Remembering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Les Troyens in a Blizzard
One of my most cherished Met memories was during the President's Day blizzard of 2003. The storm was hitting hard and my flight from Maine was cancelled the day before. I hopped on a Greyhound and watched as the storm seemed to follow me all the way down to Manhattan. I arrived just in time for an event at Alice Tully Hall and upon exiting at concert's end, walked into a virtual white out. (I'd end up stranded in NY for days - happily so!)
The next day - as the storm raged on with snow falling at a reported 4 inches per hour, I attempted to call to the Met to learn whether that evening's performance of “Les Troyens” (my sole reason for visiting New York) was still scheduled. Not able to get through, I schlepped the several blocks to the Lincoln Center and made it through the revolving door. The place seemed entirely empty. I was soon informed by the surly (and lone) box office attendant "The Met never closes, we only closed once because of weather in the company's history, so yeah, there's a performance tonight,” he handed me my tickets and I resisted the urge to not thank him, but politeness (and relief) prevailed.
Some hours later and dressed for the storm rather than a night at the opera, (I felt a bit self conscious, but ultimately didn‘t care) I slugged through several feet of freshly fallen snow which was blanketing an almost entirely a deserted Broadway, finally feeling an already strange sense of accomplishment, as I entered the crammed, (and unusually loud) lobby. A sense of occasion I’d not before felt in the house filled it . . . A palpable and communal sensation of "Phew! We made it!" and I watched joyously as elated friends and strangers smiled at one another, laughing unselfconsciously as salt and snow melted off of boots leaving muddy puddles everywhere while people pulled off their snow encrusted parkas, furs, hats and gloves.
The performance - the third of the run - was magnificent in nearly every way; one of the finest of many evening's I’d spent in that house. Deborah Voigt seemed transformed as Cassandra, singing lower and deeper than I'd ever heard (or believed possible) as well as digging more physically into a role than I could remember seeing from her . A newly slimmed Ben Heppner (who had cracked at the prima) began sturdily, growing better all night, while looking almost del Monaco-like, and, like Voigt, up to his acting challenges. The standout performance however, was that of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, a somewhat late replacement for Olga Borodina as Didon. This was one of the most vocally intense, beautifully sung performances I'd heard from this singer - or any singer - before or since and a very long opera virtually seemed to fly by. Early reports of Francesca Zambello's production had produced some light controversy about its strangeness, but this audience seemed so animated and in tune with it I believe most of us could've sat through the whole thing again as soon as it had ended. A comanding, electricifying and theatrically satisfying evening of French Grand Opera.
Recently, with the mention of a release of this performance to celebrate James Levine’s 40th anniversary with the company, I perused my notes concerning Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's performance and memories washed over me to the point of being overwhelmed all over again by the experience. Upon arriving back at my lodgings I’d written the following:
To go a notch above greatness requires a certain magic and that is precisely what Lorraine Hunt Lieberson provided tonight. This was a performance for the ages; with a singer radiant in visage, form and voice. An operatic wonder, she deploys her voice with with such intelligence and strength revealing an innate and almost unbelievable ability to endlessly pour out such pointed singing, wedding text to music with such body and heart it was no wonder the audience seemed to adore her as much as Didon's Carthaginians. Reports of a pinched note at the top of the range on opening night showed no evidence Monday evening - every note secure and beautifully sung (though an A# toward the end had a slightly strained, quickened vibrato which only added further excitement). A unique combination of stately grace and natural ease making her at once part of, yet apart from, her subjects added even deeper dimensions to a performance already begun with intensity and sense of purpose. I (and I imagine everyone else) smile during her scenes with Enee as they nestled together during the divertissements; the looks of love each cast upon the other was indeed touching and romantic. She and Heppner sustained such a level of electricity throughout the duet I was caught up in it instantly (mostly ignoring the odd aerialist ballet above that threatened a stage accident of immortal proportion) and my face ached from smiling so much at their joy.
All of this loveliness made Didon’s tragic, downward spiral into despair and anger riveting, bone chilling stuff. Pulling, that great crude curtain across the stage and wrapping herself within it (as had Cassandra before her) it became a visible sign - a shroud of her queenly grief which extended far beyond mere self-pitying. Then, shock as she chillingly screamed out how she should have served Enee the limbs of his son, Ascagne in some macabre feast - so fearless was her utterance here I didn't for a moment doubt this new, dark creature before to be in the least incapable of such dark actions, so believably gruesome was her descent into dark despondency. Then another profound change - Didon’s death; resolved and broken, this Didon was truly touching . . . profoundly heartbreaking. This seemed no longer mere performance, but rather a channeling of spirit reaching all the way back to Virgil himself.
After a sustained ovation of cheers and bravi, I walked out onto the Plaza - the snow had, at least for a time, ceased falling, the air felt - and smelled - cleaner than before, and the sharpness of the cold made me feel both alive yet as if in some great waking dream. As I walked back down Broadway, it was, as it had been before, empty, desolate - no buses, no cabs, only a few others who, like me, felt as though we were walking on clouds.