When News Upstages an Opera Performance

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At the Metropolitan Opera last week, performances of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Puccini’s “La Bohème,” both in the midst of long runs, might not have seemed particularly newsworthy.

Surely, the opening on Friday of Verdi’s enduringly popular “La Traviata,” in the Met’s 2018 production, should have overshadowed the other shows in opera news. Right?

Well, sometimes the significance of an evening at the opera lies in the back story. The Thursday performance of “Bohème” generated much advance buzz after it was announced that the tenor Roberto Alagna would sing Rodolfo, the role of his Met debut in 1996. Over the years, Mr. Alagna intentionally shifted his repertory from lyric tenor roles, like Rodolfo, to which he seemed ideally suited, to vocally weightier, and riskier, fare, like Verdi’s Radamès in “Aida” and the lead male role of Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila.” While experiencing highs and lows along the way, he has managed to remain, overall, a major tenor.

Still, Mr. Alagna had essentially put Rodolfo aside for 20 years, he said in a recent New York Times interview. Would he, at 56, still have the lyrical elegance and youthful exuberance the role demands? For the most part, he did.

But let me first take up Wednesday’s “Porgy and Bess,” which may have been the most newsworthy of these offerings three nights in a row. The Met’s new production, directed by James Robinson, sheds light both on how the company sees its mission, and on how Gershwin’s heartfelt 1935 opera, which has divided opinion for decades, comes across today. Is the work a sensitive portrait of a struggling black community in 1920s South Carolina? Or does it perpetuate dismaying racial stereotypes?

Audiences in New York have answered by making the Met’s “Porgy and Bess” a hit of the season. It returned on Wednesday, after nearly three months’ absence, to complete the scheduled run. But, in a rare move, the Met added three performances when the company, citing the enormous technical challenges of Robert Lepage’s production of Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust,” announced that it would present that work in a shorter run of concert performances. “Porgy” was dropped into the free slots.

For all the theatricality of the production, which relies on a rotating set that suggests a row of tenements in Charleston, the staging is essentially traditional; Camille A. Brown’s inventive choreography is its boldest element.

But staying true to the original setting allows the piece to emerge as Gershwin conceived it: a full-fledged opera with long stretches of recitative and arioso, soaring arias and duets and complex choral ensembles. That it came across as such on Wednesday was a tribute to the lucid and vibrant conducting of David Robertson, the stirring singing of the all-black chorus the Met brought together for the work, and a winning cast, which had several new singers on this night.

The bass-baritone Kevin Short sang Porgy, taking over (for two performances) from Eric Owens (who returns to the role on Wednesday). Since his 1991 Met debut, Mr. Short has mostly sung supporting roles. It was good to hear him in this high-profile assignment, and he brought a deep-set voice and stalwart presence to the task. At times his singing sounded strained in high-range passages. Still, he made an earnest and emotionally grounded Porgy, a kindly, disabled beggar, and won a rousing ovation.

The radiant soprano Angel Blue was again wonderful as the poignantly troubled Bess. The soprano Janai Brugger (taking over for Golda Schultz) was a sweet-voiced and sympathetic Clara. The robust bass-baritone Donovan Singletary, new to the cast as Jake, Clara’s decent yet impulsive husband, was a standout.

Turning to Mr. Alagna, the question of how he fared on Thursday in a role from his early days might seem a matter only die-hard opera fans could get worked up over. Yet it involved an issue central to the art form: How does a singer assess the natural attributes of his voice and maintain a career, when over time almost all voices mature and change?

Mr. Alagna arrived in the early 1990s as a tenor of immense gifts and charisma. But an overhyped, ill-advised promotional campaign built up absurdly high expectations for his Met debut as Rodolfo. Alas, he had vocal troubles that night, though he recovered later in the run. And he brashly made his own way over the next two decades, taking on heftier roles that require power and endurance — sometimes with exciting results, sometimes not — so it took some courage to return to Rodolfo.

His performance showcased the qualities for which he was initially hailed: vocal richness, stylish phrasing, impassioned delivery. There were some patchy moments, when his sound turned leathery, or a sustained high note seemed tight. But in the aria “Che gelida manina,” which the smitten Rodolfo sings to the alluring Mimì (here, the plush-voiced soprano Maria Agresta) soon after she knocks on his garret door, Mr. Alagna was aglow with poetic reverie and yearning. And he was at his best in the crucial third act, when Rodolfo confesses to his friend Marcello that it’s not Mimì’s supposed flirtatiousness but her terrifying illness that he’s fleeing.

The entire cast, all new since the first “Bohème” of the season, was wonderful, with Arthur Rucinski as Marcello, Christian Van Horn as Colline, Elliot Madore as Schaunard and Susanna Phillips as Musetta.

The “Traviata” on Friday, a Michael Mayer production, starred Aleksandra Kurzak as Violetta, a gracious courtesan dying of consumption and in love with young Alfredo. Ms. Kurzak was last at the Met a year ago as Micaëla in Bizet’s “Carmen, when the tenor singing Don José was Mr. Alagna (her husband). She is a deeply expressive singer with an alluring voice who brought moments of luminous beauty, shimmering high notes and raw intensity to her Violetta. During bursts of anguish and defiance her voice sometimes sounded steely and insecure. Still, the mix of fervor and vulnerability drew you in. The audience responded with an enormous ovation.

The tenor Dmytro Popov, while not as impressive as in his 2016 Met debut as Rodolfo in “Bohème,” sang Alfredo with warmth and youthful impetuosity, though he struggled audibly with some with top notes. The baritone Quinn Kelsey was a vocally formidable Germont. Karel Mark Chichon conducted a supple and elegant performance.

External news will reshape the “Traviata” run in February when Piero Pretti, who made his Met debut just a year ago, takes over the role of Alfredo. He replaces the star tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who was fired by the Royal Opera in London last month over allegations of “inappropriate and aggressive behavior.” Soon after, the Met dismissed him as well — the latest #MeToo shake-up to rattle the opera world.

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