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Metropolitan Opera.

The Metropolitan Opera's holiday run of its family-oriented Hansel and Gretel closed pleasurably Jan. 8, with Jennifer Johnson Cano and Andriana Chuchman in the title roles. I'm partial to last performances, which often have a special exuberance and lift, and this one boasted a happy first, too: Chuchman's first Met Gretel. (It would have been Johnson Canos first Hansel as well, if she hadn't stepped in for Christine Rice at the matinee broadcast five days before.) I'll never much like Richard Jones's very adult production, which repeatedly takes wrong turns from music and text (and David Pountney's British-English translation remains largely unintelligible); but this performance argued as good a case for it as I can imagine.

Much of the credit belongs to Sir Andrew Davis, who made Humperdinck's storybook forest, golden-winged angels and cake-and-candy witch's hut vividly audible even while Jones was denying us the sights; the splendid Met orchestra was in top form, with the enchanting wind interplay in the Act III prelude just one among many felicitous moments. Montreal-born mezzo Carolyn Sproule put the children to happy sleep with her lovely, dream-dispensing Sandman; and Ying Fang woke them up with her aptly dewy Dew Fairy. Michaela Martens and Dwayne Croft were a near-perfect pair of put-upon parents; and tenor Robert Brubaker as the Witch--miscast, as tenors always are in this dramatic-mezzo role--nonetheless threw himself into Jones's Julia-Child-on-amphetamines business with infectious relish. Best of all, Johnson Cano and Chuchman made a delightful, loose-limbed brother-and-sister team, "his" warm mezzo and her lightly glowing soprano blending fetchingly in their evening prayer. They may have foiled their chance of becoming gingerbread, but they were utterly delectable all the same.

The Met's first revival of 2015 was its 2009 production of Les contes d'Hoffinann, and it proved, quite predictably, a mixed blessing. Bartlett Sher's staging was every bit as bad as I remembered it--over-busy and incoherent, with a look that spanned decades and even centuries to no apparent purpose, and sets that flew up and down with an equivalent dearth of dramatic sense. That said, it was a much livelier show than the 2009 model, its largely new cast and new conductor giving it their talented all.

Vittorio Grigolo (beset by the tail end of a cold, it was announced) was a charismatically ardent Hoffmann, singing with a winning blend of juicy Italian tone and creditable French style; the obvious pleasure he takes in performing makes him, flaws and all, very hard to resist. There was a strong trio of lady loves in Erin Morley (a knockout as Olympia despite Sher's misconceived business), Hibla Gerzmava (a rich-voiced Antonia with a splendid death trill), and Christine Rice (a euphoniously assertive Giulietta). Thomas Hampson wasn't an ideal vocal fit for the four villains, but his presence and style carried the day; and Kate Lindsay--the only major holdover from 2009--needed just a tad more volume to make her top-hatted Nicklausse utterly top-notch. Instrumental (forgive the pun) in the evening's success was Yves Abel's guiding hand in the pit: he deftly trod a fine line between Offenbach's operetta roots and his operatic aspirations. Even with the Met's less-than-perfect edition of this difficult-to-edit score, it was he, and not the muddleheaded Sher, who gave the singers the framework to build something special.

It's still not a good production, but within the questionable confines of Laurent Pelly's staging and Chantal Thomas's drab, cheap-looking sets the Met offered (on Mar. 28) a much better Manon than it did in its initial run three seasons back. The centerpiece then, as she had been when the production originated at London's Royal Opera in June 2010, was Anna Netrebko, whose "Look at me, I'm Anna Netrebko!" approach to Manon worked well for the role's showier moments but earned her very little sympathy for the larger rest. There's no pretending that Diana Damrau, this season's protagonist, can match Netrebko for physical glamour or for vocal plushness or size, but there's also no question that Damrau is the finer Manon. She created a fully plausible arc from the coltish country teenager of Act I through the sexualized, acquisitive not-quite-woman of the inner acts to the too-late-mature, gently self-mocking Manon of Act V, who, dying, recognizes des Grieux as the "seul amour de mon ame." While not every note was effortless or pure, neither was any without clear thought and purpose.

Temperamentally, too, she seemed ideally matched with Vittorio Grigolo, her impassioned, soulfully sung des Grieux and one of three members of the original London cast reprising their roles for this Met revival. It marked his and Damrau's first onstage partnership, and it was a happy one indeed, their histrionic alacrity giving the whole long evening a charged propulsion despite Emmanuel Villaume's often notably slow tempi. A second London veteran, Russell Braun, was an expert Lescaut, amiably venal while singing in fine French style; and the third, Christophe Mortagne, offered pristine French diction to complement a Guillot alternately comic and chilling. His fellow Frenchman Nicolas Teste, Damrau s real-life husband, played her onstage lover's father with the proper hauteur and firm, handsome tone. Canada was admirably represented not just by Braun but by Robert Pomakov, strikingly resonant in his amusing, rump-scratching turn as the Innkeeper, and by soprano Mireille Asselin, making her Met debut in the current run as a sparkling Pousette, abetted by Cecelia Hall and Maya Lahyani as Javotte and Rosette. Met veteran Dwayne Croft was the evening's suave Bretigny. This was the last performance of the run, and Villaume, who conducted lovingly throughout, could be forgiven his occasional indulgences: with so many virtues among the singers, who'd not want to savor them all just a few minutes more?
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Author:Dillon, Patrick
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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