There have been two pieces of news out of the Metropolitan Opera in recent weeks, as the 2013-14 season has wound to a close. One is the imminent risk of a strike as the company and labor unions started contract negotiations in advance of the current contract’s expiration at the end of July. Signs of strike preparation these days include updatings to the musicians’ Facebook page and independent website (in this case, “Met Orchestra Musicians”), wearing buttons during performances as a show of support, and leafleting audience members afterwards. (On Monday, the musicians voted to formally support the negotiating committee in calling a strike should they deem it necessary, characterizing the Met’s contract proposals as “devastating,” and sending out a press release through an upscale publicity firm to spread the word.)
The other piece of news had entirely to do with singing. Traditionally, the Met has not shone in the bel canto repertory – the operas of Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini – but in the waning weeks of the year, it hit two unlikely trifectas by presenting three different bel canto operas with some first-rate casts, and by getting audiences excited about three different tenors. I didn’t manage to see “La Sonnambula,” with Diana Damrau reportedly excelling in the title role and a Mexican tenor named Javier Camarena bursting onto the scene as a new star. But on Saturday, the final day of the Met season, I did get to two others, Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in the afternoon, and Bellini’s “I Puritani,” with Lawrence Brownlee and a new Russian soprano named Olga Peretyatko in the evening. And indeed, both shows represented some of the best singing I’ve heard at the Met in a long time.
“Cenerentola” was perhaps the least newsworthy of the three, in that DiDonato and Florez are already established superstars; the Met had already banked on this sure thing by scheduling it for an HD broadcast. Certainly neither singer disappointed. They are two of the most technically accomplished and reliable singers on the opera stage today, and they know this repertory, with its ornaments and runs and held-out high notes, inside out. Florez has a bright, cutting, and unvaried sound, with an edge to it that makes it easy to hear and lends it a flavor of excitement. As for DiDonato, her low notes seem to be growing deeper and richer, which reflects up into her shining top. It’s a beautiful sound, expertly wielded, and on Saturday it lacked only a soupcon of abandon at the very end of her big final aria, “Nacqui all’affano,” which should, if it’s to stay true to the spirit of the music, really end with the singer’s head exploding, like a Muppet’s.
That Florez and DiDonato are both eminently tasteful singers isn’t wholly a good thing in this particular repertoire. This “Cenerentola,” pristine, was an example of the kinds of hurdles companies seem to face these days presenting Italian opera in general, and Italian comic opera in particular. The whole frame of reference for this kind of humor is gone: the singers have to cultivate it, and audiences have to learn it. I told a friend, later that day, that it was like watching vaudeville performed by Method actors for an audience of movie-goers: everything is polished and expert and accurate and not really all that funny.
Cesare Lievi’s 1997 production tries to bridge the gap by drawing on a mid-20th century absurdist aesthetic evoking Rene Magritte, with outsized pieces of furniture, flat blue cloud-dotted skies, and a chorus of stiff men in suits and bowler hats. I sympathize with what it’s trying to do, and with the efforts of the singers to give it a spark, but it’s a tall order, and none of the supporting cast – Pietro Spagnoli as the valet Dandini, Alessandro Corbelli as the weak and foolish father Don Magnifico, and the dignified Luca Pisaroni as the guardian-angel figure of Alidoro – had the stature or ability to bring it off. Poor Fabio Luisi led a perfectly competent rendering in the pit – “poor” because it has become his curse to be capable and reliable without particularly exciting an audience that has been more or less primed to see him as a possible successor to the Met’s beloved and evidently perpetual music director, James Levine.
“I puritani,” by contrast, was thoroughly my idea of a good time, which may say as much about me as about the production. I certainly can’t defend the production, a venerable piece of work by Sandro Sequi whose 1970s-era realism (and Ming Cho Lee sets) seems mercifully dated now. At least “Cenerentola’s” chorus was making a point by standing in rows across the stage, where in “Puritani” it seemed merely that someone had forgotten to tell them to do anything else. Yet I retain a nostalgic affection for this kind of thing, much as a former Soviet resident may regard a Lada.
Great singing, furthermore, creates its own nostalgia – and its own momentum. The spring’s three tenors seemed to respond to the implicit competition — augmented because Camarena stepped in for an ailing Florez for the start of the “Cenerentola” run — by outstripping each other at every turn. Camerena and Florez each gave an encore in earlier performances (a practice usually frowned on by the Met, though Florez has done it before), and Brownlee, word had it, got applause at some performances as he walked onstage. He didn’t on Saturday, but he should have. His is not a voice that bowls you over in the Met’s cavernous house; but though it is not a huge voice, it is not a restricted voice, either. It has none of the tension or nasality so frequently found in this particular lighter strain of tenor-dom. It is free, and easy, and colorful, and spools out of him in a warm unbroken stream, bathing the ear gently. You need some showmanship to sell this repertory, and Brownlee, without divo airs, has enough of that in him to linger over, say, the high C-sharp in “A te, o cara,” his first big aria, or the high Ds in “Vieni fra queste braccia,” his Act III duet with Elvira, notes that tend to bring out the popping neck tendons and temple veins in many singers but that in Brownlee’s voice simply sound like what they are supposed to be, an exciting part of the music. (He didn’t sing the famous high F in the final ensemble on Saturday, but he did do it at least once during the run.)
Peretyatko’s voice was on the same general scale as Brownlee’s, but at the start of the evening, vocal size appeared to be a greater restriction for her; her voice was a little distant sharp-edged ribbon of sound, pretty but too far off to make effect. However, she bloomed considerably as the night continued. Having heard reports of her coldness (a blessing, or curse, of attending the last night of a run rather than the first is hearing everyone else’s opinion), I was pleasantly surprised, indeed deeply impressed, by her acting as well as her vocal ability. Operatic acting is widely misunderstood these days, with a lot of motion being equated with thespian prowess; against the yardstick of an Anna Netrebko, who tends to fling herself about the stage, Peretyatko may seem static, but I found her physical gestures to be effective and even eloquent, in keeping with her voice, from the very first scene in which she was the perfect embodiment of a 19th-century heroine. (Peretyatko’s new solo CD of arias, entitled “Arabesque,” gives a good sense of her technical aplomb and vocal potential.)
“I puritani” improves on the traditional bel canto mad scene by letting its heroine drift in and out of madness a couple of times before, again atypically, offering her a happy ending. These extended mad scenes got Peretyatko nicely lubricated for the “Vieni fra queste braccia” duet, which was such a confluence of fine voices that the applause stopped the action for some time. It didn’t hurt that the conductor, Michele Mariotti — the principal conductor of the opera house in Bologna, and Peretyatko’s real-life husband — animated the ensembles with brisk tempi that kept the singers on their toes, and an undercurrent of energy running through the music.
It’s also an opera overflowing with gorgeous melody: Bellini’s hallmark as a composer, and in no opera shown better than this one. This includes a well-known duet for the baritone, Riccardo, who loves Elvira himself, and the bass, Giorgio, who is like a second father to her — trust me, there’s no need to go too deeply into the plot. The Met cast these roles strongly, as well, with Mariusz Kwiecien as a loud, bright, forceful Riccardo and Michele Pertusi as a more mellow and covered-sounding Giorgio; Kwiecien brought Pertusi out of himself a bit, and Pertusi helped Kwiecien to more elegance and less shouting, so that their duet was a strong end to the second act.
There’s been a lot of talk this year about the Met’s future. The company, like many big classical music institutions, is facing declining audiences and rising labor costs, as well as the very real prospect of a strike. And for all of the expensive new productions and HD broadcasts, there’s a sense that the art form has not been served as excitingly as it might have. The jolt of energy provided by these three spring productions may have seemed a mixed blessing to the Met’s leadership. It’s wonderful to have audiences enthusiastic and cheering, but administrators would far rather they get behind some of the new productions than, in the case of “Puritani,” a decades-old revival of a show that wasn’t particularly great to begin with. You could take this as a sign that at bottom, opera is all about the singing, but it’s not so easy to reduce to a formula — nor is it easy to find the kinds of good voices that can get people hooked. All the more reason to celebrate it when it happens, and to be glad that even at a time when the future is uncertain, the Met was able to go out, at least this season, with a bang.
Edited to add: Lawrence Brownlee appears in recital Tuesday night at Lisner Auditorium thanks to Vocal Arts DC.