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!

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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