OPERA NEWS - La Cenerentola (4/21/14) & I Puritani (4/17/14)
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In Review > North America

La Cenerentola (4/21/14) & I Puritani (4/17/14)

NEW YORK CITY
The Metropolitan Opera
4/21/14

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Camarena and DiDonato in the Act II finale of Cesare Lievi's production of La Cenerentola at the Metropolitan Opera
© Beatriz Schiller 2014
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Joyce DiDonato in the Met's Cenerentola
© Beatriz Schiller 2014
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Hero and heroine: Brownlee and Peretyatko in I Puritani at the Met
© Beth Bergman 2014

The April 21 opening of the Met's Cenerentola was an occasion for childlike joy. The revival featured a fine cast led by two exciting stars and an expert conductor eliciting the kind of music-making that reminds us just how special the house forces really can be. Joyce DiDonato took the title role — a calling-card portrayal for her from the beginning of her international career, but not heard at the Met until now. To be sure, in a perfect world, we would have seen DiDonato's Angelina in a production tailored to her own special gifts, rather than those of Cecilia Bartoli, who was Angelina at the Met staging's 1997 premiere. Some of the more frenetic stage business in Cesare Lievi's production, designed to showcase Bartoli's manic energy, seemed out of place in DiDonato's gentler performance: the light that DiDonato emits glows rather than glitters. But her own distinct, immensely appealing stage persona still shone through, and so did her musical gifts. She drew on a vast palette of colors to shade the basic clarinet-like timbre of her voice, in singing that was notable for its legato: even the most intricate passagework emerged within essentially lyric lines. La Cenerentola's rondo finale here became the happiest of endings: we could bask in delight at both the heroine's good fortune and the spectacle of a great prima donna at the peak of her powers.

DiDonato's Prince was Javier Camarena — a late substitution for an ailing Juan Diego Flórez, but by no means a comedown. Camarena consolidated the Met stardom that he had achieved weeks earlier, in La Sonnambula, and matched his princess in incandescence, watt for watt. To the agility and ease on high that we've come to expect from the present generation of gifted bel canto tenors, Camarena adds a new element — a trace of metal that gives his voice a Pavarotti-like sheen. He showed himself here capable of delicacy as well as brilliance, with tapered dynamics on high phrase endings that were in their way as impressive as his ringing acuti. Still, to hear him steer his instrument at full cry through Rossini's bravura writing was an experience not quite like any I've previously encountered in the flesh. I daresay the rest of the audience had a similar reaction: the conclusion of Camarena's Act II scena "Sì, ritrovarla io giuro" was greeted by a roaring ovation that stopped the show dead in its tracks. 

Alessandro Corbelli reprised his familiar Don Magnifico, rooting the singing line firmly in the Italian text and once again demonstrating that playing it straight is the most effective tactic for comedy. Pietro Spagnoli, making his house debut as the valet Dandini, showed a similar facility with the text and a similar comic knack: his oleaginous delivery conveyed the servant's fulsome delight in impersonating his master. Like Corbelli, the wicked stepsisters were holdovers from previous revivals — Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley, precise in their physical comedy and in their contributions to the musical ensemble. The one singer to make an uncertain effect, surprisingly, was Luca Pisaroni, who sounded atypically woofy as Alidoro in his voicing of the passagework in his Act I aria. 

Under Fabio Luisi, the performance had a festival-like polish, with no trace of late-season routine. Luisi achieved the balance of relaxation and propulsion so necessary to Rossini: the music moved forward irrepressibly, as if on its own impetus. The bass lines were firm and buoyant. (In Rossini, that's where the fun springs from.) The orchestral textures — transparent, with the winds especially prominent — were apposite to this composer and this composer alone: you would never have recognized this as the ensemble that's so masterful in Verdi and Wagner. On this occasion, the Met became the bel canto capital of the world.

Four days earlier, on April 17, the Met had presented the third of this season's Bellini revivals, with I Puritani following on the heels of La Sonnambula and Norma. Even though Carlo Pepoli's libretto for I Puritani is among the clumsiest and most implausible in the entire repertory, the opera still holds the stage: the strains of exuberance, pathos and passion that Bellini wove through the work create their own dramatic logic. This element came to the fore in this season's Met revival, thanks to the efforts of conductor Michele Mariotti. Just occasionally, the orchestra covered the singers, and there were some small lapses in ensemble, perhaps due to beginning-of-run uncertainty. But the sound was generally marked by its transparency, and the Met's winds in particular seemed to revel in their solo opportunities. Mariotti's shapely, buoyant reading captured the opera's mercurial shifts of mood, presenting the piece not just as an occasion for vocal display but as a true music drama. 

The assignment allowed Mariotti to oversee the Met debut of his wife, Olga Peretyatko, as Elvira. From the evidence of this performance, the Russian soprano is clearly an accomplished singer. Her voice isn't particularly large, but the sound is that of a full lyric soprano, not a flyweight leggiero. Peretyatko's singing was fluid and accurate; she moved gracefully, and she looked like a nineteenth-century etching come to life. But an air of calculation clung to her. Her gestures, both physical and vocal, seemed like the products of careful preparation; little of the portrayal seemed to take flight in the here and now. The pleasures Peretyatko offered on this occasion were those of a performer in impressive command of her resources, not of an artist willing to take the risks needed to create thrilling, theatrically immediate moments. And at the risk of sounding like an incorrigible crank, I offer one more cavil: Peretyatko's insertion of veristic sobs into the opening statement of "Qui la voce" had the paradoxical effect of rendering the exquisite melody less expressive. 

Bellini's Arturo is a slightly heavier assignment than the Rossini and Donizetti roles in which Lawrence Brownlee first made his mark at the Met and in other theaters. But Brownlee's lyric tenor, as heard here in his first Met Arturo, has acquired a new measure of sinew, while sacrificing none of the sweetness and agility that have always been its hallmarks. His singing was stylish and thoroughly musical, and he dug into the Italian consonants with relish. His stab at the notorious high F in "Credeasi, misera" was not entirely successful, but you had to cheer the audacity of the attempt. Brownlee is small in stature; he does not cut an imposing figure onstage. But when he started to sing, he was every bit the hero.

Michele Pertusi was a noble Giorgio. His bass betrayed a somewhat hollow, wooden quality, especially in Act I. But he sang with the authority of a true bel canto stylist — especially in the second verse of "Cinta di fiori," delivered as a fine thread of firmly supported tone — and throughout he phrased the music so naturally that it seemed like an extension of human speech. Mariusz Kwiecien had been scheduled to sing Riccardo, but he pled indisposition, giving his cover, Belarussian baritone Maksim Aniskin, an opportunity to make his house debut. It was not, unfortunately, a successful outing. Aniskin sang in firmly knit phrases but had little vocal or personal presence: his performance seemed trapped behind the proscenium arch. 

Sandro Sequi's 1976 production, with Ming Cho Lee's sets and Peter J. Hall's costumes, was devised for Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti and was fusty even when it was first unveiled: the intervening four decades have not made it seem any fresher. But at least it stays out of the way of the music. And on this occasion, that was what mattered. spacer

FRED COHN

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