decades, reigning in a wide repertory from Verdi to Strauss to baroque operas and bel canto rarities. But the role the soprano is most closely associated with is the title role in ‘‘Rusalka,’’ Antonin Dvorak’s 1901 fairy tale of a mermaid struggling for acceptance in the human world.
The story of Rusalka is an old one, retold by Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney. But Dvorak’s opera stands out, a lush construction that uses the composer’s unique gift for melody and command of Bohemian folk idiom to create a magical opera.
Renée Fleming stars in ‘‘Rusalka,’’ one of 10 productions featured in the Met’s 2013-14 Live in HD season.
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Like its protagonist, ‘‘Rusalka’’ can captivate an audience, and Czech opera is in Fleming’s blood. ‘‘I love this opera — everything about it,’’ she confides. ‘‘My great grand parents were from Prague. I remember, as a child, hearing them speak Czech to each other, especially when the conversation wasn’t intended for my ears.’’
She admits that the language is difficult to learn, but mastering singing in Czech is only one of the challenges of the work.
‘‘This is a surprising version of the tale we know as the Little Mermaid,’’ she says. ‘‘It has a very dark and complex ending. It took me a while — a few productions — to fully understand what happens to Rusalka in the third act. Her punishment for breaking the vow of silence, for not being able to live in the human world, is to become a death sprite, a siren, a creature who lures men to their deaths. At the end, when the Prince says ‘Kiss me,’ Rusalka warns him that he’ll die, but he understands and accepts his fate. It’s a morality tale in a way, and it’s often directed as a coming-of-age story for her. The opera is an intriguing version of this beloved story, and withstands interpretation well.’’
The Met production dates from 1993 — Fleming first appeared in the role in 1997 — and is by the legendary team of the director Otto Schenk and the designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen.
There’s a price to pay for spectacular visuals and watery effects in an opera that spends so much time close to the shore. ‘‘It’s very physical!’’ says Fleming. ‘‘But that final scene, when she walks on water, is a sublime piece of stagecraft.’’
‘‘Portraying Rusalka requires stamina,’’ she says. ‘‘Because she’s on stage almost the entire time.’’
Fleming points out that this opera is unusual. ‘‘As my portrayal has evolved, I have had to work on Act II, during most of which the character is mute,’’ she explains. ‘‘I have to engage the audience’s sympathy with movement alone, not an everyday task for a soprano.’’
She continues: ‘‘And as I’m bringing her to life the audience has questions. Why does the Prince react so badly? Why does Rusalka’s simple longing for human love go so wrong?’’
Finally, however, she says: ‘‘While there’s no redemption for Rusalka and her Prince, the reward is in the surpassing beauty of Dvorak’s music.’’
CAPTURING A DARK, POETIC SOUL
Rolando Villazón was discovered almost by accident, overheard by a Mexico City neighbor as he sang in the shower. That discovery revealed what has proved to be one of the most remarkable voices in opera today, a smooth tenor with a passionate stage presence. His career was launched in 1999, when he won three prizes at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition.
Rolando Villazón, pictured here as Rodolfo in Puccini’s ‘‘La Bohème,’’ will sing the role of Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s ‘‘Eugene Onegin’’ in November.
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
But his career was almost ended six years ago. A vocal crisis that started in 2007 sidelined the singer for almost two years.
‘‘I had a congenital cyst in the vocal cord,’’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘‘It had to be removed, and I was told by many doctors that my career was over. Fortunately, I met a doctor in Paris, and he said you would be able to find your way back. I did, and it took patience and a lot of work. I had to learn to speak and then sing again, and slowly put one note in front of the other.’’
‘‘It was a hard process mentally and physically,’’ he recounts, ‘‘but it has allowed me to look for new horizons and new repertoire, to reach new goals and perceive myself as more than a singer. I’m feeling very free and very lucky that I could have gone through that process and still keep my career on the best stages in the world.’’
His November performances as Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s ‘‘Eugene Onegin’’ are his first on the Met stage since a 2009 performance of ‘‘Lucia di Lammermoor’’ opposite Anna Netrebko. Lensky is an ardent young aristocrat who competes withOnegin for the hand of the beautiful Tatiana in the tragic opera.
‘‘‘Onegin’ is a fantastic opera,’’ says Villazón, and he relishes singing the role: ‘‘this passionate poetic soul who takes things to the limit and takes love very seriously and takes friendship seriously, and is very passionate and strong in his belief. He’s one of those dark poets, looking for an excuse to make something extraordinary of his life. He lives his life as a big, tragic poem.’’
He continues: ‘‘He is a volcano, it explodes! He is all emotions, a flower that is opening his soul.’’
Villazón says that singing in Russian ‘‘was the biggest challenge — to translate from the Cyrillic and then to use the phonetic translation to pronounce the words with a Russian coach. You need to know where to stress, which way you go in the line, so you are singing the right tension, the right emphasis in each phrase.’’
He made his debut as Lensky in 2006 in a Royal Opera House production at Covent Garden in London. Each time he sings the role, he says, requires renewed preparation and refreshment.
‘‘I have to do it again every time I sing this part. After two or three years, I have to learn it again, and then do the very important and necessary work of polishing. You listen to the music, to what the music is demanding of you as a singer, and you try to enter into the style of what Tchaikovsky wants. You have to bring your individuality to the part, which is part of the process.’’
BEHIND THE SCENES
THE ARTISTS WHO SET THE STAGE
Tall and lanky, Douglas Lebrecht strides through a vast room filled with fresh-cut lumber and the flotsam and jetsam of opera productions past, present and future. He’s the head of the Metropolitan Opera’s scenic department, and on a Wednesday afternoon six days before the opera company is scheduled to open the 2013 season, his work space is a hub of activity.
Ildar Abdrazakov in the field of poppies created for the production of ‘‘Prince Igor.’’
© Micaela Rossato / Metropolitan Opera
Today, Lebrecht’s crew, which varies from about 20 to 50 carpenters spread over three workshops, is creating a set of birch trunks, cut lengthwise and lined up horizontally to be painted. Lebrecht is in charge of making sure the sets on the Met stage look right from the audience’s perspective, whether it’s a birch forest in ‘‘Eugene Onegin’’ or a vast field of 12,000 red poppies, the visual centerpiece of the company’s new production of ‘‘Prince Igor.’’
He shows off a spray of the poppies, which are in a bucket in the middle of the shop. They’re set in a collection of other flowers and fake grasses. ‘‘Each of these had to be laser-cut,’’ he explains, pointing out the details of the petals and the wire stems. A hint of black fuzz indicates the pistil and stamens at the center. He then reveals matter-of-factly that this florist’s dream is for the Act II ballet sequence, the ‘‘Polovtsian Dances,’’ the most famous passage in Borodin’s opera.
‘‘They’re going to dance through them,’’ he says. He’s not kidding.
Lebrecht’s main workshop (the Met has three — two are in the outer boroughs) is a long, narrow work space lit through long glass windows with southern exposure. The shop is a jumbled delight, decked with props and imagery from present and past opera productions.
A collection of obese chef masks collude in a corner opposite fauxdecayed carvings from the company’s ‘‘Aida.’’ At the top of the stairs leers a five-foot-wide gargoyle face. ‘‘Cut from the siege tower in Act II of ‘Francesca da Rimini,’’’ he says regretfully. Hours could be spent putting everything in the room into context.
The Met runs more than two dozen shows every season, and it is Lebrecht’s job to keep them all looking their very best. ‘‘The scenic artists whom I supervise,’’ he says, ‘‘are responsible for everything from the wood and steel out, not just the scenery but the painted props and the painted costumes.’’
We do all of the aging and distressing,’’ he adds, pointing out one of his colleagues: ‘‘She’ll take a brand-new T-shirt and make it look like it has been worn 15 times.’’
But there’s more than just scenery. ‘‘We do all of the flower arrangements, the draperies, pillows, hand props, documents,’’ he says. ‘‘You need a letter written in French, someone in the scenic department may write a letter with a nib pen. We also do fake food.’’
MET OPERA ON DEMAND
As part of the Metropolitan Opera’s continued efforts to extend its appeal beyond the walls of its Lincoln Center home, the company has expanded its video and audio streaming service to tablet computers via the launch of the Met Opera on Demand app.
The Met’s media manager, Justin Fuhs, explains the development of the digital opera house. ‘‘The Met has offered streaming of select video and audio performances since 2008,’’ he says. ‘‘At the time we launched the service, opera fans could watch and listen to about 170 operas on their desktop computers. As the service becomesmore popular, we’ve expanded our catalog and made the service available to tablet users through an iPad app called Met Opera on Demand.’’
Use of the on-demand streaming service on a tablet requires the app, available for free from the iTunes Store, and an iPad or iPad mini. The streaming service does not allow listeners to download or ‘‘borrow’’ audio files—and requires an active Wi-Fi connection.
‘‘While the app is free, viewing content requires a subscription,’’ Fuhs explains. ‘‘The majority of our subscribers join after experimenting with the service during the seven-day free trial we offer.’’ The billing rate following the trial is $14.99amonth, or $149.99 a year, with further discounts available for Metropolitan Opera Guild members.
The Met has also added the on demand service to its educational program. The new service, Met Opera on Demand: Student Access, is available to university libraries and allows students to view or listen to all of the operas in the catalog as well as other educational content related to the featured operas, composers and artists.
‘‘We have over 450 full-length operas in the catalog,’’ says Fuhs, ‘‘including more than 65 recent Live in HD presentations. Those are typically added to the service three to four months after the live broadcasts.’’ Live in HD is the Met’s program for high-definition broadcasts to movie theaters around the world. The Met also makes audio and video titles available for rental or purchase through partnerships with iTunes and Amazon Instant.
‘‘The video and audio quality of the HD performances is extremely impressive,’’ Fuhs adds. ‘‘They really capture the experience of seeing and hearing the live transmissions. Our subscribers have been very pleased with the video quality that the iPad has been able to deliver.’’
In addition to the HD transmissions, ‘‘We also offer 67 standard-definition broadcasts,’’ says Fuhs, ‘‘most of which are from older Met telecasts that were seen on PBS.’’ These titles range from a 1977 performance of ‘‘La Bohème,’’ starring Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Scotto, to a 2003 performance of ‘‘Ariadne auf Naxos,’’ starring Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay.
In addition, 332 audio broadcasts drawn from the Met’s vast history of radio broadcasts, dating back to 1936, are available through the service.
Text by PAUL PELKONEN