Back in March, many people thought the shutdown would last two or three weeks, which seemed an eternity. At the Metropolitan Opera, a run of Werther (Massenet) was set to begin on March 16. The company canceled the first five performances—of six. But the sixth was left uncanceled. See what hope dwelt in breasts back then?
In response to the initial cancellations, Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo-soprano, did something neat. She was to sing Charlotte in Werther, with Piotr Beczała, the Polish tenor, in the title role. Shut out of the opera house, DiDonato invited Beczała into her apartment, for a livestream. They sang excerpts from the opera, accompanied by a piano and a harp. I believe this was the first livestream of what would become a world of livestreams.
“Since we can’t sing on Monday night,” DiDonato told the online audience, “we thought, ‘Let’s get together in this salon,’ like they used to do in the old days—which we might have to do in the new days, too.”
Not long after, the Met canceled the rest of the 2019–20 season. Around June 1, they canceled the first half of the 2020–21 season. In September, they announced the cancellation of the entire season.
But the Met has not been idle. On April 25, they produced an “at-home gala,” featuring more than forty performers, wherever they lived, or happened to be. Nightly, they have been streaming performances of the past: performances of complete operas. They also produce a series called “Met Stars Live in Concert.” These concerts air on Saturday afternoons, and cost $20 to watch. They remain watchable for a period—two weeks or so—thereafter. This is a way for the Met to stay connected to its public, as Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, has said. Is this important?
I remember when New York City Opera decided to “go dark” for a season, about ten years ago. Some people warned that this could have very bad consequences for the company: out of sight, out of mind, you know. I was skeptical. The company had been around since 1943! It was a fixture! Surely it could sit out a season, to get its act together. But, you know? That dark season did have a baleful effect on the company.
Last June, I was podcasting with George F. Will, and one of the questions that arose was: Should there be a rump baseball season, something cobbled together to resemble a season? Will said he was of two minds. A short season capped by “a make-believe World Series” would be “deeply unsatisfying.” But then, “for baseball to go seventeen, eighteen months without being in the national mind is a grave risk to a sport that has seen seven consecutive years of declining attendance.”
The Metropolitan Opera has been around, not since 1943, but since 1883. It can afford to sit out a season (one would think). Yet the need for the company to “stay connected”—not to mention solvent—is understandable.
The “Met Stars Live in Concert” series has a host, Christine Goerke, the American soprano, who appears in a control room in New York City. She does her job with crispness, poise, and affability. Another American soprano, Beverly Sills, would have done this job, once upon a time. (She actually substituted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.) Peter Gelb makes cameo appearances. During these concerts, the singers need breaks, and the Met fills them with videos of past performances by the singers. Or pre-taped interviews with them.
Sometimes there are glitches—technical glitches, as when you Zoom with your great-aunt. These can be almost charming. In any event, the Met concerts are enjoyable affairs, something one could get used to, in pandemic times and non-.
The first concert brought us Jonas Kaufmann, from the Polling Abbey, in Bavaria—specifically, from its library. By the look of it, it is a former library. There was not a book in sight. And when Kaufmann coughed or cleared his throat, between arias, the sound reverberated, there being nothing to block it: no books, no people, no anything. In any case, Polling Abbey makes a beautiful venue indeed.
Kaufmann is a German tenor, born in 1969, and he was accompanied by Helmut Deutsch, an Austrian pianist, born in 1945. Their program consisted of twelve opera arias, in Italian and French (not one in the singer’s native language). (Consider, too, that the pianist’s name is “German”!) I don’t believe I had ever heard an arias-only concert, or recital, accompanied by piano. But these are strange times, in many respects. Orchestras are unavailable for arias and operas—and symphonies and tone poems.
The recital began with the two tenor arias from Puccini’s Tosca: “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle.” After the first aria—which ends with a huge, warm, open “Tosca, sei tu!”—it was very strange not to hear any applause. In the nba “bubble,” they piped in crowd noise. There is no such piping in at these Met concerts.
Kaufmann sang some common, famous arias—such as the two from Tosca—and some less common, less famous ones, from operas that are seldom staged: from L’Africaine (Meyerbeer), for example, and Le Cid (Massenet). He also sang one aria—perhaps I should write “aria”—that is not from an opera but stands alone: “Ombra di nube,” by Licinio Refice, an Italian priest who was born in 1883, the Met’s founding year, and died in 1954. This beautiful, moving, and “old-timey” piece has been beloved of many opera stars over the years, beginning with Claudia Muzio and extending to Renée Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu. And Jonas Kaufmann.
His concert ended with the world’s favorite aria, arguably—certainly its favorite tenor aria. (Did it used to be “Vesti la giubba,” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci?) I am speaking of the hit from Puccini’s Turandot: “Nessun dorma.”
Helmut Deutsch is a real pro, able to make these aria accompaniments sound almost pianistic. On this occasion, he played two pieces by himself, giving Kaufmann a break. These were piano arrangements of one intermezzo, from Manon Lescaut (Puccini), and another, from Pagliacci. Amazingly, they sounded like piano pieces, in Deutsch’s hands.
Jonas Kaufmann is an uneven singer, singing like an immortal on one night, and like an average Joe on the next. He is sometimes immortal and average on the same night. In Polling Abbey, he did some rough, shaky singing. He also did some beautiful, commanding singing. Always, he was brave. What I mean is this: He never tried to cover up any flaws or problems. If the music called for a high piano, that’s what he tried. He did not bull through with a belt. If the music called for a diminuendo—hard to pull off—that’s what he tried. Often, he succeeded in these things. He was willing to be “out there,” exposed. And always, he sang with operatic intelligence and emotion. I admired this imperfect, spotty outing a great deal.
Next in the series was Renée Fleming, coming to us from Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C. We are talking about the mansion in Georgetown. “Dumbarton Oaks” is a name in music, as well as in international affairs. In 1937, Mildred Bliss, who owned the house with her husband Robert, commissioned Stravinsky to write a piece for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. This became the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. In 1944, the house was the site of a conference at which the United Nations was planned. The Blisses bequeathed the house to Harvard. And Renée Fleming sang from—where else?—its music room.
She sang a mixed program of songs and arias. Her pianist was Robert Ainsley, an Englishman, who graduated from Cambridge with a degree in mathematics. Not a few British musicians have math or science degrees, from the top universities. This always astounds me.
The song that opened the program, however, needed no accompaniment. It is a new song, for voice alone, by John Corigliano, the veteran American composer. Called “And the People Stayed Home,” it sets a poem by Kitty O’Meara, a retired schoolteacher in Wisconsin. She wrote it early in the pandemic, and it “went viral.” The poem speaks of all the things that people might do at home: read, rest, exercise, make art. Learn “new ways of being.” It hopes that people will give up their “ignorant ways,” and make “new choices,” thus healing themselves and the world at large.
Why is the song unaccompanied? Corigliano has explained in a composer’s note: “I envisioned the performer as a single person at home.”
This song will not be to everyone’s taste, as it was not to mine, at least on first hearing (and I write this as a lifelong Corigliano fan). I found it vaguely hortatory, somehow. I doubt it will be performed in the future, though these guesses can be foolhardy. But Renée Fleming? She was in good voice—really good voice—causing me to sit up and pay attention.
She proceeded with three arias by Handel. Years ago, in a public interview, I said to her, “Tell me about you and Handel.” Modestly, she said she did not regard herself as a Handel singer, and she is not one, in a traditional sense. But she has sung a lot of Handel, and many of us will take her over “Handel singers.” She approaches him musically, and I think he would beam with pleasure.
Speaking of pleasure, the third of those arias was “Endless pleasure, endless love,” from Semele. Fleming ripped through its coloratura with ease. She injected her customary hint of jazz or blues. (She is American, after all.) She Flemingized her Handel, while keeping it Handel. She was, in short, herself: the extraordinary soprano we have known for decades.
Frankly, I did not know she sang this kind of music anymore. I thought she had transitioned into Broadway, cabaret, and the like. But obviously not. Listening to her, I thought of an old phrase from politics: “tan, rested, and ready.”
Fleming and Ainsley continued with a song by Hahn: “Si mes vers avaient des ailes.” Ainsley did some lovely, limpid playing here. They also presented two of the Auvergne songs, of Canteloube: “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” and “Baïlèro.” The second, in particular, was enrapturing. Fleming has plenty of voice left. She was “hooked up,” with that famous voice in just the right place.
I grant you that this was not the Metropolitan Opera—a big, cavernous house—and that there was no orchestra to sing over, or through. This was a music room, and a piano. But still . . .
Manon is one of Fleming’s most famous roles—in Massenet’s opera, not Puccini’s—and she duly sang “Adieu, notre petite table.” Vocally, musically, and dramatically, it was compelling. Eventually, she got to Richard Strauss, who “has always been my desert-island composer,” she told the audience. She added that the Marschallin, from Der Rosenkavalier, was her favorite role. Then she sang the Marschallin’s monologue.
What else? More arias, including one from La bohème, but not Puccini’s: Leoncavallo’s, which came out in 1897, a year after Puccini’s. Leoncavallo’s sank. But at least Puccini wrote no Pagliacci.
Over and over, I wrote in my notes, “Flemingesque.” “So Flemingesque.” You did not have to make any allowances, for age or circumstance or anything else. Is it possible to hear a Fleming recital—an honest-to-goodness Fleming recital—in 2020? Absolutely, yes.
Before she concluded her recital, she said that she wanted to sing “probably the most popular song of the twentieth century”: “Over the Rainbow” (Arlen and Harburg). She sang it in a jazz arrangement by Rob Mathes. Fleming was a jazz singer in her youth, and she still is. She finished her recital with the Wiegenlied, the lullaby, of Brahms.
Actually, she finished with a statement. Singing is “the most antique human expression,” she said. “And it’s safe to do at home, and it’s good for your health.” Hear, hear.
The third concert in the series brought two voices, not just one: those of Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak. Did the two singers observe proper social distancing? No, they were fairly intimate. They are husband and wife. Previously, Alagna was married to another singer, Angela Gheorghiu. They were known as the “Love Couple” and had their wedding ceremony on the stage of the Met. Presiding was the mayor of New York at the time, Rudy Giuliani. Interesting things have happened in the lives of all three since then.
Aleksandra Kurzak is a soprano from Poland. Alagna is a tenor from France, the son of Italian immigrants. He has two native languages, lucky guy. This is an especially lucky combo for an opera singer.
Ten years ago, I was at the Met for a Don Carlo (the Verdi opera). When Alagna sang the opening cry of “Fontainebleau!” I looked at my program. I had not realized that the opera would be performed in its original French, not in Italian. But Alagna proceeded in Italian—it’s just that he had pronounced “Fontainebleau” à la française, which made me smile.
Alagna and Kurzak sang outdoors on the French Riviera. They were in Èze, about eight miles east of Nice, at the Château de la Chèvre d’Or. The concert took place on what looked like a terrace, with the Mediterranean, plus the mountains, in the background. The setting almost stole the show. The singers were accompanied by members of the Morphing Chamber Orchestra, who had morphed into a string quintet. One of the bass players sported a man-bun.
In a sense, this was a typical gala program, offering beloved duets and arias. It began with the love duet from Madama Butterfly (Puccini). After, the soprano said, “Ah, what emotions!” The tenor said, “It is very warm here. Please, have a beautiful drink and enjoy the show.”
Later, Alagna walked onto the stage, or the terrace, with a bottle of wine. You figured we would have a stretch of The Elixir of Love (Donizetti), which we did. (Kurzak and Alagna sang this music for the Met’s at-home gala, back in April, too.) The singers did some nice comic acting. At one point, Alagna departed from Donizetti, bursting into “It’s Now or Never,” the Elvis Presley song, derived from “O sole mio.”
It was not all fun ’n’ games. The singers gave us a stretch from Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni), which had high drama. Honestly, I felt shivers. We also had music from Otello (Verdi). First, Kurzak sang the Ave Maria, from Act IV. In the opera, things get very, very bad from there. But on the terrace, the action reverted to Act I, for the love duet—which was a happy development. Cooperatively, romantically, and stunningly, the sun set over the Mediterranean.
About the singing, I will make some general remarks. Aleksandra Kurzak was immaculate all evening long. She was in beautiful voice, she was utterly secure in technique, and she was near faultless in musical expression. Can we be candid here? The series is called “Met Stars Live in Concert.” Alagna is the star. The missus was along for the ride. His name came first on the billing—the tenor’s, not the soprano’s, which is rare, and almost wrong. But Kurzak sang like a star.
Earlier, I said that Jonas Kaufmann is an uneven tenor, and so is Alagna. He was uneven in this concert. Sometimes he was effortful—tense and shouty. When he gets this way, I want to tell him, “Relax. Trust your talent. There is no need to overexert yourself. You have plenty of voice and any number of gifts. Just let it happen”—which, of course, he did, when he was at his best here. And always, he is a winning personality.
Toward the end of the night, the couple sang “Lippen schweigen,” that gala duet from The Merry Widow (Lehár). Further letting their hair down, they sang Mexico’s most famous song (if it is not “Bésame mucho”): “Cielito lindo,” with its refrain of “Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores.” Alagna yipped it up like a mariachi singer. Then came a hit from Naples: not “O sole mio” but “Funiculì, funiculà.” When it was all over, Alagna let out once last yip, which sailed into the night, over the Med.
The Met’s series continued with Lise Davidsen, the young soprano from Norway, and Joyce DiDonato, our mezzo from Kansas. I reviewed these concerts on the magazine’s website. In the future, there will be Anna Netrebko, Bryn Terfel, et al. And, at last, opera—opera itself, live and in person. Won’t that be a starry night? Or a bright matinée?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 3, on page 52
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