Friday
March 31, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 13
 
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Bits & Bytes
Domingo charms as operatic Cyrano, Mazeppa, Luisa Miller intrigue at the Met; Tchaikovsky scores at NY Philharmonic
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

NEW YORK, NY - The Metropolitan Opera stages dozens of operas every season-the just announced 2006-07 season offers several dozen productions in hundreds of performances. Many Seattle and Northwest opera fans make an annual pilgrimage to The Met and see as many as six, seven or eight productions in a single week.

Bits&Bytes was lured to New York earlier this month to see a rare staging of a nearly forgotten 1936 operatic version of Cyrano de Bergerac, a "vanity" production for the legendary Placido Domingo that was an unexpected audience and critical success last season. This year's revival got off to a bumpy start in February when illness sidelined the world famous tenor. He sang all of the three March performances-and showed The Met and its subscribers the upside of "vanity" productions.

To the delight of this opera-loving scribe, Cyrano was clustered with two other rarely produced operas, Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa and Verdi's early Luisa Miller. A rare Friday matinee at the New York Philharmonic gave this SGN scribe a chance to hear a wonderful program featuring Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 (which the Seattle Symphony is offering tonight at Benaroya Hall as SSO continues its 2006 salute to Russian music).

Bits&Bytes reported on new plays and the hit musical revival of The Pajama Game last week-this week focuses on the high end of the cultural ladder. Read on&.

DOMINGO SCORES IN OPERATIC CYRANO

Franco Alfano wrote his operatic version of Cyrano de Bergerac in 1936 with a libretto by Henri Cain based on the classic French play by Edmond Rostand. The Met offered its premiere of the opera last season as a "vanity" production for Placido Domingo.

The Met with its vast resources and national and international audience can stage a rarely heard work "to accommodate" its vocal superstars. Many of them-including two recent vanity productions for Renee Fleming-have turned into sellout hits and returned long forgotten works to the general repertoire. Some-like works staged for Joan Sutherland that were hosted by Seattle Opera (talk about "opening out of town") before moving to The Met (and "serious" New York critics)-disappeared quickly.

The 1936 Cyrano would undoubtedly have had more international success if World War II had not closed most of the major opera houses of Europe. As a new work before WWII, it seems to have simply disappeared until Domingo resurrected it.

While Cyrano is not an ideal opera, it is a vastly appealing work that delights general audiences, especially when headlined by a superstar. Domingo-an international superstar with dozens of major roles at The Met in his resume-also serves as artistic director for Washington (D.C.) National Opera and for Los Angeles Opera. There is no doubt that one or both companies are likely to include this Cyrano revival in upcoming seasons. The Met's staging, with direction by Francesca Zambello, is a co-production with England's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. (Zambello will be remembered by loyal Seattle Opera patrons from her controversial productions at SO in past years).

Domingo, who missed the first performances of the revival in February, was in great voice and sang with much sensitivity for the three March dates. The musical center of the opera, amazingly, is the role of Roxane. Indeed, the stars of the work's first productions in Italy and France were the sopranos who sang Roxane. Sondra Radvanovsky was an enchanting Roxane for The Met. A beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, she was the perfect Roxane. Domingo illustrated his true superstar status by stepping aside time after time and letting Radvanovsky take-and hold-center stage. The native of Illinois makes her Covent Garden debut in the co-production of this handsome Cyrano.

The handsome production had only one major staging flaw. The world famous balcony scene-where Cyrano mouths the poetry for the stumbling Christian. In Rostand's play, the setting is the walled garden of Roxane's home. Here, her balcony is on a main street. It is unthinkable, psychologically, that any of three characters would confess their innermost emotions on a main street in the town. They are psychologically walled in, confined by their secrets, and the walled garden is the proper setting for the scene. As a contrast, the opening scene in the theater of the Hotel de Bourgogne was lavish and awe inspiring. The bakery, in scene two, was a towering success with cakes and pastries soaring on shelves three stories high. The battlefield, too, was detailed and encompassing.

The breathtaking final scene is set in the garden of the convent where Roxane finally learns that it is Cyrano who spoke the words and wrote the letters that made her fall in love with Christian. Stunning use of a scrim separated the stylized trees "the color of Venetian gold" and the nuns from Roxane and the dying Cyrano

Quibbles & Concerns: The Met, uptypically in this reviewer's memory, seemed oddly unconcerned about minor details that are clearly described in Cyrano's text. With Met Titles bringing every word of the libretto to the audience, it seems strange to have Cyrano discuss his spurs-Domingo even clicked his heels together to emphasize them. The problem: he was not wearing spurs. Later, a dueling Cyrano threatens to pierce a rival's heart-"through the sash crossed over your heart"-but the man's sash was worn over the other shoulder and did not cross over his heart.

Even later, Roxane sings of sending her love for Christian down from the balcony via "the jasmine's twisted branch." Problem: not a single vine, not a single leaf, not a single branch was in sight. These are minor concerns-but each violation of the text can be an interruption in the immersion of the music and make a thoughtful opera buff start to wonder about what else is missing.

(Seattle Opera, like any other company using supertitles-or supratitles, as they first were known-faces the same problem. Many Emerald City opera fans suspect that SO simply turns off the projected text when the production doesn't match the libretto-it may be momentarily distracting but does not confuse the viewer in the long run.)

TCHAIKOVSKY'S RARELY STAGED MAZEPPA DELIGHTS

The old adage, "Nothing Exceeds Like Excess" might well be the motto of The Met's staging of Tchaikovsky's rarely (as in almost never) staged Mazeppa. The opera, a staple of Russian musical offerings, is based on the life of the diabolical Igor Mazeppa, as well known to Russian audiences as Benedict Arnold is to American school children. The new Met production follows after a Met-hosted staging by a major Russian opera company. A co-production with the Marinksy Theatre of St. Petersburg, the new staging was built by The Met's acclaimed costume and design departments and will travel to Russia for an upcoming production.

The rarely heard 1884 Mazeppa profited from an incredible Met staging. A steeply raked stage was the first sight after the curtain went up. A mixture of Greek columns outlined the stage-Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. Ash-colored statues filled the hollow proscenium arch boxes that framed the stage-the Chinese warriors found two decades ago in a major archeological expedition came quickly to mind. White marble bulls with a Greco-Roman stylization flanked the stage. Talk about cultural diversity.

The historical tale is a Victorian potboiler of the first rank. The mainly Russian cast sang their hearts out as the complex, convoluted plot unfolded. Incredible costumes-some indescribably lavish-and set designs constantly surprised the cheering audience who where attending a live broadcast of the rarity.

The once-in-a-lifetime production defined the word "opulent"-until the lengthy opera's final act when the production faltered by introducing a whole new artistic concept. Never-the-less, Mazeppa was a delight from start to finish. Only at The Met.

A chance encounter with Speight Jenkins, general director of the Seattle Opera, illustrated the all-encompassing prestige of The Met. He was in town-that's New York, folks-to see The Met's rarities, check out the performers, meet with other artistic directors. He was also a featured participant in The Met's live broadcast intermission Opera Quiz. As they say in the sport's world, "Go, Seattle!"

(Trivia fans always want to know if Stephen Sondheim, the wicked- and openly Gay-young librettist for Broadway's Gypsy named one of the strippers in the "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" showstopper "Mazeppa" as a tribute to Tchaikovsky. Might have been-"Tessie Turra" of the stripping trio is a pun on an operatic singing technique.) (Be sure to read Bits&Bytes each week for more of this inconsequential trivia&.only in SGN&.)

Quibbles&Concerns: Too many to mention. Designs for Act One and Act Two were incredibly lavish with breathtaking costumes in many scenes. Act Three seemed to be from a different production.

VERDI'S EARLY LUISA MILLER SHOWS CHARMS

"Everybody's sick," the ticket taker told the woman ahead of me in line for The Met's Luisa Miller, an early Verdi opera that once was amazingly popular and now is in the "rarely performed" strata. The mid-March performance was the 82nd Met Opera performance. First staged at The Met in 1929, it was most recently offered in 2001.

A clear example of a Victorian potboiler, the rarity has much to offer. Alas, illness plagued the production. On opening night, Neil Shicoff was out with the flu. (Long time Seattle Opera regulars will remember his moody Don Jose in SO's "from a prison cell" Carmen many seasons back-it was his "role debut" in the SO production&that's "out-of-town tryout before The Met" in opera-speak.)

His standby/understudy went on opposite the scheduled leading lady, the elegant Veronica Villarroel. At the second performance, Villarroel came down with the same illness that sidelined Shicoff-on-stage kissing scenes will do that to even a Met headliner. So, Met audiences-and visiting critics-saw two standby/understudies in the major roles. Not surprisingly, the supporting characters walked off with the vocal honors. (One caustic critic noted that the Met audience that night saw "500 pounds of full-voiced, full-figured" leading characters.)

A convoluted mid-Victoria plot about rich-man-loves-poor-girl in ye old Italy lumbered on and on. The dated tale, clearly, needs strong, strong leads who are visually and vocally right for the roles. Full credit to "the show must go on" standbys, but a half empty upper balcony and a not-nearly-full main floor reflected the problems that last minute substitutions make on operatic rarities. Bits&Bytes was delighted to see the rare production-it may not be a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance, but it probably is.

Great seats-9th row, aisle center-and a lavish Met production made Luisa Miller a treat&leading superstars or not.

Both Mazeppa and Luisa Miller have their final 2006 performances this weekend. According to The Met's box office, "hot tickets" for the rest of the season-continuing through May-include Tosca, La Traviata and Lohengrin. The Met has 12 operas in rotating repertory through May.

NY PHILHARMONIC SCORES WITH LOVING TCHAIKOVSKY NO. 5

The combination of the diminutive Xian Zhang as conductor-in her first mainstage appearance at the baton-and the towering Ingolf Turban, in his NY Philharmonic debut, turned a routine Friday matinee into a delightful cat-and-mouse game with a Mutt-And-Jeff twist.

Zhang used an overly-high conductor's podium which found her eye-to-eye with the award-winning violinist in the featured work, Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1. The eye contact between the conductor and the soloist was an added bonus to the incredible performance of the beloved Paganini piece. Rossini's brief-but-spirited overture to An Italian Girl In Algiers opened the performance. Tchaikovsky's lush Symphony No. 5 in E Minor ended the matinee-and left the audience cheering. (Emerald City music fans can catch the Seattle Symphony's performance of the Tchaikovsky in tonight's concert at 7 p.m.)

The New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, numbers each concert. The March 17-yes, St. Patrick's Day-performance was the 14,235th concert in the orchestra's history. (Talk about longevity&.) NYPhil also gives the running time of each piece-the Rossini overture was "eight minutes," the Tchaikovsky, 50 minutes. It's a comforting program element for busy New Yorkers-and even busier New York visitors. The Friday 11 a.m. concerts are a boon to Big Apple tourists-Bits&Bytes would never/rarely give up a Broadway play or Met opera for a concert, even at the NYPhil, but the mid-morning curtain time allows an "extra" event on a busy NY visit.

Ticket information on all upcoming NYPhil events is available at (212) 875-5656.

UPCOMING AT THE MET: MAY 20 GALA FOR VOLPE

Seattle visitors heading for New York this spring should check out the special May 20 star-studded Gala Celebration concert on May 20 to honor Joseph Volpe, the Met's current artistic director who retires in July after 42 years in various roles at the Met.

The once-in-a-lifetime concert will feature dozens of major opera stars and the Met's Orchestra and Chorus in the salute to the incredible career of Volpe-who started at the opera as a carpenter and advanced over the years into management and has served as artistic director since 1990. (Seems that this scribe remembers another tale of a carpenter who became famous&.)

For opera fans not going to New York this spring (or who cannot afford the zillion dollar tickets), the Gala Celebration will be broadcast over the Met's International Radio Network. A TV special on PBS will follow later in the spring, June 1 in most cities.

Nearly 30 stars and superstars will join in the Gala-Renee Fleming, Ruth Ann Swenson, Kiri Te Kanawa, Deborah Voigt, Placido Domingo, Ben Heppner (the Canadian-born Northwest tenor who made good internationally), Luciano Pavarotti, Thomas Hampson, Samuel Ramey and dozens of others. All of the soloists have had long, distinguished careers at the Met-and many of them are well known to Emerald City music fans from appearances at Seattle Opera.

Tickets are sure to sell out for the special concert-remaining tickets start at $350 and soar to $5,000. (Tickets started at "just" $125 but "those went in minutes," a wonderfully chatty woman in the box office confided.) Information on all Met performances is available at (212) 362-6000. And, as usual, tell 'em SGN and Bits&Bytes told ya to call. Be sure to ask for the soon-to-be-released 2006-07 season brochure. It's free and informative.

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