A Review of Opening Night at the Met: Otello Obscured

The Met opened its 2015-16 season on Monday night with Verdi’s masterpiece Otello. In a new production designed by Bartlett Sher, Aleksandrs Antonenko sang the title role, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva was Desdemona, and Želijko Lučić played the villainous Iago. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Met Orchestra and Chorus.

Sonya Yoncheva and Aleksandrs Antonenko in Act III of Verdi's

Sonya Yoncheva and Aleksandrs Antonenko in Act III of Verdi’s “Otello” © Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera 2015

The production left me craving drama and intimacy. As these two elements are so crucial to Shakespeare’s original play, I felt that they were lost in the shuffle as Sher’s stage simply felt “too big”. The initial storm from Act I plays a role throughout the opera, acting as the backdrop within acts and as a moving projection with churning waves beginning each act. This represented some drama, at least, in that the storm symbolized Otello’s increasing suspicion and unsteady mind, just as his ship had almost capsized. The only solid components of the set were opaque walls that could be rearranged to create his realm, gardens, etc. As the walls were opaque, not transparent, one could say that the lack of transparency and pellucidity represented Otello’s obscured vision at the hands of Iago. Otello is only able to see what Iago has envisioned for him, not reality. Therefore, the frosty walls of his palace represented his inability to see what is truly occurring live. Even with this potential subtext, I missed the intense intimacy between Otello and Iago, as the foggy walls and a plethora of empty stage did not allow for it. Overall, the production was dull and, to a point, tedious after sitting for 150 minutes of music.

Antonenko was a solid Otello. At times, his voice sounded tight, especially near the top, making it difficult to hear him over the orchestra. However, his intensity in both Acts III and IV was frightening, and his voice also seemed to ease up after the first two acts allowing him to sing more strongly. Sonya Yoncheva was an astounding Desdemona. She had the entire audience in the palm of her hand as she sang her Willow Song. She sang it so simply, as the true “old tale” that it is. Her bloom at the top of her register is very attractive and easy-sounding. Lučić was a creepy Iago. I had difficulty hearing the resonance in his sound in order to push past the orchestra, but his acting put his point across. His duets with Otello were thrilling and balanced.

The conducting by Maestro Nézet-Séguin made the performance come alive. His stress for sforzandi and dramatic dynamic changes brought out vigor and agility in the orchestra and chorus. Chills went up my spine at the moment he brought in the double basses on the low E right as Otello enters to kill Desdemona in Act IV. The shifts in mood of the music were so clearly defined. The orchestra followed suit under his baton. The strings particularly sounded like “one voice”, reveling in Verdi’s gorgeous parts. It was also indicated that the brass had the green light to play out, which made the performance all the more riveting. The chorus sounded full and powerful, especially in their two bigs scenes: The drinking scene in Act I and with Lodovico in Act III.

The current run of Otello will be on the Met stage until October 17, until it returns in April with a different cast. Buy tickets today to see one of four Verdi operas this season!

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Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera: Русский-Style

Last night was Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera for the 2013-14 season. It opened with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin and Anna Netrebko as Tatyana. This was the second time in Met history that a season was opened with Eugene Onegin, as the Met’s 1957 season opened with it starring George London as Onegin, Lucine Amara as Tatyana, Richard Tucker as Lensky, Rosalind Elias as Olga, and Giorgio Tozzi as Prince Gremin. In that year, Tchaikovsky’s work was sung in English, but this season it is being sung in the native-Russian language of Tchaikovsky. Interestingly enough, all of the stars of this season’s run are either Russian or Polish, making the language and text of Shilovsky and Tchaikovsky’s libretto come alive more for Met audiences, including last night’s audience at opening night!

Photo: Anna Netrebko as Tatyana in the Letter Scene (Act I Scene 2)

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Mariusz Kwiecien played the perfectly careless, selfish, almost lazy Onegin. His darkly toned, Slavic voice matched the character perfectly. Anna Netrebko’s Tatyana was incredibly moving and stunning. In the letter scene especially, she sang some pianissimos that made the audience’s hearts stop. One feels that this is the repertoire that really fits her like a glove, along with some of the Verdi roles, such as Elisabeth from Don Carlos, that she recorded for her new CD: “Anna Netrebko: Verdi”. Oksana Volkova’s Olga was incredibly bright and fun. Volkova made her debut as Maddalena in Rigoletto last season. She played Olga to Tatyana as if she was singing the role of Sophie in Werther to melancholy and conflicted Charlotte. She hopped around the stage, often in step to the music, teasing her sister Tatyana and Lensky, singing brightly with her complimentary, high cheekbones. Her singing was one of the highlights of the evening. Piotr Beczała’s Lensky was also so incredibly moving. His “Kuda, kuda” was so heart-wrenching, that no one in the audience wanted him to be shot in the duel only seconds later.

Photo: Mariusz Kwiecien (Onegin) holding Piotr Beczała (Lensky) after the duel (Act II Scene 2)

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This fantastic performance was conducted by Maestro Valery Gergiev, who last conducted Eugene Onegin at the Met in 2007. Throughout the evening, Gergiev conducted and formed a very velvety and mellow sound, especially through the woodwinds and the brass. In the letter scene, when the oboe and the horn exchange the melodic line, the sound was perfectly seamless and connected. The Mazurka and the Polonaise were both greatly and entertainingly conducted, but one was quite impressed with the legato line and velvet texture he gave for the orchestral sound. He also obviously worked with the chorus on their Russian, because their diction was fantastic, and they sounded wonderful!

The production was perfectly satisfactory. There were no random leaves and sweeping, as the previous production had. It might have been a bit ahead of the time period of Eugene Onegin, in that Onegin came into the Larin Estate to tell Tatyana that her act of writing the letter was childish wearing a Panama-type hat. Had Panama hats really reached Russia in the 1820s? The sets were perfectly traditional and simple. The ballroom in Act II was very open with one giant carpet in the middle of the room where dancing, arguing, and dual-calling would take place. One of my favorite sets was for the Polonaise: Simple white columns, with enough room to dance around, with a beautiful shade of blue in the background, and the dancers wearing lightly-colored dresses.

Photo: My favorite set of the opera (Act III Scene 1)

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One of the aspects of the production that one was not particularly enthusiastic for was the unnecessary kissing and intimacy between Onegin and Tatyana. At each point in the opera when one confronts the other in interest of love, the other is not interested or is too self-absorbed to realize what he or she wants in his or her love life. It did not make sense when Onegin told Tatyana that he was not interested in her childish love letters, and then giving her a passionate kiss to say goodbye. Later on, in the last minute of the opera, a humongous pause was taken for Onegin and Tatyana to really “make out” as a goodbye to each other. It is indeed true that Tatyana admits her love for Onegin in those last few minutes, but it is also true that she is supposed to run offstage, away from Onegin, encouraging herself to remain faithful to Gremin and to completely escape her previous life. The relationship between Onegin and Tatyana in this production was a bit too intimate, in that the relationship should really have been portrayed as more cold and careless.

Attending opening night was an incredible experience. This was my second Met opening night because I attended the opening of Das Rheingold in 2010. Seeing so many opera enthusiasts, opera singers, and famous actors dressed up in long gowns and tuxedos was a fantastic sight. Half of the fun of opening night was people-watching! Part of the “fun” in people-watching/hearing was the ruckus that was made when Gergiev took the podium before Act I. LGBT protestors from the Family Circle tried to make their voices heard, but were eventually defeated by the choruses of “SHUT UP”s and “BASTA”s. This opening night also began my 11th season of attending operas with my father, who introduced me to opera, and seeing my mother play second oboe in the pit of course! Congratulations to the Metropolitan Opera on a fantastic opening night, and a strong start to the 2013-14 season.

Photo: My dad and me at Opening Night!

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“Tuning up” for the Met’s 2013-14 Season with Metropolitan Opera Oboist Susan Spector

Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera is approaching quickly! The Met will open its 2013-14 season with a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien. For this opening night to be put on, however, a lot of work has had to be put in by the star singers, the chorus, the stagehands, the radio department, lots of other departments, and of course, the orchestra! My mother, Susan Spector, is the Second Oboist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and has been for twenty-two years. She sat down with me and gave me the scoop on how pre-season went, and what to expect for the upcoming season:

Photo: Susan Spector © Michael Ouzounian

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Melanie Spector (Ms.OperaGeek): Overall, how was pre-season? You just finished it yesterday with the final dress rehearsal of Eugene Onegin.

Susan Spector: It’s a shift of gears from summer to spending all day rehearsing. Some of the orchestra members have come to call it “boot camp” *laughs*! After three weeks of pre-season, it’s awfully nice to play for an audience, which is what we did in the dress rehearsal yesterday.

MS: Which operas did you rehearse in pre-season?

SS: I rehearsed Così fan tutte and Eugene Onegin, and one day with just orchestra of Falstaff with Maestro Levine. Other people have been playing The Nose and there have been a couple of rehearsals of Norma.

MS: Now that James Levine is back, I would expect that conducting from a wheelchair would be slightly different—for him and for the players in the orchestra.  Can you elaborate?

SS: There has been major construction inside of the pit and outside, leading up to it. One lift has been installed outside of the pit, a special ramp has been installed in the pit behind the players, and we’re still working out the logistics of having him enter and then resetting certain seats and stands in the orchestra once he is in the pit. As a matter of fact, the area most directly in the path of where the wheelchair needs to come through is the oboe section–where I am. Ironically, oboe players tend to have the most “stuff” or “fiddly reed things”, tuners, knives, etc. It might be a challenge for us, but we’ve done it once and it went mostly smoothly, and I have some ideas for a more speedy departure from and re-entry into the pit! (And, no, my ideas do not include skipping the overture and coming in late!”) *laughs*

MS: What are you most looking forward to playing this season and why?

SS: I am really looking forward to playing Die Frau ohne Schatten. My two favorite composers to perform at the Met are Wagner and Strauss. They probably have the most colorful, intricate, and challenging orchestral palettes of any composers of opera. Frau is also so rarely done, that I am really looking forward to its return. Also, another opera I’m looking forward to is Prince Igor. Even though I do not have a part, I am really looking forward to watching it from the audience. I look forward to hearing Noseda conduct, but I will miss playing for him. I always find his performances to be very committed and riveting (and he’s a nice guy!).

Photo: The Met’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten

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MS: Have you had any fun encounters backstage or down on C level during pre-season, or heard any other people rehearsing?

SS: I hear the Ballet rehearsing at the same time we are, and the Chorus has been back since July. I’ve run into James Morris who is here for Norma, I’ve seen the cast of Onegin, the Children’s Chorus for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Also, our orchestra lounge has also served as a temporary repair shop during pre-season:  a place where stagehands make their annual repairs to the backs and seats that need to be reupholstered in red velvet for the house. This was another surprise:  I saw the set for Onegin and there were so many mirrors on it that I thought it was the Met production of Frau!

MS: Who are you looking forward to hearing sing this season?

SS: Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato, even though La Cenerentola is all the way in April. I love Jonas Kaufmann, and I am not scheduled to play Werther, so I will be in the audience!

MS: Which conductors are you looking forward to working with this season?

SS: I love working with Yannick Nézét Séguin, and am looking forward to seeing him conduct my teacher Richard Woodhams in the Oboe Concerto of Richard Strauss with the Philadelphia Orchestra next month, and then playing Rusalka with him at the Met! I also am glad that James Levine is making his return to the podium.  He has a particular affinity for the works of Mozart and Verdi, in my opinion, so Così and Falstaff will no doubt be highlights of the season.

MS: Is there anything that you are dreading about the upcoming season?

SS: No Wagner! Where’s the Wagner? Where’s the beef?! I love playing Wagner, and I am sad that there is none of his music this year. Also, I am not playing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I love Britten, so I am a little disappointed in that. I will also miss looking up from the pit and seeing my daughter singing on the stage with the Children’s Chorus…and I will miss seeing her in light-up horns at the Ring!

MS: What happens over the summer? Are there any meet-ups during the summer? Festivals?

SS: Once the opera season ends, the members of the Orchestra usually do not see one another. We had one Carnegie Hall concert immediately following the end of the season, and then we were on vacation until after Labor Day. On September 4th, we returned and rehearsed Mahler VII in anticipation of the December Carnegie Hall concert. Some Orchestra players saw one another at the Tahoe SummerFest at Lake Tahoe, some played at other festivals, others like myself used the vacation to get a little time away from the instrument. Some people like to play different kinds of music other than opera during the summer, symphonic or chamber music, for example.  I love having the chance to go hear performances during the summer. I loved going to Covent Garden and Glyndebourne this past summer, listening to BBC Proms concerts over the Internet, and watching the performance of Elektra with Esa Pekka Salonen that streamed live from Aix-en-Provence was totally riveting.  Finding the time for opportunities to attend and listen to other performances is much more difficult when I’m in the midst of a busy opera season and my own performances.

MS: That’s nice that you get to attend things during the summer and be in the audience! What was the highlight of your summer musically, as an audience member?

SS: Seeing Britten’s Gloriana at Covent Garden while being in London at the same time as Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee to celebrate her reign was amazing! It was written for her, making it a very unique piece, and I just love his music. Also, being in London- seeing so many things on Queen Elizabeth I, the subject and main character in Gloriana, was very cool!

MS: Any last words for anxious opera fans waiting for the season to start?

SS: I think it’s going to be an exciting year for the Met: in the opera house, on the airwaves, and in the movie theaters. Opera fans can be the most fanatical fans (in a good way!), and members of the Orchestra hear that in your applause and “Bravo”s as well as in your excited tweets and blog posts. It can sometimes be difficult repeatedly playing the same repertoire, so your excitement keeps it exciting for us! It is so nice seeing a passion for opera by so many people, and it helps us remain passionate about playing.

If you would like to read more about Susan Spector read here: http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/about/whoweare/detail.aspx?customid=3 (Scroll to Susan Spector in the oboe section)