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Domingo fuels Met’s “Cyrano,” a colorful, but inessential production

The Met ended its season staging an enjoyable, if not ultimately memorable, look at a true obscurity––Franco Alfano’s 1936 “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

This production––which returns next season, and can be recommended as something to see once––is a joint venture with Royal Opera Covent Garden for that mainstay of both houses, Placido Domingo. Domingo is now at a stage where new roles involving music most listeners don’t know holds some defensive appeal. “Cyrano” certainly entertained more than the last such vehicle Domingo docked at the house, “Sly” (several other operas from Wolf-Ferrari are worthier scores).

“Cyrano,” seen May 17, also had the incalculable advantage of not having been directed by Marta Domingo. Francesca Zambello worked in a less analytical and more presentational way than usual, and the result was less thrilling than her more daring successes but more pleasing than her daring failures––a very good job on a difficult show both to block and to make coherent. Marco Armiliato was the skilful conductor.

Alfano is best known for completing Puccini’s “Turandot.” Unless you have a Magda Olivero at hand––and the legendary 94-year-old verista might appear if you asked her––the Tolstoy-based “Risurezzione” Alfano wrote early in his career is pretty moribund. “Cyrano,” steeped in Debussy, is highly professionally crafted work and at times, as in the steamy final scene of act two, very attractive to hear. But it is no masterpiece, or even “petty masterpiece.”

Several critics made lists of works the company might have presented instead. It’s high time for some Hans Werner Henze at the Met. I feel strongly that the Met should exercise its proprietary interest in two works it has premiered––Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” (1958), which might make a splendid vehicle for Karita Mattila, and––less well remembered––Humperdinck’s enchanting “Koenigskin­der” (1910), which cries out for the Met orchestra and would provide a terrific, evening-ending role for Bryn Terfel. Other castable operas once heard at the Met that deserve attention include Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” and “Armide” (Christine Goerke, William Burden), Meyerbeer’s “Le prophète” (Ben Heppner, Ewa Podles, Olga Makarova and René Pape), Lalo’s “Le Roi d’Ys,” Rimsky-Korsakov’ s “Sadko” and “Golden Cockerel,” Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz” and Montemezzi’s “L’amore dei tre re” (Angela Gheorghiu, Ferruccio Furlanetto). And what about company premieres of Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco” and “I masnadieri” for Sondra Radvanovsky?

Radvanovsky certainly looked great and sang wonderfully as Roxane, the love interest of both Cyrano de Bergerac and the doltish cutie Christian, through whom Cyrano ventriloquizes; her high notes are a particular pleasure, and the voice sounded more fully integrated than in the fall’s “I vespri siciliani,” though she had her memorable moments there too. Radvanovsky’s Roxane was the most relaxed dramatically I’ve ever seen her; she made the interest the two men showed in her credible. Rostand’s forbearance as the title character seemed admirable and stirring to me in adolescence, when telling those I loved from afar was not a workable option. Domingo’s unstinting and vocally generous performance was both those things, but I confess that the failure of Cyrano to speak up for himself and as a result keep Roxane in the dark for 15 lonely, convent-bound years after Christian’s death in battle, now rubs me the wrong way. As with Hans Sachs in “Die Meistersin­ger”—the operatic character endlessly praised by the likes of Father Owen Lee as some kind of paragon—Cyrano’s driving emotion seems to be a narcissistic admiration for his own capacity for sacrifice.

Christian is, like Anatol in “Vanessa,” a hard role to cast as it requires a capable tenor who is also genuinely striking––not “opera handsome,” but really handsome. Even his hard-boiled fellow soldiers, neither asked nor telling, admire his looks. In the sweet springtime not so many years ago, when he made an almost touchingly confused study of Dan White in “Harvey Milk,” Raymond Very was “opera handsome,” but—though the casting directors who deny larger women parts on the basis of their figures seem not to have noticed—he doesn’t really fill the bill anymore for this kind of assignment.

Moreover, though Very showed some real merit in that very ungratefully scripted and written part, Matteo in “Arabella,” his is not really a leading tenor caliber voice for international stages. He did a decent, professional job; but the opera would have worked better with someone as Christian who actually rivaled Domingo in charisma. Roberto Alagna, who’s filmed the title part, might have really made things sizzle.

Best of the others was Roberto de Candia as Cyrano’s poet/baker pal.

The other late-season offering was “La clemenza di Tito” on May 11, always one of the strongest of the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s productions at the Met. Mozart’s penultimate opera can get windy––and having more italianate artists to deliver the copious recitatives would help, as the presence of the impressive bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Publio showed––but with James Levine and the orchestra in marmoreal, High Viennese mode this was a pleasing evening, despite serious vocal disappointment from the two sopranos.

Melanie Diener, a Gundula Janowitz sound-alike a few years ago, has hit some rough weather and made some ungraceful noises on both ends of her range. Dramatically, she was quite impressive in the Joan Collins-type character honed in this staging by Renata Scotto and Carol Vaness; and she’s a handsome presence. Heidi Grant Murphy looks nice onstage as well, but to my ear was never much more than a poor man’s Dawn Upshaw; her little lyric soprano sounded in poorish form in Servilia’s music and she tended to mewl. Where on earth is the company hiding Joyce Guyer?

Anne Sofie Von Otter’s voice is beginning to fray and has lost some of its personal beauty of tone; but she’s a great musician and stage artist and her uncannily youthful-looking Sesto remains one of her very best parts. British mezzo Sarah Connolly sang well and won big applause as Annio, the Sesto in-training part. Connolly is remarkably assured in trouser roles; many people hear in her well-trained, cool vocalism a successor to Janet Baker, but her compatriot Alice Coote seems a little closer to the kind of tonal individuality that would imply. We have heard Connolly’s type of voice often enough before, from the worthy––no more, no less––likes of Ann Murray and Diana Montague.

Frank Lopardo in the title role gave one of the best impersonations of his Met career, singing with great distinction and dark, secure but agile tone in his testing final aria and the concert-like final scene of forgiveness.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for Time Out New York, Opera News, Opera and other venues.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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