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Metropolitan Opera: Looking back at 2013

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An emperor, an empress, three queens and a princess figured prominently among the royal characters onstage at the Met during 2013.

The company presented for the first time Gaetano Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.” American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato set high performing standards as Mary, Queen of Scots. For “The New York Times,” chief music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in his review: “Ms. DiDonato’s performance will be pointed to as a model of singing in which all components of the art form─technique, sound, color, nuance, diction─come together in service to expression and eloquence.”

In her Metropolitan Opera debut, South African soprano Elza van den Heever sparred with the Scottish queen as Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch with the power of Mary Stuart’s life in the palm of her ambitious hand. The excitement of the vocal fireworks between the two queens alone left everyone wondering why it took the Met so long to mount this melodiously moving work.

Keeping with the royals for a moment, Austrian soprano Anne Schwanewilms made her Met debut portraying the nameless empress of Richard Strauss’ colossal enigmatic “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (The Shadowless Woman). In his most popular opera, “Der Rosenkavalier” (The Rose-bearing Knight), the role of Princess von Werdenberg went to Viennese soprano Martina Serafin, with knightly services rendered by British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Octavian, and American soprano Erin Morley in the role of the nouveau riche Sophie.

Other monarchs depicted included Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and Roman emperor Julius Caesar in Georg Frederic Händel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.” French soprano Natalie Dessay and American countertenor David Daniels took the lead roles in a memorable Bollywood production by Scottish director Sir David McVicar.

Everyday folk also got stage time in a Mozart opera, “Così fan tutte” (Women Are All Alike), and in the United States premiere of Nico Muhly’s brand-new opera, “Two Boys,” about, well, two boys. In the Mozart, two sisters unwittingly─but not terribly unwillingly─exchange boyfriends, whereas in the Muhly, one boy dangerously obsesses over another in Internet chat rooms. Both were big news even though they premiered 222 years apart. “Così fan tutte” marked the much-anticipated return to the podium of the beloved Music Director James Levine after two years of critical health issues. “Two Boys” is the first fruits of the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, founded to commission and develop new operas.

A new production of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” (Percival), staged by François Girard in his Met debut, created possibly the most buzz of the season among Wagnerites, who mostly loved the performances led by Maestro Daniele Gatti. The strong cast of principals included German tenor Jonas Kaufman, Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, and German bass René Pape, all of whom I have seen and admired in other repertory. Though they each gave a committed performance and sang with beautiful tone, Wagner gave them terribly unmelodic solo passages. Their prodigious talents aside, the parts I most enjoyed were the sublime choruses and the majestic orchestral passages─basically any time that the principals weren’t singing. Someday, with perseverance, I may perhaps permute into a Percival appreciator.

Among many other highlights of the year 2013, Deborah Warner’s coproduction with English National Opera─an opulent take on Tchaikovsky’s much-beloved “Eugene Onegin”─opened the Met’s 2013-14 season in September. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień appeared in the title role for the first time at the Met opposite Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who made her role debut as Tatyana, and Polish tenor Piotr Beczała as Lensky. Belarusian mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova portrayed Lensky’s love interest, Olga. And in a bit of luxury casting, Russian mezzo-sopranos Elena Zaremba and Larissa Diadkova appeared as Madame Larina (Tatyana and Olga’s mother) and Filippyevna, Tatyana’s nurse.

Of all the magical moments to recall, the one most outstanding has to be Joyce DiDonato’s. In Act II of “Maria Stuarda,” the condemned queen earnestly prays “Deh! Tu d’un umile preghiera” (Please, to a humble prayer [give ear]) accompanied by chorus. In its midsection, the mezzo-soprano lobbed a pianissimo high C, which she sustained fully 20 seconds above the chorus, which intoned its lines without managing to drown out her gorgeous tone. Something so seemingly simple sounded so sumptuous and sent chills of sympathy down the collective spine of the spellbound audience.

Tonight the Met unveils a sold-out new production of Johann Strauss’ effervescent operetta “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat), which augurs well for a wonderful year 2014.

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