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Much of 2007 in musical New York is shrouded in mystery. The current season ends in May and further plans are yet to be announced. Still, some intriguing events loom on the operatic horizon.
“Yevgeny Onegin” returns to the Metropolitan in February in the brilliant, elemental production of Robert Carsen, which was introduced in 1997. The cast enlists promising paragons: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the titular cad, Renée Fleming as his would-be love, Ramón Vargas as his lovelorn victim.
These three appreciate poetry as much as power. When Pushkin comes to shove, however, the romantic passions may depend on the quivering hands of Valery Gergiev. This over-achieving maestro may fumble through Verdi and Wagner, but he knows his way around Tchaikovsky.
Verdi should get his due later that month with a revival of “Simon Boccanegra”. Fabio Luisi, who presided over a virtually definitive “Don Carlo” two seasons ago, will lead a stellar ensemble, with Thomas Hampson, the thinking person’s baritone, in the noble title role, Angela Gheorghiu as his long-lost daughter and, possibly most imposing, the dark-toned basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as the tortured Fiesco.
Even imperfect Wagnerites are likely to find some cheer in “Die Meistersinger” in March. The Met’s oh-so-traditional production will be conducted,
as usual, by Altmeister James Levine, and the cast pits Hei-Kyung Hong, a new, potentially lyrical Eva, against such Wagnerian heavyweights as Johan Botha (the heroic yet sensitive Stolzing), James Morris (the sympathetic Sachs) and Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (the misunderstood critic, Beckmesser).
It is fairly safe to predict the virtues of these productions. Virtually unpredictable, on the other hand – and all the more beguiling for it – are the prospects for “Die Ägyptische Helena”, which is opening on March 15. Richard Strauss wrote this sprawling, convoluted, gloriously glittery, quasi-kitschy and shamelessly rapturous ode to an imaginary Helen of Troy back in 1928. Five months after the problematic premiere in Dresden, the opera was brought to the Met, where it lasted only seven performances. Even the magnetic Maria Jeritza in the title role could not save it.
W.J. Henderson, critic of The New York Sun, sniffed that “The Metropolitan Opera has known some sorry librettos, but none more puerile, more futile, or less interesting than this”. He also lamented “the deadly prolixity of Strauss. The less
he has to say, the more he says.” He may have protested too much. “Helena” has achieved notable successes in recent times, most notably, perhaps, in Munich, Vienna and Garsington.
Garsington? Yes. In 1997, Strauss’s mammoth did well, drastically reduced, in the 500-seat garden theatre built on the terrace of a bucolic manor house near Oxford. The iconoclastic staging by David Fielding forswore mythology in favour of expressionism. Hugo von Hofmannsthal meets Dr Caligari, or something like that. For reasons known only to the Met, it is this sparse production – or an unreasonable blow-up thereof – that will be imported to the fancy 4,000-seat showplace at Lincoln Center. Curiouser and curiouser.
Contrary to expectations, Levine, a celebrated Straussian, will not wield the baton, but will yield it to Luisi. Deborah Voigt will portray the glamorous heroine, with Diana Damrau, current coloratura in excelsis, as the sorceress Aithra and Torsten Kerl venturing the high-flying lines of Menelaus. And did I mention the participation of a character labelled the Omniscient Seashell? A deeper-than-deep contralto challenge, her descents have been assigned to Jill Grove.
This “Ägyptische Helena” may be wonderful. It may be awful. Either way, I can’t wait.