Tim Smith, Freni remarkable as Joan of Arc (Baltimore Sun, March 28)
Jens F. Laurson, La Freni: She's Got It Maid! (Ionarts, March 30)
Kate Wingfield, Operatic Wonder (Metro Weekly, March 31)
Jens F. Laurson, Ioanna d'Arcova at Washington National Opera (Ionarts, April 2)
As Jens has noted in his review (and preview), the Washington National Opera production of Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans marks the return of veteran soprano Mirella Freni (shown here taking her curtain call at Tuesday night's performance) to the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House. This was a thrill for me, because it brought back memories of my formative experience with live opera, which goes back to my first ever trip to Manhattan, as an undergraduate music major on spring break in 1990. One morning, I showed up at the Metropolitan Opera—such a Midwestern rube!—expecting to buy a ticket to see one of them real live operas.
I saw that Puccini's Manon Lescaut, an opera I had just studied in a seminar on opera and literary sources (we read Abbé Prévost's novel and listened to the Massenet and Puccini operas), was on the bill for that very evening, and so I asked to buy a ticket for that. The man at the window smirked and said there were no more tickets "in your price range" (poor students are so obvious). With some indignation, I persisted and asked, "What if price were not a concern?" The man rolled his eyes, slapped a ticket on the counter, and said, "Well, that's the best seat in the house." The price was well over $100, which was (and may still be) a small fortune to a college student. However, remembering how Des Grieux bankrupted himself and ended up in debtor's prison, all for love of frivolous Manon, I whipped out the credit card my parents had given me ("for emergencies only") and I bought that bad boy. It was the only time I have ever sat in a box at the Met, I was with a group of people speaking Italian (they were friends of the conductor that night, Nello Santi), and from where I sat, I could see sweat roll down the faces of Mirella Freni (Manon) and Peter Dvorsky (Des Grieux) as they wailed away in the deserts of Louisiana at the opera's conclusion. It was stupendous, and an obsession with opera was born. I worked off the cost of the ticket that summer and never looked back.
So I was very upset to be 10 minutes late for the curtain because of the insane parking lot of traffic clogging the streets around the tidal basin and the cherry blossoms in their annual orgy of pinkness. (All tourists and suburbanites should be REQUIRED to take the Metro, so that I can drive my damn car and get to the opera on time.) Not to fear: I sat in the overflow seating at the back for the rest of the first and second acts, which was just fine. I was depressed at how many empty seats there were on the orchestra level. I hope that the management of Washington National Opera gets the hint and makes some sort of plan to sell some tickets at lower prices. Not all people who would be interested in hearing live opera are the tuxedo and diamonds sort. (European opera houses generally understand this, as you may recall from my story about paying 7 €—less than the cost of a movie ticket—to see Capriccio last summer in Paris. There are standing room places for 2 € at the Vienna State Opera.) A school colleague of mine told me that she will not be renewing her WNO season tickets, which she has had for over 20 years and inherited from her parents, because the prices are going to be too expensive. WNO, believe me: this is not the sort of subscriber you want to lose.
This production of the opera, by Italian director Lamberto Puggelli, comes to Washington from the Teatro Regio di Torino, where it was first staged in the summer of 2002. (Other than La Freni, Viktor Lutsiuk as King Charles VII, and conductor Stefano Ranzani, the musical staff is completely different, of course.) There is no point in repeating the criticism Jens had for the overuse of diaphanous veils (sets and costumes by Luisa Spinatelli), with which I agree, except to add that the frequency by which our sightline and ability to hear the singers was impeded by these large veils was beyond annoying. Hiding singers behind a translucent scrim worked beautifully when all of the voices criticizing and questioning Joan were caught behind it.
It was even more effective as a way to create an otherworldly look and sound for the chorus of angels in the radiant conclusion to Act I, with upcoming soprano Maria Jooste as the lead Voice from the Choir. (I have previously mentioned the NPR piece on this former member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program at the WNO.) The rest of the time, I mostly wished that I had the few extra degrees of dynamic strength from the singers that those scrims were dampening. (Tim Smith said that, with the "couple million yards of fabric," the opera might be called "The Maid of Orlon.") It also bothered me that the characters were continually picking up swaths of the cloth and wrapping themselves in it. At times, the various choruses were costumed in one large swath of cloth.
Musically, the performance was very strong, beginning of course with La Freni's still remarkably expressive voice. Kazakhstanian soprano Maïra Kerey was a delight as Agnès Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII. Also impressive were the deeply resonant bass Feodor Kuznetsov as the Archbishop (whose outrageously tall miter in the last act was a hoot) and Ukrainian tenor Viktor Lutsiuk as the smarmy Charles VII. This opera certainly deserves to be performed more than it is, although its length (three hours, and that's without the ballet) as a grand opera probably gives companies pause. I also found the finale of Joan's execution curiously unsatisfying. I think Tchaikovsky missed a golden opportunity for one of the great soprano scenas of all time with Joan at the stake: wouldn't this be the right time for some—please excuse the pun—vocal pyrotechnics?
The Maid of Orleans, but not this production, will be on the calendar next season at San Francisco Opera. Mirella Freni will return to the Met on May 15, to sing a gala concert, with James Levine, on the 50th anniversary of her stage début. Only two performances in Washington remain, on April 8 and 11.