Met Streams Idomeneo, Lohengrin, and Ballo

Met Free Streaming – Week 10 – Part 1, May 18-20

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Monday, May 18

Mozart’s Idomeneo ~ 3Hrs and 22Mins

Conducted by James Levine, starring Nadine Sierra, Elza van den Heever, Alice Coote, and Matthew Polenzani. Transmitted live on March 25, 2017.

Like the young Verdi’s Nabucco last night, the young Mozart’s Idomeneo tonight started him on the path to immortality. Mozart took the old Italian opera seria form—with its focus on acrobatic feats of vocalization but often with paper thin characters taken from classical history or mythology—and breathed new life and depth into it. Set in ancient Crete, Idomeneo follows the dramatic challenges faced by its ruling family immediately following the Trojan War.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani brings both strength and compassion to the title role of the king of Crete, who is faced with an impossible decision. Mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote sings the trouser role of Idomeneo’s son, Idamante, who is in love with the captive Trojan princess Ilia, sung with lovely lyricism by Nadine Sierra. Elza van den Heever is the thrillingly unhinged Elettra (yes, I know we thought she died of ecstasy after Oreste killed Clytemnestra a few weeks ago in Strauss’s Elektra – but it turns out she fled Argos and has sought refuge on Crete). Jean Pierre-Ponnelle’s production design somewhat strangely, although effectively, mixes the monumental grandeur of ancient Crete with the elegance of costumes more appropriately worn in the Enlightenment.

The story: After ten long years of war, Idomeneo is finally on his way home. Some of his forces have already returned, bringing back Trojan captives including Priam’s daughter, princess Ilia. The ship carrying Ilia was hit by a storm and sank, but she was rescued from the waves by Idomeneo’s son, Idamante, who had ruled as regent in his father’s absence. Feelings of love have developed between Ilia and Idamante, although Ilia is resisting them because she is still mourning the deaths of her father and brothers who were killed by her captors in the War. If you’re sensing a situation that is ripe for a good old love triangle here, you’re getting more astute at opera plots – Elettra is also in love with Idamante. But this particular love triangle is not the main plot line.

Idomeneo has been delayed in his return to Crete, most recently by a terrible storm. To save himself and his men from the storm, he has promised Neptune, god of the sea, that he will sacrifice to him the very first human that he comes across if he reaches his home shore. By the time he drags himself up on the beach in Crete he is already wracked with guilt over having to sacrifice the first person he sees, but to make matters rise to truly tragic proportions, the first person he encounters is his own son, Idamante.

The remainder of this really glorious opera – resolved love triangle, mad scene, vicious sea monster sent by an angry god, noble self-sacrifice, redemption, and yes!, happy ending – is a vocal and dramatic joy to watch and to listen to….. I really enjoyed this production and I hope you will too.

Tuesday, May 19

Wagner’s Lohengrin – Classic Telecast ~ 3Hrs and 43Mins

Conducted by James Levine, starring Eva Marton, Leonie Rysanek, Peter Hofmann, Leif Roar, and John Macurdy. Transmitted live on January 10, 1986.

Here comes the bride – oops – I mean the Swan Knight. This 1986 telecast (yep, the Met hardly ever does this one – last time was 2006) does justice to Wagner’s music, with the dashing tenor Peter Hoffmann in the title role of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, Eva Marton as Elsa, Lohengrin’s beloved, and the great Leonie Rysanek giving a thrillingly deranged portrayal of Ortrud, the sorceress who tears the couple apart.

Wagner’s Romantic opera demands particularly skilled singing actors to carry it off with any credulity, and that is what we have here – at least by 1986 standards. The young tenor, Peter Hofmann certainly looks the part of a knight of the holy grail (if not much like Jonas Kauffman, whom we saw as his father, the Grail Knight, Parsifal a few weeks ago). Eva Marton’s Elsa of Brabant is innocent, as well as passionate, and an excellent foil for Leonie Rysanek who is positively evil as Ortrud, the sorceress and wife of Telramund (the current Count of Brabant who gained the title under mysterious circumstances). James Levine’s conducting, the orchestra and Met chorus are similarly magical.

The opera takes place in (the fictional) 10th century Duchy of Brabant on the banks of the Scheldt (the area around modern Antwerp) where there is considerable strife and political infighting because older (pagan) religious followers are seeking to subvert their more modern, monotheistic rulers. The child-Duke of Brabant has inexplicably disappeared and his guardian, Count Friedrich of Telramund has taken over, accusing the Duke’s older sister, Elsa of murdering him. King Henry the Fowler has come to Brabant to marshal the Germanic tribes to repel invading Hungarians, as well as to settle the dispute over the disappearance of Duke Gottfried. He calls Elsa to answer Telramund’s charges that she has murdered her brother to gain the throne, but all she is able to do is bemoan her brother’s fate. Unable to resolve the dispute, the King calls for champions from each party to yield to God’s judgment in mortal combat. Telramund, a seasoned fighter is ready to defend himself, but Elsa has only dreamed of a champion – who does not appear. As Elsa kneels to pray to God to send her a champion, a boat appears on the river, drawn by a swan and carrying her knight. He asks only one thing: that no one should ever ask his name or from where he came. The Swan knight is victorious, but generously spares Telramund, merely banishing him along with his wife Ortrud. This, however, is far from the “happily ever after” which would be woefully premature since that was just the first Act and we haven’t even made it to the famous wedding march which isn’t until the end of the next act (with still no happily ever after in sight…. there’s a pattern here).

If you are able to stay around for another two and a half hours, you will learn how the sorceress, Ortrud, who was actually responsible for getting Gottfried out of the way via an evil enchantment, now succeeds in undermining the innocent Elsa’s faith in her Swan Knight. Elsa is, in fact so filled with anxiety and uncertainty that she does the unthinkable in her bridal chamber – she asks Lohengrin his name and his origin. Poof! Enchantment broken; but not before Telramund barges in and gets himself killed – for real this time. There remains only Lohengrin’s famous farewell aria, “In fernem Land” (In a distant land…. unapproachable to your steps, lies a castle called Montsalvat…) in which he explains who he is and why he must now go back to the Grail. Before Elsa swoons and dies of grief (it’s the soprano’s lot), things in the Duchy are set right with the help of the white dove of the Grail. Gottfried, the rightful heir, appears in the place of the swan and Lohengrin disappears in the boat now drawn by the dove.

Wednesday, May 20

Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera ~ 2Hrs and 41Mins

Conducted by Fabio Luisi, starring Sondra Radvanovsky, Kathleen Kim, Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Álvarez, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Transmitted live on December 8, 2012.

You can always count on Verdi for passion, intrigue, and betrayal—and for glorious music to enhance it all. Un Ballo in Maschera, a completely fictional version of the (actual) plot to murder King Gustavo III of Sweden, is no exception.

In 1792, Gustav III was indeed assassinated at a masked ball, the result of a political conspiracy against him. David Alden’s production moves Verdi’s drama to a timeless 20th century neverland, supposedly inspired by film noir. (See my take on ill-fitting updates like the recent Rat Pack Rigoletto – some things work, some just don’t fit at all – for example, in a modern setting, it’s particularly difficult to sympathize with the need for assassinating a man – and murdering your own wife as well – because they have been found together in a park – fully clothed). Marcelo Álvarez (Cav/Pag just 10 days ago) is Gustavo III, the Swedish king who is in love with Amelia, the wife of his best friend and counselor. Amelia is sung by the glorious-voiced Sondra Radvanovsky (we’ve seen her lately in Norma and Roberto Devereaux). Count Anckarström, the (not actually) wronged husband is sung by heart-throb baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Trovatore, Traviata, and Onegin). The amazing comic actress, Stephanie Blythe is the mysterious Gypsy fortuneteller Madame Ulrica Arvidsson (lately in the Ring and Falstaff) and Kathleen Kim (we’ve seen her as Olympia the doll in Tales of Hoffmann) sings the delightful page, Oscar. Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi is on the podium.

With a principal cast featuring a powerful and dramatic leading lady, an amazing coloratura page, an otherworldly mezzo fortune-teller, a heroic tenor, and a suave and conflicted baritone, this should be Italian opera at its finest. However, the headline of the New York Times review of this production is telling: “Icarus Haunts a Verdi Work Cloaked in Noir.” The article goes on to describe “the disappointing, metaphor-laden new production” as heavy-handed, with the image of Icarus constantly confronting us in murals that overlay almost every scene, and even in the final masked ball where the unfortunate page, Oscar is made to wear Icarus wings.

Nevertheless, this is a production well worth hearing, even if its setting leaves you a bit conflicted – and wondering exactly where it is that Icarus is supposed to fit in. We first meet Gustavo at a public audience going over the guest list for a soon to be held masked ball. We are aware that there are unsympathetic conspirators present hoping for Gustavo’s overthrow. Privately, his best friend and advisor, Count Anckarström warns him of the conspiracy, but he ignores the warning. The page Oscar informs him that a fortuneteller, Madame Ulrica has been accused of witchcraft and is about to be banished (in the 20th century? – right!) and so, of course, he decides to pay her a visit (in disguise and with the court) to check her out for himself.

The fortune-teller Ulrica, in 1930s dress promising to consult Satan on certain matters and then swigging from a flask in her purse is certainly very funny, but as I said, modernization can be a buzzkill in opera – the whole dramatic premise of the work is compromised and falls apart. From hiding, Gustavo watches Ulrica advise Amelia to gather magic herbs after dark in order to cure her torment over an illicit love (chocolate maybe – but herbs!). When Amelia leaves, the disguised Gustavo tries his hand, as it were, at having his fortune told. Ulrica tells him that he will die by the hand of a friend. Gustavo laughs at the prophecy and demands to know the name of the friend. Ulrica replies that it will be the first person who shakes his hand. Of course, at that moment, Anckarström rushes in and Gustavo clasps his hand saying that the witch has been discredited since Anckarström is his most loyal friend and could never be the one to kill him.

Since we know already that this is a classic Verdi tragedy, it remains only to hear the wonderful music that accompanies Gustavo’s and Amelia’s passionate – but completely chaste – meeting that night, Anckarström’s incensed over reaction to his wife’s presumed (not actual) infidelity, his threat to kill her and his consequent joining of the conspiracy to assassinate the innocent Gustavo at the aforementioned masked ball. The music is extraordinary, and if you are not burdened by my preference for settings that make sense to the original story, you may well enjoy this production.

Picture Credits

1.              Matthew Polenzani in the title role of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Met. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

2.             A scene from Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Met. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

3.              Elza van den Heever as Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Met. Credit…Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

4.              Nadine Sierra and Alice Coote as the lovers Ilia and Idamante in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Met. Credit…Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

5.             A scene from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” with Peter Hofmann in the title role, John Macurdy as King Henry, and Eva Marton as Elsa. Photo: Met Opera Archives.

6.              Peter Hofmann as Lohengrin and Eva Marton as Elsa in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Met. Photo: Met Opera Archives.

7.             A winged (and goateed) Kathleen Kim as Oscar and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count, in the Verdi work at the Metropolitan Opera. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

8.             Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III and Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

9.             Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count Anckarström and Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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