Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Met in the Time of Pandemic: The Unfinished Season, March 2020, Cenerentola, Werther

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On March 12, 2020, a little more than a year ago, with COVID-19 on the attack in New York, the Metropolitan Opera announced the suspension of performances through the end of the month. Just one week later, the company was obliged to cancel the remainder of the season. The Met was not alone. Forty and more New York City cultural institutions took the same turn at approximately the same time, including all museums, libraries, and theaters, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the New York Public Library, to all of Broadway, and to so many other indoor and outdoor sporting and entertainment venues. News of the season’s truncation was accompanied by the statement that past March the orchestra, chorus, and stagehands would no longer be paid, although they would retain their health benefits. AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) was quoted as “disappointed, upset, but we understand.” (The conciliatory tone would change over time.) Peter Gelb, the general manager, would forego his salary and other administrators would be subject to cuts in pay. The reason given was the disastrous blow inflicted on company finances by the curtailed season. The nation’s largest performing arts organization anticipated losses of roughly $60 million, including $8-$12 million in ticket sales through the end of the month of March alone, and would undertake to make up the huge deficit through an emergency fundraising campaign. In November 2019, prior to the pandemic, the Met’s Standard and Poor‘s credit rating had fallen from “A” to “negative,“ signifying a “weak balance sheet metrics.“ On March 26, 2020, Moody’s downgraded the Met’s credit outlook from “stable” to “negative” due to the closure.

Less than two months later, on June 1, 2020, the Met reluctantly informed the press and the public of a further delay: the house would remain dark until December 30, 2020. And on September 23, the whole of the 2020-2021 season was pronounced lost.

OperaPost will devote this and future entries to the tumultuous events that rocked the Metropolitan during the last months of the interrupted season and the whole of the season that coronavirus obliterated. We are also intent on evoking the new productions and much awaited revivals that were scheduled and then painfully scrapped as the city and country, and globe, were beset by illness and death. 

This first post in the series “The Met in the Time of Pandemic” looks back at the tragic month of March 2020 and at two much-awaited revivals that were to be staged in those weeks, Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Massenet’s Werther

The very night the Met shut its doors, La Cenerentola was due for its first revival in six years (see our post of May 31, 2014, “Cinderella Come Lately”  In 2014, Javier Camarena sang the role of Prince Ramiro. Operaphiles looked forward to the tenor’s reprise of his astonishing execution of the florid “Dolce speranza (Sweet hope).” We hear him sing the aria in a January 2020 concert in Malaga.

Camarena’s Met co-star was to be Tara Erraught, an Irish mezzo-soprano whose previous roles with the company were Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Offenbach’s Nicklausse (Les Contes d’Hoffmann). Neither demand vocal acrobatics. The cancellation of Rossini’s opera deprived New York of what would surely have been a great success for Erraught, as evidenced by this performance filmed at the Irish National Opera. Here, she exhibits her charm, sensitivity to text, and command of embellishment, particularly at the top of her range, in Cenerentola’s challenging “Non più mesta (No longer sad).”


 Just four nights later, Joyce DiDonato, a masterful Rossini mezzo, was to appear in the revival of Werther, with Piotr Beczala in the title role. On March 15, in immediate response to the lockdown, and on their own initiative, the singers organized an internet stream of their major scenes from Massenet’s opera on Facebook and Instagram. Accompanied by piano and harp, this informal concert emanating from DiDonato’s living room (it began with an appeal for donations to AGMA’s relief fund) can be accessed on YouTube. Alas, the quality of the sound does not do justice to the singers. We therefore take our illustrations from performances in London and Vienna.

DiDonato’s exemplary coloratura technique has been on frequent display in the Baroque and Bel Canto repertoire that is her specialty. In contrast, Werther calls on her for the propulsive declamation of the late 19th century. The wrenching aria in which Charlotte rereads Werther’s love letters is drawn from a 2016 Royal Opera transmission.

The unhappy Werther expresses his thwarted passion for Charlotte in the opera’s best-known aria, “Pourquoi me reveiller (Why do you wake me).” Here, Beczala sings it in a 2010 Vienna concert.

La Cenerentola and Werther are not on the Met’s 2021-22 schedule. Javier Camarena and Piotr Beczala will be back to sing roles in other operas; Tara Erraught and Joyce DiDonato are, regrettably, absent from next season’s roster.