Again and again, the crowd went wild for the Met's new production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale tonight. It's not hard to figure out why: Take a handful of star performers, put them to work in eye-catching costumes on an always-appropriate set, play the notes well and let Donizetti do the rest. Done and done. So why do I feel so deeply conflicted?
The answer has something to do with Anna Netrebko, but it's not exactly the same problem I've had in past experience of her work -- which is, admittedly, an uneven debut CD, a decent recording of La Traviata and two nights of Rigoletto earlier this season. The latter, I'd chalk up to casting against type, while noting that her Gilda opposite Villazón was superior to her Gilda opposite Melo.
Reviews that have appeared since the first performance on Friday night have reported Netrebko's reckless cavorting, house-bashing, tongue-wagging, tumbling and other physical gags. As "Sofronia," this seemed pretty much acceptable, but when extended to Norina, I had to wonder: Did Donizetti intend the character to be the rhymes-with-rich that Netrebko makes of her? Given tonight's performance, you had to wonder what Juan Diego Flórez's Ernesto ever saw in her -- unless this was simply evidence of a truism that just as good girls dig bad boys, the opposite is also frequently the case. Indeed, given Ernesto's milksop character, one could only assume that in coupling with this Norina, he primarily sought the backbone he personally so sorely lacked.
While I wouldn't call myself a Donizetti specialist by any means, I'd certainly never read Norina as being inherently possessed of the wanton caprice she puts on as "Sofronia." Netrebko apparently sees it otherwise -- perhaps a valid interpretation, but one that renders her core character fundamentally unlikeable. Only once did she convey the slightest shred of humanity, when she seems to realize that slapping Pasquale may have pushed the charade too far. But just like that, the moment was gone, and Mean Girls was rejoined in progress.
Despite all of this, I have no trouble declaring that Netrebko was technically marvelous tonight. She hit the heights cleanly and securely, always with a "nothin' to it" insouciance. Truth is, Netrebko was vocally riveting in a way I hadn't previously experienced in her work. It was hardly any wonder that the audience responded so heartily to her overall athleticism.
Flórez, in case you're wondering, made it all the way to the finale tonight. And in an evening during which each of his ardent arias surpassed the one that came before it, "Com'è gentil" was a show-stopper; "Tornami a dir che m'ami," the following duet with Netrebko, was arguably better still. Light, clean and clear, Flórez's instrument was the finest onstage tonight. The superb Marius Kwiecien played Dr. Malatesta as a glitzy snake-oil merchant whose physical chemistry with Netrebko/Norina/"Sofronia" was perhaps a wee bit too familiar for comfort. But the garland for best performance ultimately had to be awarded to Simone Alaimo, for a Pasquale ultimately as utterly humiliated -- and utterly human -- as Verdi's Falstaff.
Apart from a taffy-pull of an overture, Maurizio Benini led a taut, springy reading. The venerable Otto Schenk, in the final new production of the Volpe regime (and reportedly his final production, period), envisioned a series of completely appropriate settings, especially Pasquale's run-down and barely held-together palazzo. These were neatly realized by Rolf Langenfass, also responsible for a fine range of costuming.
To what extent Netrebko's liberties were her own, as opposed to directed, is a question that frankly fascinates me. I'd love to catch the sole performance on April 18 by Lyubov Petrova, whose Oscar in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera completely won me over last season, but I'm otherwise committed that night.
Regarding the weekend past, I maintained broadband silence because I was spending quality time with the dear friend who was my original operatic enabler -- the very soul who prodded me to catch the Houston Grand Opera performance of Rigoletto with Marcello Giordani and Maureen O'Flynn that so changed my life. Together, we attended the already fabled matinee in which Erika Sunnegårdh burst into the public eye. Over at Parterre Box, La Cieca wonders what it was that occasioned the weekend's media blitz. Having penned a Sunnegårdh article for TONY that hits the stands Tuesday evening, I'll state for the record that yes, my interest was initially stirred by reading Volpe's soon-to-be published memoir -- but not a single publicist courted my attention otherwise. (Whether that was the case with the dailies and the TV, well, I can't say.) The video cameras in the stageside boxes, I was told, were Swedish TV: The Swedes, having known nothing of Sunnegårdh in a country where practically everyone who's anyone attended the same conservatory, have made an overnight celebrity of her. In our interview, she expressed some slight discomfort at having been recognized in the ladies' room at the Stockholm airport. (And I actually believe that I saw a woman out on the sidewalk afterward who had a Swedish flag painted on her cheek.)
Despite a voice that initially seemed a size too small for the Met -- an impression that changed during the volcanic second act -- and, yes, despite the memory lapse reported in initial reviews, I would deem Sunnegårdh's debut a triumph, and one that augurs much for subsequent engagements. Historic proportions will be accorded by future generations, but this was in all ways a moving experience -- and certainly the efforts of Ben Heppner, Alan Held, Jennifer Welch-Babidge and especially Kristinn Sigmundsson played more than a small role in this afternoon's portentious feel.
But this I will add: The look on Sunnegårdh's face as the principals all knelt during this passage near the finale...
O God! Oh, what a moment!
O inexpressibly sweet happiness!
Righteous, O God, is Thy judgment
Thou dost try, but not forsake us.
...was among the most moving moments I've ever witnessed in any auditorium, and very nearly reduced me to a quivering jelly. Ask me for criticism some other time, okay?
That night, we also caught the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a powerful program that paired John Adams's September 11 memorial, On the Transmigration of Souls, with Brahms's German Requiem. Encountering the former piece for the first time since its world premiere -- and for the first time in the superior sonics of Carnegie Hall -- readily affirmed the potency of Adams's Ivesian evocation, though the performance admittedly lacked the almost suffocatingly charged atmosphere of the first night. And for once, I felt that surtitles for a piece sung in English, which at Avery Fisher Hall had underscored the everyday plaintiveness of Adams's texts, were sorely missing here.
In the handsomely performed Brahms work, baritone soloist Russell Braun was dependably sturdy; soprano Camilla Tilling was initially harsh but ultimately moving. The St. Louis Symphony Chorus sang securely and beautifully, as did the St. Louis Children's Choir in the Adams piece. Conductor David Robertson deftly managed the tricky balance of live and electronic elements in the Adams, while drawing a reverently tawny tone from his ensemble in the Brahms.
Prince - 3121 (NPG/Universal)
Keyshia Cole - The Way It Is (A&M)
The Coup - Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph, to be released April 25)