Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

(Not) All is Forgiven

May 04, 2008

Ramón Vargas and cast
Photo : Marty Sohl/Met 2008

It was a mostly Mozart kind of weekend with two productions that are wrapping up the Metropolitan Opera season here in New York, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and La Clemenza di Tito. I saw both today and while they are both less commonly performed works, together they support the argument that overall, the Met’s Mozart productions are in more dire needed of replacement than perhaps those of any other major composer. This evening’s season opening performance of La Clemeza di Tito was poorly attended, which is a shame considering its many fine qualities. Foremost among these was a return appearance of Baroque and 18th century music specialist Harry Bicket who led a wonderfully detailed and lively performance of this work in a house where no one else but James Levine has conducted it since he marshaled it back into the repertory in 1984. A tough act to follow and perhaps some of the reason for the small crowd, but Bicket was spectacular with the Met opera orchestra. He was joined by the typical A-list cast including the legendary Susan Graham. Every note from her throat was perfection and even though she was forced to dress as Barney Rubble throughout Act II she was reason enough to be there. Ramón Vargas made his umpteenth appearance on the Met stage this year as Tito. He is no slouch, but like Domingo’s performances of Bajazet in Washington this month, Vargas is not going to go down in the history books as an illustrious performer of Mozart and Baroque operas. He’s a little too zesty for this material in my opinion but he’s game and can act. The cast also featured an excellent Heidi Grant Murphy as Servilia and Tamar Iveri as Vitellia.

All of this takes place amongst perhaps the most massive and unnecessary set imaginable. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's design dates back to 1984 and gives everyone a very nice place to stand around while they sing and look for something else to do. Some, like Iveri, take the Norma Desmond approach to this problem, while others emote within a more predictable range. What's the point of all the massive columns and arches if the burning of Rome at the end of Act I is represented by litle more than a few red flashes of light. This is still part of that 80s trend to make it look like the 18th century version of ancient Rome, but today it just looks ridiculous. It’s musical qualities do compensate for many of it’s theatrical problems, though, and there are three more performances remaining over the last two weeks of the season. Unfortunately, only the final one will be broadcast over Sirius so you may want to check out to live internet stream of Tuesday’s performance coming up on May 6 or, better yet, with so many tickets available, why not actually go see it.

Matthew Polenzani and Diana Damrau
Photo : Ken Howard/Met 2008

The parallels between the successes and failures of Clemenza and the Met’s concurrently running Die Entführung aus dem Serail are numerous and I suppose unsurprising. A 1979 production from John Dexter is revived largely as an excuse to have the marvelous Diana Damrau return to the stage. It’s a rather cartoonish staging that is so dated it could border on the transcendent. What at the time was meant to be whimsical, now gives the whole production a rather minimal look. But it's still dull. If the current production of La Fille du Régiment is what comedy is today, this genteel production is a reminder of what comedy was. Serail also has a somewhat miscast tenor in the form of Matthew Polenzani who is fine but not particularly Mozartian in any way. Kristinn Sigmundsson plays Osmin for maximum effect and is quite good here throughout. Damrau is, of course, the star of the show and deservedly so. Though her costumes also do her little favors, the agility and litheness of her voice carries everyone along, regardless of their sins. David Robertson was in the pit with the orchestra and, while he does not necessarily have a big reputation in Mozart circles, his leadership was quite admirable. There is one more performance on Wednesday that will be broadcast on Sirius. Here's keeping our fingers crossed that while Peter Gelb is busily retiring all the out-of-date productions at the Met (a Herculean task I grant you) these two losers make it onto the pile as well.

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