Anna and the Seven Dwarfs
Metropolitan Opera House
Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani
Anna Netrebko (Elvira)
Maria Zifchak (Enrichetta)
Gregory Kunde (Arturo)
Franco Vassallo (Riccardo)
John Relyea (Giorgio)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Patrick Summers (conductor)
To create a truly impressive star turn at the opera house requires at least three elements. First, the star in question must be larger than life, beloved by millions and puffed by the press. Second, the diva or divo must deliver a truly fabulous performance. Third, nothing or no one can do anything to upstage or otherwise distract from the radiance of the main attraction. At the season premiere of I Puritani on Wednesday evening, both Anna Netrebko and the Metropolitan Opera executed their respective roles flawlessly.
To Ms. Netrebko in a moment, but first some thoughts on this woefully deficient performance by the rest of the troupe. They certainly prepared us well, as the dreaded slip of paper was inserted into the program explaining that the tenor of the evening, Eric Cutler, was indisposed. In his place would sing alternate Gregory Kunde. Then, before the curtain arose, the man with the worst job in New York had to emerge to deliver the bad news that bass John Relyea, an artist whom I really like, had bronchitis but would go on anyway. The stage was set for a substandard effort and the Met did not disappoint.
The role of Arturo is a punishing one, replete with unnaturally high notes that are actually vestiges of the recently defunct castrato era. In fact, the tessitura of this part is what keeps Puritani off of most modern stages. It is impossible to say how Mr. Cutler might have done, but this poor soldier impressed into service was quite weak, struggling continually and quickly resorting to falsetto to even have a chance in the upper range. His “A te o cara” set the bar rather low and he labored to reach it for the remainder of the evening.
Mr. Relyea acquitted himself admirably under the circumstances, but he was obviously suffering throughout. His voice was much grainier than normal and he, quite correctly, kept his volume low, his projections unforced. As a result, none of his big numbers had much spirit to them, the normally rousing “Suoni la tromba” duet – with baritone Franco Vassallo – as thin, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, as “soup made from the shadow of a pigeon who had starved to death”.
The rest of the cast was colorless without excuse and the production, by Sandro Sequi, was, to be charitable, unobtrusive. The conducting was routine, the normally ebullient orchestra rather leaden. Only the superb Met chorus deserves their usual rave.
However, Ms. Netrebko was spectacular. Her very first notes established her as a presence. You have heard all of the superlatives already; let me just reassure you that they are all true. Hearing Anna Netrebko live at this particular point in her career is as good as it is likely to get for quite some time. Her “Son vergin vezzosa” in Act I was rewarded with a thunderous ovation, but even then we knew that she would get even better when the chips were down.
I Puritani is not as well known as it should be, but is still very familiar. It is really just Lucia di Lammermoor with different hats. We wait for the mad scene and this night it came special delivery. Not only did Ms. Netrebko look amazing in her white bridal gown – hey, it’s all part of the show – but she pulled off part of “Qui la voce sua soave” while upside down! Having descended the big staircase, she ran to the very edge of the stage, lay down on her back and dangled her head into the orchestra pit, staring at all of us from a new and distorted perspective. None of this kinesis affected her voice adversely and the net result was amazing. Then back up that staircase for a final frozen tableau. The following ovation was about as long as any in this house since it was constructed in the early 1960’s.
Hopefully, this run will improve significantly once the cast is made whole. But then again, perhaps it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, we only have ears for her.
Frederick L Kirshnit