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Opera star Jamie Barton sings onstage with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Review: Feasting on the New York Met’s extravagant four-opera weekend getaway

The Metropolitan Opera has added matinee performances on Sundays, an innovation that allows out-of-town fans to splurge on weekend getaways to New York City. The extra performances make it possible to scoot up for a four-opera weekend (Friday–Saturday nights, plus matinees on Saturday–Sunday), returning home on Sunday night. For those who are squeamish about committing to four operas on a weekend, the expanded menu still offers a broader choice of shows to see. 

The weekend of October 18, the same weekend featured in Sunday’s New York Times, I was able to check out this new option with mostly excellent results, arriving just in time for Madama Butterfly on Friday evening. 

Anthony Minghella’s production of Butterfly, which dates from 2006 and has been revived regularly, fills the stage with colorful, somewhat abstract tableaux, exotic costumes and choreographed movement, all drawn from Japanese traditions including kabuki and bunraku (with a puppet for Cio-Cio-san’s son, Sorrow). In this case, the production elements serve as more of a backdrop, and whatever interpretation we get must come from the singers. On this night, that meant a rather shallow performance. 

This series marks the New York Met debut of Piero Pretti, who sang Pinkerton. He has a serviceable tenor voice but little in the way of stage presence or acting chops. In this role, this came off as aloofness, which kind of worked, ironically. I think American audiences tend to breeze past the opera’s depiction of Pinkerton, who brags about how cheaply he purchased a 15-year-old girl for a sham wedding as our national anthem plays derisively. His caddishness suggests the dark side of American adventurism. And if Pretti’s voice isn’t the prettiest, he makes a pretty good cad. 

As Cio-Cio-san, Hui He encountered pitch problems and was unable to reach the high notes. But Elizabeth DeShong’s Suzuki was a revelation, with a gorgeous, resonant voice and compelling acting. 

Pier Giorgio Morandi’s conducting was bland, resulting in an overall sound that was too small. Perhaps he was protecting his singers, most of whom lacked the supersized voices the Met rewards, but this simply missed the mark. 

An extravagant stage for the New York Met's "Turandot."
“Turandot” thrives on its extravagance. Christine Goerke sings the title role. (Photo by Marty Sohl/courtesy Met Opera)

What a difference a day makes! Saturday’s matinee performance of Turandot was satisfying in every way. I was never a big fan of Franco Zeffirelli’s stage-filling extravaganzas, which dominated the Met stage in the 1970s and ’80s, turning intimate operas like La Boheme into epic “set-and-costume” shows that overwhelmed the characters and the music. But Turandot almost thrives on this kind of excess: It’s a grand fairy tale that doesn’t necessarily reward introspection. 

Big, bold and dramatic, the sound from the orchestra pit was a welcome change. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s inspired conducting was rather daring — slower and significantly darker than the usual glossy approach. As Turandot, Christine Goerke generates torrents of sound, but she struggled a bit with intonation. For this performance, the Calaf was Riccardo Massi, a young Italian spinto tenor with an effortless top and nice coloring. According to his biography, Massi paid for his vocal education by working as a movie stuntman. The beloved bass James Morris was Timur, but the scene-stealing performance came from Eleonora Buratto as Liu. 

A friend who took in several New York Met performances a few weeks ago had suggested that the most impressive opera of the fall season was Massenet’s Manon. After seeing it Saturday night, I agree. Less familiar than Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, written about the same time and based on the same novel, Manon is the story of a young girl (15, like Cio-Cio-san) torn between true love and material wealth. In Laurent Pelly’s production, she leaps onstage with the natural effervescence of Gigi and is celebrated by men (costumed identically) like Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!

The role almost seems to have been written for Lisette Oropesa, whose performance combined overwhelming charisma and movie-star looks. Her flexible light soprano has the fluttering sound of another era, familiar now mostly from old wax recordings. She has a perfect trill. The role of Des Grieux was sung by Michael Fabiano, a fascinating American tenor with a resonant voice, good looks and dramatic intensity. Conductor Maurizio Benini’s pacing was a bit too spacious for me, but he drew elegant sounds from the orchestra.

Lisette Oropesa expressively sings on stage in the title role of Massenet's "Manon."
Lisette Oropesa takes a star turn in the title role of Massenet’s “Manon.” (Photo by Marty Sohl/courtesy Met Opera)

Sunday’s matinee was the first performance of the season for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, reviving the beautifully wrought dance/opera production of Mark Morris. Set in a striking, tiered onstage theater, the choreography and campy chorus costumes balance elegance and wit. Orfeo was written to be performed by a castrato and, in modern times, has typically been sung by a mezzo-soprano. But when Berlin’s Komische Oper brought its production to Brooklyn in 1991, I was startled to hear Jochen Kowalski in the role — it was my first experience with this voice type, and he was sensational. 

When Morris’ production opened in 2007, countertenor David Daniels, then living in Atlanta, sang the role to considerable acclaim, and in 2017, he reprised the role in a performance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Spano, recorded live. Daniels, of course, was indicted for sexual assault in Texas in July and faces accusations in Michigan as well. 

For this revival, the Met returned to form and cast Georgia native Jamie Barton as Orfeo, her first performance in the role. She follows in the footsteps of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Stephanie Blythe, the two mezzos who have essentially owned the role at the Met in recent decades. It seems an ideal fit for her large, rich, expressive voice. Dressed in a black suit with her hair cropped into a sort of mullet, she seemed at times awkward on the stage with Morris’ elegant dancers, but that seems a reasonable price to pay for such glorious singing. Her Euridice, Hei-Kyung Hong, struggled with intonation. Englishman Mark Wigglesworth conducted an uneven performance from the orchestra, with coordination issues and an overall lack of precision. But this was Barton’s night, and it was a promising milestone for her ascendant career. 

While the HD Live telecasts of Turandot and Manon have already taken place, Madama Butterfly is scheduled for November 9. The telecast of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, performed at the Met for this first time this season, will take place November 23. The Atlanta Opera presented a lightly staged version of this opera in 2009. Complete information on the HD Live telecasts, including schedule and theaters, can be found here.