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Experimental feature

It wasn’t just another night at the opera. The mighty Met was commemorating the 40th anniversary of its move from grubby 39th Street to glamorous Lincoln Center. The agenda, fully staged, involved Act I of La bohème, the St Sulpice scene from Manon and Act II of L’elisir d’amore. The top ticket cost $5,000 – repeat, $5,000 – for a seat plus post- performance dinner. The glitterati came out in noisy force, and some of them seemed interested in the music.

The gala bore a cosy official title, Anna & Rolando Celebrate the Met. This, of course, was the Netrebko & Villazón Show. According to programme puffery, the Russian soprano and Mexican tenor “generate an uncanny magnetism together”. To at least one sceptic, however, the magnetism seemed canny.

Neither artist turned out to be in good voice, and Bertrand de Billy, the routine conductor, provided erratic support. Netrebko spent much of the performance sounding harsh and monochromatic, her usually sweet tone pinched and nasal. Villazón spent much of the performance sounding tight and strained, his usually brilliant top teetering on the brink. Perhaps they were indisposed.

The Bohème episode, framed in Franco Zeffirelli’s quaintly lavish décors, found the hero tough and the heroine bland. Both looked nice. Mariusz Kwiecien introduced a dapper Marcello, but Puccini’s score cannot be salvaged by the baritone. The Manon excerpt, sung in a language that occasionally resembled French, featured an unintentionally comic seduction, with Netrebko writhing on the floor in time to her roulades and Villazón recoiling in urgent horror. One suspected that the superstars had imported characterisations developed for a less conventional production in Los Angeles or Vienna. Samuel Ramey wobbled the elder Des Grieux’s aria with dark dignity. L’elisir, pretty- pretty in Beni Montresor’s candybox set, found Kwiecien swaggering brashly as Sgt Belcore and Alessandro Corbelli quacking deftly as Dr Dulcamara. Netrebko, hyper-vivacious as Adina, actually flirted with bel canto. Villazón, chronically cute as the lovesick Nemorino, yelled even when he reached “Una furtiva lagrima”. The crowd loved it when they kissed.

It was a great night for conspicuous consumption, a bad night for singing.

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