There they all were, sitting prettily in their boxes, black-tied and ball-gowned. It was the glittering glamorous opening night gala of the Metropolitan Opera, traditionally the highlight of the New York social season. And as surely as Verdi wrote “La Traviata” Renée Fleming, soprano of sopranos, has joined the rarified Pantheon of the great Violettas of all time. Think Lily Pons, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Brigitte Nielsen.
It was a thrilling night and she was a thrilling sight on the great stage singing the role for the first time at the Met. It was a poignant performance, saucy and brilliant when it seemed Violetta had found eternal love despite her failing body, and desperate and wrenching when she knew she had lost it forever. If this is what is called “inhabiting a role,” Renée Fleming “lived” Violetta, the star-crossed Paris courtesan.
Renée looked a dream, all pale skin with dark hair cascading this way and that when it wasn’t held up by a diamond tiara. Her costumes by Raimonda Gaetani were breathtaking. She is a mere 44 with many years ahead of her to conquer whatever part of the world she hasn’t already conquered.
All three acts of the opera were spectacular with ravishing, all-out sets by producer/designer Franco Zeffirelli, practitioner of opulence; Valery Gergiev, conducting and Ramon Vargas and Dmitri Hvorostovsky triumphantly singing the roles of Alfredo and Giorgio Germont. Deutsche Bank underwrote the gala and the bank’s chairman Josef Ackermann, a music lover extraordinaire, and his wife Pirko, flew from Frankfurt for the big evening.
If you paid $2,500 for your ticket you could drink pink champagne at a reception on the Grand Tier, enjoy the performance and sup on such dainty dishes purveyed by Glorious Food as smoked salmon, mint-crusted rack of lamb and trifle with cappuccino, passion fruit and pistachio ice cream. At least 600 guests did just that.
Renée joined the cast supper after the opera looking every inch the star in a red full-skirted dress she could have worn on stage. Sir Elton John was her special guest and escort for the evening and in their party were Elton’s partner David Furnish and Lynn Wyatt, who flew in from Houston, for what was truly a spectacular affair flawlessly arranged by Cecile Zilkha, the Met’s vice chairman, who arrived in a red chiffon Valentino, pearls and earrings to her shoulders. Everywhere you looked you saw such worthies of note as former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his wife, Judi, who looked absolutely delicious in a low-cut — very — flowered dress laced up the back. With her long straight hair and long straight bangs, she garnered a lot of attention. Maybe the most. As for black, it’s the new black as far as many of the best-dressed ladies in the boxes are concerned. The alluring Lady Black, (she is the British columnist Barbara Amiel) wore black. So did Annette de la Renta, Mercedes Bass and Marie-Josée Kravis. Nancy Kissinger was in a long-sleeved green dress pleated on top with a bouffant skirt. Jayne Wrightsman was in a little silver brocade jacket and Lee (Mrs. Walter) Annenberg wore pink-red brocade by Oscar de la Renta. The secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and his wife, Nane, sat in the front row of the center box along with our ambassador to the U.N., John Negroponte, and his wife, Diana, in white and gold brocade.