Worldwide opera lovers can savour the Met’s dazzling range — but HD only gives you part of the picture

Worldwide opera lovers can savour the Met’s dazzling range — but HD only gives you part of the picture
NEW YORK—One might say that the Canadian Opera Company’s winter season begins on Sunday afternoon at the Four Seasons Centre with an eight-performance run of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”

Then again, one might also say that Toronto’s winter opera season is already underway, including a Saturday-afternoon performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

This is why it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to call The Met our “other” opera company. It has come into home radios around the world for decades and into our neighbourhood movie theatres for the past several years as well.

At some point during each of the telecasts the host pitches a commercial for live opera, whether at the big house at Lincoln Center (where ticket prices for regular performances can reach as high as $480 US) or at our local operatic venue.

The point is always made that there is nothing quite like being present at a live performance. And it is true. I have sometimes been lucky enough to see the same Met production live in New York and live on HD TV in Toronto and the experience is different. Televised close-ups can draw the viewer powerfully into the action, yet the excitement of being part of a live performance is unique.

The current Canadian Opera season offers mainstage performances of six full-length operas. The Met offers 25, far more than any other producer in North America.

The sheer range of the Met repertory — you have to go to Vienna to find it matched — enables the company, with its staggering $300-million-plus budget, to offer a smorgasbord of operas well beyond the resources of any of its North American sister companies.

True, critics often call the repertory conservative, but with offerings stretching historically from Handel’s “Agrippina,” starring Joyce DiDonato, to Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” starring Anthony Roth Costanzo, the criticism rings less true now than it once did.

I saw “Akhnaten” on my recent visit and director Phelim McDermott’s evocation of Ancient Egypt (Akhnaten was the pharaoh who courageously championed monotheism) was certainly stunning, as was Anthony Roth Costanzo’s impersonation of the revolutionary ruler.

Glass’s minimalism obviously isn’t standard fare for The Met’s audience (although the company did stage his “Satyagraha” in 2008). With Karen Kamensek, the latest in a slowly growing number of female conductors to appear in its pit, the music nonetheless sounded almost nostalgic. The opera is, after all, relatively early Glass, premiered as far back as 1984 in Stuttgart.

Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” (scheduled for broadcast February 22) is, to be sure, much more familiar to Met audiences. The performance I heard was its 498th at The Met and, as sometimes happens with repertory staples, director Sir Richard Eyre staged it in modern dress, though without serious distortion of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto.

With a relatively young cast (including a Koerner Hall recitalist, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, in the title role) and sympathetic musical direction by the debuting Italian maestro Antonello Manacorda, the opera was in good hands, without erasing memories of past performances under the direction of that master Mozartean, disgraced former music director James Levine.

On the same visit I also attended a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1995 production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades,” a powerful opera first performed at The Met in 1910 — conducted by Gustav Maher, no less, and only 72 times since.

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Russian operas tend to be relatively underrepresented in Canadian and American repertories, historically because of the difficulty of engaging singers comfortable in Russian. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain that situation has changed and on this occasion even the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, making her Met debut as Lisa, sang in the vernacular.

And quite a debut it was, with the New York Times tossing bouquets and predicting a future career in Strauss and Wagner. Many years ago The Met’s then-general manager Rudolf Bing said that everyone expects us to hit a home run every night and we can’t. The night I heard Lise Davidsen, they did.
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