Correction inserted: Matthew Polenzani did not get his start in the Lindemann Young Artists Program at the Met.
I’m often pretty critical of the Washington National Opera. In the last couple of weeks, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time writing about bel canto singing, and who does it well, and what WNO’s failings are in this area. Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, however, put everything in perspective.
WNO can at least offer the excuse that the company just had a narrow escape from bankrupcy; cost-cutting measures are still in place. Nonetheless, its two productions so far this season, for all their flaws (and I never do forget the flaws), have both offered some good ideas and singing. The Metropolitan Opera, however, is the leading company in America and can throw lots of money at productions. Its “L’Elisir d’Amore,” on Monday night, was the most opulent treatment of this comic bel canto opera I can imagine, with big sets, big crowd scenes, big singers — well, sort of big singers. But the result was somewhere between routine and desultory: a whole opera brought to the stage without anything very fresh or delightful happening for the entire three hours.
What went wrong? Bartlett Sher, the director, has certainly done cute humor at the Met before; his “Barber of Seville” was full of light, antic touches. But here, he seemed overawed by the resources at his disposal, and mummified this light story of country peasants in huge grand-opera sets. The first scene was at least promising, a 19th-century genre painting of happy farmers come to life, but then, after an inordinately long scene change, Scene Two plopped the action down in a provincial city square filled with townfolk. Were these still the peasants? Why had they changed clothes? Why, in Act II, did they all come trooping into a huge barn for a festive dinner, still in their clean pastel clothing, like Marie Antoinette and her court playing at rural life? Why was Anna Netrebko wearing a top hat for half the show, like a folksy Mother Courage? All right, clearly some of my gripes are with the costume designer, Catherine Zuber, but you get my point.
I wouldn’t even gripe at the costumes if Sher had made up a story to go along with them, but all of this expense and effort went to putting silhouettes on stage rather than living breathing figures. Sher seemed to advocate the breed of opera “acting” I particularly despise, which involves a lot of supposedly naturalistic rushing around on stage — Netrebko leaped and spun as if she were about to break into a Cossack dance — and precious little actual character development. It’s fine to try to play humor straight, but you have to create believable, three-dimensional figures to make it work; in this case, it felt as if everyone were simply moving around the stage fulfilling the requirements of the libretto.
Even the entrance of Dulcamara (Ambrogio Maestri), the traveling quack peddling cure-alls to the rural populace, fell flat: a big fat colorful figure emerged from an ornate carriage in the midst of the town square, but there wasn’t anything particularly striking or funny about it, since Maestri didn’t have an especially imposing presence either vocally or physically. Well, OK, he was fat (with some extra padding from Ms. Zuber), but surely we’re past the point where that alone is funny.
Advance casting didn’t do the production any favors. Netrebko may have seemed like a natural for the part of Adina when she was hired three or four or five years ago, but her voice at the start of Monday’s performance had a warm dark dusky sound heading south into mezzo territory. Though she did unleash a few gorgeous high pianos in the course of the evening, I’d rather hear her harness her sound and temperament to Tchaikovsky, or Puccini, or Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” than bel canto, which she doesn’t sing with particular accuracy. She was a wonderful sport about the whole thing, and seemed to be enjoying herself, but there are better ways, at this point in her career, to make use of her, and find her roles that fit.
And a few years ago, it made sense to think that Matthew Polenzani, a homegrown tenor who got his start in the [Met’s] young-artist program CORRECTION: of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and has worked his way up at the Met from small roles to center stage, would be ready for the spotlight. Yet today, though he has the vocal goods, he doesn’t have the requisite spark. Too often, his singing communicated not heartbreak, but “Diction!” — that is, a sense of carefulness and overthinking — though the showpiece aria “Una furtiva lagrima” ended with some melting soft notes that showed he could make a lot more of this part with better guidance.
The other lead was Mariusz Kwiecien as the officer Belcore, who blusters into town and tries to commandeer Adina as well as rations for his men. Kwiecien was both loud and frantic; he blustered, all right, to precious little effect.
I suspect all this ostensible naturalism detracts to a certain degree from the music; much might have been gained if there’d been a little less focus on the meaning of each word and a little more on the lyrical, lilting vocal lines of what may be Donizetti’s highest level of melodic inspiration. It certainly did nothing for the ensembles, which are wonderful tapestries of interwoven notes, and here were for the most part simply muddy and chaotic. Maurizio Benini, the conductor, didn’t seem to have much control of either singers or orchestra — which has been playing without a music director for a while now (James Levine being perhaps permanently indisposed), and sounded like it.
“L’Elisir” remains pretty irresistible, and as Netrebko and Polenzani started to get into it in Act II, the crowd went wild. For this listener, though, it was too little, too late — and with the wrong director. Take heart, Washington. The Met is making your opera company look better and better.
“L’Elisir d’Amore” continues at the Met through October 13 (the date of the live HD transmission), and returns January 30-February 9.