Category: How Eye Hear It

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

“So beautiful,” whispered a captivated concertgoer behind me. Normally, any talking—or sound for that matter—is hurriedly and aggressively shushed by a “serious” audience member at the Met. Renée Fleming, however, seemed to provoke an admissible exception.

Fleming’s whirlwind return to the Met Opera’s season premiere of Der Rosenkavalier (music by Richard Strauss, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal) electrified the opera community. Last week, Fleming scared many by announcing that she would soon be leaving the opera stage. Fleming has since nixed the retirement idea, but the effect of the buzz was obvious: fans came in large numbers just in case this would be the last time that they could do so. In attendance as well were some of Fleming’s collaborators, who have sung with her over the years–coming to support her previously-presumed last run at the Met.

Fleming, for her part, plays the Marschallin: a middle-aged member of the Viennese aristocracy who sighs in anguish over the cruelness of aging. Fleming knows—and loves—the role. In her first solo at the end of Act 1, Fleming smartly addressed the silver rose—a symbol of youth and forthcoming happiness—with an imploring, wistful tone quality. Shortly after, her sweet, yet innerly despairing voice seized the audience’s empathy.

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Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

However, notwithstanding the positive aspects of Fleming’s work tonight, I do prefer her 2010 performance of the same role (Columbia faculty and students can find it through CLIO under the keyword “Met Opera on Demand”). In that performance, she lived the Marschallin: solemn tears slowly streamed down her face at the end of the “Mein schöner Schatz” duet in Act 1. Her phrasing and sepulchral tone made for an unforgettable moment.

Tonight’s conductor, Sebastian Weigle, again chose problematic tempos. The prelude, for example, was much too fast. Here, the music is declarative, demonstrative—overly confident and grandiose. Yet, Weigle seemed incredibly anxious, gesturing with extremely quick circular motions (so fast that his arms were just a blur to my eyes). By taking a quicker tempo, the music sounded too hectic and lost its appropriate gusto.

Weigle made a similarly poor decision in the last minutes of Act 3. Here, silvery chords in the high strings, winds, and percussion flutter downward. The descent should be reflective—it is the end of the opera!—and ethereal. However, it felt tossed-off, illy cared for–herky-jerky and uneven. I recognize that I was critical of Weigle’s lethargic tempo decisions for Fidelio, yet here he seems to have gone in the opposite direction. I do admit however, that future runs of the production might produce better results.

The Met orchestra impressed me —as it routinely does—with its stamina. In the middle of the third act, I heard a clarinetist–presumably either Inn-Hyuck Cho or Anton Rist–flawlessly execute a rapid lick that flickered between the clarion and altissimo registers. The passage was followed by a sustained, pianissimo high note. Both of these sections are incredibly difficult to play when with fresh energy. They’re almost a miracle after two and a half hours of continuous music.

Robert Carsen, the producer of the Met’s new take on Der Rosenkavalier, replaces the dusty, Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque setting with a bawdy production set when the opera was written (1911). Topless prostitutes pursue and are pursued by lustful Viennese men; Octavian, the Marschallin’s young lover, grabs his partner’s behind (what a great way to say, “Welcome back, Renée!”); and Sophie, Octavian’s new love, carelessly dances across one of her father’s howitzer (oddly placed in the living room of their modern palace).

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The playfulness of Octavian–performed by Elīna Garanča–and the Marschallin–sung by Renée Fleming–on display in Act 1. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Admittedly, I was skeptical when I learned about Carsen’s decision to set the third act in a brothel. Typically, it is staged in an inn, a “house of ill repute.” However, the text—the same one used for the inn setting—actually translates well in the new environs: it is believable that Sophie’s dad Faninal calls Octavian, who is disguised as Mariandel, a slut and it makes sense that Octavian assumes a baser dialect as a working-class Viennese woman (some funny lines include “Whad’ya mean?” and “I ain’t gonna drink no wine.”)

The one aspect of the brothel that felt most uncomfortable, however, was the onstage jazz quartet. Prostitutes pantomimed and synchronized fake playing on the clarinet, saxophone, double bass, and accordion. Not only was their supposed music not like the orchestra’s actual performance, but also the quartet implied 1920s Europe more than the 1910s. The production had a 1920s feel to it elsewhere as well, Octavian’s flapper-like costume in Act 1 being another example.  

I found Carsen’s incorporation of the Zeitgeist—especially Freudian ideas—rather compelling. When Sophie sings about her upcoming marriage, dreamlike clones of Sophie and her groom-to-be waltz behind her. Sophie is bathed in a yellow spotlight—the light of the real world—while the dancers behind her are enveloped in purple—a hue of the inner, thought world. Carsen’s decision illustrates how an individual’s inner thoughts and desires are experienced as real, even while awake.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier swear their love for each other in front of an imposing howitzer. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier swear their love for each other in front of an imposing howitzer. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Although this was seemingly The Renée Fleming Show, there are, of course, more singers in Der Rosenkavalier. Elīna Garanča as Octavian embodied the wide range of conflicting emotions of her character. At the end of the last act, Octavian is caught between the Marschallin and Sophie, unsure of who he should turn to. Here, Garanča’s expressions and voice illustrated Octavian’s distress well.

Erin Morley as Sophie sounded quite warm in the upper register, especially when she built up toward it. Unfortunately, she was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra, especially during a fast, staccato passage in Act 2. Overall, I found that her diction was unintelligible at times, but balance could be to blame.

Günther Groissböck–a holdover from Fidelio–swaggered with pride, aggression, and self-absorption as the predatorial Baron Ochs. In Act 2, he engaged with Sophie in a vocal battle of sorts, his crescendoing vocal presence overpowering his soon-to-be wife (who he caustically likened to an “unbroken foal”). The Ochs is easily one of the easiest-to-hate characters in opera.

But the night was Fleming’s. At curtain call, the audience enthusiastically expressed joy for her return and relief for her operatic stay. It was her voice—combined with the prowess of the Met orchestra—that led my fellow concertgoer to exclaim, “So beautiful.” It is for these cherished musical moments that we go to the opera and for which you should let yourself come too.

Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier runs through May 13, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live May 13, at 12:30 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org.

 

 

MMC students and teachers pose for photos after the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

 

“Remember what we said about your princess posture!” No, this was not a line from Brave or The Princess Diaries. Rather, it was heard—of all places—at a music lesson.

Teachers from the Columbia University chapter of Musical Mentors Collaborative (MMC) have been giving lessons at P.S. 145 every week since 2008. Instruments taught—free of charge—include piano, violin, guitar, and voice.

Most of the over 50 students in the program would probably not be able to take lessons otherwise.

“We are a school where the majority of the population are working-class immigrants,” Carlos Salamanca, the Parent Coordinator of P.S. 145, explains.

“It’s important for the Latino and Black communities to have the opportunity to play musical instruments. This is the chance that they have–this Musical Mentors teaching.”

The MMC program leads to many exciting learning experiences. Last Saturday morning, Stephanie Rager, a sophomore in SEAS who is a Co-President of MMC, taught Sophia–after reminding her to stand like a princess, of course–what a half note is.

Stephanie Rager, CC ‘19, with her student, Sophia

Stephanie Rager, SEAS ‘19, with her student, Sophia.

First, Stephanie clapped quarter notes with Sophia. Then, she sang the last three notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”–quarter note, quarter note, half note–while Sophia continued to clap. Stephanie explained that the last note she sang was twice as long as the two prior. After some time of working on the measure–both with and without her bow–Sophia’s face lit up: she had “got it.”

Watching students’ reactions made me smile more times than I could count. I now understand why James Valentini often talks about “Beginner’s Mind”: these elementary school students were incredibly eager to learn and bubbled with joyous excitement when they did.  

Music lessons can even be mathematical. This week, Alexia Le, a junior music major in CC, taught Vanessa 3/8. Explaining time signatures can be complicated: it oftentimes involves fractions, which some students have not yet learned.

Alexia solved the difficulty by finding a different way to explain it. She described how it was similar to 3/4–which Vanessa played earlier in the lesson–in that there are three beats per measure, yet different because the eighth note gets the beat.

These challenging pedagogical moments are rewarding for teachers. Julian Vleeschhouwer, a sophomore in Columbia College, values his new role as piano teacher.

“I really enjoy teaching—prior to this I never really taught music before, I’ve always been the one taking lessons—so to be able to give back a little is really fulfilling for me,” Julian says with an assuring nod.

“It’s helped me to realize the role music can play in different people’s lives; I think that I always took it for granted in my life.

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

However, despite the positive interactions I witnessed, the realities of the program are sobering. Some pianos are extremely out-of-tune (almost a half-step flat). The school’s music program does not include band or orchestra, so most students are unable to develop their instrumental skills during the school day. Instruments are provided by P.S 145, which means there’s a what-we-have-is-what-you’ll-play policy.

Perhaps most disheartening of all: MMC ends after elementary school. Without an instrument, let alone a teacher, many students stop playing.

“Vanessa’s older sister was also in the program, but now that she is in middle school, she doesn’t play violin anymore and doesn’t remember how to play,” Alexia recounts—her voice diving down, crestfallen, at the end of her phrase.

With more teachers the program could expand to the local middle school, ensuring that students can continue making music after graduating.

An increase in instructors would also help at the elementary school level: P.S. 145 often has more interested students than available instructors.

“We always need more!” Salamanca emphasizes.

Recent fundraising from the Columbia Festival of Winds will definitely assist the program: MMC anticipates using the several thousand dollars collected for new classroom pianos.

However, the larger problem–governmental support of art and music programs in public schools–is insurmountable for MMC. Despite written acknowledgement (see page 2) of the arts’ educational value, the Department of Education (DOE) is clearly not doing enough to foster art in schools, which MMC’s very existence and the sad story of Vanessa’s sister illustrate.

These MMC lessons demonstrate, though, just how beneficial and necessary music making in schools is; they show why additional and continued governmental support of the arts is a good—to put things in blunt financial terms—investment in a child’s future.

How do these lessons prove why music has educational value? Take, for example, Alexia’s relationship with Vanessa.

In the lesson that I observed, Alexia spent nine minutes working with Vanessa on just one measure because of its rhythmic complexity. Alexia’s focus on the passage demonstrates her great commitment toward Vanessa’s learning.

Their determined work leads to success: Alexia beamed when describing how proud she was while watching Vanessa’s end-of-semester recital. Throughout our discussion about Vanessa, Alexia’s voice oozed with warmth and care.

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Alexia has helped ignite Vanessa’s passion for music. Nowadays, Vanessa often seeks out pieces to learn from YouTube and even composes her own music.

In reality, Vanessa would not have been able to work with–let alone discover–her musical interests without the MMC program. Because of the opportunity, Vanessa has developed not only her musical abilities but also the virtues intrinsic to learning an instrument: independence, patience, and a strong work ethic.

Vanessa’s growth illustrates the benefits of a music education. Her story speaks directly to the NYC Department of Education, proving that music programs are needed in schools.

“I feel like I’m making a difference; I see the progress,” Alexia confirms.

“I think that I’m helping her realize, hopefully, a lifelong love of music.”

 

 

The ending scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

 

On Thursday night, the Met opened its season’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The protagonist, Leonore, is the most positively impactful woman in all of opera. Disguised as a man named Fidelio, she earns the trust of Rocco, the prison warden. He brings her to her husband Florestan, a prisoner locked in a cellar cell. Once there, Leonore defends Florestan from Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, by threatening him with her gun. Because of her actions, Leonore is hailed as a heroine of “noble courage.” Joy reigns as the couple is safely restored when Don Fernando, the minister, arrives.

Representations of constructively influential women in opera are rare. Most are throwing themselves off of castle parapets (Tosca), displaying a deranged, febrile madness (Lucia di Lammermoor), or even stripping for kings (Salome). The Met picked an important moment to portray an antithetical example. Adrianne Pieczonka, a Canadian soprano playing Leonore, said, “And with what’s going on in the world, I think it’s great to have a strong woman—a brave, courageous woman on a mission.” The only thing missing is a direct reference to Trump.

Given its backdrop, how was this politically charged opera vitalized? Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter—performed by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller in her Met Opera debut—sang wonderfully. Her voice had a sweetness that was maintained throughout her range. Jaquino, Rocco’s helper—played by David Portillo—sang with appropriate anguish over Marzelline’s spurning of his love.

In the subsequent ensemble number, Rocco and Leonore (Fidelio to these folks) joined Marzelline and Jaquino. Rocco—sung by the role-switching Falk Struckmann (formerly Don Pizarro in the Met’s 2000 production)—rang richly in his low register, but thinned out up high. As the night went on, however, his upper tones took on a rounder, fuller shape. Rocco’s employer, Don Pizarro—invigorated by Greer Grimsley—sounded diabolical in his “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” aria. Grimsley’s repeated “Ha’s!” menaced his adversaries (and the audience!).

After Pizarro’s aria, Pieczonka presented her “Abscheulicher!” solo. Here and elsewhere, I observed her physically reaching upward for climatically high pitches. Her action affected her sound quality: her high register was quavering, forced, and over-vibratoed. In contrast, Müller visibly sunk down into her upper range. As a result, her highs maintained depth and quality. A casting switch between these two sopranos would be beneficial—but admittedly impossible—for this production.

Act 2 starts with a jolt: Florestan calls out “Gott!”, a desperate heavenly plea. Florestan—enlivened by Klaus Florian Vogt—has a many-colored voice: his timbre sounds like the mixing palette of a master painter. His unique hues transmitted the hopeful content of his singing.

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Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Some of Sebastian Weigle’s tempo choices detrimentally affected tonight’s performance. In “Gut Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut” the tempo was inappropriately slow. I have courage—“Ich habe Mut!”—but apparently not enough to show any vigor. And, in Pieczonka’s “Abscheulicher!” aria, the orchestra sounded safe, even calculated, during accelerandos. The correct energy can be achieved in upcoming performances by a reconsideration of phrasing and articulation.

The horns, however, turned in an excellent performance in the “Abscheulicher!” obbligato. Their tone was pure and their phrasing smooth and effortless.

The singer’s performances were framed by Jürgen Flimm’s production. Flimm’s work, staged for the fourth time at the Met, effectively recontextualizes Fidelio in the mid-20th century. In the first act, the principal themes of hope and freedom are juxtaposed against a starkly bare prison. For the final scene, Robert Israel, the set designer, depicts triumph with a backdrop of wispy clouds strewn across a light blue sky: it is little wonder that the words for heaven and sky are the same in German.

At this euphoric ending, Don Fernando has arrived, ousting Don Pizarro from the stage. The role was performed by Günther Groissböck with an imperial, declarative style, suiting the character well.

After, the chorus, winds, and low strings exclaim joyfully. Freude und Freiheit—Joy and Freedom: Beethoven affirms cherished values with his distinct emotional directness.

During the curtain call, I saw that the bronze heroic figure—which looms in the background of the ultimate scene—was taken off of his horse, placed dejectedly on the ground. To complete the coup, I think, appropriately, Leonore should be put in his former position—a nobly “nasty woman” who deserves her high praise and honors.

 

Beethoven’s Fidelio runs through April 8, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live April 1, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org

Professor Fred Lerdahl Reflects on His Time at Columbia

After 33 years of teaching music composition and music theory at Columbia University, Professor Fred Lerdahl will be stepping down at the end of this semester.

“I’m the—by now—oldest member of the department. So I’ve institutional memory,” Lerdahl recalls with a genial trace of his Midwestern roots.

Lerdahl has been an active member in the development of a department: from two disciplines in 1979—Historical Musicology and Music Composition—to four—Ethnomusicology, Music Theory and the aforementioned two—in the present-day. Nowadays, thankfully, old contentions have cooled: the composers and historians apparently couldn’t get along in Lerdahl’s early years at Columbia.

The burgeoning disciplines have affected Lerdahl’s composing. For example, after reading an article on scale types in an ethnomusicology publication, he was inspired to rework these ideas rhythmically in his composing.

Lerdahl’s career bridges music theory and music composition. His 1983 Generative Theory of Tonal Music, co-written with the linguist Ray Jackendoff, is regarded as a seminal text in the field of music cognition.

Exploring tonal theory in that book influenced Lerdahl’s composing. He developed his own syntax of harmony, voice leading, and what he calls “expanding variations” or “spiral form,” a compositional structure that he created.

Admittedly, I was surprised when I learned that he was interested in tonal music, which is perceived as outdated in the world of contemporary composition. When asked about the negative perception, Lerdahl clarified the definition and implications of his tonality.

“I wanted to recover a sense of centricity—being able to depart and to return—to me that’s very expressive and very powerful,” Lerdahl explains.

“My own harmonic and, broadly speaking, tonal syntax is different than the classical kind; I’ve been influenced by certain composers of course, but I’ve tried to make these things new.”

Centricity focuses on departing and returning, difference and familiarity. Like centricity, Lerdahl achieves unity in his favorite instrumental ensemble: the string quartet. Lerdahl observes that the quartet has cohesiveness because of the instruments’ similar sonic realms, yet variation in tone color because of the adventuresome sounds that can be created.

When composing, Lerdahl begins by thinking about the piece’s expression. He calls this opening phase a “dream state,” adding that “it’s like you’re in the dark.” After mentally grappling with his ideas, Lerdahl reaches an “Aha!” moment.

“The really critical moment for me in composing is when I find the good match between the expressive nature of what I’m trying to do and the formal procedures that I’m using,” Lerdahl describes.

“I know after that I may have good and bad days but that it’ll all turn out alright.”

From his theory and composition work, it is apparent that Lerdahl has developed his own artistic voice—he did not just accept what someone else told him to do.

Lerdahl’s path is a model young composers can follow. When asked to give advice to aspiring composers, he emphasized a foundational motivation.

“The most important thing is that you have to really love what you’re doing. You have to—it has to be a necessity for you,” Lerdahl strongly asserts.

“Otherwise don’t do it.”

The next step, like any other profession, is to develop your skills. For composers, this translates to moderate piano abilities, good ear training, conducting experience, score study of both contemporary and past works, and the essential courses in music theory.

A composition teacher is of course beneficial for a growing composer. Lerdahl’s teaching has a twofold focus: craftsmanship concerns—from notational strategies to bass line movement to rhythmic interest—and artistic vision. Lerdahl notes that finding your voice as a composer is a mysterious, variable process: It takes some years to mature it while for others it comes easily.

Soon, Lerdahl will be moving out of Dodge 602, tucked away in the corner of the hallway, so close to the theatre department’s office that he has probably received many an errant knock from mistaken dramatists, taking his numerous articles and books and scores off of the over-filled shelves with him.

Lerdahl will use his newfound time to finish two in-progress books (Composition and Cognition, based off of his 2011 Bloch Lectures at UC Berkeley, for example) and complete composition commissions. In the coming weeks, a duo for cello and piano will be premiered, a series of CDs from Bridge Records will be released, and his “Chaconne”—recently written for the Daedalus Quartet—will be performed. Obviously, Lerdahl will continue to lead an active musical life.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

 

Valentine’s Day didn’t go so well? Did Ferris again disappoint? Don’t worry, Werther’s day was equally abysmal.

The Met opened this season’s production of Jules Massenet’s Werther on Thursday night. The Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo stars in the title role and the American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard invigorates Charlotte, Werther’s love.

This production, led by Sir Richard Eyre, is mostly identical to the Met’s Werther of 2014. There is even one prominent holdover in the cast: David Bizic again gave a convincing performance as Albert, Charlotte’s husband. However, I noted small changes. For example, Werther in his opening nature aria does not address the looming statue of Charlotte’s deceased mother to as great of an extent. 

The dominant theme of nature’s attractive force is established in Werther’s entrance in Act 1. Here, Werther sings about the beauty of the brook, the coolness of the shade, and the vibrancy of the bursting flowers. His imploring hand movements and facial expressions convey his utter devotion to nature, reflecting wise choreography decisions by Sara Erde. Looming in the back and foreground are long, drooping branches and shadows of linden trees,  which connote nature’s omnipresent power.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Massenet's Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

One of Massenet’s major plot defects is the establishment of Werther’s and Charlotte’s relationship. In the opera, Werther declares his love for Charlotte in Act 1’s clair de lune scene. Later, during Charlotte’s Act 3 letter episode, Werther implores her to remember their times spent together, “Here’s the harpsichord that sang of my joy and trembled with my pain as your voice joined in with mine.” The impression is that Werther and Charlotte completely fall for each other after only one meeting. While this is not uncommon in opera, it does not correspond with Goethe’s original text.

To reconcile the plot hiccup, the prelude could be repurposed. Instead of emphasizing the mother’s death, which feels out of place in context of the work’s focus, Werther and Charlotte could be shown making music at the harpsichord, laughing while playing silly games and crouching excitedly over books—mouthing words to each others’ eager ears. These scenes would occur behind a grey, translucent curtain—hinting at the memories of a blossoming love. In so doing, the Met would give more substance to the lovers’ devotion.

Yes, this addition would disrupt a sense of linear time. However, establishing their relationship is more important to the work than a preservation of a continuous narrative arc.

Eyre stages Acts 1 and 2 with receding, left-tilting rectangles. These outlines disorientate the viewer: Eyre wants his audience to feel Werther’s internal anguish. He achieves a similar effect with Werther’s chamber in Act 4, which looms over the preceding act’s library. Since it is a smaller, intimate space than the prior act’s, it conveys actual and psychological distance.

The choreography during the clair de lune scene effectively communicates Charlotte’s attempts to detach herself from Werther. Werther bends his whole body toward Charlotte, slowly bringing his hand to her shoulder. Charlotte keeps her back to him, afraid of his transformative, dark allure.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Scenes like these make us empathize with Charlotte. Charlotte is tortured by love, torn between her love for Werther and the promise she made to her mother to marry Albert. Werther is oblivious to the conflict he is inflicting upon her. For instance, when she says she must honor her mother’s dying wish, Werther responds by expressing his desire to “keep these [her] eyes all to myself, this charming face, this adorable mouth,” – in essence completely ignoring her problems.

Despite Massenet’s labeling of the opera as a drame lyrique, hints of opéra comique surface. Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, twirls around the stage with a little origami bird – a light blossom intruding on the work’s dark aura. Anna Christy’s performance as Sophie exuded the necessary optimism, but her vibrato and voice presence were too great for the light, jovial role. And, Maurizio Muraro as Le Bailli, Charlotte’s father, brought a Santa Claus-like boisterousness to the role.

In the second act, Massenet plays a musical joke with the drunken characters Johann and Schmidt, who blasphemously sing their praises of Bacchus while outside a church. Spelled out – Johann, Schmidt, Bacchus (J.S.B.) – their tune sounds positively Bachian. These characters were enlivened with besotted revelry by Philip Cokorinos and Tony Stevenson.

Leonard imbued her Act 3 letter aria – “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes!” (Go! Let flow my tears!) – with the appropriate pathos. Each of her notes was conceived with careful thought, dripping with the despair of Charlotte’s streaming tears. Leonard understood that a trembling, vulnerable quality was needed here, not a powerful, confident bravado.

That being said, she still knew how to excite a powerful, Met-Opera-Hall-enveloping sound when she needed to. An example was her crescendoing line, “The emptiness is too great. Nothing can fill it (the heart)…” Here, Charlotte is overwhelmed by her love for Werther, longing for him to comfort her overflowing heart.

I wish Leonard’s diction was a little clearer in parts of her solo, especially when she sang high in her range. The upper register’s vowel-sounds sometimes sounded over-modified, which distorted their meaning.

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Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

The saxophone obbligato during Charlotte’s aria did not express the meaning of the libretto. With its contrapuntal, legato line, the saxophone represents Charlotte’s undulating internal tears set against the outpouring of her external ones. To capture the solemn sentiment, faltering yet directionally-aware phrases veiled by a subtle vibrato are requisite. However, the saxophonist’s performance was too loud, without any vibrato, and strictly in time. I recognize that orchestral players are demanded to reach the back of the hall with good, quality sound, however, this sonic goal must always exude the correct character.

Despite the saxophonist’s decisions, the Met Orchestra, led by Edward Gardner, gave a stellar performance. During Charlotte and Werther’s dialogue in Act 2, I watched as Gardner carefully followed their accelerating movements, surging the orchestra to follow suit. Earlier in the same act, there appeared to be a slight synchronization problem with Albert’s solo, but it was quickly resolved.

The orchestral interlude between Acts 3 and 4 was dynamic: trombones, trumpets, and bassoons soared a foreboding, accented triplet figure, foreshadowing Werther’s impending demise. Here, the brass and woodwinds, even after well-over two hours of playing, remained pointed and energized.

Shortly after Charlotte’s tearful epistolary grief in Act 3, Werther storms on stage for his anticipated Christmas arrival. He beseeches Charlotte to remember their pleasant evenings together. Partly to assuage herself and partly to distract Werther, Charlotte gives him the Ossian poetry that he was translating. Grasping it in his hand, Werther begins his, “Pourquoi me réveiller,” aria.

“Pourquoi” was spectacular. Grigolo approached the phrasing – especially the repeated three-eighth-notes rhythmic unit – with an organic sense of time that vitalized his singing. Propelling from these eighth-note figures, Grigolo leaped to emotionally-gripping summits—pleading, shaking, desperately grabbing his audience’s hearts. His solo was rightfully met with an uninterrupted minute of enthusiastic applause and raucous bravos.

During his final bows, Grigolo ripped opened the top buttons of his blood-stained, satin shirt, gesturing with large, circular arm motions stemming from his heart and whirling toward us. Pink bouquets were tossed like footballs by an enraptured concert-goer in the front row.

Two tenor titans within three years for Massenet’s take on The Sorrows of Young Werther: The Met has a lot to be proud of.

Massenet’s Werther runs through March 9, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live March 4, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org