Byline: Aileen Mehle

What a night for thrills and chills and passions brought to a peak, onstage and in the audience too! What a night for artistry and vocal genius, the reason opera at its dazzling, emotion-wrenching best is called “grand.” This, the opening performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s 1999-2000 season, is one the privileged crowd, witnesses to the historic evening, is never likely to forget. This is the glittering moment when Placido Domingo, the tenor all tenors are measured by, marking his 18th opening night and his 565th performance at the Met, broke the opening night record once held by the legendary Enrico Caruso. The audience celebrated Domingo with a long-lasting standing ovation, and never was an honor more deserved. When he, playing the role of Canio in “Pagliacci” in glorious voice, sang the famous “Vesti la giubba” aria, it was such a moving, emotional moment that many in the audience responded viscerally. The fashionable opera lover Mercedes Bass, beautifully dressed in half Oscar de la Renta and half Balmain (both halves, top and bottom, designed by the same Oscar, of course) was one big stylish goose-bump. On her it looked good.
She adores Placido, but, really, everybody adores Placido.
“Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” almost always performed together, were the opening night fare, and although all the singers were excellent, certainly two gifted young performers, Jose Cura and Charles Castronova, both making their Met debuts, should be singled out. Also ravishing, singing Nedda, was Veronica Villarroel, graceful and agile and tempestuous to a T.
The opening night of the Metropolitan Opera has always been regarded among New York’s cognoscenti as the first and most prestigious event of the fall social season. The music lovers who fill the boxes may not be right out of Edith Wharton, but they’ll have to do for now. The lovely women first-nighters are bedecked and bedizened and bejeweled. The men turn up in dinner jackets and some even in white tie. The Parterre area was filled with many of those social names you know and love, corporation heads, captains of industry, billionaires, denizens of the media and the odd diplomat. Almost all are instantly recognizable. The rest are on their way to being.
As ever, there are standouts. Cecile (Mrs. Ezra) Zilkha, the vice chairman of the Met’s board and the marvel who masterminds every big glamorous blowout there, wore a black velvet Lacroix with a halter neck and shoulders barely covered in dotted tulle. She was much admired, as was Gale Hayman in crimson satin and earrings to have a fit over. Lee Annenberg, wife of billionaire philanthropist Walter Annenberg and one of the Met’s most devoted supporters, came in from Philadelphia and sat in the front row of one of the main boxes wearing heavy apple-green silk taffeta with a full skirt you couldn’t miss. Barbara Walters was all in scarlet off-the-shoulders worn with an eye-popping necklace, and Lucky Roosevelt, in from Washington, wore a black lace evening suit designed by Bill Blass. Beatrice Santo Domingo, the reason for the word chic, wore the black dress of the evening. Mrs. Kofi Annan, the wife of the United Nations’ Secretary General, wore a beige satin suit embroidered with beads, and then there was Annette de la Renta, also in black satin with black bead trim at the shoulders. Little darlings, all.
Who else was there? Our opera-loving Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who declared that day Placido Domingo Day and presented him with an award to prove it; Nancy Kissinger; Lucile and Guy Peyrelongue; Blaine and Robert Trump; Venezuelan Ambassador and Mrs. Tejera-Paris; Kati Marton and Richard Holbrook; Countess Arco; Joan Rivers with Oren Lehman; Lauren and John Veronis; John Whitehead; the Tony Randalls; Alberto Vilar; Sid Bass; the Frank Newmans (Mr. Newman has shaved off his mustache and is a new man); the Hon. and Mrs. Thomas Kean of the New Jersey Keans; Emily Fisher and Sheldon Landau; Marie-Josee and Henry Kravis; John Richardson; Everett Fahy; Robert M. Zarem; Ezra Zilkha; Venezuelan billionaire Gustavo Cisneros; Julio Mario Santo Domingo; Nada Kirdar, in from London; Texaco chairman Peter Bijur; Patricia Patterson; the Met’s president, Paul Montrone, and Mrs. Montrone; the Met’s general manager and Mrs. Joseph Volpe; Oscar de la Renta; Dr. William Haseltine; the Met’s honorary chairman Mrs. Gilbert Humphrey; Gilbert Khan; the Met’s chairman and Mrs. James Kinner; Allison and Leonard Stern; the William Ziffs, and hundreds of others too important to mention. I guess.
The 600 big-ticket holders dined on a Glorious Food repast of cold wild striped bass, quail and pheasant ragout in pastry, and chocolate cake in the shape of Canio’s clown hat, served with grapefruit sorbet. The tables, designed by Bill Tansey, were centered with pure white roses interspersed with clusters of lemons and accented with delphinium in blue and white Cantonese tureens. You would have loved it.

Gwyneth Paltrow should be one happy actress right this minute because her true love Ben Affleck — yes, you read that right — just gave her a gorgeous pair of stud earrings, three carats each of Harry Winston diamonds. It was her birthday present, and oh, she was so surprised! Ben’s already given her a diamond bracelet from Winston. And now these radiant beauties. Studs from a stud. Did I say that?