Excepting Luciano Pavarotti, who was ill and withdrew at the last minute, every opera star under the heavens was in attendance for this gala performance. The cause for the celebration? The 25th anniversary of James Levine’s first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Three generations of singers were represented: the young, those in their prime, and those who came out of retirement for this one-off. Inevitably, the standards vary, with the older singers being largely out-sung by their juniors. But it is at least heart-warming to see so many legendary figures of the opera world onstage at the same time, and it’s a great way for those with no knowledge of opera to become familiar with a wide spread of performers.
The gala dates from 1995, and although there was a PAL video available for several years, this presented only the first half of the six-hour marathon celebration, plus the very end. So it’s good to have most of it available at last. We’re now offered 294 minutes (plus a brief interview with Levine), so I think there are still one or two omissions, but it’s good to hear some of the better parts from the second half in this double DVD.
The range of music is from Mozart in the 1780s to Corigliano in 1991. The most prominent composer, however, is Wagner, and nearly all of these excerpts are excellent. The night opened with the Overture to Rienzi, taken a little slowly perhaps, followed by Deborah Voigt setting a high standard with a stirring performance of Elisabeth’s greeting to the hall from Tannhäuser. We hear the whole of Wotan’s farewell from Die Walküre, rather than the brief extract included in the video version; James Morris makes a moving Wotan.
Jane Eaglen‘s contribution of Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene is immaculate, and was missed off the video originally; it’s one of the highlights, sung with amazing ease. Veteran soprano Birgit Nilsson pays tribute at the end with a short speech and adds Brünnhilde’s war cry to salute Maestro Levine.
Verdi fares well, with Thomas Hampson and Roberto Scandiuzzi singing the Rodrigo/Filippo duet from Don Carlo with authority; Dolora Zajick slightly over-taxed by Eboli’s aria from the same opera, though she gets the spirit of the piece; and the trio from Ernani, sung by Voigt, Scandiuzzi and Plácido Domingo, is a welcome rarity in what could have been an evening of exceprts from warhorses.
Domingo is even better in the prelude to Gounod’s Faust, with Sam Ramey as the devil. This is great stuff, properly acted as well as beautifully sung.
Carlo Bergonzi features a little too highly for my taste – both his contributions show his career was long over, with wayward tuning the least problem. At the other end of the age scale, Renée Fleming is gorgeous in her aria Depuis le jour, the trio from Der Rosenkavalier, and in the sextet from Don Giovanni; all three are magical performances, the latter also including Bryn Terfel and Kiri Te Kanawa in top condition.
Te Kanawa adds the final aria to the evening, Mi tradi from Don Giovanni; the camera angle is awkward and she seems to be pushed to her limit, but I like the tense drama she creates. Other highlights are Sherrill Milnes singing from Andrea Chenier; Catherine Malfitano and Dwayne Croft in an earth-shattering final scene from Tchaikovsky’s Onegin; and the charming Dorabella/Fiordiligi duet from Così fan tutte with Carol Vaness and Suzanne Mentzer, unused in the video version, is a welcome inclusion here.
It’s not all plain sailing, and I could have done without Bergonzi in particular, but the atmosphere of the special occasion really comes across. Such a stellar evening has to be a recommended release.