It seemed as if there were as many people trying to get into the Metropolitan Opera House last week as there were waiting in line to buy New York State Lottery tickets. The reason for the latter was a $ 40 million jackpot; for the former, the debut of a new singer who, in a time when so much of what happens on stages throughout the city is predictable at best, and more often mundane, has instantly electrified auds with a rare sense of occasion.
The singer is Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, making his Met debut in the title role of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (running in repertory).
It’s an opera that begins giddily, almost in slapstick — Terfel’s Figaro comes on stage with a mattress wrapped around his head — and concludes with a reconciliation scene of surpassing beauty and maturity.
And the course is paved with some of the most beautiful music ever written. One expects first-rate performances from a company of the Met’s standing, and I’ve never been disappointed. This “Nozze” is, however, special even in these rarefied climes, and the reason is Terfel. He owns a room-filling voice and the crystalline elocution of an actor actually in touch with the meaning and sense of his lines, a combination not always the case in opera.
And he brings more than ample virility to the role; you can practically feel the sexual charge between Figaro and Dawn Upshaw’s game Susanna coursing through the hallways and gardens of Almaviva’s estate.
Upshaw, whose marvelously expressive face and exquisite tone set her forcefully, sympathetically at the story’s center, is also at the very top of her form. (Check out her beautiful CD of Broadway songs, “I Wish It So” on Elektra/Nonesuch, and hear the exception to the rule of crossover attempts by opera singers.)
There’s greatness everywhere here. Susanne Mentzer’s lithe Cherubino is at once moody and winsome; Dwayne Croft is nobly stolid as the Count. At first, Carolyn James seems like she’s going to be the company stiff as the melancholy Countess. But by the time of her flawlessly delivered, haunting Act III aria (“Dove sono”), she, too, has won the audience over.
Lesley Koenig’s staging on Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s imposing, monochromatic set is light and lively. As always, conductor James Levine brings out the very best of the Met orchestra, mouthing every syllable sung on stage, and silently cheering his players on to triumph. It’s the best show in town.