Review: With anthems and flags, the Met Opera plays for Ukraine

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Vladyslav Buialskyi took center stage at the Metropolitan Opera, hand on heart, singing the national anthem of his country, Ukraine.

It was February 28, when the house reopened after a month’s absence and the Russian invasion of Ukraine was only a few days old. The company’s choir and orchestra joined Buialskyi, a member of the Met’s Young Artists Program, in a message of solidarity with him and his suffering people.

Exactly two weeks later on Monday, Buialskyi, a 24-year-old bass-baritone from the beleaguered port city of Berdyansk, stood center stage again, his hand again over his heart, and sang the anthem with the orchestra and choir.

This time it wasn’t a prelude to Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos’, but the start of ‘A Concert for Ukraine’, an event hastily organized by the Met to benefit relief efforts in that country and broadcast there. down and around the world.

Banners forming the Ukrainian flag stretched across the theater‘s travertine exterior, bathed in blue and yellow spotlights. Another flag hung above the stage; a few in the audience brought their own to fan out from the balconies. Sitting in the position of guest of honor in the center of the floor, Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, responded to a departing ovation by raising his arms and making a determined V for victory sign. .

It was a difficult time for the Met, which broke with Anna Netrebko, its reigning diva, over her reluctance to speak out against the war and distance herself from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

But the conflict has also given the company — still scarred by labor battles despite remarkable success staying open during the Omicron Wave — a sense of unity and moral purpose. Who would have predicted a few months ago that Met chief executive Peter Gelb, widely vilified in the ranks for imposing long unpaid leave on many employees during the pandemic, would receive applause from some members of the orchestra then that he declared from the stage that they were “soldiers of music”?

His remarks had a martial tinge, saying the Met’s work could be “weaponized against oppression”. But much of the concert, led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company’s musical director, was consoling, with favorites like Barber’s Adagio for Strings, here feverish and unsentimental, and ‘Va, pensiero’ from the Verdi’s Nabucco, with its chorus of exiles yearning for their homeland, “so beautiful and lost”. Most powerful was Valentin Silvestrov’s delicate and modest a cappella “Prayer for Ukraine”, written in 2014 amid Maidan protests against Russian influence.

Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” weren’t quite on message, with its autumnal vision of accepting the imminence of death. But he provided a vehicle for the Met’s prima donna of the moment: young soprano Lise Davidsen, currently starring in Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

On the opening night of “Ariadne” two weeks ago, Davidsen kept flooding the theater, looking determined to prove just how much vibrant sound could escape her. It was exciting, and a little too much. During the opera performance on Saturday afternoon, she seemed to be consciously trying to hold herself back – even a little hesitantly, fumbling for a phrase in her opening aria and only gradually building up a real compromise of power and nuance.

On Monday, Davidsen seemed to find his way again. Its high notes in the first of the “Last Four Songs”, “Frühling”, had a steely edge rather than searing freedom; in “September” it sounded muted in the lower registers; and in “Beim Schlafengehen”, his phrasing was stiff. But she started “Im Abendrot” with a soft cloud of tone and continued with an unforced radiance to an end that felt light and hopeful.

The soloists for the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which closed the concert, are drawn from the current Met list: Soprano Elza van den Heever sings the title role in Handel’s “Rodelinda”; mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, Eboli in “Don Carlos”; tenor Piotr Beczala, Lenski in an upcoming revival of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”; bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, a bit in “Ariadne”.

Nézet-Séguin’s direction in this famous finale was neither grandiose nor patient; when the orchestra is on stage at the Met rather than in the pit, the balances are not ideal for a rich unanimity, and the rhythm was feverish, a little disjointed. But it was moving to see the face of Beczala, who is from Poland, change from a concentration of stone to a smile. And “Ode to Joy” inevitably has an impact, especially with Green declaiming the opening lines with such a memorable challenge.

The European Union’s anthem, “Ode to Joy” is music for every inspiring occasion, but especially for now. (Perhaps it was time to follow Leonard Bernstein, who, when conducting the work just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, replaced cries of “Freude” or “joy” with “Freiheit” – “freedom ».)

It’s worth remembering, though, that even if that anthem seemed so fitting on Monday, with the audience walking out of the Met colored with the blue and yellow light shining on the theatre, it doesn’t always mean what any given listener wants. he does. When Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic studied the Ninth Symphony during World War II, the Germans thought Beethoven was writing for them. If the play were performed tonight in Moscow, the Russians might think the same.

As moving as it is, this music doesn’t take sides, and it doesn’t change us. It makes us more who we are.

A concert for Ukraine

Performed Monday at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan.

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