There is something very special about the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Yes, you can talk about the imposing structure: all glass and metal, the breathtaking Chagalls, and those starburst chandeliers, which are always a particular visual highlight for me. All so very glitzy. All so very American.
Yet “special” took on new meaning for me on November 23 when, after a long absence, Rolando returned to reclaim his place in the hearts of chilly New Yorkers.
The evening of the 23rd started off with an unheard of mini-snowstorm with horizontal snow pelting us as we walked (or rather, ran) across the Lincoln Center plaza. Evidently, nature was giving us a hint that this would be an unusual night!
Let me begin by acknowledging the exceptional cast, starting with Peter Mattei in the role of Onegin. His rich and deeply sonorous voice, combined with his intimidating size, emphasized the unyielding coldness towards Tatiana. Marina Poplavskaya excelled both vocally and dramatically, offering us a convincing Tatiana that begins as a young and vulnerable girl and evolves into a woman committed to sacrifice and duty.
Stefan Kocan as Prince Gremin had to wait more than three hours to sing his impressive aria, but he was rewarded with boisterous applause, which, I hope made the wait less painful.
The one question mark of the evening was the volume of the orchestra. Conductor Alexander Vedernikov elicited too much force from the orchestra, such that, at times it was difficult to hear the singers, including the booming voice of Onegin. I know that the Met is an enormous cavern that must be filled with sound, but it’s the conductor’s role to balance the volume of the orchestra and the singers. I would hope that some slight adjustments can be made for subsequent performances.
From the moment Rolando appeared on stage, it became clear to me that, for many in attendance, the night belonged to him. Without having sung a note, the audience greeted Rolando with warm, heartfelt applause, clearly welcoming back someone dear to their hearts. No other performer was greeted in such a manner, and I have never seen a singer accorded such a welcome at the Met. I could only imagine how much it must have meant to Rolando to know that New York City had not forgotten him!
Naturally, there was intense pressure that came with the premier, but it was clear from the start that Rolando was ready for that night in every respect. If he was nervous, it was not apparent in the least. He has often spoken of the internal tigers he has to tame, and I can tell you that he not only conquered them, but used them to his advantage.
|foto: latinospost.com - Ken Howard/MET|
There are many aspects of Rolando’s performance I can discuss, but I would like to start with the character of Lenski himself. This is a wonderful role for Rolando because it allows him to express a wide range of emotions and reversals of fortune that this opera is built on. It’s all there: ebullient happiness, jealousy, rage, and profound melancholy.
I think that a complete and rich Lenski is a bit of a combination of Nemorino, the irresistible, playful boy, Alfredo, the impetuous youth driven by violent emotions of love, rage, and jealousy, and Werther, the romantic poet who lives in an idealized world that is shattered when he finds that his beloved is engaged to another. Rolando brings all of Nemorino’s sweetness and charm, making it abundantly clear why Olga has fallen in love with him. Here is a man in love, giving his beloved the best of himself: his beautiful poems. This is most evidenced when Lenski and Olga are seated, looking over his poems. I was fortunate to be able to see his facial expressions and body language during this beautiful moment. Here Lenski is something of the shy boy who offers his gift in the same way little children radiate delight and pride when they give their mothers those charming pictures they have drawn in school.
We have said it before but this will always be the case with Rolando: you can’t take your eyes off him because you’ll miss something. Rolando’s portrayals are all about details, which truly bring a character to life. In the same scene, Olga takes a turn at writing some verse and shows it to “the expert.” He reads it and realizes it’s actually quite good, then has this look of surprise, as if to playfully say, “Hey, I’M the poet here!” All of this is taking place while the main action is focused on Tatiana and Onegin.
|foto: latinospost.com - Ken Howard/MET|
You would think that he was deliberately attempting to upstage his fellow actors, but that is not the case. Even if he stood perfectly still (clearly impossible in this universe), he would still be radiating energy that calls for your attention.
A highlight of the evening is “Ya lyublyu vas,” a gorgeous melody sung by a man overflowing with love, yet somehow aware that his beloved may some day forget him. As Rolando continues to evolve as an artist, you see the trademark richness and warmth increasingly combined with exquisitely-nuanced sweetness and subtlety. As he completes the aria, he receives a resounding ovation. Of course!
The audience clearly wanted to continue applauding, but the conductor quickly resumed the music. I understand that it is the conductor’s job to move the music forward, but I wish he would have taken into account what an unusual evening this was both for Rolando AND FOR THE AUDIENCE. He should have realized how much the audience wanted to reach out to Rolando.
In Act II, we see a very different side of Lenski. Now he is ruled by rage directed at his “friend” Onegin and contempt for Olga, who seems to have forgotten him altogether, as he sensed in “Ya lyublyu vas.” His anger is so real and raw that you can feel it in the theatre. After he berates Olga and flings her to the floor, you think that, like Alfredo in the party scene at Flora’s, he is a nanosecond away from doing her physical harm. It’s so real that your hair stands on end.
Then comes the bittersweet “Kuda Kuda,” sung with such a deep sense of loss that things have turned out as they have. Here is the romantic poet finally accepting a world of sorrow that just a day ago he barely knew existed. Not even the poems he clutches to his breast for the last time can mitigate the disaster that is about to follow.
|foto: latinospost.com - Ken Howard/MET|
We are all simply breathless, following every note, every line. Even singing softly, you feel Rolando’s voice filling a 4,000-seat house with ease. As is so often the case, I recognize the hallmark of Rolando’s work. He does not “interpret” the aria. He does not obscure it in a fog of externally-imposed meaning. Instead, he elicits what is already there deeply within the music and the text. I simply had not heard it before now. But when I do, I think, “Yes, of course, that came from someplace special, close to the composer.”
He ends the aria with a barely-suppressed clutch in his voice, devastating the audience with a crushing sense of loss. Another breathless moment erupts into enthusiastic bravos and cheers. There is so much love directed at Rolando—it has become very personal.
Once again, the conductor resumes the music even though it is clear that we are not done with our warm embrace. We must wait a while longer to make our feelings known during the curtain call.
As the performance comes to an end, I contemplate how I used to think of Lenski as a supporting character in this tragedy. But having seen this production and Rolando’s subtleties with the character, I see it differently. Lenski is not only a character but also a symbol of the characters’ inability to escape from the consequences of their decisions. He is a symbol of great potential wasted, a symbol of inescapable death. He dies physically at the end of Act II, but his presence is felt throughout the third act. Both Onegin and Tatiana may be alive, but they, too, are paying the price for their decisions. It’s as though the weight of those decisions is so oppressive, they can only sleepwalk through a joyless life. In a very real sense, they have died as well.
As the music draws to a close, we are emotionally spent. Then come the curtain calls. When it is his turn, Rolando bounds enthusiastically onto the stage, where he is greeted with a roar of approval. The look of complete jubilation on his face is priceless. Naturally, it is followed by that trademark hillbilly yell, which punctuates many of his stellar performances. What a joy to see him in such a triumphant moment on such a big stage!
Then comes the standing ovation. It's rather impressive to see 4,000 people stand up as one, and, at least for the moment, I'm glad the theater is as big as it is. I also conclude that, for a special performer, maybe New Yorkers aren’t quite that cold after all.
In a perfect world, I would have attended all five performances, but my distance from NYC (500 kilometers) made it a near impossibility. But I was so happy to have been there on opening night to witness Rolando’s triumph and share this experience with those of you who were there in spirit.
I hope that there are many more special performances in Rolando’s future at the Met, where he can see that his devoted public appreciates him more than ever before. Until then, many thanks to Rolando for an unforgettable and heartbreakingly beautiful evening!
Joanna from New York
|foto: Twitter @RolandoVillazon|
Many thanks, Joanna!