Stephanie Blythe in the Met’s production of “The Rake’s Progress.” |"> Stephanie Blythe in the Met’s production of “The Rake’s Progress.” |"> Stephanie Blythe in the Met’s production of “The Rake’s Progress.” |">

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Stephanie Blythe in the Met’s production of “The Rake’s Progress.” |

MARTY SOHL

BY ELI JACOBSON | It seems that every year the Metropolitan Opera schedules a short revival of a difficult 20th century opera and it turns out to be one of the season highlights. This season was bookended by two such revivals — a superb “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” in November and the sensational return of Stravinsky’s sui generis “The Rake’s Progress” in May.

“The Rake’s Progress” often perplexes and alienates listeners. Stravinsky’s music is written in a severe, intellectual, neoclassical idiom and the poetic text by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is also self-consciously archaic in style. All this deliberate artificiality with a highly polished veneer of high art serves as a distancing effect for a truly heartbreaking story of youth wasted and idealistic hopes dashed.

James Levine captured the paradoxes in Stravinsky’s score — the cool ironic surface masking the dark fears and chilling heartbreak underneath — inspiring a nearly faultless cast that combined youthful newcomers as the betrayed innocents with familiar Met veterans as their mentors in good and evil.

The Rake’s Progress,” “Un Ballo in Maschera,” "The Merry Widow" make for pleasing late-season Met offerings

Paul Appleby captured the naïve enthusiasm and lust for life that motivate and mitigate Tom Rakewell’s reckless narcissism and poor judgment. That boyish enthusiasm infused his silver-toned vocalism and cultivated delivery of the literate text. Appleby has a passion for lieder singing and relishes both the poetic and musical elements in song.

As the discarded Anne Trulove, Layla Claire’s soprano sounded a little plain and at times stretched by the exposed vocal writing; the cabaletta to “No Word from Tom” had its uncomfortable moments. Elsewhere her sympathetic acting and solid musicianship made a positive impression.

As Tom’s demonic tempter Nick Shadow, Gerald Finley’s dapper enigmatic presence and compact low baritone were perhaps less imposing than my memories of Samuel Ramey’s black-voiced prince of darkness. Finley’s understated interpretation emphasized wit and subtlety.

Stephanie Blythe’s Baba the Turk, on the other hand, was vocally and physically very much in the grand manner but with no loss of wit or subtlety. Blythe could give Conchita Wurst lessons on how to work a full beard like a true diva. UK bass Brindley Sherratt made a strong debut as Trulove, with a disapproving snarl in the tone and incisive diction honed from many years at the ENO. Margaret Lattimore added another vibrant Met cameo as a plummy-toned Mother Goose.

Jonathan Miller’s production — set around 1930 — was beautifully recreated by Laurie Feldman and looked as fresh as when it premiered.

Standard Italian repertory does not receive such consistently careful casting at the Met these days, as this season’s rotating “Aïda” casts amply demonstrated. A Verdi revival featuring solid vocalism in every leading role is a rarity but it can happen — as it did on the last night of the season on May 9 when Levine led a strong cast in “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Piotr Beczala as Gustavo had a sunny silvery brilliance when he did not push for spinto thrust — his tone expands vertically not horizontally. Beczala needs to emulate Björling and Gedda’s bright lyric fluency and aristocratic polish in this part.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia brought down the house in her big arias — her huge tone has metallic edge but also exciting reach and thrust in Amelia’s wide-ranging vocal line. In “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” she shaped the line expressively with a vibrato that pulsed more evenly, giving emotional urgency to the arching phrases. As Renato, Alexey Markov’s mahogany tone had both youthful sap and sensual vitality suggesting a younger, impetuous man more susceptible to jealousy. Dolora Zajick as Ulrica has lost some resonance in the middle of the voice but handles the vocal extremes (and they are extreme in this role) with admirable assurance after more than three decades on the operatic stage. Heidi Stober as Oscar sounded indisposed — high notes were bright but the middle was parlous and empty — atypical for this full-voiced lyric coloratura.

Levine opted for breakneck tempos, which he had more under control than at the season premiere. David Alden’s production is full of self-conscious effects and labored symbolism that call attention to themselves, alienating the viewer from the story and characters.

“The Merry Widow” also returned this spring with a new and more well-balanced cast. Nothing can be done about the twee excesses of Jeremy Sams’ translation, Susan Stroman’s flat choreography and direction, or the picture postcard sets of Julian Crouch, but at least this cast proved diverting company.

Susan Graham’s Hanna had country girl good humor and high spirits combined with city girl sophistication and sass. Though her rich mezzo had some awkward gear shifts in negotiating Hanna’s soprano music, she sang a lilting moonlit “Vilja” song in Act II. Rod Gilfry brought much more dash and swagger to Count Danilo than Nathan Gunn did at the premiere, and he can actually dance. The occasional vocal lapse did not detract from a strong package of acting, singing, and waltzing.

Andriana Chuchman’s Valencienne sounded pure but looked delectably saucy –– especially as a leggy grisette in Act III. Camille de Rosillon provided Stephen Costello with his best outing on the Met stage so far –– perhaps this is his true fach. His rather blank stage presence suited the slightly doofy character, and his slender lyric tenor was bright and easily flowed into the top register. (His first Alfredo at the second performance of “Traviata” this season was plagued by passaggio problems and lacked vocal control). Alan Opie blustered endearingly as Baron Zeta.

Fabio Luisi enjoyed a holiday from heavy operatic angst in the pit, letting Lehár’s melodies flow with precision and lightness.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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