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Metropolitan Opera Concert, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 20 June 2008
Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna performing in Prospect Park
Photo by Richard Termine
The Met's Math: 2 Stars, 6 Encores, 50,000 in Park
Anthony Tommasini,  New York Times, 23 June 2008

The speculation that 100,000 people, maybe even 150,000, might turn up for the Metropolitan Opera's concert in Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Friday night may have been strategic hype from the company's media-savvy general manager, Peter Gelb. Still, Mr. Gelb promised a big show, and this concert, featuring opera's starriest married couple, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu and the tenor Roberto Alagna, was certainly that.

The police estimated the crowd at 50,000, which, the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, said, trounced the previous record turnout for a concert in that park, roughly 25,000 for a Patti LaBelle show in 1991.

The enormous makeshift stage from which the Met orchestra and chorus performed was flanked by towering video screens offering close-ups not just of the evening's glamorous guest stars and the conductor Ion Marin but also of musicians in the orchestra at pivotal moments during crucial solos.

As always with these outdoor concerts, hundreds of people showed up early to claim patches of lawn close to the stage for picnic dinners. The Long Meadow section of Prospect Park is aptly named. To extend the concert's reach to the thousands who were seated far away, the Met set up additional video screens and a long phalanx of loudspeakers. One problematic result was that as music ricocheted down the row of loudspeakers, you could hear amplified echoes in the distance. Over all the scene was festive, the audience was enthusiastic, and the singers seemed to relish every moment.

But this concert was presented in lieu of the Met's annual tour of the city parks. For more than 40 years audiences throughout the boroughs of New York have turned out for the Met's concert performances of complete operas. So there were justified complaints from opera buffs when Mr. Gelb announced that the traditional tour would be replaced by a single splashy concert.

Many factors were at play in the Met's decision, including the financial burden of the tour at a time when the national economy is struggling, as well as the strain it places on the singers, choristers, orchestra players and technicians.

At its best, taking complete operas to public parks far removed from Lincoln Center was a meaningful civic gesture. I remember in particular a "Carmen" in 1997 at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, starring the glamorous mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. The weather was balmy, and some 3,000 people attended, a small but appreciative audience.

At the time Ms. Graves was a rising Met star. Over the years, however, my impression has been that most people who attend these concerts turn out not to see stars, but for the simple miracle of having the Met come to their neighborhoods. Also, by performing complete operas, the company respected the intelligence of the audience.

But Mr. Gelb thought that a concert of arias and duets, done up right with renowned singers, would be a potentially exciting and more manageable substitute. Friday's event was a trial run of a new concept, he has said. At least for this audience at Prospect Park it seemed to be an enormous success.

Thankfully, speeches from officials came before the scheduled 8 p.m. start. Mr. Gelb, in his comments, emphasized that to initiate this venture he had bypassed Manhattan and taken the Met to Brooklyn, Prospect Park being "the geographical heart of the city." It was hard to begrudge the bragging rights of proud Brooklyn officials. Senator Charles E. Schumer, a Brooklyn native, exuberantly welcomed all those "who live in the outer boroughs."

Just a couple of minutes past 7:59, the precise moment of the summer solstice, Mr. Marin began the concert with the orchestra performing the grimly dramatic Overture to Verdi's "Forza del Destino," not an omen, one hoped, of what the summer will bring. Then, to a prolonged ovation, Ms. Gheorghiu and Mr. Alagna appeared, giving an impassioned account of a duet from Bizet's "Pêcheurs de Perles."

Throughout the Bizet a security helicopter buzzed above the stage in a circle, flying unusually low and creating a racket. When the duet ended, hundreds of people in the audience shouted and shook their fists at the helicopter, which stayed away after that.

An amplified outdoor concert is not an occasion to pass critical judgment on the vocal states of the featured artists. But in general Ms. Gheorghiu and Mr. Alagna delivered urgent, stirring and emotional performances that earned them ovation after ovation.

Ms. Gheorghiu was particularly affecting in the beguiling "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana," a popular aria from Catalani's otherwise little-known "La Wally." Mr. Alagna gave a plaintive if rhythmically liberal account of "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's "Tosca." He also performed an aria from "Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné," an opera based on a Hugo novel composed by his brother David Alagna, also a stage director. If this teeming, romantic French aria had been announced as music of the tenor's grandfather, I would have believed it.

A performance of the "Anvil Chorus" from Verdi's "Trovatore," complete with video close-ups of the anvils being hammered, earned hearty bravos for the Met's choristers. Among other selections Ms. Gheorghiu and Mr. Alagna sang ardent duets: familiar ones, from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Verdi's "Traviata," and the less familiar "C'est le Dieu!" from Delibes's "Lakmé," which ended the formal portion of the relatively short program at about 9:40.

Then came the encores. Mr. Alagna wooed the audience with a Puccini favorite, "Nessun dorma" from "Turandot." In a nod to Ms. Gheorghiu's heritage, the two sang a duet from a Romanian operetta by Gherase Dendrino. They also turned "O sole mio" into a playfully competitive duet, milked "Granada" for all its mass appeal and asked the audience to join them and the Met's choristers in "Libiamo," the bubbly drinking song from "La Traviata." But they may have slightly overestimated the audience's adulation when they repeated "Granada" as their seventh and final encore.