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Slow curtain, the end

Here’s a taste of what’s in store for the Met’s HD audience on Saturday, as well as a spectacle audiences for later performances will likely miss. (Oh, haven’t you heard? After the broadcast, Natalie Dessay traditionally suffers a relapse of her maladie du jour…)

Photo: Marty Sohl. Video: Metropolitan Opera.

329 comments

  • SuperSuper says:

    For the right soprano (and there are several -- regardless of who is deemed a “star”), Violetta is a walk in the park vocally and dramatically. That the Met, of all places in the world, has put on two sopranos in consecutive years who can’t sing the role, is simply beyond a joke. It’s borderline fraud.

    • poisonivy says:

      Violetta is a “walk in the park”? What are you smoking?

    • antikitschychick says:

      No disrespect intended SuperSuper, but to say that Violetta is a walk in the park is somewhat out of touch.

      The role is fiendishly difficult, not because I say so, but because the singers who themselves take on the role say so. As many have noted, it really is a role for three different voice types all meshed into one.

      Notice how AN has pretty much dropped the role from her repertoire, despite it being the role that propelled her to where she is today.

      Furthermore, one need only hear interviews of Renee Fleming, who is probably the most technically proficient singer of our times, talk about how difficult this role is, in terms of technical demands, so I think it is far from easy. It’s certainly one of the most-often performed, if not the most often-performed opera, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. It’s a role that requires virtuosity on many different levels.

      • SuperSuper says:

        For the RIGHT soprano, ladies….neither of the ones you mentioned is that soprano any longer.

        • antikitschychick says:

          ok, I see what you mean, even though I still think that’s more of a subjective opinion than anything else…
          Who would you say is the “right” soprano for this role today??

        • La Cieca says:

          Names, please, of those sopranos for whom Violetta is “a walk in the park.”

          • SuperSuper says:

            For starters, four women who have sung it at the Met in recent seasons. Each gave masterful, natural, spontaneous performances, musically and dramatically:

            Gheorghiu
            Stoyanova
            Harteros
            Dunleavy

            Let’s not turn this role into Norma. For the right singer, it is easy -- or at least they make it look easy.

          • poisonivy says:

            That doesnt mean it was a walk in the park for them. Gheourghiu no longer sings at the Met, neither dies Harteros. This is roughly akin to an Olympics in which few world records are broken and someone saying “for the right athlete, breaking a world record should be a walk in the park.”

          • sterlingkay says:

            SuperSuper is obviously walking his stupid statement back by now saying they “make it look easy”. That’s very different from claiming that it is a “walk in the park”. Gheorghiu has often said it’s the most difficult role she sings.

          • SilvestriWoman says:

            I’ll take a chance and jump in here. No, Violetta is anything but a walk in the park. That said, there is a good question for discussion as to why it’s become more difficult to find a viable Violetta. Back in the 50s, it seemed every lyric soprano worth her salt actively had the role in her repertoire -- to name a few, in no particular order: Sayao, Albanese, Kirsten, Steber, Callas, Tebaldi, de los Angeles. Has vocal technique diminished so much that the basics for Violetta -- a strong lyric soprano with good agility -- be so hard to find?

          • sterlingkay says:

            Oh, one last thing SuperSuper: Gheorghiu has never given a “natural” or “spontaneous” performance in her life. She has a beautiful voice but every effect-- vocal & dramatic-- always comes off as totally contrived and calculated. Still, I’m a proud Opera Queen so I do enjoy the diva antics of her performances.

      • Porgy Amor says:

        The only time I have ever heard a Violetta say that TRAVIATA is a fairly easy sing technically, that soprano went on that night to make a mess of Act One, and later to have a bad bobble or lapse at “Alfredo, di questo core” (a horrible place for such a thing; it’s so exposed). I remember sitting there thinking, “Well, [Name], I guess it’s easy if you don’t sing it *well*…” I’ll only narrow it down by saying she’s better known for earlier music, and works a lot with the period-instruments crowd.

        • Tamerlano says:

          Emma Kirkby was a FINE Violetta under Hogwood.

          • The Vicar of John Wakefield says:

            Dame Emma always delivers that slancio! Charming “letter”, too.

            Still, one should mention how effectively Margaret Ritchie dispatched “Non sapete”
            and the electrifying “Amami, Alfredo” of Penelope Walmsley-Clark.

        • armerjacquino says:

          Did someone mention Mireille Delunsch?

  • antikitschychick says:

    I concur with your sentiments Podlesmania…I too was very, very moved by her performance despite also feeling incredibly tense throughout, not knowing if she was going to make it…but what a heart-wrenching, intensely committed performance! It was just sad in a very glorious way. She was definitely channeling La Callas today. What she did was very very brave, namely because she does seem to be truly sick, which is a real shame…nevertheless, she didn’t miss a beat in terms of the drama (the reading of the letter was the best I’ve seen/heard thus far) and her characterization was extremely nuanced and vivid, but obviously she was very much struggling throughout the performance, although I do think she sang much better in Act 1 than on Tuesday, minus the botched E-flat…it was so endearing how she apologized to the audience after that…Deborah did a great job of consoling her as she did seem genuinely upset…I do hope she will recover, and if not she definitely should transition into acting…or maybe do some special projects in which she can lip sync to earlier recordings of herself or something…maybe do an opera film? She is certainly as worthy as AN for this sort of endeavor me thinks. Whatever she chooses to do I wish her the best as she is most definitely a very special artist and human being.

    My thoughts on the rest of the performance:

    Despite some brilliant moments, the performance overall had many, many flaws, starting with the orchestra which sounded flat in places during the prelude and Luisi was rushing throughout the performance and both the principals and the chorus were struggling to keep up, especially in Act 1 and I must say it is embarrassing that there were such glaring mistakes and lack of coordination in a place like the met. I understand that Luisi is not a machine, but all they have to do is hire another conductor and split the performances for Pete’s sake.

    Polenzani was in fine voice and gave an overall effective portrayal of Alfredo but his acting was off in the beginning (not enough passion and not an ounce of anger during O Dio Rimorso Infamia) and he did look awkward at times, though as the opera progressed he did seem to get more and more involved and his dramatic performance improved. He was also very charming during the intermission chat and he gave good answers to those generic questions he was asked. His Italian enunciation in some spots could use some improvements though.

    As far as Dmitri, I really didn’t get why the audience gave him such a huge ovation…perhaps the in-house effect was way different than the HD, but to me his voice is just not suited for this role. He is indeed a fine singer with great breath control, has great stage presence and is musical, but he was pushing an awful lot and as a result I think his voice sounded constricted and the overall effect of his performance was that of a very labored one. It took away from the swagger he was trying to convey and I agree the gasps for air were distracting. Not a bad performance, but not what I expected from a singer of his caliber.

    If they don’t release a DVD of this or AT LEAST show it on PBS I am going to toss Peter Gelb into the Machine and feed him to all you scorned parterrians.

  • Donna Anna says:

    Whew…I am not sorry to have missed le fin de la saison.(Went to see Footnote). Comments here indicate a meta performance: Dessay faint of voice but magnificent in performance, everyone else meh to better than expected. I have no problem with opera newbies so overwhelmed by this performance that they are converted to the fold. May they cause an uptick in sales of cds, tickets, and libretti. And may they become as annoyingly opinionated as everyone else in the house.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:


    You see the horrible influence of the couch and the red dress spreads across the country, and people think it’s the way things should be done !

    I fear great singing has died a painful death. When are women going to stop faking and arffing (barking) through the end of Sempre libera?

  • ilpenedelmiocor says:

    I’ve been out all day since the HD broadcast ended and was curious to see what everyone thought when I got home. I’ve now read all of today’s comments and will try not to repeat established consensus, with which I for the most part agree.

    First off, if Dessay and Decker worked primarily on the body and not on the psychological side of things, as she asserts in the interview QPF posted above, I would venture that they worked on it a little too much. I honestly just wanted her to stand still and stop twitching and jerking around for a minute. During the prologue, I got the impression that maybe she had misread the novel and thought she was supposed to be portraying MS rather than tuberculosis. In the last act, when she and Polenzani were against the back wall facing out, there was a moment (can’t remember exactly when) where he was singing and she was standing still for once — and her face just suddenly went completely composed and serene. That one moment for me was far more effective than the hours of histrionics that had preceded it — and immediately followed it, as soon as she started singing again. I’m one who is ordinarily not at all put off by her taking things over the top and I usually enjoy her dramatic choices, even when others hate them. But this performance was just overcooked, in my estimation — less would have been more. So while I agree that the performance was committed, I found it entirely distracting.

    The same for me was true of the entire last act, starting with the chorus taking forever to back out that door in slomo, which drives me insane every time I see it, it’s so distracting (“How do they know when to move in to avoid hitting the door? Are they talking to each other? Or are they counting measures? What happened to the couch? Oh there it is -- how are they gonna get it through the door? Are those guys carrying the couch supers or members of the chorus? Oh, do they always plant three people behind the upstage door to emerge and exit just as Grenville approaches?” etc. etc.). But there’s also a ton of aimless and seemingly random wandering of the principals around the set in that act that I find equally distracting. Reminded me of the tape dispensers of Satyagraha.

    I understand everyone’s dissatisfaction with Polenzani’s portrayal overall, but I have to say I thought he played the Act 2 confrontation scene with Hvorostovsky really well; for me it was totally believable. And honestly, it was nice not to have to worry about him getting through the role.

    My take on Hvorostovsky is split. I don’t have a lot of experience watching him perform, so it’s hard for me to judge whether he was phoning it in or not. As for acting stiff, I think he just refuses to compromise his abdominal support when he’s singing, so if he has to bend over to please the director, he’s gonna bend from the waist, thank you very much. I was OK with this because it’s not like this Germont is warm and fuzzy anyway, and that support helps create the barrage of sound that pours out of his mouth. And yeah, the breathing, also distracting — does he smoke or something? But I definitely thought he oversang today and kind of bulldozed his way through the role — for no apparent reason other than it seemed like he was determined to upstage everyone else by singing louder and holding notes longer (I thought it was pretty shameless when he did this to Dessay in the Act 2 duet, given her condition). In general he just seemed like a vocal hog to me today, an operatic Vladimir Putin. I felt that his applauding her when she emerged for her final curtain call was a feeble attempt to make up for it, and I suspect some of her grimness at the end was directed at him. But maybe I’m reading too much into it.

    I have studio recordings where the orchestra and chorus get out of synch in this opera, so I assume it’s not a piece of cake to hold it all together under any circumstances. The soloists were a different story, I couldn’t tell who was at fault in this case — but Hvorostovsky was also pretty clearly not going to take his eye off the conductor for too long no matter what the stage direction called for.

    As for Dessay’s vocal state, I too felt bad for her and how obviously mortified she was at the intermission and at the end. I am hoping for her sake that she was simply still ailing — it sounded like it to me when she was being interviewed. Otherwise I agree, this is beginning to move into Anna Moffo territory — the middle register is disappearing. I was relieved when she could stay in the higher tessitura for stretches, because even though it’s labored, she can still crank it out up there.

    On the other hand, no one is forcing her to do the broadcast, right? Or does Gelb not take kindly to people pulling out of the HD? In any event, I didn’t understand why she didn’t just cut corners: certainly no one is forcing her to sing the interpolated E-flat (Netrebko didn’t in this production), and many hate it (Bing talks about it in his second book), and I was so relieved when she got through “Addio del passato” that I blurted out “oh no” when the orchestra kept going and it became clear that she was going to put herself (and us) through another verse of this. If she really was ailing, why not just announce it and not attempt to go for broke at every turn? But maybe that’s what some mean by “committed”.

    • ilpenedelmiocor says:

      While I’m at it, is it common knowledge which soprano wrote Bing the letter about the interpolated E flat in La Traviata that he quotes in its seeming entirety in his 1981 book?

      “I would just like to tell you, and I do mean to tell you, that I will do the high E-flat at the end of the first act of Traviata on Saturday. I also intend doing it in all of my performances from now on. I know you have what you think are valid reasons for not wanting this, but I, unfortunately, am more convinced than ever that I can no longer present my Violetta to the Metropolitan audience and above all to our great radio public differently as I do it [sic] in every other concert or operatic presentation other than the Met all over the world. I feel sure that you will understand this decision, which is very final I assure you. If you cannot bring yourself to agree with me on this very minor difference this time, then I guess you will have to find another soprano. Please understand that this is a very serious artistic point on my part and not just another ham singer’s whim for a mere vocal effect.”

      I’ve always been curious about this — sounds like an American, in any case.

    • La Cieca says:

      I honestly just wanted her to stand still and stop twitching and jerking around for a minute.

      I’ve seen Poplavskaya and Hong in this production (P. twice) and seen the video with Netrebko from Salzburg. There is a good deal of nervous movement in this production particularly in the first act, though I think that is very much justified. In the 19th century tuberculosis was associated with what we call bipolar disorder: the person stricken with the disease was supposed to go through periods of manic excitement which further weakened their already compromised health. Moments of febrile excitement and hectic movement are consistent with these symptoms.

      However, in the three singers I’ve named, the movement didn’t seem like “twitching and jerking” — it was defined and contained. On the other hand, Dessay tends to twitch and jerk in every role she does: Lucia, Amina, Marie and everything else.

      Hvorostovksy’s stiffness, whether natural or assumed, I think is consistent with the characterization of Germont posited by this production, i.e., that he is cold, distant and calculating, and that even when he attempts to be sincere--as in, say, “Di Provenza”--he is simply incapable of letting down his guard. As for his singing, well, there is so much you can do to accomodate a sick (or otherwise incapable) colleague, and then you have to start thinking about the quality of your own performance. Trying to sing too quietly (especially when one has rehearsed the part in a more fully sung way) can lead to a myriad of problems: bad intonation and vocal fatigue among them. (There will also be some in the audience who will complain “Dmitri wasn’t sick at all but I couldn’t hear him either, so what’s his excuse?”)

      I was very unhappy — disgusted is not too strong a word, I think — at Dessay’s performance this afternoon. She’s not singing a charity concert for orphans, and it’s not like the Met has been unable to find adequate substitutes on short notice when stars are sick. She was incapable of performing the role and she should have canceled. (She certainly is not squeamish in general about canceling performances, a least those that don’t involve a worldwide simulcast.) This may sound harsh, but I think the only person she has to blame for her poor showing this afternoon is herself, with her stubbornness to sing his high-profile gig (complete with unnecessary E-flat) not stemming from any sense of artistic responsibility, bur rather purely from her own monstrous self-regard.

      • Musetta says:

        I was wondering whether, in the very spirit of female abuse lampooned by Willy Decker, Natalie Dessay might not have been encouraged by Gelb to try her luck with this performance in spite of her vocal problems. It’s actually not that easy to find replacements for the principles in this staging (see the otherwise lovely Hei-Kyung Hong, counting the inches by which she had to spread her knees in order to count as slutty; I was in the house for the premiere and it was painful to watch for this very reason). So maybe Dessay really was la traviata all the way through.
        At the cinema on 42nd street where I watched the opera this afternoon, my seat neighbors had zero awareness of Dessay’s vocal problems, and zero willingness to hear about them as well. They just loved her performance, and Gelb might well have reckoned that this might be the case for the majority of the HD audience. A sad victory for the Decker production.

        • Porgy Amor says:

          Musetta: Your seat neighbors would have gotten along with mine. I messaged a friend during the intermission that from the ovation Dessay got in my theater for Act One (including shouts of “Brava!”), and the excited chatter about it afterward, you would have thought they had just heard a resurrected Ponselle. This brings about in me the ambivalence I mentioned in an earlier post. I like to see people having a great time and enjoying what they paid to hear, especially if it makes them keep coming to see operas, but…you know.

          I can also say from some seasons of experience at the HDs, Met hype is very effective on non-buffs. If Gelb or the day’s singer-host says we’re about to hear the world’s greatest Wagnerian soprano in a revolutionary production of the RING, many of the patrons go out believing they just heard the world’s greatest Wagnerian soprano in a revolutionary production of the RING, and if they didn’t like it, it must be their own fault or Wagner’s. Because it’s the Met, and that must be as good as opera gets, right?

          La C: “Cold, calculating and distant” is a good description of Hvorostovsky’s Germont. Apart from a few production-specific bits like the mocking laugh when Violetta handed him the paper, it wasn’t much different from what he gave Carsen at La Fenice (another Germont at the less sympathetic end of the spectrum). If that is the characterization of Germont posited by the Decker production, I would say Hvorostovsky was better at it than was Hampson at Salzburg — the latter’s came off to me very different: twitchy, tightly wound, neurotic. Hampson seemed to be *doing* more, working harder to suggest a man a generation older than the lovers (e.g. the dismissive “old-man” wave of the hand at Violetta/Netrebko and other physical business), but as often, I found the cumulative effect irritatingly mannered. (When he’s more settled, as in his Zurich Scarpia, he can be a compelling figure on stage; I wish he were that way more often.) I’d take Hvoro’s “stiffness,” or coolness, easily. He also sings the part a damn sight better, the breathing issue notwithstanding.

          They are the only baritones I have seen in this TRAVIATA. I only heard Dobber on the radio, so I can’t comment on how he acted it.

          • CruzSF says:

            In my theater, the audience intermission discussions mostly focused on Dessay’s vocal troubles (no one mistook her for Ponselle or even Kirkby) but there was a lot of forgiveness and generosity toward her. Everyone I heard said there were enough good things about the production (direction, Dima, Polenzani, Dessay’s acting) that they enjoyed it.

            Personally, I really like the Decker staging, and I think it will hold up to multiple viewings. I’d like to see it in person and am planning to do so with Damrau. I’ve also ordered the DVD with Netrebko & Villazon.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

        Yes, and her “monstrous self-regard” spent in concentrated moments just trying to manage her phrases in the Violetta Germont duets, never knowing when her voice would stop phonating made it impossible for Luisi and Dima to make those passages the ensemble it must be. Dima tried valiantly to accommodate her, but to no avail. For people who do not know what Verdi wrote on the printed page it’s not possible to understand what was so blatantly missing. It was like a horrible international teeter totter that simply did not work to anyone’s advantage -- least of all the audience.

      • armerjacquino says:

        La Cieca: you are rightly tough on people here who imply an ability to read minds. There are all kinds of reasons why a performer ends up on stage when he or she is unwell, so to reach, definitively, for ‘monstrous self-regard’ seems a little harsh.

        • La Cieca says:

          I admit I am working from an assumption here that possibly may not be true (time will tell): that Dessay is suffering from, and has been diagnosed with, vocal nodes. If that is true-- and the odd “clicking” noises and momentary interruptions in the vocal line are exactly consistent with that condition — she should not be singing, period. There are two good reasons she should not be singing: a) continuing to sing with nodes greatly exacerbates the condition and b) singing well with nodes is next to impossible. In other words, if Dessay is singing with nodes, she is doing organic damage to herself and knowingly giving bad performances.

          There are certain situations under which singing with nodes might be unavoidable: a very young singer early in the career who is afraid that a long period of cancellations will permanently destroy her reputation, an older singer in poverty who is dependent on however many fees he can collect before the voice is permanently destroyed, or even the rare occasion when there is no possible substitute singer available and the performance is too important to cancel.

          None of those situations apply here. Dessay has canceled very frequently in her career thus far, most recently several performances of Manon at the Paris Opera, the remainder of the run there after a radio broadcast. She canceled the entire run of Hamlet at the Met a few seasons ago on short notice, and this season she canceled the opening night of Traviata. (I predict she will cancel most of the others as well.) So much for “reputation.”

          It may be Dessay is broke and desperate for money. If that is true, I don’t understand why she is talking about taking a whole year off singing (and, presumably, living on savings) in order to study Russian, yoga and clowning. And the Met is ahead of most of the rest of the world in providing plausible substitute singers when a sick artist cancels.

          Instead, Dessay was “courageous” and did the high-profile performance, badly. Who profited from this action?

          The audience? No, because the performance was hideously sung and badly acted due to her nervous anxiety about getting through this ordeal.

          The Met? No, the company still has to deal with the day-to-day anxiety of whether she will show up for the remaining Traviata performances and her future engagements, plus the company has the egg on its face of closing its HD season with a singer who made a point of yellling to the audience she was “SORREEE” for singing so badly.

          This is not like Dessay has a cold that she sang over, as Gheorghiu did a few years ago in Rondine. If indeed she had nodes, she has had them for months, certainly during the Paris Manon where the identical vocal problems were heard. So this didn’t take her by surprise: she knew what her condition was and decided to sing anyway.

          As I see it, the only one who profits here is Dessay: she gets to play the martyr and garner pity for a situation that essentially she created herself.

          • Camille says:

            Right on or near the target with your riassunto here, La Cieca.
            Kudos for speaking up about this deplorable situation.

      • poisonivy says:

        I usually do not disagree with La C but as someone who saw the performance the feeling I got was not one of “monstrous self regard” but rather a shadow of a once great voice trying to sing with vastly diminishing returns. Artistically her Violetta was still impressive.

        When I left I knew that this would probably be the last Dessay performance I ever attended but I felt sadness, not disgust. There is no disgust to be felt, I think, when when a singer is at the end of her vocal rope the way Dessay is. Just acceptance that it’s over.

        I actually think Dima was the one guilty of monstrous self regard, the way he totally phoned in the performance, not bothering to coordinate with the conductor, the chorus, the other singers. All JMO of course.

  • mia apulia says:

    Has anyone heard Sumi Jo lately, and how is she sounding?

    • soubrettino says:

      Smaller as (than?) ever, but at least up to high D it’s still intact. Anything higher up is a scream (She comes in at 1:40).

      Apparently she’s making waves in Korea as a quasi-crossover to-go singer with stuff like drama OSTs and Korean folk songs, which I will admit readily she’s really good at.

      • Tamerlano says:

        The tenor sounds amazing…Loony June sounds fine still, and seems to be channeling Jessica Lange. Jo’s voice sounds tiny for this part.

        • oedipe says:

          Jo’s voice sounds tiny for this part

          Not in the house, it didn’t! I was amazed at her projection, more powerful than June’s.

  • Podlesmania says:

    So on a lighter note before this thread closes: I LOVED the acting of the guy in the red dress during the Toreador scene. He moved & acted in a sexier way than Netrebko or other soprano-kittens of earlier times. A real cocotte!!

    Instead of being slutty or crazy or blasée or “grande dame”, the Traviata I imagine in 1st act would be sparkling, funny & playful, even while singing sempre libera. That said, Netrebko, Dessay, Poplavskaya & Flemming can in 1st act in the way they feel it ;-)

  • oedipe says:

    Judging by the length and tone of this Traviata thread: what with people finding Dessay’s performance appalling, revolting, grotesque, inexcusable, heartbreakingly moving, in more than one way painful to watch, histrionic, monstruously self-regarding (with Dima not far behind in this respect); what with the bafflement at the emotional reaction of sundry HD audiences (but then, the masses are asses, of course!), and so on and so forth…, one can safely conclude that we have witnessed a memorable instance of nietzschean ugliness in full swing!

    We can now calm down and resume fantasizing about the pleasant prospect of hearing pretty singing from many, many prospective lovely Violettas…

    • ilpenedelmiocor says:

      You mean Apollonian as opposed to Dionysian? That certainly was neither my intent nor wish.

      • oedipe says:

        Well, yes. Apollonian, or some superficial surrogate thereof (which one encounters more often than not).

  • Donna Anna says:

    Porgy and Musetta,
    Read Brian Kellow’s back-page piece in the latest Opera News: Trust in the Audience.

  • degan says:

    I was at the HD yesterday. I had tears in my eyes after Act I.
    But not because of a interpretation that moved me. I felt so sorry for Dessay. It was like the real story of a fallen woman… Also without the completely wrong e-flat, the Sempre libera was a complete mess… Act II and III were a bit better, but it was sad to see a (once) first class singers voice falling apart.

    As I posted before, I doubt there is a better Violetta for this production than Netrebko was at Salzburg but even she fears that she would not be able to repeat that success even if the Salzburg edition was not a top performance vocally…

    Just a comment to those who are asking for a good Violetta nowadays: ANGELA GHEORGHIU. She owns the role being technically good in Act I (with no problems with the Cs and Ds) and unbeatable in the other acts. All other active sopranos are, compared to Gheorghiu, second rate Violettas.

    • diva2themax says:

      Yesssss come back ANGELA!!!!

    • operaddict says:

      Elizabeth Futral sings a gorgeous Violetta as evidenced in Baltimore last November. And she appears beautiful and youthful. Why this first class artist is ignored as a contender in NY amazes me.

      • ianw2 says:

        She unfortunately did a terrible Violetta in Washington in, I think, 08. In fairness though she was hampered by a ghastly production, a self-indulgent conductor and a struggling Alfredo. I also saw her do Ophelia (replacing Damrau), and that was very fine but also in a pretty terrible production.