Review: With Anthems and Flags, the Met Opera Plays for Ukraine

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Vladyslav Buialskyi stood center stage at the Metropolitan Opera, his hand on his heart, and sang the national anthem of his country, Ukraine.

That was on Feb. 28, when the house reopened after a month off from performing and the Russian invasion of Ukraine was just a few days old. The company’s chorus and orchestra joined Buialskyi, a member of the Met’s young artists program, in a message of solidarity with him and his suffering people.

Exactly two weeks later, on Monday, Buialskyi, a 24-year-old bass-baritone from the besieged port city of Berdyansk, stood center stage once more, his hand again on his heart, and sang the anthem with the orchestra and chorus.

This time it wasn’t a prelude to Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” but the start of “A Concert for Ukraine,” an event hastily organized by the Met to benefit relief efforts in that country and broadcast there and around the world.

Banners forming the Ukrainian flag stretched across the travertine exterior of the theater, bathed in blue and yellow floodlights. Another flag hung above the stage; a few in the audience brought their own to unfurl from the balconies. Seated in the guest of honor position in the center of the parterre, Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, responded to an ovation at the start by raising his arms and making resolute V-for-victory signs.

It has been a trying time for the Met, which broke with Anna Netrebko, its reigning diva, over her unwillingness to speak against the war and distance herself from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

But the conflict has also given the company — still bruised by labor battles despite remarkable success staying open during the Omicron wave — a sense of unity and moral purpose. Who would have predicted a few months ago that the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, broadly reviled within the ranks for imposing a long unpaid furlough on many employees during the pandemic, would get applause from some in the orchestra as he declared from the stage that they were “soldiers of music”?

His remarks had a martial tinge, saying that the Met’s work could be “weaponized against oppression.” But much of the concert, led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company’s music director, was consoling, with favorites like Barber’s Adagio for Strings, here fevered and unsentimental, and “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” with its chorus of exiles longing for their homeland, “so beautiful and lost.” Most powerful was Valentin Silvestrov’s delicate, modest a cappella “Prayer for the Ukraine,” written in 2014 amid the Maidan protests against Russian influence.

Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” wasn’t quite on message, with its autumnal vision of accepting death’s imminence. But it provided a vehicle for the Met’s prima donna of the moment: the young soprano Lise Davidsen, currently starring in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

At opening night of “Ariadne” two weeks ago, Davidsen kept inundating the theater, seeming intent on proving just how much vibrating sound can flow out of her. It was thrilling, and a little much. At the performance of the opera on Saturday afternoon, she seemed consciously trying to restrain herself — even a bit tentative, fumbling a phrase in her opening aria and only gradually building to a true compromise of power and nuance.

On Monday, Davidsen again seemed to be finding her way. Her high notes in the first of the “Four Last Songs,” “Frühling,” had a steely edge rather than soaring freedom; in “September,” she sounded muted in lower registers; and in “Beim Schlafengehen,” her phrasing was stiff. But she began “Im Abendrot” with a soft cloud of tone and proceeded with unforced radiance to an ending that felt light and hopeful.

The soloists in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which closed the concert, were drawn from the Met’s current roster: The soprano Elza van den Heever is singing the title role in Handel’s “Rodelinda”; the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, Eboli in “Don Carlos”; the tenor Piotr Beczala, Lensky in a coming revival of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”; the bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, a bit part in “Ariadne.”

Nézet-Séguin’s conducting in this famous finale was neither grand nor patient; when the orchestra is onstage at the Met rather than in the pit, the balances are not ideal for rich unanimity, and the pacing was febrile, a bit scrappy. But it was moving to watch the face of Beczala, who is from Poland, shift from stony focus to grinning. And the “Ode to Joy” inevitably makes an impact, particularly with Green declaiming the opening lines with such memorable defiance.

The anthem of the European Union, “Ode to Joy” is music for every inspiring occasion, but especially for right now. (Perhaps it was the time to follow Leonard Bernstein, who, when leading the work just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, replaced the cries of “Freude,” or “joy,” with “Freiheit” — “freedom.”)

It’s worth remembering, though, that while this anthem seemed so fitting on Monday, with the audience streaming out of the Met colored with the blue and yellow light shining on the theater, it doesn’t always mean what a given listener wishes it did. When Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic coruscated through the Ninth Symphony during World War II, the Germans thought Beethoven was writing for them. If the piece were played tonight in Moscow, the Russians might think the same.

However stirring, this music doesn’t pick sides, and it doesn’t change us. It makes us more of what we are.

A Concert for Ukraine

Performed on Monday at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan.

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