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Solid gold

don_carlo_thumb“Sombre splendor there is frequently not.” Zachary Woolfe mulls Don Carlo. [New York Observer]

52 comments

  • Will says:

    In spite of a significant amount of condemnation of Ms Poplavskaya here, it is notable that critics Woolfe and our own J.J. mention that, whatever her vocal inconsistencies, she is a fascinating, totally committed performer to whom one’s attention is constantly drawn.

    That sounds to me awfully like Magda Olivero, Marta Modl, Leonie Rysanek, Maria Callas, and several other highly revered, even iconic figures whose voices may not have been perfect but who gave dynamic, revelatory performances regularly. Why is Ms Poplavskaya treated differently?

    • MontyNostry says:

      Probably because: 1) there is something unlovable about both voice and persona; 2) she is perceived as having a ‘machine’ behind her.

    • kashania says:

      I’m not very familiar with Poplavskaya’s voice (having only heard her so-so Liu) but reading the comments here, it seems that most of the critcisms are not of her voice itself but her actual singing (lacking support, etc.). I find that people are usually far kinder to singers who sing well but lack a traditionally beautiful instrument (like your examples). It seems to me that Poplavskaya’s critics take issue with her lack of command of a good voice.

    • CruzSF says:

      Maybe Poplavskaya needs to find a good rival. If she (or her machine) could recreate a Tebaldi-Callas-like “feud,” she’ll get a good portion of the fans to rally to her side.

    • Porgy Amor says:

      I can’t yet say anything about how she plays to an audiece in the theater, but she’s a great camera subject, without doubt. The Desdemona for Muti had good and less good musical and histrionic points, but the thing I find myself thinking of first is simply the way that face looks from different angles, with different effects of light and shadow. This is especially true in the last act, when the director and the set designer finally get out of the way and more or less leave the opera alone, and Poplavskaya is lit by candlelight for the scene with Emelia. The closeups in the video version of that OTELLO often are *too* close (no bead of sweat, involuntary emission of spittle, or saliva rope goes undocumented), but I wasn’t complaining here.

    • There is a huge difference between Poplavskaja one side side and Callas and Olivero on the other. While it is true that Callas and Olivero did not have the most classically “beautiful” instruments, they did have an iron-clad technique: they knew how to sing on the breath, use their diaphragm (nobody beats Olivero as far as breathing is concerned), use the passaggio etc. Poplavskaja is simply amateurish when it come vocal technique. I am not arguing about her timbre. Timbre is subjective: I like one timbre, you like another one. Technique is not subjective. Personally I find Poplavskaja’s timbre pleasant enough, and one can tell that there is a substantial voice buried under all that amount of technical deficiencies. Her stage persona, again, is subjective: I tend to find her “on the cold side”, others may view her coldness as a sign of regal restrain in a role like Elisabetta.

      • richard says:

        I pretty much go along with what Ercole says here, I don’t really have a dog in this race as I haven’t heard Pops in DC, but I’ve heard her in other stuff.

        And in that, her voice is awkwardly and clumsily used. There is something almost amatuerish about how complicated it is for her to shift vocal gears and move her voice around.

        I tend to not like cold and remote singers although that seesm to be somewhat of a popular trend now. And Elisabetta is a hard role to pull off dramatically, it’s somewhat static and her emotions are not always clear. So again, particularly not having heard her performance, I can’t comment on it specifically.

        But her Liu and her Desdemona, which I did hear, sounded far more complicated vocally than they needed to be. Lots and lots of gears grinding. There is a sort of half-baked quality about this singer, at least as far as technique.

      • I just can’t believe that this kind of singing is being taken seriously. I have no doubt the voice is large and has a unique timbre, like it or not. So of course it projects and you can hear it in the hall. She can sometimes provide dynamic contrasts and sing a very effortful, strangulated pianissimo in alt because she’s musical and she knows there has to be a pianissimo at that point but it costs her a lot of effort and it is so very obvious.

        And I don’t think the repertoire is too heavy for her. She is not a ‘spinto’ (she doesnt really belong in any fach, because the voice isn’t developed and honed into a stage in which you can fachsinn her) but she is an ample lirico. That is obvious.

        The problem isnt about the raw vocal material or the temperament or lack of musicality. All of this is in evidence. Basing my opinion on what I’ve heard so far of Popsy, the technical handling of the voice is not even basic, it’s not even suitable for a career in minor houses. It reminds me more of talented conservatory students, I’m sorry to say. There are many tell-tale sings and I strain my mind to think of any other example, recent or otherwise, that such a technically unpolished singer had been flashed in front of the public and upgraded to full stardom. And I’m not talking of technically sound singers who wreck their voices by singing too much, giving too much, making wrong choices early on or having a basic this or that fault. People like Sylvia Sass, Tiziana Fabbricini, Jose Cura or Elena Suliotis. These singers had major flaws which made them crash and burn, but they hade basic knowledge of what to do, where and how, depite knowingly (or not) abusing their voices. Popsy sounds as if she just doesn’t KNOW. How can anyone compare her to major vocal experts (albeit arguably flawed ones) like Callas or otherwise remains a mystery to me. Farnese, I’m so there with you. It’s like comparing flawed masterpieces like The Idiot with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Totally irrelevant.

        • La marquise de Merteuil says:

          Dear C-F,

          I hope I’m not rubbing you up the wrong way, as I know you are a sincere poster, but pp’s for them the high notes is a forthermucker even on a good day -- unless you are Cabs or Gencer. Then you sing top Cs over breakfast as Cabs demonstrated to a friend at 8am while smoking a cigar, I was told.

          Also, I don’t know how known this is, but Sass had a serious liver illness -- she almost died, and it duly interfered with her singing. When I heard her 3 years ago in a concert she was sounding rather impressive after having made a recovery of health and voice. And Suliotis, while being naughty with her voice, also was deaf in one ear and she could never quite work out what was going on. Not trying to make excuses for these two. But just saying.

          Also, in my opinion Carreras just sang the wrong rep. He had a rather marvelous technique and gorgeous voice. (And rather well respected internally respected vocal pedagogue thinks so too -- if that gives me any leverage!)

          Fabricini -- don’t know enough about her, except that she sang a rather interesting, and controversial Scala Traviata -- which I’m still waiting to com out on DVD.

          PS: I agree with your assessment of Popsy -- there is something very odd going on there. And I’m in NO rush to hear her live. her vocal production is like a car driven by Karen Walker.

          • Dear Marquise

            Thank you for the information about Souliotis, Sass et al. I had no idea, and only use my ears. Sad stories both.

            BTW I was referring to Jose Cura, not Carreras. And you are absolutely right IMO -- wonderful voice, technique and musicianship, such an honest artist, bad choice of repertoire (mostly suggested by Karajan).

          • richard says:

            la Marquise, just a few comments of my own to add to your take on these several singers.

            First Sass, actually I think her technique was decent and not terribly flawed. I only heard her once but what I did notice was that her voice live didn’t have much impact. It didn’t project much and was pretty small scale. I doubt that it was all that well focused to project so poorly (and I’m not really part of what actually seems like the majority of opera goers who get a kind of visceral thrill of hearing a really big, pin-you-back-to-the-seat-sound) So there are really just a few performers that I find fault with for the scale of their performance but Sass was one, perhaps unfairly as it was a single hearing.

            On Carerras, I partially disagree. First the technique had unfinished spots that he never reasolved. I heard him very early 1972 and the whole process of going from the middle to the top was a bit stiff and inflexible. That bridge zone of notes E-F-G was a bit unresonant. Mostly though, I thought this is just an amazingly beautiful sound. But knowing that that area fro tenors is very important and that it can lead to serious problems, I had small concerns about Carerras’ method from very early hearings.

            And it wasn’t just repertory, he really tended to yell the top notes. Even in those early NYCO performances I heard him do, Lucia, Traviata, Boheme, he yelled a fair amount , mostly at the top. And this too was a bit worrying from a young singer. Listen to really any of his recordings, he is always trying for a big squillo type and he pushes very hard, but the tops really don’t truly “ring”.

            In a way he was a bit like Villazon in that he oversang a lot as well as ended up in some crazy repertory choices. But Villazon was a much more extreme situation.

      • ardath_bey says:

        Callas had an iron-clad technique? Please, is that why her voice was gone before she turned 40? She sang Lucia the same way she sang Brunhilde with little regard for the huge difference in styles.

        Please don’t put Callas and Olivero in the same sentence when technique’s concerned, a remarkable technique means longevity and, for openers, keeping your voice from embarrassing craks, Callas lacked both.

        • La marquise de Merteuil says:

          O dear!

        • This is something I’ve been thinking about. How should we think about great technique. Why isn’t it great technique when someone manipulates their voice in ways that are musically insightful and emotionally thrilling even if they are physiologically unsustainable. Is the idea that any singer can do the things that Callas or Moser did, but they choose not to to preserve their voices over the long term. Take a singer like Martina Arroyo who has one of the most wonderfully produced huge sounds of all times, but who (from all reports) was a dramatically inert singer. What is “great technique?”

          • That’s the biggest question around, ain’t it?

            I’d say opinions vary widely between and within singers, experts and the discerning public. I think that basically, it’s a question of balance. To pare it down to the barest essentials, I’d define ‘great technique’ as two things mainly -- control and maximising your potential. Manipulating the voice shouldn’t come at the expense of maintaining control. The basic essentials should never be compromised -- singing sul fiato and projecting. Callas certainly took huge risks but she never shortchanged these basic essntials, despite having problems with her abdomen muscles and severe bouts of synositis.

            It seems to me that Popsy lacks both control and she doesn’t even begin to maximize her vocal potential.

          • La marquise de Merteuil says:

            Yarp to CF!

    • Often admonished says:

      She’s treated differently because the voice’s colors range from beige to compromise. There are musical instincts behind it but its not interesting enough to pull a whole role together.

    • rapt says:

      Thanks for your question, Will. It’s led to what I find a fascinating thread!

  • sensibility says:

    Off topic but SO INTERESTING!
    I don’t know if this is the site where I can draw attention to this but it is much more honest than others.
    http://classical-iconoclast.blogspot.com/2010/11/head-above-parapet-angela-gheorghiu.html

    By the way, Angela performed on 30th and she was superb along with the whole cast.

    • manou says:

      Well I was also at Adriana last night, and thought it was a terrific performance. Borodina was in a completely different class to Schuster (only seen at the dress), and got a well deserved ovation. Kaufmann was pretty damn good, even though there is still this occluded quality to his voice. His key change in dolcissima effigie was seamless, and his diminuendo at the end wonderfully executed. I was sitting about 10ft away from him and would like to know if anyone has actually seen a completely glabrous Jonas. This is not five o’clock shadow, it is permanent shadow.

      La Gheorghiu pulled out all the stops (there was filming…). She does sometimes overdo the pouting and general coquetterie, but there is a very individual and thrilling quality to her voice. The final scene was affecting but not mawkish -- also thanks to Corbelli.

      My husband had never seen nor heard the opera and was quite taken with the whole thing.

      • Camille says:

        …’occluded quality’…hummmm, I find that the precise word to describe his singing, at least what I’ve heard via radio waves.

        How were Olga’s high notes last night? I am hoping against hope that she’ll get that raucousness out of her acuti and be the Olga of yore.

      • scifisci says:

        I’m confused…I could swear someone said they were filming on the 11/26 date, which had schuster….

        • La Cieca says:

          For a commercial release at least two, more likely three performances will be recorded. The Principessa appears in relatively few scenes of the opera, so most of the Adriana and Maurizio footage from a “Schuster” night could easily be inserted into a “Borodina” performance (and vice versa).

          Borodina has already done a DVD of this opera, but she is also a bigger box office name than Schuster, so I suppose the final product could go either way.

          • La marquise de Merteuil says:

            Re: Borodina.

            After she walked out of the ROH Aida -- in a big huff after a meeting with Wilson to discuss his concept -- a few seasons back they were NOT in a rush to get her back. And it has caused some real bad juju for borodina at ROH. I view her singing second cast at the ROH this season as a F*ck you to Borodina who is judging from recordings a far better singer than Schuster -- who is at best competent.

          • La marquise de Merteuil says:

    • Jack Jikes says:

      Bravo Classical-Iconoclast! -- tender and accurate assessment.

      La Gheorghiu has had to endure salvos similar to those now being hurled at Popsy. I find Angela loveable.

  • MontyNostry says:

    manou, I was so sorry not to see Borodina — I thought Schuster was only so-so on the first night and not at all Italianate. (Did Olga have a more flattering wig with less of a bald pate at the front?) I did consider also booking for one of the ABG performances with Olga, but I don’t think the piece can sustain overexposure and Ange’s simperings irritated me enough first time round.

    • manou says:

      Monty -- much better wig this time! Much more in keeping and quite flattering. Borodina and Angie has a tremendous confrontation scene (talk about catfight).

      I was wondering myself how this production might fare with a less heavyweight cast -- but I certainly would not waste my time and money on the B cast (and there are lots of seats for lots of money for the ABG performances).

      The DVD seems to be on the way….

      • MontyNostry says:

        Didn’t Olga outgun Ange shamelessly? Is her voice still big and velvety?

        • manou says:

          Wonderful huge voice with deep dark (Russian) vowels. I was expecting outgunning but Angie held her own (must have been all this rest from cancelling the previous performance).

      • parpignol says:

        Borodina and Guleghina having it out was the most fun at the Met Adriana a few years back (unless you really thought it was fun to watch Domingo reliving his glabrous youth).

        • Camille says:

          yes, but they spoiled it all by making nice at the curtain call. wish they had kept it up. good ol’ Olga is one of the only ones who could know how to deal with the Ghoul

        • MontyNostry says:

          Domingo is less naturally glabrous than Jo, though.

  • papopera says:

    Hope that new tenor Yonghoon Lee who we will hear in the broadcast of December 18 is as good as he looks.
    Don Carlo was a nut case, a lunatic, totally insane, not the romantic hero painted by Schiller and Verdi, the result of generations of congenital mariages. He never reigned. His half brother inherited the throne as Philip III who was the son of Philip II and his own niece Anna !
    I’ve never been satisfied with the autodaté scenes I saw. I would prefer them more realistic, with the bodies of the heretics burning in the flames, hearing their screams and seeing all the human fats and fluids going up in dark fetid smoke.

    • manou says:

      Maybe you would like to nominate the victims for this gruesome autodafé?

    • MontyNostry says:

      At moments like this, I give thanks that opera is not about verisimilitude.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Philip III was not even born when Carlos died, and two of his elder brothers -- also sons of Anna of Austria -- predeceased him. Philip had a habit of marrying close relatives: his first wife, Maria of Portugal, was his first cousin, the second, Mary Tudor was his first cousin once removed, and his fourth was both his neice and his second cousin. Only Elisabeth de Valois was not a member of his immediate blood family. It’s no wonder the Spanish Habsburg line died out with Carlos III -- a similar character to his namesake.

  • m. croche says:

    Backwards ran the sentences until reeled the mind.

    You can be the kind of prose stylist that involutes “sombre splendor there frequently is not” or you can be the kind of hipster that writes “She gets it”. It is inadvisable to try to be both in the space of a single article.

  • Dawn Fatale says:

    I admire Mr. Woolfe’s writing but this particular review makes me want to get up on my soapbox and rant about a couple of things.

    1. I don’t care if the audience made fun of the set because it looked like Legos. Putting aside the fact that the average Met patron wouldn’t recognize good scenic design if it groped them during an airport screening, the critic’s job is to review the performance, not to tell us what the audience felt. A reporter can tell us how the audience reacted. There are exceptions, I suppose (“I had trouble hearing some of the premiere of “Rite of Spring” because of the rioting.”), but I often find that critics use this as a weasel-ish way to make snarky comments (” The audience tittered notably when the immense Brunnhilde appeared in silhouette.”) If you think the soprano is too large to be convincing say it for yourself.

    2. Please don’t encourage designers to set entire operas in big boxes. It rarely works. Don Carlo needs the contrast between indoor and outdoor spaces, The librettos of 19th century operas were designed so that an act consisting of multiple scenes would feature the contrast of an intimate space versus a larger one with a private drama playing out in the large public setting. Putting it all in a big box, blunts this. You might as well play all the movements of a symphony at the same tempo.

    Dismounting soapbox.

    • Often admonished says:

      Stay up there all you like

      “Sombre splendor there is frequently not.” reads like f**king Yoda.