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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Operation: Maestro Drop

Superconductor looks back at the Met's 2017-2018 season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Met went through an ugly transition of power this year. Photoshop by the author.
It is impossible to write about the 2017-2018 Metropolitan Opera season without addressing the elephant in the room: the ugly transition of power between James Levine and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Mr. Levine, who had accepted the post of Music Director Emeritus a few years ago, was unceremoniously fired from the opera company that he had served for over forty years in March of this year.

Ugly rumors had swirled for years about the conductor and his sex life. Mr. Levine, who kept his private life separate from his work, always forcefully denied the rumors. It was an explosive story in the New York Post. This was followed by the extremely detailed New York Times feature that followed it shortly afterward, had the goods: sordid details from four young musicians who accused the conductor of inappropriate touchings, outright sexual harassment, and offering career assistance in exchange for sexual favors. The Met hired a private investigator. Following his report, Mr. Levine was unceremoniously fired.

The Levine scandal and the current, ugly wrongful dismissal lawsuit that has been filed by the conductor against the opera company has cast a long shadow over this season. Against that shadow stood the second big story of the year, the early coronation of Yannick Nézet-Séguin in February as Mr. Levine's immediate successor. Mr. Nézet-Séguin's inauguration coincided with the release of next season, and the opera company seems to be fully behind its new maestro.

Despite the ugly podium pas de deux, this was otherwise another year of treading water for the Met. With the company's marketing department seemingly stuck in second gear and emphasis placed on the ever-present Live in HD series, audiences dwindled at the opera house. Revivals like Les contes d'Hoffmann and Thaïs failed to attract much excitement. Audiences dwindled and rows of empty seats yawned from the pricier sections of the house.

Some of the new productions were interesting (The Exterminating Angel) while others Cosí fan tutte fell flat. The nadir was the  misguided idea to replace a cancelled run of La Forza del Destino with pallid concert versions of Verdi's Requiem under Mr. Levine. After the last one, the Post story broke.

Here is a quick look at the season that was:

Best New Production: Cendrillon
"In the title role (in this opera her "real name" is Lucette) Joyce DiDonato was in familar territory, applying a silvery sheen to her mezzo-soprano to navigate the work's upper passages. Better yet though was her acting with her instrument, especially in the early scenes when Lucette is browbeaten by her two harridan stepsisters. She was even better in the long monologue that starts the third act, as the once again dowdy Lucette comes home from the ball."

Best Revival: Luisa Miller
"Sonya Yoncheva did an admirable job of fulfilling the role. She sang sweetly in the first half of the opera but her voice gathered force, volume and size in the second as Luisa faces betrayal, crisis and death. This culminated in a thrilling third act and a pair of duets, one with Mr. Domingo and a second with tenor Piotr Beczala. When Mr. Domingo returned for the trio that comes just before the denouement, it was clear that a metaphorical torch was being passed to the younger singers."

Best Leading Man: Peter Mattei, Parsifal
"Peter Mattei was up to the task in the outer acts, moving like a crippled figure with some terrible, terminal illness and bringing the tremors and sighs to his voice when appropriate. It was particularly shattering to watch this tall, strapping baritone laid low, crawling into his own freshly dug grave on the stage in the last act and begging for death to take him."

Best Leading Lady: Sonya Yoncheva, Tosca
"Sonya Yoncheva does a good if slightly too diligent job in the leading role. She copies Maria Callas' spitfire approach to the part, right down to the "Mario, Mario, Maaaaario" at her Act I entrance to the sprechstimme outbursts at Scarpia in the second act. She brought the necessary passion to "Vissi d'arte" (helped by a glacial tempo and sense of drama from the baton of Mr. Villaume. Her adding a slight breaking tremolo to the last note was not vocal fatigue but the sound of a woman overwhelmed."

Best Bad Guy: Quinn Kelsey, Il Trovatore
"Of all these singers, the one with the hardest assignment was Quinn Kelsey, who had the unenviable job of singing Count di Luna in the shadow of the late, great Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Mr. Kelsey proved to be a pleasant surprise in this role, using the four-square meter of "Il Balen" to convince you that his character might almost be sane. His loony-goony performance in the last act was its core, in a world where all the characters are mad in some way, somebody has to be in charge of the asylum."

Best Bad Girl: Stephanie Blythe, Cendrillon
"Stephanie Blythe made for an impressive and formidable Madame de la Haltière. She was packed into a series of unflattering gowns that maximized her girth and a Lewis Carroll fright-wig only added to the effect. Even bigger though was her formidable Wagnerian mezzo-soprano, with rich, dusky colors as she henpecked her husband and ruled the roost."

Worst New Production:  Così fan tutte
"The last and least of the three Mozart-da Ponte collaborations remains a problem at the Met, where the cavernous yawn of the theater threatens to engulf what is essentially a tiny, intimate work. Despite being confined to three motel rooms for much of the first act, (maybe the smallest sets ever used on this gigantic stage) all the performers seemed a little overwhelmed by the sheer size of the house they were singing into."

Worst Revival: The Merry Widow
"When the Peter Gelb era at the Metropolitan Opera is examined in posterity, the recent renaissance of operetta on the stage of that institution may rank among the general manager's more questionable endeavors. This season, the company is reviving its 2014 staging of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow in its awkward English translation by house scribe Jeremy Sams...."

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.