Life rolled on at Lincoln Center as if all the snowfall were a faraway rumor. As frequently as the swirling crystals descended upon Manhattan from perpetually gray skies, there were no humongous blizzards this winter to daunt the snow-clearing crew. That meant the lovely plaza was largely snow-free every time we came to an operatic performance. The New York Philharmonic was in a February hibernation during all of our stay, but the New York City Ballet and the annual Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week were business-as-usual, unperturbed by the precipitation.
Sue and I did miss Adam Fischer conducting Die Fledermaus, which would have been a treat since I own his complete set of Haydn symphonies, but we had no complaints about his sub Paul Nadler. Spookmeister mezzo-soprano Delora Zajick also reported sick for Rusalka, a bigger loss. A SiriusXM broadcast was aired on the night we attended. On top of the radio gear, I counted 12 manned or remote-controlled cameras in the house. Evidently, the video crew rehearses before turning in their stellar performances for the Live in HD broadcasts that we get down here at two local cineplexes.
The Rusalka Live in HD was scheduled to hit satellites encircling the planet four days later. I'll assume Zajick's illness vanished by that February 8 matinee. After seeing the camera placements for Rusalka, I assure you my comment on the superior HD perspective in my Prince Igor review below is not pure conjecture. Live sound is the true reason why seeing live opera is always a superior option, but keep your eyes open for summer HD replays of the new Met productions – and better still, from a sonic standpoint, Met Opera's DVD releases of Fledermaus and Prince Igor.
Here's how I saw them at Lincoln Center:
Die Fledermaus (***3/4) — Filing reviews of both Broadway shows and operas every year, I find it hard not to call the new Met production of Johann Strauss Jr.'s beloved operetta the best new musical of the season, on Broadway or off. The original libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée — cobbled together from a French vaudeville and a little-known German comedy — was marvelously wicked, intricate, and festive when the musical comedy first mocked and flattered the Viennese in 1874. Now it sports a fresh coat of dialogue from Broadway vet Douglas Carter Beane and new English lyrics by Met stage director Jeremy Sams, who nudges the famed New Year's Eve decadence forward to 1899, giving us the tolling of a new century when the clock strikes midnight in the Act 2 soirée.
From the opening overture, presaging the hits to come, the melodies have a familiar ring to them. "Chacun à son goût," the "Laughing Song," the Hungarian "Csárdás," and the great "Fledermaus Waltz" head the parade, but there are plenty more irrepressibly effervescent tunes sprinkled throughout the score — languishing occasionally into sweetly harmonized moments of saccharine repose. "Brothers mine and sisters mine," for example, perfectly captures the group fellowship of New Year's Eve partyers once they've all been sufficiently lubricated with fine champagne.
Christopher Maltman and Susanna Phillips star as the mutually unfaithful Von Eisensteins, Gabriel and Rosalinde. Neither of them is beyond redemption, for Rosalinde's knees buckle whenever she hears her former beau, opera tenor Alfred, raising his voice to serenade her. Gabrielle falls from virtue by not going directly to jail as he's told Rosalinde he would, then allowing himself to be ensnared by a Hungarian countess — his own wife in disguise!
Dr. Falke, sung by Tony Award-winner Paul Szot, has masterminded Eisenstein's impending catastrophe for a couple of reasons: he wants to avenge a past humiliation at the hands of his friend, and he wants to make Prince Orlovsky laugh, which would make him the hit of the masked ball the Prince is throwing and earn him a handsome bounty. Only a couple of more complications compound the merriment. To save Rosalinde's honor when the jailer shows up to arrest Eisenstein, Alfred has gone in his place, and the Eisenstein's maid, Adele, is also attending the Prince's ball — after wangling time off to see her ailing aunt.
Costumes are suitably plush to make the Act 3 jail scene look like aristocrats slumming, but it's the Act 2 soirée where Robert Jones's set and costumes are truly eye-popping. Amid the glitter, Jones dresses up a bevy of chorines in Roman numeral dresses to underscore his clock motif for a riotous dance, doing for golden brown what Wicked did for emerald green.
Considering that he's the patsy du jour, Maltman needn't ooze charisma. Although he sings fairly well, I still wished he were more stylish. Despite the absence of Gilbert & Sullivan in her résumé, Phillips turns out to be a sparkling comedienne, even if Rosalinde's highest notes were sometimes AWOL. For all her brilliance within her comfort range, Phillips still demonstrates the need for supertitles when sopranos sing English. More than a couple of times during the three-hour-and-50-minute revels, I found myself seduced away from the supertitles only to return to them desperately when a soprano soared to the stratosphere or a foreign-born opera singer mangled our language. (Closed for season on February 22)
Prince Igor (***1/2) — Alexander Borodin's opera hadn't been performed at the Met for 97 years before a new version, boldly conceived by set designer Dmitri Tcherniakov, opened on February 6. You might as easily say that Prince Igor is only now making its Met debut, since the 10 performances done during 1915-17 were all sung in Italian.
But since the work was unfinished at the time of Borodin's death, completed by the eminent duo of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov for its Moscow premiere in 1898, any production of Igor requires serious tampering and augmentation. The opera has largely retained its cache through its famed "Polovtsian Dances," a staple in the symphonic and choral repertoire, usually listed as "from Prince Igor." The melodies have also lingered on in Kismet, the 1948 musical that goes Polovtsian with "Stranger in Paradise."
If you're somewhat familiar with Igor through the standard opera guidebooks, Tcherniakov may seem to be tampering with the opera's accepted scenario, moving Igor's captivity — and the "Polovtsian Dances" — from Act 2 to Act 1, right after the pre-war prologue. But he is mostly following the precedent of the 1995 Valery Gergiev recording with the Kirov State Opera, except that all the action in Polovtsia is herded into one act without an intermission, omitting Igor's escape. Yeah, they've condensed the playing time to 3:08, chopping more than 50 minutes.
Staging the captivity is where Tcherniakov succeeds — and fails — most spectacularly. All of Act 1 is now played out in a vast, waist-high, stage-filling poppy field, with the idea that, aided by a silent film prelude, we are in Igor's tormented mind as he ponders the hubris that has led him to this royal and military humiliation. Amid the sea of red, what is real, who is who, and what is happening are all obscured, as apparitions and possible liberators pop up among the poppies.
Sitting in the orchestra, I had to think that folks in the grand tier, the balconies, and watching the HD broadcast at cineplexes enjoyed a better view of the action than I did. But the obstructed view and the dramatic confusion were almost totally redeemed by Tcherniakov's amazing vision of the "Polovtsian Dances."
Three stalls deep, the Met Chorus was deployed to the first two levels of box seats directly above the orchestra, women on the right side of the house, men on the right. Dancers, seductively choreographed by Itzik Galili, materialized in the poppies through trapdoors. And the music! Beginning with that familiar paradisal strain, it swelled into orgiastic celebration as more and more dancers flooded the stage, then broke loose in furious, barbaric, insane adulation for the conquering Khan Konchak.
Gianandrea Noseda directed the Met orchestra with a combination of verve and sensuous sensitivity that matched chorus master Donald Palumbo's work. Together they and a strong cast of principals blew away the notion that Igor should only be treasured for its Polovtsian warhorse. Ignoring the ominous total eclipse that warns Igor not to start a military campaign against the Polovtsians, Ildar Abdrazakov actually brings more barbarity to the surface than the serene and hospitable Khan. Štefan Kocán as the Khan is actually a honeyed seduction whenever he sings, the chief reason to regret the omission of the customary Act 3 action.
Igor's true Penelope, his wife Yaroslavna, gets a brave and matronly portrayal from soprano Oksana Dyka, and Mikhail Petrenko gives us an arrogantly lascivious and despotic Prince Galitsky, Yaroslavna's brother, usurping Igor's authority as soon as he leaves for war. Tcherniakov transposes the more naturalistic Russian scenes to the early 20th Century, making the desolation less hopeless than the 14th Century epic that Borodin used as his source. Endings of Act 2 and 3 are newly polished as well. The libretto doesn't justify it — so he can't make a big deal of it — but Tcherniakov's most satisfying tying up of a loose end is adding the death of Galitsky after all his impious no-goodnik excesses. (Closed for season on March 8)
Rusalka (***) — Renée Fleming first made the devil's bargain as Antonín Dvoák's water-nymph heroine more than 15 years ago, and Dolora Zajick probably first snarled and squinted as the crafty witch Jeibaba even longer ago. While I began questioning Fleming's appropriateness for ingénue roles back in 2007, when she was best as the fully-matured Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, she continues to take good care of herself, simulates the girlishness of Rusalka, and still retains the creamy freshness that has always distinguished her voice. But the diaphanous costume, resplendent wig, and dimly lit backgrounds are all helpful.
At 62, seven years older than Fleming, Zajick is probably more perfectly suited for the pestilential Jeibaba than ever, so it was disappointing to miss her on the night we attended. Her replacement, Mary Phllips, by giving us realism instead of melodrama, was another reason why Dvoák's best-known opera seemed to melt into Günther Schneider-Siemssen's mottled set designs. I felt little tension when the deal went down, Jeibaba granting the naïve water nymph her wish to be human so she can capture the love of a handsome Prince. Too eager to belong to her dreamboat, Rusalka agrees to give up the power of speech — and risk damnation for both the Prince and herself if he betrays her.
The vanilla libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, based on the same Undine fairytale that birthed The Little Mermaid, doesn't allow Piotr Beczala as the Prince to be quite the rake he was last year as the Duke in the glitzy new Rigoletto. Singing as beautifully as ever, Beczala doesn't spark with Fleming nor with rival soprano Emily Magee as the Foreign Princess who lures the Prince away from Rusalka just for kicks. Lulled by the wonderfully melodious and atmospheric score, stage director Otto Schenk is far too easily satisfied with his singers' acting.
So it's welcome whenever bass baritone John Relyea rears his ugly head — in designer Sylvia Strahammer's ugliest costume — as the Water Gnome, Rusalka's mighty father. No bland restraint from him! He fumes at Rusalka's wish to become human, and he absolutely rages when the Prince disses his daughter. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin also reveled in what Dvorak was attempting, bringing out all turbulence and enchantment of the music. (Closed for season on February 15)