Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Met Figaro injects youth into ancient masterwork

by Dwight Casimere

One of my all-time favorite operas is Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) which had its 2009 Season Premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, September 22, with a talented young cast featuring the ravishing Danielle de Niese as Susanna, John Relyea as Figaro and Isabel Leonard as the mischievous page, Cherubino. It was a most satisfying evening of superior opera.

I was reminded of my first, pleasant encounter with this masterpiece of comic opera, in 1986. I was then working as a television news reporter in San Francisco and was on vacation in Paris. I paid a friendly call on the great coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle, a former Metropolitan Opera star, whom I had met through Maestro Edo de Wart when he was music director of the San Francisco Symphony.

Ms. Battle was being featured as Susanna, a role she made famous in her New York debut at City Opera in 1976. This time around, she was being featured in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Theatre de Comedie on the Rue de Madeleine with the Paris Opera Orchestra under the baton of its later Music Director, a then-youthful Daniel Barenboim. Ms. Battle welcomed me to Paris with open arms and invited me to, not only the dress rehearsals, but to every performance I was able to attend during my stay. Throw in backstage visits that included introductions to some of my favorite opera stars and conductors who were also either vacationing or performing in Paris and you had the makings of musical nirvana.

I experienced that same euphoria as I watched this Season Premiere unfold at the Met. From the moment Maestro Dan Ettinger executed the down stroke to Mozart’s familiar, brisk overture, it was a magic carpet ride back to the world of 18th Century court capers of bustling gowns, slamming doors and mistaken identities, all brilliantly staged in the production by Jonathan Miller.

Danielle de Niese, in her first Met Susanna, wore the role like a glove. Her voice was crystalline and pure, especially in the upper register. Her comedic delivery displayed expert timing, making her performance seem effortless. She truly was Susanna, in all her earthy sensuality and coquettish cleverness. She could wrap a man around her finger while simultaneously telling him bald-faced lies. Even though her paramour may suspect he is being played for a fool, her beautiful face and shimmering voice made it all so delicious to behold, it was almost worth playing along.

John Relyea, a marvelous tenor, whom I have heard in other outstanding performances, seemed a bit tentative at first, perhaps easing up a bit on a voice strained by the effects of the flu that’s been going around. He seemed to gain his footing as the evening progressed and threw himself into the role, casting all vocal caution to the wind.

There were many great moments. Among the notable performers was Isabel Leonard as the bumbling boy-lieutenant Cherubino. She instantly reminded me of soprano Frederica von Stade, a Chicagoan, whom I first encountered in the role of Cherubino in that 1986 Paris production alongside Kathleen Battle.

One absolutely ravishing moment occurred during the aria “Dove sono, when mezzo soprano Emma Bell, in her house debut as the Countess, brought the production to a virtual standstill. Her ability to sing at pianissimo brought her voice to a near whisper. That, combined with her dramatic sensibility, was a marvel to behold. Maestro Ettinger appropriately slowed things down from his usual breakneck pace to allow her vocal line to soar above the orchestra, creating a shimmering effect, like the reflection of a full moon on a swan lake. It was a spine-tingling moment.

Unfortunately, Le Nozze is not on this season’s list of productions to be featured in the groundbreaking Peabody Award-winning series of Live In HD matinee presentations at local movie theatres around the world through National CineMedia Fathom productions. Met Live in HD is produced in association with PBS and and is also seen on public television as part of the Great Performances at the Met. Fortunately, tickets are still available for future performances at the Met for the opera’s run through December 8th giving you plenty of time to organize a Holiday shopping trip to the Big Apple combined with a visit to the Met. It seems like a perfect match and I may even join you to experience it! On Saturday, October 24 at noon, the Met Live in HD presents Aida, with and Encore presentation Wednesday, November 11 at 6:30pm. Tosa will receive an Encore presentation Wednesday, October 28 at 6:30pm. The next Met Live in HD performance is Turandot, Saturday, November 7 at noon with an Encore presentation Wednesday, November 18 at 6:30pm. For more on tickets and more information on Met performances and Live in HD transmissions, visit or

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