Since I saw the Met's new Tosca production (see a previous entry), about which I found much less to dislike than most other commentators (not to mention the opening night audience), I've been back to the house for three more operas - all Italian, although the first of them is not by an Italian. Jonathan Miller's production of Le nozze di Figaro is still lovely, but in this revival it is damaged by the wayward conducting of Dan Ettinger, who had no concept that I could discern of one of Mozart's greatest masterpieces. To begin at the beginning: the problem with playing the overture as fast as possible - and I've heard many musicians say that that's how it should "go" - is that what's possible in the first bars is barely if at all possible, and not at all desirable, at various other points, and even the wonderful Met orchestra found itself scrambling to fit in all the notes, in tempo, during this performance. At the other end of the tempo spectrum and of the opera, "Contessa perdono" was excruciatingly slow, and along the way there was a great deal of pushing and pulling that seemed gratuitous, distracting, and just plain wrongheaded. Danielle de Niese and John Relyea were near perfect as Susanna and Figaro, respectively. Emma Bella sang all of the Countess's notes and was very good in the ensembles, but somehow her two arias didn't communicate much. Bo Skovhus was a convincing Count and Isabel Leonard a fine Cherubino, although I liked her even better as Stéphano in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette a couple of seasons ago.
I had been told, or had read somewhere, that it was Samuel Johnson who said something like, "What is too foolish to be spoken is sung." But in re-reading Beaumarchais's Le Barbier de Séville for my History of Opera course at the Curtis Institute (several of my students will be participating, this winter, in an in-house production of Rossini's Barbiere), I find Figaro himself saying, "ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d'être dit, on le chante" (what isn't worth saying is sung). If I'm not mistaken, however, Dr. Johnson also said that what is too profound to be spoken is sung. In any case, although Rossini's Barbiere has plenty of touching moments and is certainly not foolish, it was not meant to be profound. Or can we say that effervescent wittiness contains a sort of reflected (as opposed to reflective) profundity? It is profound by association: it uses irony and ridicule, rather than high drama and reason, to comment on human foibles; it does not describe or explain those foibles - it smacks us in the head with them. For that matter, even farce, by its very obviousness, can be probing and corrosive, because even a distorting mirror is still a mirror.
Bartlett Sher's Met production of Barbiere is exuberantly farcical. I may be misremembering, but it seemed to me even more over the top this year than when it premiered two seasons ago. Yet like Mozart's Figaro, Barbiere allows for elastic interpretation, and there is a lightness to this production - its sets as well as its action - that makes one excuse its excesses. Conductor Maurizio Benini is a competent baton-wielder who accommodates singers rather than trying to provide them with some sort of common musical vision or sense of direction, and as far as I could determine he seemed to let each of them ornament their parts a piacere. But Joyce DiDonato is a scintillating Rosina, vocally and stage-wise, and all of the other singers ranged from acceptable (Barry Banks as Lindoro/Almaviva, has a vibrato that makes individual notes in fast passages almost unintelligible) to very good (the Russian Rodion Pogossov, as Figaro, trained at the Met's Lindemann Young Artists Development Program).
I understand that conductor Daniele Gatti was booed at the first performance of this year's Aida revival, but I don't know why. At the third performance, which I heard, the orchestra played well under his baton, and he seemed to have a good, solid concept of the work. His tempi made sense, the ensemble scenes functioned well - so what was all the fuss about? No one protested against Ettinger or Benini, and Gatti is several cuts above them both. The singing, on the other hand, was somewhat uneven. Violeta Urmana is fine in the title role, but her voice doesn't soar in high and/or intense passages, as Caballé's and Leontyne Price's used to do, and at the performance I attended she had trouble holding some climactic high notes for a reasonable length. Johan Botha is an old-fashioned stand-and-sing tenor; his Radames was clear-voiced and true in intonation, but it communicated little emotion. Sure, if you read the plot or even the whole libretto, you think that Radames and Aida are two-dimensional characters, but with a little help from their interpreters they should make us want to care about them. Carlo Guelfi, the Amonasro, is not a great singer, but he has exactly the right sort of Italianate sound for this and related roles. Dolora Zajick (Amneris) has one of the most powerful voices in the business today, but subtlety is not her forte. (I'm tempted to say that her forte is forte, but I've heard her do better than she did in this performance.) Ramfis - one of several Verdi characters through whom the composer expressed his dislike of religion in general and the clergy in particular - was stiffly portrayed by Roberto Scandiuzzi, who, in solo passages, was often out of sync with the orchestra: sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow. (This reminds me of the comment of a disgruntled symphony conductor who found himself working with a not terribly exalted ballet ensemble: "Dancers perform in two different tempi," he said; "too fast and too slow.") Donald Palumbo's chorus sang magnificently, as it almost always does, and Sonja Frisell's monumental, twenty-year-old production still functions well.