Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

New York Double Header

April 07, 2007

Ben Heppner and cast.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2007

One of my favorite things to do on a visit to NYC is to take in a double header as I did today. In the afternoon, I saw the Met's revival of Andrea Chénier starring Violeta Urmana and the illustrious Ben Heppner. This performance was beautifully sung, expertly conducted, exquisitely executed, and as emotionally engaging as dust. Admittedly, this is not my favorite opera. But, I had high hopes in Act I when I saw the giant angled mirror that dominates the stage. Quirky and visually interesting, this was a period production I thought might have some life in it. However, things soon gave way to rather standard fare 1950s Disney-esque visions of the French revolution complete with quaint peasants engaged in background murmur right out of Acting 101. Heppner was in great form and it was a joy to hear him. Urmana is not my favorite soprano by any means, but she holds her own here. Not an awful way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but not one for the history books either.

Act II of Helena
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2007
This evening though was quite a different story. I know this is an unfashionable opinion but David Fielding’s new production of Die Ägyptische Helena that wrapped up its run at the Met tonight is marvelous. It is a great production that is always interesting to look at. Much of the staging is clever and fits well with a libretto that is admittedly a mix of mythological and fanciful elements. It was a real treat to hear this unjustly ignored music. It’s easily better than Salome, and really not any stranger than Die Frau Ohne Schatten. The vocal performances were uniformly excellent, and Voigt is a true wonder. I have been iffy about her at times in the past, but I have to admit tonight I was ready to jump on the bandwagon. She’s funny, charming, beautiful to listen to and interesting to watch. I should make special mention of Diana Damrau as well, who matched Voigt this evening in both acting and singing departments. It's exciting to hear that she'll be singing more in the states in the coming seasons.

I think the biggest disservice to this opera is the way it has been marketed. A lot of the press and advertising materials have emphasized this as a story about marital conflict. And while that is true, I think it misses the point. The story is more about Helen figuring out that she gets more from the truth than from solving her problems through various lies. It is her rejection of Aithra’s “help” to deceive her murderous husband that the plot turns upon. It also allows Helen to have some agency. She may be one of the great passive objects in all of mythology, being acted upon by a variety of male protagonists. Here, however, it is all about how she is going to do things her way against the wise advise she has gotten from others. Definitely the highlight of the trip so far.

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