Recorded in 1991, and spread out over two discs (for no apparent reason, except the higher price a two-disc set can carry), this Gala at least avoids the ubiquitous gala routine of an orchestral overture or two followed by a slow parade of singers laboriously trotting on stage, singing their number, enjoying their inflated gala ovations, and then trotting off again.
Instead, here we have two acts from two different Verdi operas, presented in their entirety on the Met’s then current sets, and then an abbreviated second act from Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, the act where a party scene often turns into a sort of gala. And so it does here, at much extended length. At least all the guests are on stage, and the Prince Orlofsky, Anne Sofie Von Otter, introduces each one in character (which brings its own tedium before long, unfortunately).
1991 Metropolitan Opera casting tends toward tenor superstars and sopranos of some contemporary stature, if not exactly star quality. The exception to that latter statement comes in the middle of the evening, when Placido Domingo brings his potent Otello to the stage, with the more than worthy partner of Mirella Freni as Desdemona, and a handsome but somewhat pallid Justino Diaz as Iago. This is act three, not the act four one might expect. The Met chorus gets a larger role, but only Domingo gets a real solo moment. Freni, however, makes the most of her character’s torment at the cruelty of her suddenly insanely jealous husband, and the Zefferelli sets and costumes make for an impressive show.
That act certainly has more dramatic edge than the opening one, the final act from Rigoletto. In Otto Schenk’s atmospheric but dark, dreary set, Luciano Pavarotti is not able to resort to his accustomed charm, and the high notes of his big solo number are very carefully approached. Leo Nucci is now established as a leading Rigoletto; in 1991 he is solid but unremarkable. Perhaps Cheryl Studer could have been called a true opera star in 1991; she certainly made enough recordings and garnered many high-profile assignments. Undoubtedly she still has her fans, but her Gilda here strikes your reviewer as typical of her signing – a pleasant but forgettable tone, lacking in individual touches or color, emanating from an uninspired stage persona. The scene does boast a nice turn from Nicolai Ghiaurov as Sparafucile, but Birgitta Svenden does not impress as Maddalena, and the quartet doesn’t take flight as it should.
The finest baritone of the evening dances out in Der Fledermaus – Hermann Prey. Act two doesn’t give him much to do, but his charm is irrepressible. In the gala sequence that soon follows, he chooses to sing an unchallenging Papageno aria. Von Otter’s Orlofsky is amusing enough, bearing a curiously strong resemblance to mid-1980s David Bowie. Barbara Daniels as Rosalinde displays an attractive physical presence and a vocal instrument of such bright, laser-like focus that it quickly becomes tiring to the ears.
The gala sequence strikes few sparks. Frederica Von Stade charms her way through a lightweight Offenbach piece. Described by Von Otter/Orlofsky as a “rising star,” Thomas Hampson all but shouts his way through “Largo al factotum.” After June Anderson’s piercing rendition of “Je suis Titania” from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon (points for relative obscurity!), Sherill Milnes is introduced as the era’s reigning baritone. His reign is clearly in its last days, as Milnes struggles to keep pitch and line in Bernstein and Sondheim’s “Maria.“ Aprile Millo is in good voice for “La Momma Morta,” and Ferrucio Furlanetto does a fun turn with Don Giovanni’s catalog aria. Singing a Donizetti piece, Kathleen Battle displays her star power and none of the idiosyncracies that would eventually end her Met career. Samuel Ramey follows Milnes to Broadway with “The Impossible Dream,” in a ludicrously string-heavy arrangement that conductor James Levine beats to death. After Mirella Freni’s elegant aria from Adriana Lecouvreur, the gala finally earns the name with Luciano Pavorotti and Placido Domingo camping it up in the act three Boheme tenor/baritone duet. Domingo, of course, takes the Marcello line, and he has to push a bit in the lower range, but the performance is charming and enjoyable.
For any opera fans for whom the late 1980s and early 1990s were prime years may well treasure this document. For many others, it will be a telling reminder all times are indeed not golden.
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