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OPERA REVIEW : Tenor Crises--Both Real and Farcical--in New York City

Times Music Critic

Old Thackeray summed up the domestic tragedy of Goethe’s “Werther” rather neatly:

Charlotte, having seen his body

Borne before her on a shutter,

Like a well-conducted person,

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Went on cutting bread-and-butter.

The venerable Metropolitan Opera ventured Massenet’s deftly perfumed version of Goethe’s vexing novel for the 47th time on Saturday afternoon. Even though the opera isn’t exactly a repertory staple hereabouts, it did function as a comfy tranquilizer against the odds.

The problems this time went beyond those of the suicidal hero and the stoic but long-suffering heroine. In face of genuine backstage drama and a casting crisis--not to mention a sudden thunderstorm that disrupted the national broadcast--our premier grand-opera company managed to go on cutting bread and butter.

Bravely. Modestly.

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At first glance, the slip of paper stuffed by the management into the program magazine seemed innocuous enough to those who happened to find it. “In this afternoon’s performance,” it read, “the role of Werther will be sung by Neil Wilson, replacing Neil Shicoff, who is ill.”

Shicoff’s illness need not have surprised many aficionados. He is one of those artists who seems to be available every season for only a limited number of cancellations.

Still, one had a right to ask, where was Neil Rosenshein, the official cover?

Ill too.

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And where was Jerry Hadley, a potentially worthy and logical alternate for the title role?

He was scheduled to sing Lensky in “Yevgeny Onegin” that very night, ergo unavailable.

Bravely into the breach flew Wilson. The third Neil never fails, or so one hoped.

Never mind that the young Texan’s only prior assignment at the Met had been relatively minor: Macduff in Verdi’s “Macbeth.” This role, along with Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly,” had brought him muted success with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera.

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Never mind that he hadn’t been drafted to serve as Shicoff’s replacement until late the night before the performance. Never mind that there had been little time for costume fitting, much less for rehearsal.

If real life were more Grimm and less grim, this story would demand a deliriously happy ending. It would be nice to be able to report that, in one fell swoop, Wilson conquered the difficult challenge, his nerves and the Met management. In the process he would have converted millions of skeptical listeners out there in radioland into instant fans.

Real life, alas, isn’t that simple or that pretty. Wilson performed respectably, even admirably, certainly professionally, under very trying circumstances. He did not serve notice, however, that another tenoral star had been born.

He looked young and handsome, struck agonized poses with authority, performed with the security of one who had undertaken the same role in such disparate locales as Munich, Stuttgart and Buenos Aires. Still, these obvious virtues were offset by constriction, especially at top range, by a tendency to force the tone flat under pressure and by a decidedly limited dynamic scale.

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He deserves credit for saving the show. He commands attractive if rather lightweight lyric resources. Give him that. Under ideal conditions, however, he would be exposed in less arduous challenges than a “Werther” at the Met, where his predecessors include Franco Corelli, Placido Domingo and Alfredo Kraus.

Ironically, Kathleen Kuhlmann, the dark-toned, sympathetic Charlotte of the afternoon, also turned out to be a substitute as well as a broadcast novice. The heroine’s duties had originally been assigned to Martine Dupuy of Marseilles. At least the American mezzo-soprano, a San Francisco native, enjoyed the advantage of prior experience in the Met production. On this occasion, her singing proved notable for breadth and warmth, her acting all the more poignant for its expressive restraint.

Bernd Weikl, Bayreuth’s favored Hans Sachs, seemed wasted in the laconic platitudes of Albert, and he would have better served the cause of authenticity if he had occasionally modulated his burly and pearly tones.

Having recently undertaken Posa in “Don Carlo,” he apparently is determined to prove to America that he shouldn’t be type-cast in the German repertory. One wonders.

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Otherwise, this indeed was “Werther” business as usual. Renato Capecchi brought crusty elegance to the mutterings of the Justice of the Peace. Dawn Upshaw chirped adorably as little Sophie. The orchestra played sensuously, even passionately, for an old French routinier, Jean Fournet.

The quaintly literal production, devised in 1971 by Paul-Emile Deiber and Rudolf Heinrich, looked as if it might have decorated the Met premiere. That took place back in 1894.

Meanwhile, the Royale Theatre on Broadway is hosting a slight but amusing, often stylish, unabashedly old-fashioned farce by Ken Ludwig. It bears an ominously appropriate title: “Lend Me a Tenor.”

At the Sunday matinee, it resembled a reasonably zany series of comedic errors, the sight gags embellished with parodies of many matters quasi-operatic. The quasi-plot concerns a famous Italian divo who visits a patently fictitious Cleveland of 1934 for a one-night stand as, among other things, Otello.

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He dies, or maybe doesn’t, and is replaced at the last minute by the impresario’s assistant, or maybe isn’t. The blissful confusion is compounded when the singing idol is seduced by the assistant’s girlfriend or the drooling Desdemona in residence or maybe both or possibly neither.

You know. That sort of thing.

The narrative curlicues and cutesy caricatures are sweetly punctuated with snippets of Verdi--most notably the friendship duet from “Don Carlo.” The music serves as a not-so-symbolic bond between the tenorissimo and his would-be impersonator.

The clever sound system was the work, not incidentally, of an outfit shamelessly billed as Aural Fixation.

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Ron Holgate, a genuine operatic baritone, played the narcissistic tenor with garlicky glee. Victor Garber, a genuine actor, played the amateur who flies into the breach with innocent charm.

Although he didn’t sing particularly well, he did give the daunting vocal charade a game try. In that respect at least, he reminded one of the would-be Werther at the Met.

All the world’s a stage. Ah, Thackeray. . . .


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