Metropolitan Opera Online Gala April 25, 2020
Other writing work has kept me from this website for a while, but the Met’s Online Opera Gala can’t go without
mention. For my money, this has been the cultural event of the year.
Some fifty Met stars from around the world – covering eight time zones – agreed to sing from their homes
for this event. Most of them were performing live, although there were a few pre-recorded appearances. The event turned
out to be a fund-raiser for the Met, which I hadn’t expected, but that’s okay. The Met will have as much trouble
as every other organization when it comes to recovering from this societal shutdown. The opera world makes such a huge contribution
to our well-being that I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to ask for financial support.
Even the opening credits stirred up a sense of excitement, just as in the Met’s Live in HD broadcasts. (That organization
must have some of the best graphics people in the business!) A white line, like a jet stream, zoomed back and forth across
a map of the world, pin-pointing the locales that we were going to be hearing from and giving us the names of the singers
who would be singing from each place.
Hosting the event, which started at 1 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, were the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, and
its Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Mr. Gelb
was his courtly self in a cordial way. Sometimes you could see him reading notes, but most of the time he managed to maintain
a relatively spontaneous air. Maestro Nézet-Séguin
was, of course, brimming over with his ebullient joie de vivre. From time to time, the two men intervened with explanations
and introductions but, for the most part, each performer introduced the next one with enthusiasm.
Some singers had live piano accompaniment; some recorded accompaniment. One singer was accompanied by accordion, another
by harp. Most of the music was operatic but there were some folk songs and one Broadway tune. Inevitably, not all the singers
were at their best, but they were all good sports to give it a try. It was as if they were attending a house party and somebody
asked them to sing something. Okay, why not! Peter Matthei deserves special credit for his handling of the kick-off.
Appearing from his summer home in Sweden, he was obviously a bit uncomfortable being the first singer in this rare experiment,
but he launched into his aria ("Deh vieni alla finestra" from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) with bravery and gusto.
Given the somewhat iffy circumstances – variability in Skype connections and in sound quality – it’s
not surprising that some of the pre-recorded sections came off best in artistic terms. Anna Netrebko and her husband, Yusif
Eyvasov, weren’t able to perform live, so they appeared in selections pre-recorded in a concert venue. The ideal accoustics
and the skillful camera work made these performances exceptionally impressive.
An outstanding pre-recorded contribution was Joyce DiDonato’s rendering of Handel’s "Ombra Mai Fu" to the accompaniment
of the viola section of the Met orchestra. Quite apart from Ms. Di Donato’s sublime singing, the piece had extra poignancy
in that it was dedicated to Vincent Lionti, a viola player from the Met orchestra who lost his life to COVID-19. Another performance
that reflected the present circumstances in a particularly touching way was Reneé Fleming’s
prayerful rendition of the "Ave Maria" from Verdi’s Otello.
One of the great pleasures of this event was seeing into the homes of the opera stars. A couple of the residences looked
modest but most of them had a tastefully prosperous air about them. I don’t know whether this was the result of design
advice from the Met, but bookshelves appeared in the background for many of the singers. Or shelves with arty knick-knacks
on them. Ms. Fleming had one of the most beautiful settings: a music room with glass doors looking out on a leafy green Virgnia
backyard. Josef Calleja had fish placidly swimming in a tank behind him as he sang. Diana Damrau and her husband, Nicolas
Testé, stood back from the camera for a moment to give us a glimpse of the kitchen behind
them. Only one setting looked like it had been specifically designed with an eye to striking visual effect. Sonya Yoncheva,
with her long black hair, in a white dress with black trim, stood against an off-white wall that had a mantel with a pot of
whitish flowers on it. Rather art nouveau.
All of the singers radiated a certain amount of friendliness and accessibility but, when it comes to personality, nobody
could top Javier Camerana, the coloratura tenor, with his irrepressible boyishness. He even had a special chance to show this
quality in one of the few glitches in the program. The hosts were about to interrupt him when it looked like he’d finished
his aria, but he shook his finger mischievously at them, indicating that the cabaletta to the song was yet to come.
The women wore beautiful gowns but dressing down was the order of the day for the men. For instance, we got the hunky Jonas
Kaufmann in jeans and a v-neck sweater. It struck me as a bit ironic that the most informal outfit – short-sleeve shirt,
not tucked in but hanging loosely over his considerable girth – was worn by Bryn Terfel, the singer who was consistently
referred to by his formal title of "Sir." I found it amusing – and somewhat reassuring – to see that most of the
men, without make up and costumes, looked a lot older and plainer in real life than they do in their publicity photos.
It came as a pleasant surprise to me that some of the singers accompanied themselves at the piano. This was astonishing
in the case of Erin Morley who managed to run her fingers up and down the keyboard while tossing off the fiendishly demanding
coloratura of an aria from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. When her hands were free for a few seconds while
her voice trilled, she held up a sign "Vive Le Met!" The male singer/pianists particularly amazed me. I don’t
know why. I guess I always figured that male opera stars wouldn’t be bothered learning to play the piano. I thought
they’d consider it beneath them. (Luciano Pavarotti couldn’t even read music, they say.) So it was impressive
to see some of them sit down and produce excellent accompaniment to their own singing.
As did Matthew Polenzani for his rendering of "Danny Boy." That piece always brings me close to tears – even if not
sung as sweetly as it was by Mr. Polenzani – so it was a delightful change of mood when a smattering of applause at
the end of the song caused him to laughingly acknowledge his family listening upstairs. A similar reminder of family life
came when their two small children came rushing in at the end of the duet by Ms. Damrau and Mr. Testé. Given that the duet had featured one particularly unsavoury instance of seduction from Don Giovanni,
it was good to be reminded of certain realities that over-ride the operatic fiction.
On the whole, I’d say that the performances that involved the least "acting" came off better. Granted, it would have
been difficult to sing some of the numbers without a bit of acting – particularly the duets that involved a struggle
between the characters – but the intimacy of the settings and the immediacy of the camera tended to produce the effect
of mugging and over-acting. Most of the singers were, of course, well known. Among the newer ones – to me – one
standout was Lisette Oropesa. I may have heard her on Met radio broadcasts but this performance lodged her art indelibly in
my memory: such incredible fluidity and agility, squeezing in notes in rapid runs where there didn’t seem to be room
for any more notes! Quinn Kelsey, of course, is a familiar name but it was a special treat for some of us – corny as
it may be to admit this – to have his appearance from Toronto as yet another contribution to the Canadian content first
established by Maestro Nézet-Séguin.
A couple of performances by the Met orchestra itself, without any singing, offered tiny glimpses of the various players,
Zoom style. Seeing the individual performers briefly made you appreciate the intricacy of the compositions much more than
when you see the musicians en masse. The sight of the brass players and the percussionist performing from their
apartments made me wonder about their neighbours, but Javier Camerana addressed that when he pointed out that his neighbours
in Switzerland were being very kind about his singing at 11 p.m.
One of the most gorgeous offerings featured the chorus with the inevitable – you guessed it! – "Va pensiero"from
Verdi’s Nabucco. What a novelty to hear that gorgeous music as produced by, for instance, a guy sitting
on his couch in jeans and black shirt while playing his bassoon, and a good-looking young male singer in a straw cowboy hat!
The commentary around the performances made much of the community of singers and the feeling of the Met as a family. All
well and good, but I couldn’t help wondering about the people who weren’t asked to perform. There must have been
at least another fifty of them who could have been included. Did they, sitting at home, feel like the Met was one, big, happy
family? (Similar thoughts often come to mind while watching of the Academy Awards.) Perhaps not. Still, it was good to see
the spirit of conviviality emphasized, rather than the sense of rivalry that used to be associated with opera stars.