Magazine article Opera Canada

Letter from New York: Patrick Dillon Finds a Vivid Rendering of Past and Present at the Metropolitan Opera's 125th Birthday Bash

Magazine article Opera Canada

Letter from New York: Patrick Dillon Finds a Vivid Rendering of Past and Present at the Metropolitan Opera's 125th Birthday Bash

Article excerpt

Opera galas, for all their surface pomp and circumstantially inflated prices, can be ho-hum affairs--full of sound and Hurry but signifying naught. Not so the Metropolitan Operas March 15 celebration of its own 125 years of existence, and the 40 of those spent in happy tandem with its primo tenore assoluto. His name, should anyone wonder, is Placido Domingo, and it was only fitting that on this quite literally glittering evening (the curtain calls, post--Rheingold finale, unfolded amid a shower of golden confetti dispensed by a trinity of angels hovering aloft) a near-third of the finest moments belonged to him.

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This was (mostly) no empty procession of star singers doing their patented turns; it was a carefully conceived, brilliantly produced show, at once a retrospective of the Met's glorious history and a celebration of its very viable here-and-now. The production team behind last season's Satyagraha--director Phelim MeDermott, co-director and designer Julian Crouch and, for London, England-based Fifty Nine Productions Ltd., video wizards Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer--had concocted an incantatory blend of past and present, with old photos, drawings and programs morphing into vivid flesh-and-blood recreations of nights gone by: the opening Faust of 1883, for example, zooming in from a celebrated parterre-box-perspective drawing of a society grande dame watching the final trio to a proscenium frame of the trio itself, as replicated by Roberto Alagna, John Relyea and the gloriously pealing Sondra Radvanovsky, all decked out in costume designer Catherine Zuber's loving hommages to the history of her art. Canada's Relyea, who's become a valued Met mainstay in recent seasons, had been, a few minutes earlier--after a slightly unruly Kermesse Chorus--the first solo singer of the evening, appearing in a flash of gilded smoke looking the very image of a plumed, pantalooned fin-de-siecle Mephisto and singing "Le veau d'or" with seemingly well-practised diablerie. (Scheduled for the trio. Relyea was here pinch-hitting for the indisposed Rene Pape.) Between numbers, audio designer Scott Lehrer filled the house with often enchanting, often disconcerting sounds: bells and glass harmonica and hauntedly creaking scenery. The fabled stage of the "new" (1966) opera house rose, sank and rotated within the eerily projected proscenium arch of the old one, with its memorable constellation of composers that quaintly ranked Gounod on a par with Mozart, Wagner and Verdi.

Peter Gelb, the company's press-magnetic General Manager, is a self-professed hater of galas; and a peculiar element of this very fine one was just how un-Gelbian it seemed. There were no high-def cameras to capture the proceedings, only the Sirius microphones; and the night's bill of fare offered nothing newer than "Nessun dorma" (1926). There was not a glimmer of Gelb's supposed commitment to "modern" and American works (even granted the loosest of parameters for the former), despite the company's not undistinguished history with these. Why, for instance, yet another hackneyed "Va, pensiero" instead of a rousing Peter Grimes chorus? Grimes, after all, has been part of the company's rep since 1948--its now in its third production--and the Met chorus does the work proud. And why not the woefully underappreciated (by Gelb, if not by the public) Radvanovsky--once a Met-nurtured Young Artist--in Vanessa's "Do not utter a word"? Barber's opera had its successful world premiere at the Met in 1958, and the peerless Toronto-domiciled spinto would have looked splendid in one of Cecil Beaton's original designs. …

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