The production that the Met used for this show was the one discussed here. Certain aspects of it look much better live than on DVD – the large dark space that houses Charles V’s tomb, for example, is far more deep and cavernous looking on the stage than on the screen. The effect of the heavy walls with the rows of tiny square apertures (windows seems the wrong word, since no one ever looks through them) is also stronger. I like the way this looks. It’s not my favorite production of this opera, but I like it.
Musically, this performance had its pluses and its minuses. Lorin Maazel’s tempos were often quite slow – I noticed this primarily in Act IV, but there was one guy so bothered by it presumably from the very beginning that after one of the intermissions, when everyone was applauding Maazel’s return to the podium, he yelled ‘boooo’ very loudly, and when shushed insisted on booing again and then complaining about the tempo. (Some day, I want to see either a disgruntled audience member yank a conductor from the pit and start a fight OR witness a conductor, on being booed, turn around, fix the booer with a steely gaze and say “you want to start something? You want to come down here from the balcony and say that to my face? Because you sound like you want to start something.”)
But anyway. The intro to Philip’s Act 4 aria “ella giammai m’amo” was slow, and while the solo cello was as ever a pleasure to hear at that moment, the cellist used what I thought was an excess of glissando – it’s high romantic style, yeah, but a little of that shit goes a long way, you know? While I am talking about the orchestra, I thought the oboe solo at the beginning of the prison scene in Act 4 was also very nice. And I am always a fan of the “inquisitor theme” when the inquisitor shows up. It’s even more fun in the hall than it is on CD. I have not heard this opera live in over ten years, and I found myself really engrossed in the orchestral music. There are so many little details that pop out in a live performance that don’t as much otherwise, at least to my ears.
I learned something else listening to this too. There is a part in Act 2 where I seem to end up in tears every time I hear it. It’s nothing much to do with the characters – there’s just something in the orchestral music at that point that seems to contain all the sadness and longing in the world. And apparently it presses the button even if the singing is merely pretty good and not astounding. I don’t cry often at musical performances, but there seem to be two distinct categories of it. One is the Carlos variety – it’s just there in the music for whatever reason. The other is more to do with the performance. Examples of this for me are bits of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s performance in that Peter Sellars Theodora, and – I was not expecting it either, because normally Strauss doesn’t have this effect on me – the final trio of Der Rosenkavalier the second time around in Berlin back in December. I’m not sure I mentioned it at the time, because I was a little embarrassed.
Certainly last night’s was not a collection of performances that would normally bring tears to one’s eyes. The one I ended up thinking about the most was Barbara Frittoli as Elizabeth. Not because she was the best thing on stage last night – I think that was probably Dmitri Hvorovstovsky as Posa, though Ferruccio Furlanetto had some nice moments as Philip, as did Ramon Vargas in the title role, and Anna Smirnova knocked out a fairly exciting “o don fatale” – but perhaps precisely because she wasn’t. Hers was one of those performances that kept sidling up to the edge of being really good and then stopping. The quartet in Act 4, for example, did not come off in what I thought was a compelling way, but there were some moments both before and after where I began to think, oh, she’s warmed up or whatever by now – except it didn’t stick. The best part of her performance was “tu che la vanità” in Act 5. It wasn’t perfect. Her vibrato gets really wide high up in a way that does not appeal to me, and there was one high note that seemed for a moment to be on the verge of not appearing (there may have been a few others that got muffled; I don’t know the score quite well enough to say) though it did emerge in the end. All the same, there was something about that aria that clicked, somehow. I was into it. I liked it. And I was not entirely alone – some guy sitting a few rows down from me said “wow” audibly as she finished. The general applause at the end was not as enthusiastic as I expected, but at least Wow Guy’s remark suggests I am not completely nuts. (Or perhaps Wow Guy and I are both nuts. Either way, I guess.)