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Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Two): And Now, Back to Our Unscheduled Program

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Two): And Now, Back to Our Unscheduled ProgramThe new production of Wagner's 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' ('The Flying Dutchman')

Something I Missed

In writing about the Metropolitan Opera's broadcasts of La Damnation de Faust and Der Fliegende Holländer ("The Flying Dutchman"), I neglected to mention what a huge debt Richard Wagner and Arrigo Boito owed to French composer and music critic Hector Berlioz.

Certainly, much of Berlioz's orchestral coloration, brass fanfares, and choral effects eventually found their way into Boito's labyrinthine Mefistofele. As for epic dimensions and classical structure and story line, nothing could top Berlioz's titanic Les Troyens ("The Trojans"), which figured prominently in Wagner's own theories for his mythic The Ring of the Nibelung.

In turn, one can't help noticing the similarities between the Ring cycle's plot - and some of its main characters, i.e. Alberich with Gollum - with the later The Lord of the Rings saga penned by one J.R.R. Tolkien, but I do digress.

For The Flying Dutchman, Herr Wagner drew inspiration from fellow German Romantic Carl Maria von Weber, whose 1821 opera Der Freischütz ("The Free Shooter") was a period favorite. The plot centers around a young forester, Max, who makes a sinister pact with fellow forester Kaspar in return for the Devil's aid (here, called "Samiel") in winning a shooting contest.

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Two): And Now, Back to Our Unscheduled Program
A production of Carl Maria von Weber's 'Der Freischuetz' ('The Free Shooter')

Scenes of ghostly apparitions, dead-of-night depravity, and hellish shock effects were also present in the eerie output of musician Heinrich Marschner, a contemporary of both Weber and Wagner. Marschner's Der Vampyr ("The Vampire") from 1828 was based on a Lord Byron story (published under his friend and former doctor, John Polidori's name), whereas the plot of Hans Heiling (1833) must have had a profound influence on Wagner's development of Tannhäuser (1845; revised 1861 for Paris).

In Hans Heiling, the title character leaves his underworld dwelling to seek out and marry a mortal woman. Complications arise when the woman, Anna, falls in love with the handsome Konrad. It should be noted that supernatural elements are present in both Hans Heiling and Tannhäuser, with both protagonists having set foot in the earthly and mystical realms, and suffering untold indignities because of it.

At one time, Marschner was as popular as Weber - or more so, where his operas were concerned (sadly, Weber died young in 1826 from tuberculosis). With Wagner's emergence as the prime mover of so-called "music drama," both Weber and Marschner were left in the dust. Weber's operatic endeavors, chiefly known for their overtures, include the aforementioned Der Freischütz, along with Oberon (based on characters from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), Euryanthe, and the unfinished Die Drei Pintos (or "The Three Pintos"), completed and orchestrated by Gustav Mahler. Weber's stage works have been revived on more than one occasion, while Marschner's oeuvre remains comparatively unknown in the U.S.

On the outer fringes of the operatic repertoire, history records there is another Flying Dutchman-like opus, this one credited to an obscure French composer-conductor named Pierre-Louis-Philippe Dietsch. It is titled Le Vasseau Phantôme, or "The Phantom Ship," from 1842 and adapted from a Sir Walter Scott novel. From the limited research available, this version has but minor similarities to Wagner's opera.

For Your Listening and Viewing Pleasure

With historical precedent as our guide, it's a simple matter for readers to muse upon the past. In the case of opera and the performing arts, one looks to antecedents for clues as to where opera has been and where it might go.

That's all fine and well. However, in these perilous times, with COVID-19 and the still troubling response to the outbreak on our minds and before our eyes, the future of opera in general - and, specifically, for any performing art, including the dramatic and musical theater variety, as well as the motion picture industry - remains unknowable.

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Two): And Now, Back to Our Unscheduled Program
Interior of an empty Metropolitan Opera House at orchestra level

What it boils down to is this: Will live opera, in its present state, survive the pandemic? Will the movie- and theater-going experience be rendered pointless as well? Will live- or previously-recorded streaming replace the real thing?

And what of the performers and crafts people involved in its execution - that is, those individuals who make it happen? Will they ever be able to interact in close proximity to one another? Or will the "stage kiss" make a belated comeback?

I can't help "laughing" (although in truth, this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a laughing matter) at that last thought. Similar to how the X-rated movie industry has been run, the idea that opera singers, and stage and film personalities, may be faced with testing for the coronavirus, or having their temperature taken before interacting with each other on an intimate level is not as farfetched as we imagine.

Yes, I know it's a ludicrous notion, but a highly credible one. Indeed, this very situation may soon come to pass and become a permanent part of the entertainment landscape. Let's pray it doesn't come to that.

I say this in connection with, and as a consequence of, the altered nature of the 2019-2020 Met Opera broadcasts. Beginning with the March 14, 2020 relay of The Flying Dutchman from March 10, all subsequent transmissions were of previously recorded performances, presented for our ongoing listening pleasure. As usual, radio host Mary Jo Heath and commentator Ira Schiff supplemented their on-air patter by providing illuminating background information regarding each broadcast work.

Continuing with the March 21 re-airing of Rossini's La Cenerentola, which featured Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez, a March 28 re-broadcast of Massenet's Werther followed with tenor Jonas Kaufmann. April showered listeners with a re-hearing of Stephanie Blythe's sumptuously executed Orpheus in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice on the 4 th of that month. This gave way to an April 11 re-hearing of Puccini's Tosca (from an earlier April 20, 2018 performance) that starred the fabulously talented Anna Netrebko putting her personal stamp on the titular diva, with husband, tenor Yusuf Eyvazov, as a heroic-sounding Cavaradossi, and German bass-baritone Michael Volle as an un-Italianate-sounding Scarpia.

April 18 brought a masterful 2011 Met archive reading of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. A stellar cast highlighted this effort, manned by the late, great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon (so viscerally realized and commandingly sung), with Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as his daughter Amelia, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as her lover, Gabriele, cavernous basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as an intensely vocalized Fiesco, and baritone Simone Alaimo as the devious Paolo. James Levine led the Met Orchestra and Chorus in probably the nearest to an ideal performance this dark and brooding work has ever received there.

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Two): And Now, Back to Our Unscheduled Program
The late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra'

The last three broadcasts of the season included one we had previously heard and commented upon. This was of Puccini's Turandot, on April 25, in the gaudy, overly-busy Franco Zeffirelli production (done to death, I might add). It starred Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as the haughty Princess Turandot, giant-toned tenor Marco Berti as Prince Calàf, soprano Hibla Gerzmava as the slave girl Liu, and basso James Morris as a thin-of-voice yet physically imposing Timur.

This left only the May 2nd pre-recorded 2004 performance of Leoš Janáček's rarely heard Kát'a Kabanová with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, tenor Jorma Silvasti, and mezzo Judith Forst; and the May 9 th transmission of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda from 2013 with mezzo Joyce DiDonato and Dutch soprano Elza van den Heever.

With the regular broadcast season over, what is there left for the Met - or any other opera company, for that matter? At this point, no one can be certain.

Still, the Met Opera's board of directors, led by Executive Chairman Robert I. Toll of Toll Brothers, Inc. (the main sponsor for the Saturday broadcasts), and the company's general manager, Mr. Peter Gelb, came up with (you'll pardon the expression) a "novel" approach as to what the future may hold: a live-stream concert of up-and-coming and/or established opera stars singing arias and excerpts from their favorite works, direct from their homes or in pre-recorded venues of their choice.

We'll have more to say about this extraordinary four-hour Saturday afternoon program, labeled the "At-Home Gala," in the third and final installment of this post. Until then, a happy and prayerful Memorial Day to one and all!

(End of Part Two)

To be continued....

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

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