BWW Reviews: I WANT MAGIC

BWW Reviews: I WANT MAGIC

I missed the debut and broadcast of Andre Previn's operatic setting of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" from the San Francisco Opera back in 1998. But I can't say that anything I've read would compel me choose it over a couple of hours with Brando and Leigh on TCM or even a less than stellar [Stella?] production of the play. The fact is, how can Previn's score compare with the music of Williams?

New Yorkers will get to judge the opera for themselves in March, when Renee Fleming recreates her role as Blanche Dubois in a semi-staged performance at Carnegie Hall. Fleming's fans have certainly heard her do "I Want Magic," the opera's major aria, in concert somewhere in the world or on disc--an engaging performance to my ear.

Yet, in honesty, it's not the aria but its name that draws me. It sums up what I want from opera, why this art form still has some surprises up its sleeve, and why so many performances disappoint in one way or another--though no enough to keep me from going back year after year.

The magic of stars

I remember when I first started going to the Met and during intermission there was invariably a group of men discussing at length "Callas in Mexico City in 1956" and I rolled my eyes. But looking back, I'm awfully glad I started going to opera in the age of Sutherland, Sills, Caballe [when she showed up] and Nilsson, of Domingo, Pavarotti, Kraus, Vickers and Bergonzi, of Horne, Verrett, von Stade, Milnes or Talvella and on and on. I was on the cusp of Callas, though I'm not sure I'd ever have been able to get in. There were so many others who made a night at the Met or City Opera, or in one of the European capitals I visited, magic.

Today? There simply aren't stars like there used to be--or not enough of them, anyway--who don't disappoint, who never phone in a performance (okay, maybe Pavarotti did some of those, but it was hard to be sore at him) or who don't take two acts to warm up before producing the golden sounds you expect from them.

Maybe they're singing too many performance on too many continents in roles they should have passed on. Still, I'd go out of my way to hear Karita Mattila in any Janacek opera or Fidelio or Salome. I would even sit through four hours of Handel to hear Nathalie Dessay. I was happy to discover Diana Damrau, who was wonderful even in a clinker like Aegiptische Helena, and to hear Joyce di Donato in Maria Stuarda. Rene Pape is always wonderful to hear. What about Jonas Kaufmann in over five hours of Parsifal? Well, that's still to be determined.

And there's always the hope that someone I thought I knew will appear and knock my socks off. I look forward to that.

The magic of a surprise

When Martina Arroyo told me about her unexpected debut in Aida (replacing Nilsson, no less), she told me that "all she needed was a comfortable pair of shoes" to get through it, though she clearly had-and brought--much more to the performance. Imagine what that night was like for everyone involved!

I recall the magic of hearing Fleming who sang Desdemona as a cover in Otello or Millo who jumped into Simon Boccanegra. Though I didn't know his name going in, and though he was a known quantity elsewhere, I found it thrilling to discover Kaufmann thrilling as Alfredo at the Met. And it was amazing to find (then) Lorraine Hunt as the "Material Girl" Donna Elvira in Peter Sellars' silly Don Giovanni. It's nice when singers come in out of left field and hit a home run even at the Met, like Brian Hymel in this year's Troyens or Jay Hunter Morris website" href="http://jayhuntermorris.com/Intro.html">Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried in last season's new Gotterdammerung.

"Nice"? There's nothing quite like a discovery.

The magic of productions

The sad fact is that frequently today productions aren't meant to heighten the experience of great singing--but to make up for the lack of it. If the singing is good, it doesn't matter that the production is old. I'd take the first production of Don Giovanni I saw at the Met--the classic Eugene Berman sets--over the current one, which looks like a derelict motel in Fort Lauderdale and undermines anything going on in front of it. While it's great that Peter Gelb has looked to theatre directors to bring something new to the Met, it would be helpful if they knew something about opera--or didn't act as if they had to make up for the painful experience of listening to music by championing the bizarre and the trashy.

On the other hand, there is reason for hope to spring eternal. The new Maria Stuarda looks just fine and the current production of Carmen, is a vast improvement over the Zeffirelli rendering; its reconfiguration--giving up an intermission--has made a huge difference in my enjoyment of the opera, at least. And the productions of new works-I'm thinking of Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China in particular--make magic of their own. But the Met's new Faust or Ballo in Maschera? Why put the singers--never mind the audience-through the pain of these fiascos? Why not do something daring, like finding a way of being traditional and modern in a single stroke?

The magic of the orchestra and chorus

The Met Orchestra. What else is there to say? Even when you can't count on the production or the singing, the orchestra is always there. Perhaps they don't play as well for one conductor as for another, they are still better than they have any right to be on a regular basis. That's not to say that the musicians that playing for City Opera or Opera Orchestra of New York don't do justice to their names, but we should give thanks to Levine and his legacy of the Met orchestra if for nothing else. And I shouldn't overlook the chorus, which is frequently a overlooked asset of the Met.

The magic of the movies

What can one say about the HD broadcasts that come from the Met? It lets broad audiences have access to opera performances far away from their home--and allows us who live in New York to enjoy the magic of operas that we might not want to spend six hours with at the opera house. I felt grateful to be able to see the Ring in comfort at the Ziegfeld. Yes, some sound systems are worse than others, but, hey, it's the price. And, frankly, to be able to see Brunnhilde's face as her Valkyrie sisters shield her from Wotan's prying eyes, deepens the magic of the Ring.

And, yes, I want magic. It's what an opera performance should be all about.


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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.