NEW YORK — On Sunday, the Metropolitan Opera, America’s leading opera house, celebrated the 50th anniversary of its home at Lincoln Center. Two Washington Post critics trade thoughts about the gala, opera, and the buildings that house it.
Anne Midgette: The Metropolitan Opera gala offered a cross-section of today’s opera world, from an opening aria by the venerable Plácido Domingo (singing a baritone excerpt from “Andrea Chenier”) to star turns by Joseph Calleja and Javier Camarena, two of his tenor successors. Galas are usually long sequences of stand-and-deliver numbers, but this one was beautifully produced with video projections (by the company 59 Productions and Julian Crouch) re-creating memorable Met productions of the past.
And I hope that some of the video segments go viral after the show — particularly the interview with the 90-year-old soprano Leontyne Price, who opened the new theater in 1966 in the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
One of the main messages I took away, unexpectedly, is that for all of the anxiety about dwindling audiences and poor ticket sales, especially at the Met, the present state of singing is in pretty good shape. In addition to “La Bohème” with Calleja and Sonya Yoncheva, and Camerena’s lovable Tonio in “Daughter of the Regiment,” there was Susan Graham in “Les Troyens,” René Pape in “Boris Godunov,” Michael Fabiano in world-class form in Verdi’s “I Lombardi,” and Anna Netrebko single-handedly upholding the grand tradition of opera as camp as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and a veritably ferocious Madame Butterfly.
Philip Kennicott: It’s hard to carry off a gala like this one. The producers need to give a good snapshot of the company as it is today, and enough of a sense of its past to evoke the requisite nostalgia. The actual anniversary being celebrated — the 50th birthday of the Met’s move to its current opera house at Lincoln Center — meant that this gala also had to evoke a sense of place. And they did a good job of it, recalling not just past productions, but also architectural features of the Wallace Harrison-designed building, including its iconic five arches and some of the familiar textures of its deliberately ostentatious interior.
Architecture is destiny, and what was interesting to me were moments that connected the opera house as a building with its legacy as a place where opera is made. It actually wasn’t much bigger in terms of seats than the opera house it replaced, but it has a huge stage and (when it was built) a state-of-the-art backstage. It has rewarded designers who favor the spectacular, and singers who can fill its enormous auditorium. House favorites Dolora Zajick, who sang the Principessa di Bouillon’s aria from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” or Anna Netrebko demonstrated again why they have flourished here. Even more impressive, however, are singers such as the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who can make the small gesture and delicate vocal passage carry in a hall this cavernous (as she did in an exquisite excerpt from Massenet’s “Werther”).
I wonder if the night may also be remembered as a symbolic passing of the torch. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director designate, really began to take possession of the house this evening. James Levine, who appeared both in historic videos from early in his career and as a conductor at the end of the evening, built this house and its musical forces over decades as Met’s indefatigable leader. And his appearance last night brought the audience to its feet.
Midgette: I suspect people may also remember this gala as one of the last times they heard Renée Fleming at the Met — her final “Rosenkavalier,” which may be her Met farewell, is this coming Saturday. She gave a very credible performance of “Porgi amor,” as well as an odd “Thais” duet in which she, Domingo, and Levine never quite seemed to come together.
But the hands-down emotional highlight was the surprise appearance of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the beloved Siberian baritone, who is suffering from brain cancer and who looked thin and a little unsteady on his feet, but in “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” sounded every bit as magnificent as ever.
As for the anniversary, it seemed personal to me; you and I are about the same age as the Met, and this felt like a traversal of my own past. One thing that struck me is that the construction of the Met represented a kind of idealism we’re still seeing today, but with a difference. When the Met was built in the 1960s, or the Kennedy Center five years later, these temples to art were supposed to transform the inner-city landscape. Today, arts administrators are still hoping for art to transform, but the emphasis now is on moving out of the buildings, the sacred temples, into communities — the buzzword today is outreach. The projected scenery at the gala was symbolic of a concept of the arts as something less concrete, less tied to physical architecture.
Kennicott: I agree, though I think one of the real successes of the evening is how it made all of us feel rather fondly about a building that no one has ever particularly loved architecturally. Moving art into the community may be a worthy goal, but the fact that communities still form in a house like this night after night — that 4,000 people can tear up simultaneously when they see a great artist like Hvorostovsky surmount his physical challenges — is worth celebrating, too.