Thursday, February 27, 2014

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - Schoenberg & Beethoven - 02/25/14

Conductor: Franz Welser-Möst
Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden for Chorus and Instruments ad lib, Op. 13
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Ricarda Merbeth: Soprano
Zoryana Kushpler: Mezzo-soprano
Peter Seiffert: Tenor
Günther Groissböck: Bass
New York Choral Artists
Joseph Flummerfelt: Chorus Director

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which is also the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, is currently in town for Carnegie Hall's "Vienna: City of Dreams" Festival, which is taking place over three weeks all over New York City, setting music lovers' hearts aflutter with a wide range of events in all sorts of venues. At least once you get past the hand-wringing about the Nazi connections and lack of minorities to focus on the music-making.
And what better way to kick off the festivities and get in a Viennese state of mind than in the company of its world-famous orchestra performing the ultimate masterpiece of one of its most popular composers on Tuesday night? And sure enough, the universal appeal of Beethoven's superlative Symphony No. 9 was all the more evident at the sight of a full-to-the-brim Stern Auditorium, in which the excitement reserved for the big nights was definitely palpable.
Friede auf Erden, a much shorter piece by Schoenberg, another one of Vienna's musical sons, would open the program, never mind the fact that it was obviously written after Beethoven's Ninth. The parallels between the two works are just too uncanny not to include them in the same program, even in the illogical order. The fact that I almost missed this grand occasion is almost too scary to reminisce. So after I got a last-minute serendipitous reminder of this concert, I joined a couple of friends who were clearly more on top of their schedules, and we eagerly waited for the celebration to begin.

A distant modern echo of Beethoven's Ninth, Arnold Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden is an eight-minute work initially written for chorus, then completed with an orchestra, exalting universal peace and brotherhood while breaking new musical ground by the same token (Sounds familiar?). On Tuesday, we got to hear the chorus and orchestra version of it. In fact, I did not feel that the orchestra was necessary, but on the other hand, when you have one of the world's most prestigious orchestras in the house, you might as well put them to work. An intriguing combination of lush romantic sounds and a gritty, unpredictable tonality, this low-key bridge between two major musical movements stood up on its very own thanks to brilliant performances by the reduced chorus and orchestra.
Jumping back almost a century, we finally dwelled into the fundamental game changer that was Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, the monumental bridge between two major musical movements. From the unsettling first notes, the rich and incisive sounds coming from the orchestra under the energetic baton of Franz Welser-Möst came out utterly familiar, yet still exuded an eternal freshness. What was considered radical then still touches with its boldness and grandeur, vastness and spirituality. Add to that the complete deafness of the composer at the time, and one realizes that the Ninth really was an unique endeavor and a sheer miracle. As old pros at Beethoven as can be, the musicians proved they had a seamless connection to the Viennese master by delivering a voluptuous, vibrant and seemingly effortless performance of his epic swan song.
That being said, the singing parts were expertly filled with a splendid New York Choral Artists chorus, which presented a flawlessly united and all-powerful front, and four impeccable soloists, with a special mention for bass Günther Groissböck, who launched the gloriously uplifting "Ode to Joy" with force and authority. Despite an ovation as rousing as the work itself, there were no encores, but then again, what do you play after THAT?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Met - Prince Igor - 02/24/14

Composers: Alexander Borodin, Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Producer/Director: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Prince Igor: Ildar Abdrazakov
Yaroslavna: Oksana Dyka
Prince Galitsky: Mikhail Petrenko
Vladimir Igorevich: Sergey Semishkur
Konchakovna: Anita Rachvelishvili
Khan Konchak: Stefan Kocan

Russia has been in the news a lot lately, for good and not so good reasons. However, one thing that this country can be unreservedly proud of is its impressive musical heritage. Therefore, when Borodin's Prince Igor, about which I knew nothing, except for the popular "Polovtsian Dances", appeared in the Met's season, I was kind of leaning toward going, out of nothing but plain curiosity. That being said, the idea of sitting in an opera house for over four hours made me look for a little reassurance in terms of general quality. When the buzz turned out to be generally positive, I bought a ticket, took a couple of days off from work, and eventually joined a packed house last night, serendipitously running into some old friends who had had the same curiosity in the process.
After working on the opera in his spare time for 18 years (That's what happens when you're a full-time research scientist, professor and lecturer), Borodin died suddenly before finishing it. So it fell on his friends Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov to take the various pieces he had left behind and create a cohesive work out of them. They were so successful that the result ended up enjoying a long and lasting popularity in Russia, if not the rest of the world.

Enter Dmitri Tcherniako and Gianandrea Noseda, the Russian director and Italian conductor of the current Met production, who took it upon themselves to do their own thing with it, including altering the story, rearranging the scenes, designing the sets and adding some music. Since there is no original Prince Igor by default, there were probably not many qualms to be had about going against the composer's wishes as long as the general spirit of Borodin's endeavor was respected. In any case, I would not have anything to compare it with to begin with, which allowed me to take it all in with a wide open mind.
The opera's title may be Prince Igor, but the headliner disappeared for long stretches of time. When he was on stage, however, Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov's solid presence was unmistakable. His confident, handsomely burnished singing was not particularly deep, but richly lyrical. Since his part consisted mostly in being a tortured soul full of remorse and yet not giving up hope, his acting skills were more than up to the task. This prince was by no means an all-around hero, but one cared for him.
On the other hand, it was easy to look at Yaroslavna, Prince Igor's dignified wife, as the main character of the opera as she readily took charge of the kingdom when her husband did not return. Far from the doomed damsel-in-distress she could have become, Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka was a fiercely devoted spouse made of unpliable steel, even when the occasional moment of self-doubt assailed her. Accordingly, her singing was intense, fearless and imperturbable. This was a princess you did not want to cross.
And that's just what her brother learned at his own expense. As the compulsory bad boy, Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko had all the right stuff for Prince Galitsky, Yaroslavna's permanently nasty, frequently drunk sibling with the devil-may-care attitude. In the role of the accommodating captor, Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan was an all-powerful Khan Konchak.
The young star-crossed lovers, Vladimir, the captive son of Prince Igor, and Konchakovna, the daughter of his captor, were a pleasure for the eyes and the ears as they frolicked among the vibrantly red poppies. Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili looked and sounded like a young Anna Netrebko-in-waiting with her sultry figure and luscious voice. Russian tenor Sergey Semishkur was a disarmingly ardent young man put in an unquestionably tricky position.
But when all was said and done, the true vocal star of the opera was indisputably the superb Met chorus, which sounded as magnificent as ever, no matter what kind of combination they were singing in. Whether divided or together, they added musical heft and emotional power to the scene every single time they appeared. Just getting to hear them expertly tackle such a wide range of choral writing was worth the price of the ticket alone.
A big deal had been made of the colorful poppy field that brightens up Act I during Prince Igor's hallucinations. It was indeed a striking sight, and probably one of the very few times where I was actually happy to be located in the nose-bleed section so that I could have a full overview of the stage. It vividly evoked the mysterious exoticism of the Polovtsian steppes in a surreal, yet very physical, kind of way. The magic ceased to operate though, when dancers - bare-chested men and white-flowing-dress-clad women - started literally popping up and soon engaged in what my friend Steve knowingly assessed as a "rave" (I am no expert on the subject, so I will not comment any further), which suddenly turned into a much more energetic number for the famous "Polovtsian Dances". Even Prince Igor looked a bit puzzled at the whole thing, and really, who could blame him?
In sharp contrast to the visual splendor of the dreamlike poppy-filled landscape, the rest of the décors dealt with reality and were consequently much more sober and versatile, which significantly contributed in quickly setting the environment of each scene. If only we could have gotten a better sense of  time and place - The plot was originally inspired by a 12th century folk tale, but some people walked around in modern outfits, so it was all very vague - that would have been helpful.
One clever decision was to have black and white videos in Act I to make up for some missing passages. This modern element incorporated in the theatrical presentation of an epic story was a bold and winning move. The close-ups of Prince Igor's face and the short excerpts of the battle and its aftermath were beautifully eloquent, and it is regrettable that nothing of that sort was included in the other acts.
Overall, the opera's current structure came out fairly well, but it still had slight remaining issues. Even without being familiar with the previous version, it was not hard to spot a few debatable choices that created discombobulation or confusion, such as Yaroslavna's incongruously showing up in the poppies or the flashback of the Prince's escape in Act III. As for inserting Borodin's "The River Don Floods" after the traditional ending, it was not necessary, but it worked just fine, adding a final touch of faint hope as the arduous rebuilding started.
The music was plush Russian Romanticism all the way, and although Borodin did not fully possess the musical chops of his country's most prominent composers, he clearly knew how to turn out show-stopping arias, gripping chorus numbers and catchy dance routines. Being intimately involved in the production did pay off in spades for maestro Gianandrea Noseda as he drew voluptuous lines out of singers and musicians alike while keeping a firm grasp on the sprawling score.
What more could one ask for? Well, a few edits here and there would not hurt, and tightening up a few loose ends would be a good idea too. In the meantime, we'll happily keep this Prince Igor.

Monday, February 24, 2014

New York Classical Players - Nielsen, Delius, Sarasate, Saint-Saens & Tchaikovsky - 02/23/14

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Nielsen: Little Suite for Strings, Op. 1
Delius: Two Aquarelles
Sarasate: Navarra for Two Violins (arranged for strings by Yoomi Paick) - Chee-Yun and Alexi Kenney
Saint-Saens: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (arranged for strings by Yoomi Paick) - Chee-Yun
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings

After the outstanding French Quatuor Ebène on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, my concert calendar had the equally outstanding, considerably larger and definitely more multi-national New York Classical Players yesterday afternoon in the Church of the Heavenly Rest, their regular home on the Upper East Side. But then again, one can never hear too many terrific string players.
Moreover, the weather was so pleasant that walking in Central Park would have been on my mind even if I had not had to cross it to get to the venue. To top things off, my friend Ruth had decided to join me to find out what the raves about this particular string ensemble were really all about. Taking our seats a few minutes before the concert started, I could not help but marvel at how big the NYCP's audience had become, especially on a day where being inside could rightfully be considered counter-intuitive. On the other hand, it was truly heart-warming to see that more and more people can recognize a good thing when they hear one.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen was still very young when he wrote his "Little Suite for Strings", as the engaging freshness and unfussy charm of the work can attest. But he also proved to have a genuinely extended knowledge of strings and how to use them, resulting in a piece that sounded deceptively simple, but contained quite a few promising developments. The New York Classical Players' famously glowing strings made this Little Suite a big success as well as an ideal opening number for the string feast that was to follow.
"Two Aquarelles" by Frederick Theodore Albert Delius was as short as it was delightful. The silky sensuality of the first part was soon replaced by the infectious high-spiritedness of the second part, and the whole thing was wrapped up nicely and quickly.
As a big fan of Sarasate's irresistible "Zigeunerweisen" I was curious to hear his "Navarra for Two Violins", especially since one of the soloists would be highly regarded Chee-Yun. As a matter of fact, it quickly turned out that her partner in music, Alexi Kenney, was just as remarkably talented as she was, as they were both impeccably complementing each other, which was no easy feat since they were playing together most of the time. As for the composition itself, it was devilishly intricate and deliciously hot, a welcome healthy dose of brilliant fun, all the way to the high-speed finale.
Back after intermission and still in a sunny Spanish mood, Chee-Yun's wide-ranging skills were on full display for Saint-Saens' ever popular "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso", which, incidentally, was premièred in Paris by no other than... Sarasate, back in 1867. Masterfully arranged for strings by Yoomi Paick, the exciting show piece for violin exploded with gentle lyricism, infectious melodies, and virtuosic fireworks. From the very first notes of the deceptively sweet opening to the dramatically high-flying finale, Chee-Yun impeccably handled all the tricky complexities endlessly coming at her and gave a performance that felt both tightly controlled and wonderfully liberating.
After our long and loud ovation, the festive atmosphere understandably went down quite a bit for our encore, Kreisler's "Recitavo and scherzo", which started with a brooding overtone and concluded in another dazzling last stretch.
Then came was Ruth so eloquently called "the schmaltz", but not just any kind of schmaltz since this particular one had been written by The King of Schmaltz himself, AKA Piotr Tchaikovsky. Shamelessly shooting straight for the heart in an opening movement that grandly sweeps everything on its way, his "Serenade for Strings" has all the right ingredients to become a guilty pleasure of pretty melodies and lush lyricism. Perfectly suited for the task at hand, the orchestra did not hesitate to dwell right into the emotional depths of the stirring composition while still retaining a touch of subtle elegance, notably in the lovely waltz. Vive le schmaltz!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Quatuor Ebène - Haydn, Schumann & Mendelssohn - 02/21/14

Haydn: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5
Schumann: String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80

There are a few artists whose performances I do my utmost to attend, and the Quatuor Ebène has been in that category ever since that fateful evening in the Coolidge auditorium of The Library of Congress all the way back in the spring 2009. A lot has happened since then, to them and to me, but it is always with the same joy that I witness their magic fingers expertly work their instruments.
I unfortunately had to miss our quasi annual rendez-vous last year, so this season I made a point not to let anything get in the way between me and their Carnegie Hall concert last Friday, which had the added bonus of my friend Lisa's company. It was the beginning of an unusually long and very musical weekend for me, the city was finally emerging from its cold white winter cover, and no snow had been forecast until... next Tuesday! In short, it was perfect timing to get down to Zankel's cool underground space with classical music's French Fab Four.

Joseph Haydn may be a quintessential symbol of Viennese classicism, but the String Quartet in F Minor, No. 5 that opened the program stemmed from his then ground-breaking decision to make all four instruments equal partners, a musical milestone that paved the way for Mozart and Beethoven while earning him the nickname of "father of the string quartet". Confidently dusting off any possible hints of convention or stuffiness, the musicians took the innovative composition up one more notch and delivered a vibrantly dynamic, beautifully detailed rendition of it.
A few decades later, Robert Schumann would try his hand at the string quartet form and produce his merrily gracious String Quartet in A Major, No. 3. The pace varied from slow to spirited, but the overall structure never lost its fundamental integrity, and it all ended with the expected combination of high energy and an infectious melody. It may not be of the same caliber as the two pieces book-ending it, but the Ebène musicians made sure that its engaging qualities shone through.
After intermission the mood grew considerable darker with Mendelssohn's String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80. Written right after the death of his beloved sister Fanny and finished just a few weeks before his own death, this last major composition of his is often considered his late masterpiece. Never one to make a spectacle of himself regardless of the circumstances, Mendelssohn put together an outwardly sober but emotionally far-reaching work, which powerfully expresses deep sadness, nagging pain, constant restlessness, restrained melancholy and sweet tenderness. Using their flawless technical expertise to subtly convey the underlying intensity of this harrowing journey, the Quatuor Ebène resolutely took us right into the grieving brother's tortured mind.

To perk things up a bit before we parted ways, the quartet treated the audience to a pleasant little Broadway tune whose title escaped most of us, but efficiently lifted our spirits. And then all was well again.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra - Rimsky-Korsakov, Kancheli & Tchaikovsky - 02/13/14

Conductor: Yuri Temirkanov
Rimsky-Korsakov: Excerpts from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (arr. Maximilian Steinberg)
Cortège nuptial
L'invasion des Tartares
La bataille de Kerjenetz
Prélude - Hymne à la Nature
Kancheli: ... al Niente
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 - Denis Kozhukihn

Just as New York City was unhappily putting up with the aftermath of its biggest snow storm of the season yet - and this year, this actually means something - The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra showed up totally nonplussed at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, never mind the all-night journey that had just gone through from Washington, DC to make sure that they would actually make it to New York in time. On the other hand, this may have been just another day in the office for St. Petersburg's other prestigious orchestra, which can also boast of tracing its history all the way back to 1882, when it became Russia's first symphony orchestra.
Since we had Russian musicians and conductor as well as Russian weather, it only made sense that we had a resolutely Russian program too. Indeed, the three works to be performed constituted a nice foray in the vast Russian repertoire with excerpts from a rarely produced opera, a contemporary piece dedicated to Maestro Temirkanov and one of the world's most popular warhorses. All this considered, my friend Linden and I grudgingly but determinedly negotiated the city's dreadful combination of tall icebergs, deep puddles, icy patches and slippery slush to join a largely Russian crowd for a full Russian immersion evening.

Knowing Rimsky-Korsakov essentially through its spell-binding Scheherazade, I was not overly surprised to find the excerpts from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh oozing the same plush melodic qualities. From the carefree spirit of the wedding procession to the colorfully dramatic invasion and battle, to the delicately bucolic hymn to nature, the orchestra gave a lavishly flowing performance of those pretty much self-contained highlights of the reputedly downright enchanting and borderline silly opera.
Then we jumped right into the very beginning of the third millennium with Georgian composer Giya Kancheli and his mystical evocation of nothingness. Although it required the full orchestra, the one 30-minute movement was for the most part a minimalist piece made of kaleidoscopic moments of hypnotic stillness, explosive outbursts and tentative momentum. Not unlike Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time, ... al Niente turned out to be a fascinating exploration of time and its mysteries, during which anything sounded possible and the unexpected did in fact happen now and then.
Wisely placed at the end of the program to make sure nobody would escape right after it and before the end of the concert, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 eventually made its customary grand entrance. Cutting a young and Romantic figure with his slender frame and blond ponytail, Russian (of course!) pianist Denis Kozhukhin went straight for the kill and dazzlingly tamed the wild beast without any discernible wavering. Solidly in command, he played with unfussy virtuosity, brilliantly exposing the work's emotional power, flamboyant lyricism and poetic dreaminess. Impeccably seconded by the orchestra, this was the take-no-prisoners performance we had all been waiting for, and we all ecstatically relished it until the very last glorious notes.

Our loud and lasting ovation earned us a lovely arrangement of the "Mélodie" from Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice, which clearly demonstrated that our pianist was just as comfortable with pensive contemplation as with heart-on-sleeve Romanticism. Then we had to reluctantly go back to our real winter world.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Glyndebourne Festival Opera - Billy Budd - 02/07/14

Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Mark Elder
Revival Director: Ian Rutherford
Captain Vere: Mark Padmore
Claggart: Brindley Sherratt
Billy Budd: Jacques Imbrailo

Benjamin Britten's centennial may have come and gone, but fortunately for New Yorkers, there is still some Britten - And what Britten! - to be had for a short while in downtown Brooklyn these days, namely a revival of The Glyndebourne Festival Opera's much acclaimed production of what many consider Britten's ultimate masterpiece: Billy Budd. I am still partial to Peter Grimes and its unmatched evocation of the mysterious North Sea, but I am totally open to get carried away by another captivating drama by the English composer.
That's why after an enjoyable but rather conventional evening at The Met with Rusalka starring Renée Fleming and Piotr Beczala earlier in the week, I found myself eagerly heading to the BAM, New York's historic temple of avant-garde art, to become acquainted with an enigmatic English opera about sadism, homo-eroticism, male bonding, political imperatives and moral quagmire with like-minded friends. What more could one hope for on a Friday night?

Inspired by Melville's novella by the same name, Billy Budd is about some kind of twisted love triangle between Billy Budd, the handsome and naive young sailor everybody loves, Claggart, the evil Master-at-Arms whose irrepressible attraction to Billy will lead to a tragic succession of events, and Captain Vere, a fundamentally good man, but unable to properly take control over a dire situation, whose unfortunate outcome will haunt him for the rest of his life. Things get murky, chaotic and confused quickly in this mess of human passions and philosophical themes. To add historical spice to the mix, this is all happening aboard a British man-of-war during the French Revolutionary wars of 1797.
It can be rightly argued that despite the opera's title, Captain Vere is the main character of the story. And tenor Mark Padmore's spot-on performance certainly did not contradict this notion, as he sang with restrained intensity and gave emotionally gripping life to Britten's phrases. Opening and closing the opera with dignified yet heart-wrenching anguish, he impersonated a strong, honorable, but ultimately weak captain, going one step too far in making his unexplained fatal decision.
As Claggart, bass Brindley Sherratt was a villain of impressive creepiness and magnetic control, his voice sounding as if it were coming straight from the bottom of a deep dark place. Impeccably proving that less can indeed be much more, his self-hatred and cruelty were as scary as they were understated. It sure takes talent to be that good at being that bad.
The drama's unwitting catalyst, Billy Budd, could be seen as a likable chap thrown in circumstances way over his head, or a Christ-like figure doomed to suffer a fate he did not deserve. In any case, baritone Jacques Imbrailo made good use of his versatile voice and engaging presence, and pretty soon the whole audience was as taken with him as his ship mates were.
The rest of the all-male cast was equally commendable regardless of the importance of their parts. There was clearly not an even remotely weak link in that well-oiled machine. The consistently excellent chorus particularly distinguished itself during the big militaristic scene at the beginning of Act II, when the crew was roused up at the prospect of sinking a French ship, to be disappointed a few moments later when the mist prevented it. The singing was sharply focused and chillingly powerful, as the men were as ready for combat as could be.
The set was another miracle of flawless efficiency essentially by being the interior of a hull, complete with decks, ropes, guns and other seafaring whatnots, with Captain Vere's private quarters coming down from the ceiling in a smooth and perfectly timed move. In an intimate Howard Gilman opera house full to the brim and subtly lighted for maximum impact, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the closed environment was unmistakably palpable and the smell of salty sweat almost discernible. With every inch of the stage put to excellent use and the singers cleverly directed with clear purposes, this riveting production was run like the tight ship it was, pun intended.
It also had the distinct advantage of unfolding to Britten's glorious score, to which The London Philharmonic Orchestra did thrilling justice. Whether we were relishing moments of meaningful minimalism or sweeping grandeur, the music was perfectly balanced and right in tune with the situation. Mark Elder conducted his brilliant musicians with urgency and finesse, and they all significantly contributed to the resounding success of this memorable Billy Budd. On Friday night, there is no doubt that the British had definitely come and conquered.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Met - Rusalka - 02/04/14

Composer: Antonin Dvorak
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Producer: Otto Schenk
Rusalka: Renée Fleming
The Prince: Piotr Beczala
Jezibaba: Mary Phillips
Water Gnome: John Relyea
The Foreign Princess: Emily Magee

Getting to hear still reigning opera diva Renée Fleming sing live is a priceless gift, and New Yorkers have been fortunate enough to have quite a few opportunities to do just that lately, either when she added an unmistakable touch of classiness to the testosterone fest that is the Super Bowl last Sunday or during a performance of her signature role in Rusalka at The Met. The opera's story was partly inspired by Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid, which was also the basis for the hugely popular Disney movie by the same name. Rusalka, however, is more long-winded, to say the least, and does not have the happy ending of its Hollywood counterpart.
But Dvorak's name on the score guarantees splashy lyricism galore, tenor Piotr Beczala on the stage some shameless swooning, Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium a dynamic pace, and the orchestra in the pit a brilliantly executed musical accompaniment. So yesterday my friends Steve, Carter and I coincidentally converged at The Met  - Apparently great minds do think alike - on an unusually mildish and dry evening, a much welcome respite among too many messy and disruptive winter storms.

As soon as I sat down and noticed the dreaded insert in the program, my heart sank. It eventually came back up, but still seething for a little while from no longer having Dolora Zajick as the sorceress Jezibaba. But the main artists were there, I surprisingly had a lot of empty seats around me, which meant that I could sprawl a bit and had fewer chances of being disturbed by coughing, talking, program dropping, candy unwrapping, etc., so life was not all bad.
From her first appearance perched on a tree to her ultimate good-bye fading into the background, Renée Fleming magisterially proved again that she still owes the part. Blessed with ageless beauty and voice, adorned with cascading blond tresses and flowing long dresses, she remains one of the loveliest water nymphs ever. Her delicately lyrical "Song to the Moon" will be remembered as one of those bucket-list moments opera lovers live for, and my only regret is that her being located towards the back of the stage prevented us from enjoying her mesmerizing singing to the fullest. She was heard much more clearly as she got closer to the audience, and there's no doubt that her intrinsically plush, beautifully phrased singing added a vibrant zest of life to her fundamentally ethereal mermaid.
Her handsome, ardent and fickle Prince was Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor that has pretty much become a household name at The Met, and for all the right reasons. His voice was bright and passionate, his acting assured and convincing. Both singers oozed enough charisma to make up for their not always particularly engaging characters, their singing reliably producing captivating sounds while conveying strong emotions. Their duet in Act III, in particular, was a little wonder of inspired musicality, even at the end of a long evening.
It is always a disappointment not to be able to hear a singer that one eagerly expected, but Mary Phillips did a most laudable job stepping in Dolora Zajick's hard-to-fill shoes and gamely became the fairy tale's mandatory grumbling witch. Bass-baritone John Relyea was an appropriately authoritative Water Gnome, powerfully dispensing his wisdom but unable to save his daughter. Soprano Emily Magee was both fierce and coldly calculating as the trouble-making Foreign Princess in her remarkable Met debut.
The sets, for all their lavish splendor, were resolutely conventional. Acts I and III essentially consisted of a bucolic scenery featuring a mysterious lake in the moonlight, occasionally animated by a colony of colorful, (too?) cute insects happily frolicking all over the place. At least one audience member in front of me actually found it eye-popping enough to record it for a few minutes on his iPhone. Act II was taking place in the outside of the Prince's opulent castle, which was dominated by an imposing set of stairs and - Surprise! - a pond.
The costumes followed the same pattern of predictability and Rusalka's eerily pale clothes stood in stark contrast to the mortals' earthily-colored, form-fitting outfits. From a visual point of view, it was all very organic, unquestionably easy on the eyes, but rather unimaginative too. As for the flashes of lightning that struck at every crucial moment - presumably to let us know that we were witnessing a crucial moment -, they were more preposterous than anything else.
Fortunately, plenty of reasons for excitement were coming from the orchestra pit where Yannick Nézet-Séguin turned Dvorak's richly evocative, if a bit over-extended, score into an excellent musical adventure. Hints of the bohemian Slavonic Dances were on vibrant display during the three wood sprites' opening dance, Acts I and III contained subtly poetic overtones evoking the magical atmosphere of the natural setting, and the fierce confrontations of Act II were forcefully rendered by intense outbursts. Rarely has the harp's gleaming sound been used as potently as in the "Song to the Moon" and other chosen spots, cleverly emphasizing Rusalka's quintessential otherworldliness.
 This was yet another professional triumph for maestro Nézet-Séguin who, beside his prodigious musical skills, also has a much appreciated talent for finishing the performances he conducts right on time. And sure enough, by 11:15 PM the last notes were dreamily fading away, and we were all soon back on a still dry Lincoln Plaza, rushing home after a mostly enchanted evening and before the already looming next winter storm.