Met opening a big deal for Russian bass

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NEW YORK (AP) — For Ildar Abdrazakov, this may go down as the biggest opening night that almost didn't happen.

Not that the Russian bass-baritone is exactly unknown at the Metropolitan Opera, where he has headlined productions from Verdi's "Attila" to last season's "Prince Igor" by Borodin.

But starring as the title character in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro, which opened the company's 2014-15 season Monday night, had special importance for Abdrazakov (pronounced ahb-drah-ZAH-koff). It reunited him with conductor James Levine, who led his debut 10 years ago in another Mozart opera, "Don Giovanni." And it came after a summer of labor strife that threatened to keep the house dark for months.

"Some of my colleagues were worried," he said in a break from rehearsals 10 days before opening. "We had already started work and things weren't settled. But inside I was feeling positive. The people who work here, they love art, they love opera, I don't think they work just for the money."

In the end, the Met's unions averted a threatened lockout by agreeing to modest pay cuts, far less than management had initially demanded.

For Abdrazakov, who at age 37 has sung the role of Figaro many times but never with Levine, working with "the maestro" has been "just a dream. He has a lot of beautiful ideas, new ideas for me."

He cites as one example the character's opening lines, as he measures the bedroom he will share with his fiancee, Susannah: "Cinque, dieci, venti . " ("Five, 10, 20 ...")

"Maestro says, 'Ildar, try to be in this opera as if you are 20 years old," he recalled. "'And you are enjoying life, just before you are marrying. Try to be more full of energy.'

"I said, OK, and then I start singing 'CIN-que. ...DIE-ci ...'" he demonstrated, accenting the first syllables with ebullience. "It changed a lot, with just one or two words from maestro."

The new production, directed by Richard Eyre, also stars baritone Peter Mattei as the Count, Marlis Petersen as Susanna, and in her Met debut, soprano Amanda Majeski as the Countess.

There's a bonus for Abdrazakov in opening the season: He also gets to sing the HD telecast that will be shown live in movie theaters worldwide on Oct. 18. And the Met asked him to stick around after his run of "Figaros" to sing the role of the toreador Escamillo in the HD of Bizet's "Carmen" on Nov. 1.

It's been suggested that one thing keeping Abdrazakov from wider fame in this country may be his name itself — it's a bit tricky for Americans to pronounce. He's asked if he ever considered following the lead of Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska, who simplified her name and is now known professionally as Alex Penda.

Abdrazakov gave a hearty laugh and threw up his hands by way of making it clear he has no intention of following suit.

"What can I do?" he said. "Call me Ildar! Call me Abra-ca-da-bra! My name is my name."

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