Russian Stars Shine at the Met!

At first via Radio, and now by HD picture/sound, The Met has brought culture to millions

Today, by Popular Demand, I am adding a new category “Opera”, and this is my first installment into that category.  I review the Met’s “Live in HD matinee” version (which I saw yesterday) of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”.  And also a general all-round praising of The Met and their project to bring culture to the masses.  First, for many decades, via Radio, and now also by Live HD transmission into movie theaters.  This year is in fact their 10th Anniversary of this “Live in HD” project.  One cannot praise them too much for this; so please keep in mind that they are not paying me to advertise for them; nobody is; as I mentioned before, I have a good job which pays me well, therefore I don’t need to shill for anyone.  This is purely voluntary, because the Met deserves a shout-out!

Live in HD

So, anyhow, yesterday, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, along with an opera-loving friend (who also loves popcorn), we were able to sit in an IMAX movie theater in this sleepy backwater town somewhere in the good old USA, in the Northeastern corridor (hint:  approximately halfway between New York and Boston), relax with cupholders and popcorn, and watch a splendiferous LIVE matinee (yes, LIVE! – so, if one of the divas were to trip on her ball gown and fall flat on her face, we would see it happen in real time) being streamed into theaters all over the country (and, in fact, some theaters around the rest of the world, from what I understand), with High Definition sound and picture.

Now, like the “Live in HD” host always mentions (yesterday’s host being the lovely diva Susan Graham), this is not the same experience as actually being in the opera house.  The acoustics are going to be slightly different, for starters, and most likely not as good.  And the ambience maybe not as refined.  But there are advantages too:  Like I mentioned, you can eat popcorn.  Even more importantly, these transmissions come with robotic-controlled movie cameras positioned on the stage.  The technical directors can cut from one camera to another, just like making a film, except in real time.  As opposed to sitting in a faraway seat and squinting at the distant stage, here you get movie-type close-ups of the action.  You can see the singers sweating.  You can see their facial expressions, and enjoy a more direct blast of the emotions.  Along with the subtitles, which translate the libretto line by line, you get a complete experience of the composer’s work.

Plus!  The Live in HD transmissions include many other lovely bennies, for example, we get backstage interviews with the cast and crew; and during the intermissions we get to watch the stagehands building and taking down the sets.

This Production of Il Trovatore a Huge Success

For background and so I don’t have to repeat a lot of the details about who sung what, here is a review of the season premiere of “Il Trovatore”, from Friday night.

Yesterday’s matinee audience (in both theater and movie theater) likewise venerated Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  They started applauding him the moment he walked onto the stage, before he had even opened his mouth to sing a note.  Everybody likes an underdog, and everybody is rooting for Hvorostovsky in his battle against this brain tumor.  This being Live in HD, we were able to see Hvorostovsky’s face in close-up.  The applause softened him; and he snuck in a little involuntary grin and nod to the audience; before composing himself and resuming his stern Count di Luna face.

Hvorostovsky went on to deliver a powerful performance as the villain, whose crimes include sexual harrassment (of the heroine), racism (against gypsies), not to mention arbitrary executions.  At one point in the show, after willfully ordering the execution without trial of Manrico and the burning at the stake of Azucena, Count di Luna muses to himself:  “Perhaps I am abusing the power which the Prince has bestowed on me.”  Somebody in the back of the movie theater called out:  “You think??”

Handsome Russian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky has been called “The Silver Fox” due to his shocking mop of white hair

Yesterday’s other Russian star, Diva Anna Netrebko, was also in amazing voice.  She portrayed a physically strong, tomboyish Leonora.  This season is her first Leonora.  Up until this season, Anna wasn’t even ready for it.  Leonora is a very difficult role to sing, and requires a mature voice.  The close-ups showed an Anna who was very focused on her breathing, and determined to deliver every note flawlessly.  As the opera progressed, you could see her almost relaxing, thinking, “I’ve got this.”  Like Hvorostovsky, Anna was applauded when she first entered the stage.  From Russophile POV, it is nice to see Russian stars being respected, without the shenanigans of last season.  Where we had the spectacle of diaspora Ukrainians leaping onto the stage (trying to ruin Netrebko’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera “Iolanta”) and unfurling a Ukrainian flag, etc.  To which spectacle, we saw the “hero” of the opera, Polish tenor Piotr Beczała (who also happens to be a friend of Anna’s), shaking his head ruefully and wagging his finger at the disrupters.

Anna Netrebko as Leonora

Fortunately, none of that malarkey this season … yet!

Di quella pira

The hero of the opera “Manrico” (aka “Garcia di Luna”) is probably the hardest-working man in all of opera.  He vies with Wagner’s Kundry for “Most Jobs Held”, or perhaps “Most Valuable Employee”.  Raised in the gypsy camp by his foster mom, Azucena, Manrico somehow teaches himself to play the lute, and becomes a famous Troubador.  He also enjoys physical prowess.  In fact, it is at the “athletic games” where he meets Leonora, as she is handing out the laurels, on behalf of the Princess.  Manrico and Leonora fall in love instantly; Manrico finds out where she lives; and starts to serenade her in her castle.  WHILST SIMULTANEOUSLY fighting a civil war, as one of the leading military commanders of the other side.

This difficult role was handled aptly by young Korean tenor, Yonghoon Lee.  All eyes were on him, as he stepped up to the plate to deliver the famous cabaletta “Di Quella Pira” (“From those flames”), which to Trovatore is like “To be or not to be” in Hamlet. Lee chose a good strategy:  Instead of trying to compete with the likes of past greats such as Pavarotti or Domingo, he delivered a quick but flawless “Pira”, filled with emotional rage.

The Wrath of the Gypsy

To me, the most outstanding performance of the matinee was delivered by mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick.  Last season we saw her as the witch Ježibaba (linguistically cognate to Russian “Baba Yaga”) in Dvořák’s “Rusalka”.  Zajick is a woman who doesn’t mind making herself ugly, if that’s what it takes to channel her powerful voice.  She was simply amazing as Azucena.  This role demands an almost impossible complexity of conflicting emotions.

Dolora Zajick as the conflicted Azucena

How does one even begin to portray a woman who dearly loves her adopted son (Manrico), and yet allows him to die, because the Gypsy Code demands vengeance over love?   Hoary and corny as it by now, one still gets chills down one’s spine in the final moment of this melodramatic soap-opera, when Azucena points her finger at Count di Luna and informs him with a frightfully vengeful laugh:  “You just killed your own brother!”

During the backstage interviews, Zajick was also the funniest and most interesting personality.  She said she has been singing Azucena for 25 years, and it took her that long, to finally understand the intricate plot of the story.  She joked that there is a tavern in this place in Italy, where the owner has offered a vintage bottle of wine to the first person who can successfully relate the plot.  Zajick said she believes that she is finally ready to try for that bottle of wine!

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8 Responses to Russian Stars Shine at the Met!

  1. Grimgerde says:

    What an interesting review! I had a completely different idea about the MET transmissions (fixed camera, no close ups, etc.) and thought it wouldn’t be so different from the actual stage performance except that the sound wouldn’t be so good. Plus, I haven’t been able to find in my country any information about a particular program, i.e., the singers, directors, etc. in advance so that one can know what to expect from a production, because I very much dislike the trend of “modernising” opera productions, such as Don Giovanni taking place in a hospital, or the entire Ring cycle in spaceships, and so on. It’s also good to know about Hvorostovsky, he’s fighting the tough fight and hopefully will have a complete recovery.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks, Grimgerde!
      Yeah, the Met transmission is more like watching a movie, in a lot of ways it gives you so much more appreciation for the singers craft, because you can see them breathing and even their uvulas vibrating, sometimes!
      If you can find a theater in your country which shows these productions, then I highly recommend it.
      And yes, I totally agree with you about disliking “modernized” productions. At which, admittedly, the Met is often guilty. Why, just a couple of seasons ago, I was forced to sit through probably the worst production ever of Borodin’s Prince Igor. Which happens to be one of my favorite operas of all time, and they totally butchered it! Waaaaa!
      Notwithstanding the marvelous performances of Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor; and Anita Rachvelishvili as Konchakovna – it didn’t matter, the production was so bad, that their efforts were ruined. The fault lay with the Russian Director Dmitry Cherniakov. One of those “avant-garde visionaries” who simply can’t leave a good work alone. Cherniakov set the action in a World War I type setting and decided that this production had to be a statement against war. Which also violates the source material: Borodin’s patriotic music; not to mention the actual Bard of the medieval poem “The Song of Igor’s Host”, whose political message was “Rah rah, get back out there and fight the Polovtsy!”
      Cherniakov was so pitiless towards his source material, and towards his audience, that he even ruined the famous “Polovetskian Dances” scene, the very reason which many of the hoi polloi even bother going out to see this opera. Instead of a big spectacular Russian song-and-dance number, which we KNOW the Met can do, they had the timid troop of ballet dancers hidden behind a giant wall of red poppies, and just popping their heads up at random intervals, like prairie dogs.

      In addition to this butchery of “Prince Igor”, the Met also twisted via modernization such classics as Rigoletto, which they set in 1960’s-era Las Vegas. The Duke of Mantua was a Frank Sinatra type sleazeball star with his own retinue of gangsters. Rigoletto was one of his entourage, sort of like the Sammy Davis Jr. type, whom everybody made fun of, but he was still allowed to hang out with the gang. And they ruined the famous aria “La Donna e Mobile” by having Piotr Beczała belt it out it while wrapping himself around a dancing pole in a whorehouse. See for yourself if you don’t believe me !


  2. Grimgerde says:

    Completely agree with the Prince Igor production, in my opinion the Polovetsian dances are the highlight of the opera and I was stunned to read that the butchery was done by none other than a Russian director. I looked at the link you posted, what a ludicrous production and what a waste of voices. Reminded me of gangster movies. Why didn’t they go all the way and hire some good looking, tall Moulin Rouge girls instead of those ridiculous birds of paradise? By the way, “La Donna e Mobile” with the dancing pole can be found here:


    • yalensis says:

      And naked tits too! Oi, don’t they realize that some people bring their kids to see the opera?
      By the way, that reminded me of a funny story, you know how I mentioned that the “Live” series includes backstage interviews with the singers. Sometimes this is actually the best part of the show! These elite opera singers are incredily intelligent and witty people. And they usually catch them when they are just coming offstage with an adrenaline high.

      During the Intermission of the Rigoletto production, they interviewed Željko Lučić, who was singing the role of Rigoletto. I forget the exact words, the host asked him something like, “What do you think of this new, innovative production?” And Željko replied: “Verdi’s masterpiece is so great, that it is impossible to kill it.”

      Now, that’s what I call Damning with Faint Praise!


  3. Grimgerde says:

    At least it was a well fixed pole:


  4. David says:

    I’ve missed Hvorostovsky twice while being in the same city as him. I was in NY the day of one of these Trovatore performances, and was unable to get rush tickets, and I was in Moscow the night of a recital – for which only one ticket remained when I went to the office that morning, which turned out to be far outside of my price range. Note to self: advance tickets exist.


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