Fabled past met future promise at a Metropolitan Opera gala like no other _ a triple celebration that honored the company's 125-year history, previewed its current stars in upcoming roles, and found time to pay tribute to Placido Domingo's 40 years at the house.
If that sounds like a jam-packed agenda, it was. With excerpts from 23 different operas, ranging from brief arias to extended scenes, the festivities clocked in at just over four hours Sunday night, including intermission.
Much of the evening's charm was due to the loving recreation of old sets and costumes from productions of the past, some of it through the magic of video projection. So the famous picture of Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson standing on a tree stump about to be hanged at the 1910 world premiere of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" ("The Girl of the Golden West") came to life before our eyes. Only this time it was Domingo standing there, ready to launch into his aria, "Ch'ela mi creda." Domingo figured again at the end of the first half in a recreation of the final scene from Wagner's "Parsifal," a 1903 depiction of the temple of the Holy Grail, complete with a white dove fluttering over the knights as Wagner intended.
Domingo was in splendid voice all night. In the Puccini, the Wagner and an excerpt from Verdi's "Otello" he was covering familiar ground in roles he's mostly given up. But the highlight of his evening was the extended Act 1 duet from Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" for the title character and his long-lost daughter, Amelia. Not only is this a new role for Domingo, it's written for a baritone. But it seems to fit the darkening quality of his voice well, and he and soprano Angela Gheorghiu blended their voices beautifully.
There were many other standout performances. Natalie Dessay (in a dress worn by Bidu Sayao in 1937) previewed her upcoming Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata" and showed again that she's just about the finest singing actress around. Not only did she nail the coloratura of "Sempre libera," she brought the character's ambivalence about falling in love vividly to life.
Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky proved that his current assignment in Verdi's "Il Trovatore" hasn't coarsened his voice with a ravishing performance of Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades." In brief scenes from three Franco Zeffirelli-designed Puccini productions, Joseph Calleja won the battle of the tenors with a sweet-voiced "Che gelida manina" from "La Boheme."
The evening's decibel prize went to soprano Maria Guleghina and mezzo Stephanie Blythe for their sizzling duet from Verdi's "Aida." Both showed considerable artistry in addition to lung power.
One of the most anticipated moments was the closing duet from Wagner's "Siegfried," a trial run for a new "Ring" cycle with soprano Deborah Voigt as Bruennhilde and tenor Ben Heppner as Siegfried. He sounded in healthy voice if slightly restrained, with none of the cracking on high notes that afflicted his "Queen of Spades" earlier this season. Voigt did some fine singing, but her repeated forays up to high C were problematic.
Met music director James Levine, whose own 40th anniversary is just two years away, conducted the orchestra with unflagging energy.
One sour note was the absence of soloists of color. As the evening wrapped up and photos of Met performers through the ages flashed on the curtain, it was hard not to reflect on the contrast with the 100th anniversary gala in 1983, when stars like Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle and Simon Estes proudly held the stage.
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