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His Opening Farewell

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
03/20/2006 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio
Karita Mattila (Leonore)
Jennifer Welch-Babidge (Marzelline)
Richard Margison (Florestan)
Kristinn Sigmundsson (Rocco)
Alan Held (Don PIzarro)
James Morris (Don Fernando)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Paul Nadler (conductor)

“There’s a train every day
Leavin’ either way,
There’s a world, you know,
There’s a way to go”

Jackson Browne

Apparently over 27 years of great performances have not been enough to make most New York music fans appreciate James Levine, but his recent fall (literal, not poetic) on a Boston stage has created a consciousness in the collective arts-going mind that he really was something special indeed. Deep down, we all know that his days at the Met are numbered, and with him will go such masterpieces as Wozzeck and Lulu, the new administration already discussing their intentions to jettison these works after Levine has departed. On Monday evening at the Metropolitan Opera House, the first premiere of an opera scheduled to be launched by Maestro but now alas conducted by a substitute, climbed out of its underground cell and saw the light of day (well, evening) as Fidelio began its current run.

There are three more premieres this season where Jimmy will have to be replaced. Don Pasquale with Anna Netrebko is coming right up and the Met has secured the services of Maurizio Benini, in town for the duration of Luisa Miller, to lead the proceedings. At the Miller premiere, a weak cast of cover singers actually did a pretty good job, as Benini led a polished realization. For Wagner, the Met has done well on short notice, hiring Philippe Augin for Lohengrin and Bayreuth veteran Peter Schneider for a post-Easter Parsifal.

But Fidelio was already in rehearsal when Maestro took his tumble and so the company settled on the man charged with preparing the company in the early stages of the process, Paul Nadler, whose regular position is as the music director of the Southwest Florida Symphony. Oh well, any port in a storm.

It really only took about two minutes to realize how great a conductor Mr. Levine really is. After a horn disaster at the opening, the overture settled in for a very dull run through. The first two characters, the Jaquino of Gregory Turay and the Marzelline of Jennifer Welch-Babidge, were weak at the beginning, and Mr. Turay never got better. However, the other male singers were all good. Kristinn Sigmundsson was a solid Rocco, although he passed a good deal of time staring at the conductor, time ill spent, as he was several times off of the beat. Alan Held was a suitably villainous Don Pizzaro and Richard Margison a more than competent Florestan, although future performances featuring Ben Heppner should be a marked improvement.

There is an amusing and satisfying trend in newer performances of this opera to cast a star in the relatively minor and last appearing role of Don Fernando. Thomas Quasthoff has been singing it in Europe. Here we had a radiant James Morris. Mr. Morris is also portraying Walter in the Luisa Miller and is just so powerful and resonant, rich and burnished of tone, that he creates a bit of a problem. When he opens his mouth, the other men seem amateur by comparison.

The star of the show, of course, is the character of Leonore, who masquerades as the jailer’s apprentice Fidelio. In any performance, this soprano part would be the focal point, but when the role is embraced by such a consummate artist as Karita Mattila, then the evening is miraculously saved. Beyond the fact that her pitch control is superb, beyond her creamy tones and laudable projections, beyond her athletic abilities, so vital to this variant on a pants part, Ms. Mattila is a very good actress, able to convey not a woman playing a man, but rather a woman playing a man with subtle feminine tendencies. Her stride is masculine at times, womanly at others. She is conflict personified. A masterly performance.

Although it is a myth that Gustav Mahler came up with the inspiration to superimpose the Leonore No. 3 overture onto the second act – it was in fact the brainchild of Otto Nicolai – he did popularize the maneuver by employing it at both the Vienna and Metropolitan operas. Tremendously exciting as a scene-changing interlude, it had become over time a part of the Beethovenian furniture, a necessary adjunct to a complete dramatic and musical experience. But lately it has been excised in the name of fealty to the original score, and was not performed this night. I miss it terribly, but with Nadler at the helm, maybe this wasn’t the ideal spot for its revival.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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