Fleming is victorious at the Met

The soprano's creamy voice and unceasingly imaginative phrasing provided a riveting central force for the opera

MusicReviews

October 15, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A heady lineup of musical happenings in Philadelphia and New York last weekend exerted an irresistible pull and offered a welcome reminder of the good old-fashioned attribute known as star quality.

With Renee Fleming, you've got that quality in abundance, as demonstrated by her first appearance as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata at the Metropolitan Opera, probably the most talked about event so far this season in New York. She was to have sung the role there a few years ago but changed her mind, feeling unready. After subsequently trying it out at the Houston Grand Opera, she walked confidently into the Met, opening the company's 2003-2004 season.

Accounts of that opening were filled with the word "triumph." Last Saturday night, her fourth performance of the opera in the house, Fleming lived up to that description. Those curious opera fans who delight in finding faults in high-status singers can take away any points they want for supposed shortcomings - cautious coloratura in Act 1, a very fast Addio, del passato, maybe too much of a grand-dame demeanor early on - but you still are left with an extraordinary portrayal.

The soprano's creamy voice and unceasingly imaginative phrasing (including lots of wonderful tempo-bending) provided a riveting central force for the opera. It is possible to produce more pathos (the long shadow of Maria Callas will always haunt La traviata), but Fleming's Violetta fought eloquently and poignantly against the cruelty of artificial morality and an incurable illness.

Vibrant support came from tenor Ramon Vargas as Alfredo. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as Alfredo's meddlesome father, wrapped his glowing baritone around Verdi's music to compelling effect. Valery Gergiev sent mixed signals from the pit, pushing some parts of the score along inelegantly, dwelling beautifully over others. The orchestra, left guessing sometimes about his beat, encountered some messy patches, but still poured out plenty of warmth.

Franco Zeffirelli's over-stuffed scenery reaffirms that money can't buy you taste. Violetta's country house looks like a chichi furniture showroom, Flora's Parisian pad like an upscale bordello on Mardi Gras night.

By contrast, Jurgen Rose's sleek, abstract design for Tristan und Isolde works remarkably well to enhance and advance the drama. On Saturday afternoon, the singers did the same - Jane Eaglen as Isolde, producing a good deal of sweetness to match her usual, orchestra-conquering volume (too bad about her last, flat note); Ben Heppner as Tristan, easily compensating for the occasional strain with rare beauty of tone and expression; Rene Pape, vocally and theatrically riveting as King Marke (star quality for days); Katarina Dalayman in sumptuous voice as Brangane. James Levine conducted with his usual breadth and affection, and got a luminous response from the orchestra. Wagnerian experiences don't come more satisfying than this these days.

Satisfaction was the main word, too, for the Opera Company of Philadelphia's production of Il Trovatore. I could have done without all the video projections that were part of Boyd Ostroff's otherwise attractively spare scenic design (misty shots of the characters on bluffs at the seashore suggested artsy perfume commercials), but an involving, gutsy performance was going on Friday night at the Academy of Music.

Although Patricia Racette does not have Fleming's cachet - yet - there's no mistaking her depth as an artist or her own distinctive brand of star quality. This first attempt at the role of Leonora proved a snug fit. Racette's silvery tone and incisively molded phrases dug deep into the character.

As Azucena, Barbara Dever's steel-edge mezzo hit the mark (iffy top notes aside). Gregg Baker's mega-watt baritone, intense singing and commanding presence made di Luna an unusually potent protagonist. Viktor Afanasenko's blustery Manrico did the job. Maurizio Barbacini conducted with Old World style, a careful mix of momentum and repose.

Kay Walker Costaldo's direction contained intriguing novelties - in the convent scene, some of the nuns turned out to have swords under their habits, for example, and di Luna killed Manrico himself, rather than send him out to an executioner. But why all the distracting stage business during Manrico's reflective Ah, si ben mio?

The biggest arts news in Philadelphia is Christoph Eschenbach's first season as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It will be fascinating to hear what sort of relationship this intellectually penetrating conductor will develop with one of America's most valued musical institutions. Friday afternoon's concert at the Kimmel Center reflected his provocative flair for programming.

Messiaen's music, out on its own blossom-filled limb, has been placed by the conductor at different points throughout the season, a great way to help audiences get more comfortable with the composer's language of stylized bird calls and intense spirituality. This superbly shaped performance of L'Ascension revealed the breadth of Messiaen's vision - and the orchestra's strengths, especially in the strings and woodwinds. A crisp, elegant account of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 did the same.

But things really hit a peak in Berg's profound Violin Concerto, with Christian Tetzlaff providing technical assurance and uncanny interpretive insight. The score's elegiac qualities could not be more touchingly revealed. Eschenbach's partnering was so assured and sympathetic, the orchestra's support so expressive, that the performance reached that ever-rare level of the sublime.

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