Così fan tutte: In Focus

Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte: In Focus

Premiere: Vienna, Court Theater, 1790

The third and final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte is a fascinating paradox: a frothy comedy of manners with an intensely dark take on human nature; an old story (it has antecedents in Boccaccio, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, among others) with a startlingly modern tone; and a beautiful score depicting questionable behavior. The premise is simple: two friends brag that their fiancées, who happen to be sisters, are incapable of infidelity. An older, more philosophical man bets that he can prove them wrong in 24 hours and enlists the help of the sisters’ devious maid to help him in his practical joke. He coerces each young man to seduce the other’s fiancée, which they do successfully. Although the bet is lost, the philosopher advises his friends to forgive their fiancées and to learn from the experience—after all, “all women act like that”
(to paraphrase the opera’s title, which is famously difficult to translate).

The Setting
The opera is set in Naples. With its natural beauty and abundant sunshine, the city became the equivalent of a tourist destination in the 18th century. It has been suggested that the preponderance of woodwinds in the score is meant to evoke the breezy atmosphere of the seashore.

The Creators
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was the son of a Salzburg court musician and composer, Leopold, who was also his principal teacher and exhibited him as a musical prodigy throughout Europe. His works continue to enthrall audiences around the world and his achievements in opera, in terms of beauty, vocal challenge, and dramatic insight, remain unsurpassed. The extraordinary Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) led an adventurous life in Venice and Vienna. He converted from Judaism as a youth and joined the Catholic Church, where he took Holy Orders. He supplied librettos for the prominent composers of his time, including Antonio Salieri, and collaborated with Mozart on works that included Così fan tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni. Da Ponte migrated to America and eventually settled in New York, where he was granted the first chair of Italian at Columbia College (now University), and where he was instrumental in developing an audience for Italian opera.

The Music
The score of Così is elegant and refined on its surface and dramatically insightful on closer inspection. The Act I trio, “Soave sia il vento” (“Let the breeze be gentle”), for example, is widely recognized as one of Mozart’s most ravishing creations, but the contrary shape of Don Alfonso’s and the two women’s vocal lines clearly depicts divergent thoughts. In fact, it is often possible in this opera to tell who is siding with whom, and to what degree, in the various ensembles. The characters’ development is apparent in the diversity of their solos: there is melodic simplicity in Guglielmo’s Act I aria, in which he describes his own physical charms. Dorabella’s self-pity in her Act I aria, “Smanie implacabili” (“Implacable torments”), is followed in the second act by the remarkably cheerful “È Amore un ladroncello” (“Love is a little thief”), as she adapts to the new situation. Fiordiligi’s progress is even more extreme: her Act I solo “Come scoglio” (“Like a rock”) is highly dramatic, with leaps, drops, and runs up and down a two-octave range. It is both a supreme example of the show-stopping arias of 18th-century opera, and—in the context of the piece—a parody of the form. Unlike the more frivolous Dorabella, Fiordiligi’s heroic posturing gives way to the genuine human pathos of her extended Act II lament “Per pieta” (“Have pity”). Conversely, the maid Despina’s arias are intensely word-driven and less about noble melody, while the lack of extended solos for Don Alfonso is appropriate to the enigma of his motivations and personality.

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Così fan tutte at the Met
The Met gave the opera’s U.S. premiere in 1922, in a production designed by Joseph Urban, with a cast including Florence Easton, Frances Peralta, and Giuseppe De Luca. An English-language production by Alfred Lunt, starring Eleanor Steber and Richard Tucker, was unveiled in 1951. Among those who appeared in this staging over the following years were Teresa Stich-Randall (1961–62) and Leontyne Price (1965) as Fiordiligi, Blanche Thebom as Dorabella (1951–56), and Roberta Peters as Despina (28 performances from 1953 to 1965, and an additional two in 1975 to mark her 25th anniversary with the Met). This same production later moved to the new Met at Lincoln Center, where it was given in Italian with artists such as Teresa Stratas as Despina and Walter Berry as Don Alfonso (in 1971–72). A new production by Colin Graham appeared in 1982 with James Levine conducting Kiri Te Kanawa, Maria Ewing, Kathleen Battle, David Rendall, James Morris (as Guglielmo), and Donald Gramm. Revivals featured Pilar Lorengar, Ann Murray, Tatiana Troyanos, Hei-Kyung Hong, Håkan Hagegård, Thomas Hampson, and Cornell MacNeil. The current production debuted in 1996, with James Levine conducting and Carol Vaness, Susanne Mentzer, Jerry Hadley, Dwayne Croft, Thomas Allen, and Cecilia Bartoli in her Met debut as Despina. Other notable appearances in this production have included Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Paul Groves, and Dawn Upshaw. The current season’s run marks Music Director James Levine’s return to the Met after a two year absence due to injury.

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Eugene Onegin: In Focus

Eugene Onegin In Focus

Premiere: Maly Theater, Moscow, 1879, with students from the Moscow Conservatory. Professional premiere: Bolshoi Theater, 1881

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Tchaikovsky’s many moods—tender, grand, melancholy—are all given free rein in Eugene Onegin, the composer’s lush adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s iconic text of Russian literature. The great poet re-imagined the Byronic model of the restless romantic anti-hero as the definitive bored Russian aristocrat caught between convention and ennui; Tchaikovsky, similarly, took Western European operatic forms and transformed them into an authentic and undeniably Russian work. At the core of the opera is the young girl Tatiana, who grows from a sentimental adolescent into a complete woman in one of the operatic stage’s most convincing character developments. Always popular in Russia, Eugene Onegin stands at the heart of the international repertory and commands as much admiration among experts as affection among newcomers.

The Creators
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) enjoyed tremendous fame during his lifetime as a composer of symphonic music and ballets. His operas have achieved a steadily growing popularity outside of Russia. The libretto for Eugene Onegin was largely put together by the composer himself, with help from his brother Modest (1850–1916) and others. The source of the libretto is the mock-epic verse novel of the same name by Pushkin (1799–1837), whose position in Russian literature can be compared only to that of Shakespeare in English. Pushkin’s body of work is marked by a wide range of tone and style, and his writings have been the source of many other Russian operas of note (such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or, and Tchaikovsky’s own The Queen of Spades). Tchaikovsky specifically chose the most emotional and dramatic moments from Pushkin’s poem and called his work “lyric scenes,” emphasizing the episodic, rather than the strictly narrative, nature of his libretto.

The Setting
Pushkin presents a vast overview of old Russian society around 1820, which Tchaikovsky’s original score neatly divides into each of its three acts: from the timeless rituals of country life to the rural gentry with its troubles and pleasures and, finally, the glittering imperial aristocracy of St. Petersburg. Deborah Warner’s production places the action in the later 19th century, around the time of the opera’s premiere.

The Music
Tchaikovsky’s universally beloved lyric gifts are at their most powerful and multilayered in this opera. Rich ensembles punctuate the work, including a quartet for women near the beginning, an elaborate choral ensemble that concludes the first scene of Act II, and a haunting fugue for tenor and baritone in Act II, Scene 2. The vocal solos are among the most striking in the repertory: anyone who can remember the first stirrings of love will be moved by Tatiana’s 12-minute “Letter Scene” in Act I, in which she rhapsodically composes a letter to Onegin in an outpouring of gorgeous melody. This is rivaled in popularity by the tenor’s moving farewell to his young life in Act II, while the title role’s Act III narrative on the pointlessness of life borders on the Wagnerian. Interspersed among these great solos are finely honed character pieces, such as the French tutor’s charming birthday serenade to Tatiana (in French) and the bass Prince Gremin’s moving ode to the surprise of finding love late in life. Throughout the opera, Tchaikovsky’s unique mastery of dance music provides episodes of ballet that reflect and augment the drama.

Eugene Onegin at the Met
Eugene Onegin premiered at the Met in 1920, sung in Italian by a cast headed by baritone Giuseppe DeLuca and soprano Claudia Muzio. After a total of eight performances in two consecutive seasons, the opera disappeared from the Met until 1957, when it was presented in English with George London, Lucine Amara, and Richard Tucker with Peter Brook directing. Onegin appeared in Russian in 1977 with Sherrill Milnes in the title role, conducted by James Levine. Robert Carsen directed a new production in 1997 that featured Vladimir Chernov, Galina Gorchakova, and Neil Shicoff, with Antonio Pappano conducting in his Met debut. Other notable stars to have appeared in the opera include Mirella Freni, Raina Kabaivanska, Leontyne Price, Nicolai Gedda, Marcello Giordani, Thomas Hampson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Leo Nucci, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Giorgio Tozzi. This season’s new production is by Deborah Warner and directed by Fiona Shaw, both in their company debuts, and had its premiere on September 23, 2013, the opening night of the 2013–14 season.

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Norma: In Focus

Norma

Norma In Focus

Premiere: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1831

This opera is an extraordinary fusion of sublime melody, vocal challenge, and dramatic power. It examines an ageless and archetypal situation: a powerful woman compromises her ideals for love, only to find herself betrayed by her lover. But this is only one aspect of her dilemma. Equally gripping is her relationship with the younger woman who is the new object of her former lover’s attention and in whom Norma sees both a rival and a second self. The title role demands dramatic vocal power combined with the agility and technique of a coloratura singer. It is a daunting challenge that few can rise to: those who have are part of operatic lore.

The Creators
Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) was a Sicilian composer whose greatest gift was his extraordinary understanding of the human voice. His meteoric career was cut short by his death at the age of 33, shortly after his opera I Puritani triumphed in its Parisian premiere. Felice Romani (1788–1865) was the official librettist of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. A frequent collaborator of Bellini, he worked with the composer on six operas, and also wrote the libretti for Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and Anna Bolena, among many other works. The tragedy Norma by the French poet and dramatist Alexandre Soumet (1788–1845) was performed at the Theâtre de l’Odéon in Paris in April of 1831, and suggested to Bellini by Romani as potential source material for an opera.

The Setting
The opera is set in Gaul (France) at the beginning of its occupation by the Roman Empire. Almost all of the characters are druids, members of the Gallic priesthood, the only exceptions being the tenors, both of whom are Romans. It is interesting that the Roman Empire, long depicted in European culture as a civilizing force, is here seen as corrupt and exploitative.

The Music
Norma is perhaps the archetypal bel canto opera, a style of singing that flourished in Italy in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Its principal features are beauty of tone, legato phrasing, and the delivery of florid ornamentation. The score of Norma is characterized by extraordinary melody punctuated by sharp moments of raw drama. The primary functions of the clear orchestral writing are to move the drama along with vigorous rhythm and to inform certain moments with feeling and emotion, such as the superb flute accompaniment to the soprano’s Act I aria “Casta diva.” The drama of Norma, however, is embedded in the nuances of the vocal parts as in few other operas. A note held in one phrase or swelled in another, a snippet flung out with extra edge—these are the sorts of details that create legendary performances of Norma. While such fine points are important in the solos, such as the tenor’s Act I “Meco all’altar di Venere” and especially in the soprano’s “Casta diva,” the details of vocalism become even more crucial in the several ensembles. These include the stirring trio in the finale to Act I and the soprano/mezzo Act II duet “Mira, o Norma.” The blending—and contrast—of the voices, as the two women begin in confrontation and end in unity and friendship, is an astounding example of how much drama can be communicated through singing.

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Norma at the Met
Norma entered the Met repertory (in German) in 1890, the title role sung by Wagner specialist Lilli Lehmann. The opera then fell out of the repertory after 1892 until Tullio Serafin conducted a new production, designed by Joseph Urban, in 1927. American soprano Rosa Ponselle sang the title role (which she repeated 28 times throughout the following four seasons) opposite tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and bass Ezio Pinza. Zinka Milanov performed the role 16 times between 1943 and 1954. Maria Callas sang five performances of Norma in 1956, including her Met debut, which also featured Fedora Barbieri, Mario Del Monaco, Cesare Siepi, and Fausto Cleva conducting. A young James McCracken sang the second tenor role of Flavio in these performances. In 1970 a new production premiered with Richard Bonynge conducting Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne making her Met debut, and Carlo Bergonzi. (Sutherland and Horne sang in this opera 27 and 25 times respectively, all in the year 1970.) Later interpreters of the immortal priestess include Montserrat Caballé (11 performances between 1973 and 1976) and Renata Scotto (14 performances in 1981 and 1982). The current production by John Copley, designed by John Conklin, premiered in 2001 with Carlo Rizzi conducting Jane Eaglen, Dolora Zajick, and Richard Margison.

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Celebrating Britten at 100

c1949 - At Crag House

While the worldwide celebrations of the bicentennials of Wagner and Verdi continue, the Met this season pays tribute to another operatic master with a rare revival of one of his most fascinating works. Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream returns to the stage in October for the first time in ten years, in honor of the composer’s 100th birthday. Britten (1913-­1976) rose to fame with the 1945 premiere of his first major dramatic work, Peter Grimes, and over the following three decades went on to write another 13 operas, including several small-scale pieces. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first heard in 1960 at Britten’s own Aldeburgh Festival, with the composer conducting. Unusually, its entire libretto is taken from the text of Shakespeare’s play, adapted by Britten and his artistic and personal partner, tenor Peter Pears, resulting in one of the composer’s most remarkable and original scores. For this season’s Midsummer revival, the Met has assembled a stellar young cast led by soprano Kathleen Kim as Tytania and countertenor Iestyn Davies as Oberon, the queen and king of the fairies, with acclaimed Britten maestro James Conlon conducting.

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Instagramming the Red Carpet

This gallery contains 22 photos.

Monday’s opening night performance of Eugene Onegin was seen by thousands of people in the house, on Lincoln Plaza and in Times Square. Even more listened at home on Sirius XM and through a free web stream on the Met’s site. … Continue reading

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1 Day Until Opening Night: Radio

Margaret Juntwait is the radio host for the Met Opera Radio on Sirius XM and for the Saturday Matinee International Radio Broadcasts.

Juntwait in booth

Starting with tomorrow’s opening night broadcast, there will be about three live broadcasts per week throughout the season. How do you prepare for the start of the season?
At the beginning of the season, we’re just coming off the summer, which is such a creative, reflective time when we can really prepare for the upcoming season. Opening night is the big one. It’s important that the audience get a sense of the excitement of the place and that’s the wonderful thing about radio–it’s up to me to tell you what the vibe is like here, but you meet me halfway with your own imagination. And we have several other openings following immediately after–including Così fan tutte which marks James Levine’s return to the Met. So I have to focus on that just as much as on opening night.

How did you become the radio host for the Met?
I studied voice at the Manhattan School of Music. And once I graduated, I realized I needed to figure out another direction–and I decided I really like public radio. So I wrote a fan letter to my favorite public radio host in New York, John Schaefer, and I wound up as his production assistant. I gradually found my way to the microphone, and eventually got a call from the Met radio producers asking me to be a cover for Peter Allen. He had three covers at the time, and it was delightful. And then when Peter retired, after a national search, I stepped up to the role.

Do you get to enjoy opening night at all or is it just work from start to finish?
I do get to enjoy it. And because I saw the dress rehearsal of Eugene Onegin (which was spectacular), I know what to expect from the acts. So leading into each act is very pleasant work, but then we get to sit and listen. And you realize that’s what you’re really here for, that glorious music. And in the case of our cast for Onegin, the voices are so luxurious and glorious.

But opening night really is the most exciting night of the year. You can practically touch the level of buzz. When it’s a gorgeous autumn night and you have people sitting outside on the plaza watching the same performance–because of the simulcasts, more than twice as many people can see the show–it is one of the biggest thrills of the year. And it is very New York!

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2 Days Until Opening Night: Orchestra

The Met Orchestra is renowned as one of the greatest opera orchestras in the world. We sat down with Principal Oboist Elaine Douvas to find out what she is looking forward to this season.

How long have you been with the Met Orchestra?
Thirty-seven years. Prior to that I was with the Atlanta Symphony before I took one of the Met’s famous “Behind the Screen” auditions and it was my lucky day!

The season starts in just a few days, and on the second day of the season, we welcome James Levine back to the Met podium for the first time in two years. Have you been working with him since he’s been back?
We’ve been working with him during the pre-season, including a symphonic concert at Carnegie Hall. It’s wonderful to have him back. He’s a great interpreter and a great conductor and he’s back to his old self!

Are there any particular operas that you are looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to playing Prince Igor, since I haven’t done it before. And I’m looking forward to Eugene Onegin, it’s one of my favorite operas. We oboists have to hand-make our reeds, so  I have to make sure that I have a wonderful reed with a glowing tone for Onegin. The Letter Scene is not only a wonderful vehicle for the soprano, but Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of expressive music for the oboe.

What does a typical week look like for you?
The weeks are never evenly loaded. There are 2 principal oboes, so sometimes we divide operas, other times we switch back and forth. So things really come in waves. Some weeks you have 4 or 5 rehearsals, and then I’ll get the occasional no-rehearsal week.

Special sense of excitement in the pit for opening night?
There are lots of things to be excited about here, and opening night is a big one. The audience is dressed to the nines, plus it’s a new production, the costumes are gorgeous, Anna Netrebko sounds amazing–and I just love her outfit for the last scene. The Live in HD broadcasts are definitely special events as well. Everybody wants to do their best!

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3 Days Until Opening Night–Production

John Sellars is the Assistant General Manager in charge of Production and is responsible for managing “all of the work happening on stage that isn’t singing.” How do they get the stage ready for opening night?

Sellars
John Sellars (right) during rehearsals
 

Not all of the work on stage that includes singing. What does your work entail?
It includes overseeing set construction, how the shows are run, the crews that run the shows, how they’re constructed, keeping track of scenery and costumes. It takes a crew of upwards of 300 people.

We have four shows opening in the first week of the season. How do you manage to get everything set up?
All of our scenery is stored in containers off-site, so beginning at the end of the previous season, we will assess the condition of the repertory shows to know what kind of repair work may need to be done on the sets. Then during August as we start tech rehearsals for the new productions. We also load in the repertory productions that will be on stage in the first couple of weeks. We can hold about four or five productions in house at any given time, so we have to manage scenery going in and scenery going out.

How do you get to be you?
I started out building scenery in high school. I was a double major in theater and music in college and was in charge of the scenery shop. When I went to grad school I worked as the assistant technical director in the theater there. Then when I moved to New York I got a job in the shop at the Met and worked for the last half of my time there as a layout carpenter–running crews and deciding how scenery would be built. After 10 years in the shop, I became Assistant Technical Director under [famed Technical Director] Joe Clark. It’s really experience more than anything else, but I’ve been doing it for a very long time.

Are you looking forward to opening night?
Getting ready for the opening brings an extra sense of anticipation because we are also doing a Plazacast. Not only do we have to put the finishing touches on Eugene Onegin, but we have to get the camera gear ready for the Plazacast. Monday will be a very busy day.

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4 Days Until Opening Night: Onegin and Lenski

Eugene Onegin’s two leading men have to be red-carpet ready in just a few days. So Mariusz Kwiecien and Piotr Beczala took a trip to Macy’s to browse the designer tuxedo collection.

For Kwiecien, performing at the Met on opening night is old hat: this will be his third time opening the season (after Lucia di Lammermoor in 2007 and L’Elisir d’Amore last year). “It’s almost routine now,” he says. “It is such a special day, everyone is so focused on the opening that the pressure is so great. But that’s why we like it! And even if I am nervous, once I start singing it goes away.” On the way to Macy’s, two buses with photos of Mariusz as Onegin passed by. “Surreal,” he said. 

Onegin bus

Beczala, on the other hand, has never performed on opening night before–but nerves aren’t coming into play. “I don’t have any experience with the red carpet! I’m looking forward to seeing how the whole thing works.”

Piotr at Macy's

While neither singer is any stranger to the tuxedo, there is a special pressure to choosing the right one to wear to the opening night gala. But Beczala was not phased. “We were born in tuxedos,” he said.

M&P in tuxes

Photos: Jonathan Tichler/Met Opera
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5 Days Until Opening Night: Supernumeraries

What is a supernumerary? Any of the non-singing actors on the stage of the Met. They can be members of a crowd, waiters, acrobats, soldiers–take your pick.
Joe Barnes, Director of Supernumeraries, tells us more.

Boheme crowd
A scene from Act II of La Bohème
 

Do most of the people who become supers have acting or performing experience?
Almost everyone is some kind of performing professional or they have stage experience. Sometimes different types of direction are called for, for example in La Bohème you have two distinct groups of supers on the stage. Upstairs the crowd is milling about and shopping, whereas downstairs in the cafe the supers are really in the action: the waiters, the girls that Marcello flirts with to make Musetta jealous.

Are any of them singers?
We occasionally get people who are extra choristers and want to gain more stage experience at the Met. One of the regular choristers now actually started as a super…that doesn’t happen very often, but he was a developing singer. Some are actors and opera is really not their world, and then there are a few young singers who become supers to develop stage experience.

What is the largest show that we have here?
Well, War and Peace is the largest with about 262 cast members, but the largest show that we perform on a regular basis is Aida with 175. Coming up this year, we will have La Bohème with over 100 people, all the way down to Rigoletto with only 2 supers.

What is the oddest role you’ve ever had to cast?
The fire juggler in Maria Stuarda last year was odd. The casting process for The Nose was also quite intense. [Director] William Kentridge had a very specific vision of what he wanted from the cast, including native Russian speakers, and because he comes from the Lecoq School of acting [a French school of physical theater], he specifically wanted actors with that training in their background as well. There are also significant acting roles in Die Fledermaus this year, including some actors drawn from Broadway.

Maria Stuarda juggler
Fire juggler from Maria Stuarda
 

The season opens in just a few days. When did you begin rehearsals?
We started rehearsals for Onegin in August, but supers are also used as lighting stand-ins during technical rehearsals which can begin as early as the end of the previous season!

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