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Pablo Heras-Casado & Alice Sara Ott at SFS

Alice-sara-ott* Notes * 
This week Pablo Heras-Casado just finished conducting San Francisco Symphony in a program of Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, György Kurtág's Grabstein für Stephan, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12. Yesterday's performance began with Mendelssohn, and it seemed that Heras-Casado was drawing this music out of the players. The clarinet solo from Carey Bell was especially fine. Beautiful pianist Alice Sara Ott (pictured) was the soloist in the Lizst. She proved a genial player, listening to the orchestra attentively, and showing a good deal of restraint. Her encore was Beethoven's Für Elise, which pleased the audience quite a lot. After the intermission, we heard the haunting Kurtág piece, which featured solo guitar. The performances ended with Shostakovich, which was played with buoyancy but not much dynamic contrast. The woodwinds had some gorgeous moments, the brass was strident and jarring.

* Tattling * 
There was some minor whispering in Premier Orchestra. Some sleeping was noted. I had a hard time not giggling at the Liszt because the piece is intensely earnest. This was not helped by my companion, who also laughed. People clapped once they recognized Ott's encore. Ott herself was dressed in an elegant tiered white evening gown, but did not wear shoes.

Urban Opera's The Witch of Endor

Witch-of-endor * Notes * 
Having missed Urban Opera's Dido and Aeneas last year, the Opera Tattler made a concerted effort to attend their sophomore production, which opened yesterday afternoon. The work at hand, entitled The Witch of Endor, is a pastiche that includes a poem by Rudyard Kipling, bit and pieces of music from Henry Purcell, a passage from the Bible, and even a drum circle. Though not unsuccessful, this inventive spectacle was all rather strange taken together. Chip Grant and his company made the most of San Francisco's Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and the effect was intimate and absorbing. The costumes of the two female soloists, designed by Anastazia Louise, were striking. The use of film was artful, but projectors were distractingly loud.

As far as music, the rather exposed 6 members of the Urban Opera Orchestra produced a great deal of sound. The playing was not entirely clean and there were challenges staying exactly together with the singers, but one would imagine much rehearsal time in the space would be required to get this just right. Bass-baritone John Minagro was a commanding Samuel, and soprano Lindsey McLennan had a pure, pretty tone as the Goddess of Dreams. Colby Roberts (Saul) had a certain fragility in contrast to the chorus during "Hear My Prayer, O Lord," sounding more robust in "In Guilty Night." In the title role, Shawnette Sulker (pictured above, photograph by Michael Youens) gleamed. Her bird-like sound was quite pleasing.

* Tattling * 
Before the performance there seemed to be a swarm of bloggers waiting in the courtyard, including Patrick Vaz, Axel Feldheim, John Marcher, Joshua Kosman, and Lisa Hirsch.

The audience was mostly quiet, no electronic noise was noted and the talking was minimal. The performance lasted well under the listed run time of 1 hour and 5 minutes, thus Herr Feldheim and I were able to get over to the airport to pick up a pernicious Belgian without much trouble before heading over to the symphony.

Il Trovatore at the Met

Trovatore_E-Courir_Act-3 A revival of Metropolitan Opera's Il Trovatore, seen in San Francisco last year, opened this evening. Here is the Unbiased Opinionator's account of final dress rehearsal that occurred on October 21st. The Opera Tattler was quite surprised to hear that Patricia Racette was indisposed, as she is known for having vocal cords of steel. At the same time, one finds it difficult to imagine Racette in this role, especially since she is double cast with the incredible Sondra Radvanovsky.

* Notes * 
The bare-knuckled, long-time film critic for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, once wrote of the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera" that The Marx Brothers did to Il Trovatore what Il Trovatore deserved to have done to it. The plot line of the opera certainly requires of the listener not just a willing suspension of disbelief, but at times requires the listener unplug disbelief entirely, and to suppress outright laughter. My favorite howler is Manrico's singing his mother to sleep just before she is to be burned at the stake.

In addition to its lemon of a plot, the opera contains long stretches of rather pedestrian music. Thus, the success or failure of the piece rest entirely on the quality of the performance. Thursday's dress rehearsal was beset by many gremlins. Both Manrico and Azucena canceled due to illness, and the Leonora (Patricia Racette) was announced to be indisposed but, begging the audience's indulgence, would perform as scheduled. So an entirely fair review of this show must await an actual performance after flu, allergy, and the unwillingness of certain singers to "waste their time" on the dress rehearsal of an opera season has passed. That said, enough of the performance remained intact for UO to make a few comments.

It is difficult to comment fairly on Patricia Racette's Leonora in light of her announced indisposition. She marked many passages, but managed a full-voice account of her first act aria "Tacea la Notte," which confirmed my doubt that the versatile, dramatically satisfying Racette could ever make a true Verdian. Her voice is simply too light to ride out the huge Verdi arches and to prevail in the large ensembles. Luckier opera-goers will have a chance to experience Sondra Radvanovsky's portrayal later in the season. Again, an entirely fair review is simply not possible, given the circumstances.

The cover Azucena, Russian mezzo Elena Manistina, delivered a truly great performance, with a thrilling top, great sense of drama and a vocal combination of metal and warmth which are the hallmarks of a really fine singer. For this listener, the vocal and dramatic highlight of the afternoon was Azucena's "Stride la Vampa," which was sung so convincingly and with such dramatic menace that its inherent musical silliness was forgotten. On the other hand, Phillip Webb, the stand-in Manrico, showed potential, but is very green, and was probably very nervous. His "necktie tenor" delivery, numerous cracked notes, and ungainly and awkward acting revealed a promising singer much in need for further technical and dramatic training. Nonetheless, he delivered a sensitive "Ah si ben mio," followed by a good High C at the end of the cabaletta "Di Quella Pira." The Count di Luna, Serbian Zelkjo Luĉić, was dramatically strong, but his large voice had an unfortunate hootiness, which diminished his effectiveness throughout the afternoon, especially in his aria "Íl Balen del sul Sorriso."

Conductor Marco Armiliato, a veteran in this repertory, found just the right pacing to avoid dissipating musical energy. The chorus was precise and powerful. Smaller roles, some taken from the chorus, were strong and confident. It is very instructive to hear an orchestra play when a singer is marking. One hears how light the orchestrations are in Verdi's vocal accompaniments, and how unnecessary it is for a singer to yell to get over them.

As for the other aspects of the production, upon entering the house, one was confronted with a large painted panel (once called a fire curtain) in the style of Goya's Disasters of War. The horrified faces depicted on the panel brought to mind my first reaction upon entering the Met's tacky Belmont Room (or, as insiders call it, the "Boom Boom Room").

Charles Edwards' set design was stamped from the Met's usual set of all-purpose templates. A large rotating wall alternately represented the royal residence of the Count di Luna, and then Manrico's fortress. The ash grey, dreary background effectively set the tone for the darkness of the plot. David McVicar was the traffic cop, leaving the soloists to make stock gestures and the chorus piled up in the corner of the stage.

* Tattling * 
One of the entertaining aspects of attending a Met dress rehearsal is the intermissions, where people sit on the floor in the red-carpeted foyers and instead of spending $4.50 for a lousy cappuccino, unpack thermoses of coffee and unwrap sandwiches brought from outside. Among Thursday's audience was an entire class of grade school kids, who from up in the Family Circle listened in absolute silence, and who cheered loudly at the end of the show. Sitting out on the Balcony overlooking the Plaza during the intermission, I heard several of them talk excitedly about the performance and how cool the redesigned Lincoln Center fountain is. I felt that there is hope for opera's future after all.

Daniel Harding conducts the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra

Saechsische-staatskapelle-dresden * Notes * 
Daniel Harding conducted the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden in a program of Schumann, Beethoven, and Brahms in San Francisco on Sunday evening. The performance started with the Manfred Overture. Harding gave many cues, all far in advance of when they were acted upon. The playing was focused, the brass lucid, and the flute sweet. Rudolf Buchbinder joined the orchestra as soloist for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major. The Allegro moderato was began gently, but still had exuberance. The Andante con moto never dragged, Buchbinder stretched it out but never lost the appropriate tension. The Rondo: Vivace was sunny and beautiful. We heard Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D Major after the intermission. The horn did not sound perfect at every moment, but the trumpet was strong without being harsh. Overall the orchestra had a full and articulate sound, and the last movement was particularly innervated.

* Tattling * 
When I arrived at Davies I was glad to see that Herr Feldheim made it from Hertz in plenty of time for this performance. There was a little light talking in Premier Orchestra. A cellular phone rang despite the announcement about electronic devices, just after the orchestra had tuned. People clapped after the first movement of the Beethoven, but otherwise contained their enthusiasm.

SF Opera's Cyrano de Bergerac

DomingoCake * Notes *
Sunday's matinée of San Francisco Opera's Cyrano de Bergerac opened a run of seven performances. Petrika Ionesco's production, from Théâtre du Châtelet, is attractive, but does not make for the most elegant set changes. There was much delightful spectacle, and the staging was not entirely old-fashioned either, despite looking fairly traditional.

The orchestra sounded lushly chaotic under Patrick Fournillier, it was unclear if this was because of Alfano's music or because of the playing. In fact, I had a fairly difficult time getting a grasp on the music, it seemed all over the place. Some of it sounded like Debussy, and some rather more like Puccini.

The chorus did a respectable job, and the singing overall was wonderful. Even in their small roles, Martin Rojas-Dietrich (Montfleury) and Bojan Knežević (Lignière) shone. As did the three Adler Fellows participating in this opera, Austin Kness, Maya Lahyani, and Leah Crocetto. All sang more than one role. Kness was most striking as Vicomte de Valvert, sounding strong and warm. Lahyani's acting was impressive, she was convincing the Duenna and Sister Marta. Crocetto was an alluring Lisa, the wayward wife of pastry chef Ragueneau. As Ragueneau, Brian Mulligan was wonderful as ever, his rich voice has such a lovely bloom to it. Lester Lynch (Carbon) sang well and with power.

Thiago Arancam seemed the embodiment of Christian de Neuveville, singing with forcefulness. Likewise Ainhoa Arteta was absolutely gorgeous as Roxane. Arteta pierced through the orchestra without the least bit of effort and could float notes beautifully. She had moments of harshness, but these were few and far between. In the title role, Plácido Domingo was ill, and General Director David Gockley made an announcement begging our indulgence in the second half of Act II. Domingo was somewhat gravelly, some of his lower notes were less than perfect, and he did cough a few times. However, his timbre is so pleasing and still had such an ease, our indulgence was hardly necessary. Domingo sang the last aria superbly, communicating the text with such a directness, rendering the supertitles superfluous.

* Tattling * 
On Sunday morning I awoke before dawn as I was so excited for this performance. I dragged Opernphrenologe out of bed and we made our way to the opera house 1 hour before anyone else arrived. Perhaps because of the rain, even by 10 am the standing room line was not much greater than usual. The opera was kind enough to provide us with both coffee and donuts, and by the time we were allowed in a great crowd had developed.

The throng of Domingo aficionados was intimidating. There was some light talking but not a great deal of electronic noise. I did hear a staff member's walkie talkie in orchestra standing room during Act II. At the end of the opera, someone went through his two plastic grocery bags, and someone gave him a talking to as she seemed irritated by all the noise.

James Conlon & Joshua Bell at SFS

Joshua-bell * Notes * 
James Conlon, Los Angeles Opera's music director, is conducting San Francisco Symphony a program of Wagner, Bruch, and Dvořák this week. Yesterday's performance began with the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was lovely. The trumpet and trombone were particularly strong, and the orchestra sounded cohesive. This was followed by Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, played by the gifted soloist Joshua Bell (pictured left, photograph by Timothy White). The Allegro moderato was rather moderate, and was not entirely distinct from the Adagio that came next. The orchestra did provide a floating, cloud-like support to the solo violin. The Allegro energico, though not precisely together, was full of life. Bell's playing has a high polish to it, and his encore, Vieuxtemps' Souvenir d'Amérique, showed this off brilliantly. After the intermission, Maestro Conlon addressed the audience giving us some background on the three Dvořák pieces. A few musical examples were played and one horrible pun was made. He also corrected the order of the pieces as In der Natur, Carnival, and then Othello, asking us not to clap until the end. Though the brass had a few seconds of muddiness, overall the orchestra created a shimmery, swinging sound. The influences of both Verdi and Wagner were apparent.

* Tattling * 
There was some light talking in Premier Orchestra, but nothing that was not easily ignored. There was much giggling at the Vieuxtemps because the piece is based on "Yankee Doodle." At intermission, I had the good fortune to be induced backstage by Miss LCU, where she made various introductions.

The audience was enthused, giving Joshua Bell a standing ovation. Some had great difficulty containing their excitement during the Dvořák, and it was especially hard for them not to applaud after In der Natur. A few scattered claps were hushed straightaway.

Leah Crocetto's Salon at the Rex

Crocetto * Notes *
Soprano Leah Crocetto gave a recital of her favorite songs with pianist Tamara Sanikidze for the Salons at the Rex series yesterday evening. Crocetto began with "Ain't it a pretty night?" from Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. She learnt this piece at the age of 18, and it sounded very natural for her. This was followed by 3 Rachmaninoff songs, 2 from the Opus 21 Song Cycle and the Vocalise (Op. 34, No. 14). Sanikidze milked Richard Strauss' lovely "Morgen," Crocetto sounded pure and clear. Her "O mio babbino caro" was spine-tingling. The rest of the program was in English and included "Sure on this Shining Night," "From Seamus," "The Boy Next Door," "The Man that Got Away," "When Did I Fall in Love," "Fly Me to the Moon," "All the Things You Are," "The Girl in 14-G," and "You'll Never Walk Alone." There were times when her volume was a bit much for the smallness of the room. She did sound equally comfortable singing art songs, arias, or standards.

* Tattling *
The recital was sold out, we were packed in fairly tightly, and I was between Axel Feldheim and John Marcher. The audience was well-behaved, though some expressed their enthusiasm by calling out "whoo-whoo" several times in a row during the applause. The clanking of silverware was heard during "Morgen" and Crocetto joked that this was her percussion section.

Plácido Domingo's SF Opera Press Event

Placido- Domingo2010 * Notes * 
Today the Communications Department of San Francisco Opera hosted an event with Plácido Domingo in conversation with David Gockley. Domingo will be singing the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac, which opens Sunday, and Gockley spoke a bit about how this was arranged, why we are getting a production from Théâtre du Châtelet, and asked Domingo to tell us more about this opera. We heard about Alfano and how he was the contemporary of Janáček, Berg, and Schoenberg. It was pointed out that Domingo is singing two poets this season back to back, since he just finished as Neruda in Los Angeles Opera's Il Postino. The famous story of how Domingo flew in for the opening of the 1983-1984 season to fill in for an ailing Otello was recounted and he joked that 25,000 people claimed to have been there even though the opera house only seats 3,200.

Gockley had Domingo speak about taking on baritone roles, and made fun of his own voice, since he is a baritone. The music director, Maestro Nicola Luisotti, was also in attendance, and Domingo complimented Luisotti's fine baritone. As for Domingo himself, he said he does not pretend to be a baritone, but likes doing these interesting roles and has to color his voice very differently for them. At one point he had imagined that Simon Boccanegra would be his last role, and has done 28 performances. His voice is still in good condition, so he wants to sing everyday that he can, but to not sing one more day once he cannot. His next new baritone role is Athanaël in Thaïs, which he will perform in Paris and Valencia soon. He quipped that it was appropriate for his age, since Athanaël is a monk. Charmingly, he also said that Cyrano was likewise good for him in this way, since Cyrano is a "loser," and can be any age. On this more human side, we heard about what Domingo does in his downtime, and he apparently recharges by the results of his work. He is a Real Madrid fan and also watches telenovelas with his wife Marta, who was in attendance.

During the question and answer period Domingo was asked how he takes care of his voice, since he still sounds so youthful and fresh. One should not drink terribly cold water, and one cannot drink warm beer. Domingo finds it better to eat lunch late, around 2pm and then have dinner after his performance. Ideally as a tenor one should rest 3 or 4 days if possible. Questions were asked bout San Francisco's charm, and Domingo praised San Francisco Opera as one of the most important companies in the world. He did tease us about how there were some bad years before Gockley's tenure that were good for his company, Los Angeles Opera. The challenges of behing the general director out on the West Coast were discussed. It is difficult to get artists out here, in Europe a singer can get to different houses more easily and the euro is so strong.

Domingo was questioned about the recent Ring at Los Angeles Opera, and he conceded that perhaps two cycles would have been sufficient. That production was to have gone to Mannheim and Seville, but will not. It may still be produced in Korea or Argentina. He was asked about the recent simulcast of Rigoletto in Mantua that he participated in, and he told us he did not feel that opera in cinemas would steal the audience from the opera house.

* Tattling * 
The audience was quiet but a cellular phone rang during the aforementioned question about San Francisco as a city. David Gockley was kind enough to call on me for a question, and Nicola Luisotti was gracious enough to introduce me to Plácido Domingo. I encouraged the delightful North American editor of to have our photograph taken together with Domingo.

The Second Cast of SF Opera's Figaro

Stober-Heidi * Notes *
The last three performances of San Francisco Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro this season features four new cast members. In the back of the balcony for the second performance on Saturday everyone could be heard, unlike during matinée I attended a week before in the side balcony. Dale Travis was perfectly funny as Doctor Bartolo. Trevor Scheunemann certainly seemed jealous and tyranical as the Count, and sang well, though his vibrato was rather prominent at the end of the opera. Kostas Smoriginas had a lot of energy as Figaro. His voice is not as reedy as Luca Pisaroni's, but is also not as pretty. Smoriginas did have a warmer, more baritone-like sound. The star of the show was Heidi Stober (Susanna). She sounded full and strong, yet very beautiful. Her acting and movement may not have been quite as sassy as Danielle de Niese's, but it was fascinating to compare the two sopranos.

* Tattling * 
There was much talking from a pair of young women around Row L Seats 115 and 117. One of them even used her mobile device during the second half of the opera. Otherwise, it was the usual parade of latecomers milling around in standing room before the first 4 minute pause between the first two acts.

At intermission I had the pleasure of meeting up with a few friends, one of whom was at the opera for the very first time.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts Bach

Mortensen-pbo * Notes *
Lars Ulrik Mortensen (pictured left with soprano Maria Keohane, photograph by Michael Strickland) is currently conducting Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in a program of Bach. Friday night's performance in San Francisco started with the Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066. Mortensen lead the orchestra from the harpsichord, and it was clear at once we were in for a lively evening. For the following Concerto for Harpsichord in D minor, BWV 1052, the harpsichord was rearranged such that Mortensen did not have his back to us. His playing was not perfectly clean, but this was more than made up for with his cheerful, engaged performance. The orchestra held together beautifully, and the playing was sprightly.

After intermission we heard Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, known as the Wedding Cantata in English. Soprano Maria Keohane has a pure, yet rich sound. She employed a fine control of her voice, with neither too much vibrato nor tremolo. Her enunciation of the German may have not been completely comprehensible, but given that this is Baroque music, it was not particularly bothersome. The concert ended with an ebullient rendition of Concerto for Harpsichord in D major, BWV 1054.

* Tattling *
I was late meeting SFMike and Miss LCU, but did make it to the concert with Opernphrenologe before the music started. The audience was quiet and no electronic noise was noted.

Maria Keohane's outfit was charmingly absurd, it looked a bit like one ivory frothy ruffled dress had consumed a simple red evening gown.

Alex Ross at Cal Performances

Chaconne * Notes * 
Cal Performances presented a lecture from Alex Ross entitled Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History last Thursday in Berkeley. The talk is based on the second chapter of his new book, Listen to This. We started off with the chaconne, a Spanish dance popular in the early 17th century. The passacaglia was also mentioned, since both have common origins and are often in triple meter. Ross discussed and played snippets of everything from Monteverdi, Pachelbel, Purcell, Bach, and Beethoven to Nina Simone, the Beatles, the Eagles, and Bob Dylan. Some of his musical examples were even recordings of his own piano playing. I particularly enjoyed hearing Andreas Scholl singing John Dowland's "Flow My Tears" and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra recording of Dido and Aeneas.

* Tattling * 
The audience was not entirely attentive, and there was some electronic noise. The evening was rather warm, and the temperature in Wheeler Hall was terribly comfortable. Perhaps my sailor outfit was not apropos, and Miss LCU may have had the correct idea with her safari wear.

After the performance Ross stayed around for questions. I finally had a chance to introduce Axel Feldheim to M. C—, and we all had the chance to greet Mr. Ross.

Jerry Springer: The Opera at RoL Theatre

Jerry-springer-the-opera  * Notes *
Ray of Light Theatre's run of Jerry Springer: The Opera closes this weekend. The Wednesday performance I attended with John Marcher confused me a bit, the music sounded almost like an oratorio, but the lyrics were rife with profanity. After the second act I decided the composer, Richard Thomas, must have heard Messiah one too many times at Christmas. The performers were charming, much of the singing was good, and Patrick Michael Dukeman was very funny as Jerry Springer.

* Tattling * 
The audience was not particularly stylish. The poor ventilation of the venue and the heat made it obvious that some audience members had less than adequate hygiene.

SF Opera's Madama Butterfly

Sfopera-butterfly-actii * Notes *
Harold Prince's production of Madama Butterfly opened last night at San Francisco Opera. The revolving set, designed by Clarke Dunham, is pretty enough. Though not terribly elegant, it is sure to delight most. The transitions were fluid. Director José Maria Condemi certainly was presented a challenge of getting people on, off, and around this set.

Maestro Luisotti conducted the orchestra with verve, the playing was sweeping and painterly. The chorus also made strong contributions, and received the only ovation during the music, after the Humming Chorus. Both the Adlers looked and sounded appropriate for Kate Pinkerton (Sara Gartland) and Prince Yamadori (Austin Kness). Christian Van Horn was intimidating as the Bonze. Quinn Kelsey was a tender, kind Sharpless, his voice is rich and strong. Thomas Glenn (Goro) was foppish but also oozed unctuousness. His voice is light but always audible. Daveda Karanas (Suzuki) has a powerful, yet lovely voice. Her notes floated over the orchestra with ease.

Our leads were perhaps less appealing. Stefano Secco was not the least bit dashing as Pinkerton, though his singing was perfectly fine. His volume is good, there is richness in his lower register, but he is not exciting. In the title role, the petite Svetla Vassileva looked comely, at least when she was still. Her gestures were distressing, as if she was having convulsions limited just to her hands. When she noticed that her hair became accidently unbundled in Act II, she was unable to keep in character. Worse yet, her voice could be shrill and her intonation was imperfect. She did pull it together for "Un bel dì," and only one phrase was really off in pitch. Her timbre can be pleasant, with nice resonances in her chest voice, but she was a bit too hearty to be a vulnerable young girl.

* Tattling * 
There was light talking during the music, but I did not hear any watch alarms. I did have a seat in the Orchestra Ring, as I volunteered in the gift shop, however, I found I was more comfortable in standing room.

A medical emergency occurred on the north side of the Premium Orchestra seating during the transition between Acts II and III. Many people stood up in the aisle to either help or to get out of the way. A nurse was called in, as was the house manager. The ailing person in question was taken out in a wheelchair.

Boris Godunov at the Met

Met-boris This season, the Metropolitan Opera is presenting two operas that weave personal emotional drama into the sweep of great historical events: Boris Godunov and Don Carlo. On October 8, the final dress rehearsal of Boris took place, and what follows are the Unbiased Opinionator's impressions.

* Notes * 
After Peter Stein's cancellation due to visa difficulties, it was left to Stephen Wadsworth, in only five weeks, to rework the show's staging and direction. Perhaps as a result of this abrupt change in leadership, René Pape's Boris seemed lost, staggering about the stage, looking more drunk than physically and emotionally tormented by the burdens of power and guilt. His vocal delivery seemed to lack core, which might be attributed to the early hour of the rehearsal. Nonetheless, his sound was diffuse and as the rehearsal progressed, tended toward a barked delivery, even in the more legato monologues. I am a great admirer of René Pape's work, however, he seemed miscast here – the effective center of his range is higher than the role demands. But, then, where are the true bassi of yore, those cast in the mold of Ghiarov, George London or Jerome Hines, let alone Chaliapin?

That said, the remaining, very large, solo cast was uniformly strong. Particularly fine were Ekaterina Semenchuk (Marina) and Aleskadrs Antonenko (Grigoriy). The performance by the young Jonathan A. Makepeace as Boris' son Fyodor was nothing short of astonishing: vocally, dramatically and choreographically. This role is often taken by a mezzo-soprano, and such a level of accomplishment by an adolescent was immensely impressive. I cannot imagine a better Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko), whose solemn portrayal of the hermit was very moving. Evgeny Nikitin's Rangoni could perhaps be faulted for a certain ragged vocal delivery, but this was in keeping with the smarminess of the character, alternately coming on sexually to Marina and trying convince her to seduce Grigoriy into returning to Moscow to claim the throne, paving the way for the destruction of Russian Orthodoxy by Rome.

The large chorus in Boris Godunov is a character in itself, and a very important one. Driven and oppressed, veering from servile obedience to outraged vengeance, the Met chorus was dramatically magnificent and technically unimpeachable, with razor sharp attacks, violent and dramatically overwhelming outbursts -- never yelled, or (as in previous years) fraught with poor blend and heavy vibrato in the soprano section. Donald Palumbo's work with this group has created one of the world's finest opera choruses.

As in Wagner, the orchestra is also itself a character in the opera; never a mere accompaniment, but rather a commentator on and instigator of the events taking place on stage. The incomparable Met orchestra rose to the occasion, which is particularly impressive in light of the fact that the weakest link in this performance was conductor Valery Gergiev, whose head remained buried in the score as he threw out the occasional cue with his left hand, while the right hand flaccidly and indistinctly waved about in unintelligible beat patterns. It is a tribute to the soloists, the choral ensemble and the orchestra that the performance was as cohesive as it was, with only occasional lack of coordination between the pit and the stage. Further, the tempi chosen by Gergiev, in particular in the prologue and in the Third Act Polonaise, were unconscionably rushed. The small string figures that spin over the characteristic rhythm of the Polonaise were reduced to a thin wash as the players struggled to keep up. One can only surmise, generously, that tempo choices were dictated by time constraints.

The set design was spare – even abstract, with the Novodievichy Monastery in the first act reduced to a small entry portal on stage left. The Kremlin consisted of a gold wall which descended from the flies, with a small curtained door for Boris' entrances and exits. While this created a wonderful acoustic resonator for the singers, the row of bells at the top of the set, remaining motionless as digitally produced bell sounds pealed, was frankly a bit silly. The Polish court scene consisted of rows of black columns, which provided a fine backdrop for the elaborate white gowns and hats worn by the noblewomen (designed by Dorothee Urmacher). The triumphant return of Grigory the Pretender's forces in Varmy forest, en route to Moscow, was set on a bare, raked staged, with a central rectangular opening, out of which emerged banner-waiving soldiers and two white horses, which reinforced the old maxim – live animals and children are scene-stealers. At the conclusion, the Holy Fool (in a very fine delivery by tenor Andrey Popov), bemoans the dark destiny of Mother Russia; godless, populated by a mob and rabble ready to follow any leader strong enough to bludgeon his way to power.

* Tattling * 
Peter Gelb's latest innovation, offering 1,000 dress rehearsal tickets by lottery, in addition to those offered to patrons and guild members, combined with a thoughtful and intelligent spoken introduction, and his humorous admonition that the only electrical devices that should operate during the performance be on stage and not in the auditorium, provided for a mercifully quiet, disciplined and cellphone-free audience. If only this were the case in performances and not just dress rehearsals!