[ 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.
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.)
And look at photos of the stars inside:
But what’s most fun to do before the performance begins is to stand up and case the house.
Don’t forget to look up.
Unfortunately once the dangling light clusters are drawn up and the house lights dim, picture-taking ends.
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.
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.)
Now the lobby:
Intermission is actually quite long enough to get pleasantly soused.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.