Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera: The costumes! The singing! The costumes. The costumes.
And so it went as the Met staged a gala evening for Renee Fleming to launch its 125th season Monday night.
The idea was to feature this most glamorous of sopranos in three fully staged acts of three different operas dear to her _ Act 2 of Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata," Act 3 of Jules Massenet's "Manon" and the closing scene of Richard Strauss's "Capriccio." To add more glamor to the occasion, the company arranged for three fashion designers to create costumes especially for her.
And, if our senses weren't sated by the sights and sounds, the audience got to take home something to smell: samples of a new perfume inspired by Fleming and named "La Voce."
In truth, all the glamor somewhat overshadowed the evening's musical values.
Fleming's creamy voice with its melting high notes was in fine shape, and she and her supporting cast did a lot of good singing. But nothing quite caught fire.
In the "Traviata" excerpt, the courtesan Violetta is confronted by the father of her lover and asked to renounce the youth to save the family's honor. The scene is a daunting test of the soprano's ability to register rapid emotional changes from anger to defiance to submission. Fleming acquitted herself honorably, but she was never particularly moving. Baritone Thomas Hampson lent sonorous support but also acted stiffly.
In the "Manon," Fleming mixed exquisite singing with moments that verged on camp. Her "Gavotte" aria was marked by mannered phrasing, including a series of swooping notes as she descended the scale. Later, in the chapel of St. Sulpice, she overdid her seduction of her former lover, des Grieux. At one point she awkwardly threw herself back over a lectern, baring her bosom as if inviting him to ravish her then and there.
Tenor Ramon Vargas was impassioned as des Grieux, though his voice is perhaps too small for the role. He also sang well as Violetta's lover, Alfredo, in "Traviata."
In "Capriccio," Fleming had the stage virtually to herself and did some of her best singing. The wistful melodic line of this very late Strauss fits her voice perfectly, and she injected a wry humor into the libretto's disquisition on whether words or music matter more in opera.
The orchestra was not at its best, perhaps a result of a short rehearsal period under three different conductors. Met music director James Levine led the forces for "Traviata," followed by Marco Armiliato for "Manon" and Patrick Summers for "Capriccio."
It's not hard to figure why Met general manager Peter Gelb, who is on record as opposing opening night galas, decided to go ahead with this one: Fleming is critical to the box-office fortunes of the company and is starring in two productions tailor-made for her this season _ Massenet's rarely heard "Thais" and Antonin Dvorak's "Rusalka."
And what of the costumes? Let others appraise their merits in detail. Suffice it to say here that they all showed off Fleming's admirable figure to advantage.
For "Traviata" she had two different dresses, both by Christian Lacroix. The first, for her country house, was a romantic gown of pale salmon and teal, softly gathered with flowers lining the decolletage and skirt. For the party scene she changed into a sweeping purple taffeta gown and train with dramatic red organza flowers at the off-the-shoulder neckline.
Karl Lagerfeld dressed her for "Manon" in a dreamy gray silk dress with subtle sparkles around the scooped neck and hem and ties of white lace with black ribbons finishing the sleeves.
Finally, John Galliano designed the costume for "Capriccio," _ a slinky, softly draped black dress, under an extravagant peacock-and-gold embroidered jacket with a feathery black collar.
One fashion designer who wasn't included, Oscar de la Renta, told Women's Wear Daily he was so hurt that he was skipping opening night for the first time in two decades.
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