Music / Casts aside: Reviews: David Patrick Stearns reports from New York on new stagings at the Metropolitan Opera; plus the rival London orchestras

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The Independent Culture
The Metropolitan Opera has been successfully broadening its repertoire this fall. And while it may be one of the last major opera companies to discover Dvorak's Rusalka - not to mention the oft-cloned Otto Schenk staging - its new production of Verdi's rarely seen I Lombardi, which opened this month, was a success of a more risky and interesting sort.

Some might say it's not a success at all: anything imaginative is controversial at the Met, and this production really didn't try to make sense out of Verdi's semi-coherent series of high-voltage confrontations concerning cruelty, revenge and redemption amid the Crusades. Mark Lamos, the producer, more or less gave it the MTV treatment, though he was never gimmicky or disrespectful. He and his designer, John Conklin, simply accepted the opera for its sprawling, lumpy self and tried to make the individual moments as compelling as possible.

Huge crucifixes hung in mid-air, desert scenes were semi-surreal landscapes of red and blue rocks, characters appeared with an almost hallucinatory sense of unreality. Even moments of overkill - crowd scenes stuffed with blood-red crosses - seemed like a comment on the ruthless righteousness of the religious Right. It was fun and stimulating as long as one didn't take it too seriously.

James Levine, conducting, made more of the score than one could have hoped. Even moments of crudeness carried a theatrical wallop. But the opera was sometimes let down by the cast. As Oronte, Luciano Pavarotti sang with more than usual fluency and emotional commitment. Though Samuel Ramey's voice sometimes sounds metallic these days, he summoned a melting warmth for Pagano, and managed to progress from murderer to hermit without inviting ridicule. As Giselda, however, Aprile Millo, the soprano, had none of the coloratura agility the role demands.

Rusalka, a lovely tale about a water nymph who longs for human love, opened last month in a more conventional production, but not without its moments of wizardry, including an on-stage pond that the singers are able to dive in and out of without getting wet. Vocally, it bordered on being a dream cast. Gabriela Benackova (Rusalka) is so expressive, her phrasing and plush timbre can induce goosebumps. Stefania Toczyska made an appropriately chilling witch (and with a musical integrity one rarely hears in character roles). Ben Heppner as the prince used his heldentenor voice to make some of the opera's least-interesting music seem more imposing. John Fiore's conducting was lyrical but dramatically limp, leaving a soft spot in the middle of a work that needs all the buttressing it can get.

'Rusalka' 6.30 tonight, 'Lombardi' 15 Jan, on Radio 3

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