The last three Met opera broadcasts I saw this year(I skipped Rigoletto, which apparently wasn’t that good anyway, and Parsifal, which apparently was, but it was really too long) all seemed to be about the prima donna. Riccardo Zanondai’s Francesca da Ramini was actually revived for the first time at the Met since the 80s and only the 2nd time ever specifically because Eva-Maria Westbreok wanted to sing it, Maria Stuarda was done because their doing all three of the Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor Queen operas but still was pretty much centered around Joyce DiDonato, and Handel’s Giulio Cesare might not have been centered around Natalie Dessay, but when she’s still missing performances due to her health, today became largely about showing she’s not done yet, doing a role that requires not only hard singing but also Bollywood dancing!
Though when it came down to it, Maria Stuarda was an exercise by everyone from the 19th century onward trying to get past an awful libretto, which got rid of all the good lines in Friedrich Shiller’s original play and played up his romantic plot tumor. But Donizetti did what he could in providing good music despite his lack of material to work with, and when staging it for the first time in their history the Met did fairly well with mis en scene and such; they weren’t quite as scrupulous about accuracy as they were in Anna Bolena, allowing themselves artistry instead, but they still pay attention to history more than Schiller did, even applying age makeup during the intermission to create the ten years that passed between the historical events depicted in the opera but everyone before this pretty much ignored, and showing both Queens without their wigs. But still the center was Joyce DiDonato; the opera’s best parts were when she was on stage, though Met debutante Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth held down her half of the opera fine, making the whole thing worthy of tears.
Francesca da Ramini in contrast, ended up being less about Westbreok and the singing, though that was certainly good(and Mark Delavan as the husband stole the show in the interviews), than the production. It was the 80s production(in fact, there were interviews centered on taking care of the costumes and sets and making them show-worthy after they spent over twenty years in storage) that nonetheless stood up fairly well. Like Maria Stuarda it took some liberties with historical accuracy for artistry, this time with a specific intention, to turn the opera into a musical pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. It was especially effective in the second act, where light combined with music and words and chaos to give the impression that the lovers were in Hell long before they committed adultery, that Hell was her being forced into marriage with his brother. Indeed, this 1914 opera had a few pretty modern notions about the plight of women like Francesca, and showed a little of the general brutality of the time period. It wouldn’t hurt to do it a little more often, even. It’s good enough.
Giulio Cesare, meanwhile, drew attention with both its singing and its staging; Dessay had a very good day; hitting her arias and her dance moves very well, and when she can do that and has a Handel creation like Cleopatra to work with she still owns the place. David Daniels as Caesar actually had more trouble than her, not doing his first scene very well, though he got better after that. Still in terms of technicality, the best performances might have come from Patricia Bardon as Cornelia and Alice Coote as Sextus, though perhaps one or two of their very similarly themed arias could’ve been cut; one reached the point where one thought, “This again?” even when it was done well(I’m pretty sure at least one of Cleopatra’s arias was cut, perhaps out of consideration for Dessay) The setting was basically colonialist, making the Roman Empire like the British Empire and Egypt like India, though borrowing elements from both across a few centuries(hence the Bollywood dancing). Which perhaps did not make for the best implications, but did allow the set and costume designers to have lots of fun, as well as the choreographer.
All in all, the second half of the season was much better than the first. Whether that’ll be true next year remains to be seen, but I suspect the later shows will be better than the opening one…