BEL CANTO AT THE MET

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[ Note: Save this post for when you have some time. It’s not only somewhat lengthy but — a first for me —  a time-consuming “viewing” and listening experience.]

Saturday I attended a matinee performance of Giacomo Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  I do these matinee “Opera Outings” at the Met about three or four times a year, not because I can’t live without opera despite its high ticket price, but because it’s good for me to get back to the city in relatively easy fashion and do something that moves me or teaches me or is otherwise different from my everyday life.

It’s true one can hear, and even see, perfectly good opera on CD or DVD.  It’s not the same, though, as walking through that magnificent lobby into an opera house perfectly balanced acoustically, to hear a world-class orchestra and voices as they really sound — before being digitally recorded and/or remastered and/or whatever else is done to a performance to bring it to us in our living-rooms or on our iPhones. That’s one thing about going to the Met that’s different from my everyday life, before we get to the rest of it.

“Opera Outings” was the brainchild of Nancy Froysland Hoerl and her husband Scott, both on the music faculty at Westminster Choir College here in Princeton where I live.  Every year for the past twenty-five years, they have bought a block of tickets  at various price ranges for one of the Met’s standard matinee subscription packages, hired a tour bus, and sold the round-trip-by-bus plus tickets to the general public in the greater Princeton/New Brunswick, NJ area. Usually you buy three to seven of the offered operas together in the preceding spring. Tickets for single operas are rarely available, and only if they are left over afterwards.

The transportation is what makes this idea such a winner.  Just drive to the Westminster Choir College parking lot (five minutes for me), park by 9:30 a.m., get on the bus, and by 10:45 the bus is on West 65th Street right by the steps up into Lincoln Center and the Met.  Since the opera starts at 1:00, you have two hours to go do something else, or else meet a friend for lunch at American Table in Alice Tully Hall across the street. There you can sit and sit and talk and talk; nobody bothers you as long as you’re still nursing a cup of coffee.  Also the bathrooms are very good, and no waiting in lines.

I would not have chosen La Donna del Lago. (My favorite opera, composed later, is still Puccini’s La Boheme — death by consumption in a mid-nineteenth century Parisian attic. That should tell you something about me.) Donna is a bel canto opera inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s 400-page poem, The Lady of the Lake.  And “bel canto” (beautiful singing) is the term applied to a series of Italian operas from the first half of the nineteenth century, more often than not written either by Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti,  in which the plots are for the most part mere trifles, often laughable, designed principally to support dazzling displays of song expressing the emotions of the characters.  And I mean dazzling.  If you can hang on to the end of this post, you’ll hear for yourself.

But Donna was in the Westminster package for 2014-15, and it was a big deal: the first time this opera has ever been mounted at the Met.  New production, great vocal stars (Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Flores) and highly favorable reviews.  Of course the reviews came after I had paid for the ticket, but it’s always nice to know you’re not going to sit through three hours of ho-hum or worse.

I had the American Table lunch with an old friend. Sautéed catfish for me, tomato soup and Parker House roll for her. Then I went across the street, took a shortcut through the Avery Fisher Hall lobby because it was very cold and windy, pushed through the Met’s doors, showed my bag to the inspector with the flashlight to prove I wasn’t a terrorist and handed over my ticket to be scanned.

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You may wonder why I paid so much to have an orchestra seat when there are four significantly cheaper tiers of seats, mounting to the sky-high ceiling, where I could have heard everything just as well.  It began when Bill used to come along too.  He gets dizzy going down steeply raked stairs, so we went for the orchestra seats together. Then he stopped coming.  He doesn’t like novels, plays or opera very much and had been coming just to please me. (Believe it or not, he has trouble following a narrative line. He a psychiatrist listening to people’s troubles for forty years!) Moreover, the bathroom situation at the Met is, candidly, not good.  I might further note, and he did, that the acts can be quite long before the permitted intermission dash to the few available toilet stalls. It was an issue for him. And who was I to argue?

So then I was on my own, and discovered I was spoiled.  Yes, you can hear the music from anywhere in the house. And see tiny dots, representing human beings, way down there on the stage.  But I like to see the faces.  Good singers do act, you know. Besides, it’s much easier to just walk in, find your seat and sit down than to join gazillions of other people fighting to get into an elevator, then creep cautiously down rickety stairs to your designated row, after which there is a lot of “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me” as you slither without handrail to your seat in the rafters, past other annoyed patrons clutching their coats as they stand for you.

That’s why the orchestra seat.  I hardly ever buy new clothes any more, which kind of evens things out, financially speaking. Okay?

Now that we’re in Seat O16 we can open the program. (Its cover is above.)

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And look at photos of the stars inside:

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Joyce diDonato, the lead mezzo-soprano, as Elena, lovely young Highland lass gathering fake flowers near a loch and rhapsodizing about her love for Malcolm. Malcolm is a “trouser” role — in this case a “kilt” role — sung by another mezzo-soprano.

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Juan Diego Flores, as King James V (Giacomo) disguised as Uberto. He is one of the two tenors inflamed with love for Elena. He also looks very good in his leather outfit. He will relinquish her to Malcolm in the end, to make her happy and and give her a reason to sing her stunning concluding aria.

But what’s most fun to do before the performance begins is to stand up and case the house.

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Don’t forget to look up.

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Unfortunately once the dangling light clusters are drawn up and the house lights dim, picture-taking ends.

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I therefore cannot give you any idea of Act I except to say you have to suspend a lot of disbelief before you can enjoy the glorious music.  Example:  When the libretto requires someone to sing to us that the trumpets are calling him to war, all one can hear from the orchestra in the pit is a happy dance tune dominated by flutes!

An hour and fifteen minutes later comes intermission and mass flight, either to (a) the lower-level restrooms or (b) the bar in the lobby.

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However, instead of checking out the restrooms, let’s walk up to the stage and peer into the emptied orchestra pit. (The lobby and bar are coming in just a minute. Have patience.)

Look how many French horns!

Look how many French horns!

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Percussion section!

Now the lobby:

If you're a quick (and rich) eater, and made a reservation ahead of time, you can eat something during intermission on the level just above the lobby, looking through glass at (and also being seen from) the plaza at Lincoln Center.

If you’re a quick (and rich) eater, and made a reservation ahead of time, you can be served something edible during intermission on the level just above the lobby, looking through glass at (and also being seen from) the plaza at Lincoln Center.

The lobby railings always get me.  The railings in the Family Circle and Balcony can't hope to match such splendor!

The gilded lobby railings always get me. Don’t think the railings in the Family Circle and Balcony are equally splendid.

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Intermission is actually quite long enough to get pleasantly soused.

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The companion of the lady below suggested I photograph her beverage.  I suggested she hold her glass in such a way that we could all admire her jewelry and manicurist’s work as well.

I know this appears to have nothing to do with going to opera at the Met, but in a way it does.  People get quite chatty during those long intermissions, especially at the bar.

I know this appears to have nothing to do with going to opera at the Met, but in a way it does. People get quite chatty during those long intermissions, especially at the bar.

I then turned to the companion, but he said he didn’t want to be photographed, although I could photograph his boots if I liked. I asked if he was very proud of his boots, and he said he was. Given permission, I aimed downward. I don’t think he’ll be reading TGOB to see how silly it all looks on the screen.

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Enough nonsense.  Back to our seat, passing the three rows of standing room at the rear of the orchestra seating as we go.  When I was in my teens and the Met was on Broadway and 39th Street in its pre-Lincoln Center days, I used to line up for standing room to get my fix of La Boheme (and also La Traviata and Tristan and Isolde) at the Saturday matinees.  It was $2.00 then, and there was only one row, without translations of the libretto at the push of a red button. You had to know what you were hearing ahead of time.  I’m sure it’s not $2.00 any more.

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And now, dear readers, as the curtain rises on Act Two I must turn off my phone.  I can show you a bit of the high drama involved from the still photograph in the program:

Lovely Elena trying to hold her two warring tenors apart.  On the left, Rodrigo, leader of the rebel Highlanders -- to whom her father has betrothed her against her will. On the right, Juan Diego (still in leather and still in disguise). Is it a political battle, or a battle for lovely Elena?  Maybe a bit of both?

Lovely Elena trying to hold her two warring tenors apart. On the left, Rodrigo, leader of the rebel Highlanders — to whom her father has betrothed her against her will. On the right, Juan Diego (still in leather and still in disguise). Is it a political battle, or a battle for lovely Elena? Maybe a bit of both?

Much better, though, if you have the time, is this YouTube upload of an intermission interview given by diDonato and Flores just after their dress rehearsal of Donna.  Following some pleasant preliminary chitchat, you get a taste of the Act Two battle photographed above.  Remember not to get upset when Elena grasps Rodrigo’s sword by its (supposedly) sharp blade; it shows the intensity of her feelings without really drawing any blood.

The showstopper of Act II, however, is Elena’s final aria, Tanti affetti, after the King has killed Rodrigo in honorable battle offstage, thus mooting her engagement to him, followed by his forgiveness of Elena’s father and beloved Malcolm (the mezzo) for their acts of treason in opposing his rule, followed after that by his joining the hands of Elena and Malcolm in marriage. (What a benevolent and self-sacrificing king.)  It is ten minutes of extraordinary bel canto singing.  Picture simple country girl Elena expressing her great joy in the King’s throne room before dozens of chorus members in creamy white Elizabethan garb. This still photo doesn’t do justice to seeing an entire stageful of the chorus in these costumes, but it will give you some idea.

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Joyce diDonato frequently uses this bel canto aria as her “party piece.”  In the following YouTube upload, she sings Tanti affeti in evening dress, with orchestra and chorus onstage, at a gala performance in honor of Richard Tucker.  If you haven’t got ten minutes to listen to it all, move to the last three or four minutes, but don’t miss it. This kind of singing is at least one of the reasons why I get on the Westminster bus, and why opera survives.

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36 thoughts on “BEL CANTO AT THE MET

  1. Nothing more wonderful than opera! I’ve been hooked ever since hearing Maria Callas in Lucia di Lammermoor at the (old) Met when I was 15.

    We’re seeing Donna Del Lago Tues night, but you certainly got the better ticket deal! We “inherited” fantastic orchestra seats from my parents–problem is now we have to pay.

    Favorite shot: all those bald male pates–like tonsured monks!

    Favorite opera(s): all Puccinis, most Verdis, several from the Bel Canto bunch, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro–and more.

    I’d probably pick music over books if I had to make a choice while marooned on a desert island.

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    • Wonderful indeed! I have unleashed a flood of comment from you! Did you listen to the whole “Tanti affeti?” As for picking music over books, well sure. You can write your own books.

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  2. I seem to be back in town again. I was part of your blog, loved and left.You became ‘unfollowed, left unloved but not of my doing. I checked and re-followed again. Hopefully this arrangement will stabilize. A lover’s tiff?

    A great and enjoyable story. Who would have thought I would enjoy an opera at the Met and in such great company. Who is that long haired gentleman bending over at the bar scribling something? I would be surprsed if he is also not the owner of those seven mile boots.

    Next time, come down under and I’ll show you the Sydney opera house. 😉

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  3. ritastewartny

    Loved your opera blog post. As you may know M & I are rabid opera fans and have been going to all the live HD performances and will be seeing Donna next week.  One of my dearest friends was a patron at the Met, had two seats in the second row and invited me to go with her many times. So I really had the super delight of practically being onstage. Sadly she died a few years ago. We have something in Westchester like your bus thing but it’s mostly theatre…I go often on their theatre trips. ..love Broadway. ..and have had fun doing that. ..includes the transport, along with lunch at a good restaurant and great seats. Anyhow again loved the blog post and the pics!   xo 

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    • Dear Rita, I fear you are confusing email responses with “comments.” Are you sure you want my blog readers to know about all this? But I’m glad you loved the post. I had fun writing it, too — and listening to the interview and aria again!

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    • It’s amazing to me that the HD performances are seen so widely. You may enjoy it even more with this preview under your belt! By the way, I do hope you read it in your reader, or on the WordPress site, and not through email, because I’ve discovered that email transmissions to email followers don’t include the two YouTube clips, which are the “culture” — as opposed to the chitchat — part of the post!

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      • I have finally got to read this. I love your descriptions of the MET. We will get there one day, we are regulars at the Royal Opera House and at Glyndebourne and have similar evenings there. My husband doesn’t like heights and we both love being close to the stage, so we get what we can afford. Personally, Verdi is top of my list, followed by Puccini, but I have grown very fond of Donizetti and now also Bellini and some Gounod. Rossini is spectacular, but fails to move me. Joyce di Donato is brilliant whatever she does, ditto Flores and half a dozen others that I will travel a long way to hear. Thanks for this treat.

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      • I’m glad you waited to listen, since it was the music which was really the great part of the day. Thank *you* for your comment. (I like Puccini and Verdi best, too, but through Westminster Opera Outings I’m learning to like much more of the currently performed repertoire.)

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  4. “I hardly ever buy new clothes any more, which kind of evens things out, financially speaking. Okay?” Love this!

    Very cool boots for the camera shy man.

    Outside of being able to hum the overly popular Nessun Dorma my opera knowledge is quite limited. I do recall my mother listening to Milton Cross and later Tony Randall for the Met broadcasts when I was growing up, but I just never got the opera bug. Interesting post!

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    • You disapprove of my bookkeeping methods? As for the boot man, I suspect he was not so much shy as perhaps not willing to have it known he was out with the be-ringed and deeply nail-enameled woman twice his age. (Maybe his mother, but somehow I doubt it.) No shame in not liking opera. Thanks anyway. 🙂

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  5. Nina, got to the blog’s end and loved going to the opera with you. It’s been years since I lived in Milan, Italy and did attend the opera! Beautiful photos and well-written, witty post! Thank you for the beautiful photos (even the lady with the drink, gaudy jewelry and red nails). Oh, and the boots! Christine

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  6. Nina, what a wonderful idea to hire the bus and go as a group. No parking worries and time relax in anticipation. Loved you photos of the whole experience. The atmosphere is always so special with a live performance. Thank you for sharing this most enjoyable post! 🙂

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  7. Martin Pooley

    Ah, opera! Those were the days of walking through the Botanical Gardens in Sydney to the Opera House…and when I had the income to be able to buy tickets! Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hello Nina,
    I’m so glad I listened to your advice and waited till I had plenty of time to read the post & watch the video links. Wow!! What a treat it must be, to see such performances live. I agree, HD cannot capture what it’s like to actually be there, the anticipation, the atmosphere. I regret that I never had a chance to visit the Met during my time in NYC. Well, maybe someday! 😉 In the meantime, I will search for and watch more videos 😀

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    • I’m so happy you watched (and listened) to both video links, Takami. (I suspect very few readers did.) Actually, one can find wonderful classical music performances of all kinds (not only opera) on YouTube. And yes, it is a treat, for those of us who cannot afford to do it regularly or live too far away, to attend opera live. I have one more coming up for this year’s series in May, and I am indeed looking forward to it.

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  9. Thanks for the time warning–I had more today than I had last time I was here when I snuck a few peaks at the photos. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this post. I don’t like opera but my love of France pushed me to book a seat in the old opera house for the experience. I saw Rigoletto but was more amazed by Chagall’s ceiling.

    It looks like you had a wonderful experience, and I don’t believe I could have documented it better. My personal favorites were the manicure/jewelry/champagne shot, as well as the boots shot. Nonsense, I believe is how you referred to it. But yes, so much a part of the overall experience. Thanks for sharing.

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    • You’re most welcome. I hope you read it through your reader and not in email, which dropped the YouTube inserts. Even if you don’t like opera, the interview with diDonato and Flores was fun.

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      • Hi Nina, I’m just coming up to my last trimester of year 3 undergraduate BMus, exam time and a few exciting training opportunities. This autumn I have to start auditioning for two years masters program’s, it’s all new for me and this summer I’ve got to research, then I understand there is two more years opera school.
        No professional work but hopefully plenty of opportunities to perform. I do the odd recital for expenses and the occasional evening performance to try to cover the costs of my dresses 😊and scores and to give me performance practice.
        Thank you and best wishes, Charlotte

        Liked by 1 person

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