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Beating time

“So meandering and ragged a reading would be alarming at a first rehearsal; for a first night, it was a scandal. During curtain calls, the audience jokingly booed Struckmann’s villain. They should have saved their catcalls for the maestro.” [New York Post]

74 comments

  • Gualtier M says:

    BTW: Gelb has scheduled a new production of “Otello” for the 2016-17 season. Supposed to star Alexandrs Antonenko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Iago. No director and no Desdemona are listed. I hope that a certain square-jawed Russian soprano (little clue: think of a pre-baked toaster pastry made by the Kellogg Co.) favored by Peter Gelb is not the Desdemona…

    Of course I might dream that Nicholas Hytner might direct and that Anja Harteros would be the Desdemona but that is not likely to happen.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      He’ll probably give it to BS, who will set it during the US Civil War while claiming that is the only way to penetrate the layers of racisim and hatred that Boito diluted in his libretto.

    • kashania says:

      You have to admit that Poplavskya would make a pretty riveting Desdemona, especially in the third act. But it would definitely be better seen rather than heard.

      • manou says:

        I have seen Poplavskaya as Desdemona -- she was pretty good, but totally eclipsed by her hair.

  • MrGuy1804 says:

    Almost all of the reviews written by NY writers about performances at the MET continue to ignore the pink elephant in the room: the terrible singing. Bychov’s conducting was fine. The orchestra played well. Maybe he didn’t weave magic like Toscanini or Levine in that opera, but he was far from the weakest link in that performance.

    I was in the hall Tuesday evening and this review of performance and the one written by Woolfe make me feel like I’m living in the twilight zone. Sick or no, Johan Botha gave one of (with perhaps the exception of Nadja Michael’s wretched Lady Macbeth) the worst professional operatic performances I have ever witnessed. His voice was utterly failing him and there was no characterization to speak of. There I mostly agree with the reviews.

    As for Fabiano, I found it to be totally unremarkable vocally and histrionically, though to be fair Cassio doesn’t get a lot of meat to chew on in that part.

    But Falk Strukmann stole the show? With his out of tune bellowing and throaty high notes? Except for his being booed (in jest??) and received a markedly smaller ovation than Fleming? What planet are we on? HE WAS AWFUL.

    The only person who even remotely sounded like an international level artist was Renee Fleming who was very good, but not great imo. I saw the show with two other singers, and two composers. They all agreed that Renee was the only singer who sang musically, in tune and with a resonant “true” sound and was able to achieve any level of dramatic focus. She gave the most artistic performance that night by a long shot. Not just in comparison to some of the

    I am a fan of much of Fleming’s work, but am not foolish enough to think it is all exceptional. Some of it (Violetta, Rodelinda, Lucrezia) is downright bad. But why not give credit where credit is due? The reviewers had no problem saying Zajick stole the show in Trovatore despite the fact that she was 20 years older than everyone else on stage. Is it against the rules to say that the best singing came from the most famous, hyped singer in the business? Is it against the rules to give her an overtly positive review since it’s the trend to bash everything she does?

    • MrGuy1804 says:

      *Not just in comparison to some of her less flattering work in recent seasons. She did a good job. Period.

    • Bosah says:

      Yes, it is absolutely not allowed to praise Fleming, unless you’re also bashing her at the same time. I listened and spoke to two friends who were there and we also thought the reviews were out of left field, at least. Botha was an embarrassment and I felt sick for him. I blame the Met casting, however -- he simply shouldn’t have been hired, and more, he shouldn’t have been allowed to go on. I hope whatever was the issue is dealt with quickly for him. He has an amazing voice for some rep.

      My friends echoed the first comments here on the night -- Fleming was suberb in some places, lacking in a couple (end of Act 3) and very good to very, very good throughout.

      But I’m sure she’s figured out now that the price she’s paid for massive success (and the ambition and work to get it) is jealousy from some and reviews that often seem desperate to find anything to say she wasn’t good.

      I find it ironic that Poplovskaya, with all of her vocal issues in Traviata, was praised so highly in comparison. But, Poplovskaya isn’t one of the most famous and successful sopranos in the world, so it’s okay to praise her.

      And no, we did not believe the boos were done “jokingly.”

      • Bosah says:

        I just reread this and realize it’s far too harsh a tone. Apologies. Bad day came through, unfortunately.

      • JJ says:

        Now look, both of you. Woolfe and I both praised Fleming for what she did well. The instrument is very handsomely preserved, and she gets through the entire performance without making an ugly noise or running out of voice. That much is more or less factual. Where opinion comes in is how effective she is as a performer, and, as a reviewer, I’m supposed to give that opinion. A lot of what she did physically and a good deal of what she did vocally left me cold: to me it felt contrived and (at worst, and this was only in a few moments) it took me out of the spell of the opera. That’s a subjective reaction, and it’s identified as such.

        What you seem to be complaining about is that I don’t happen to share your subjective reaction, and, what’s more, that the only reason I don’t share that opinion is simply that our tastes differ, but rather that I have an ulterior motive: jealousy or desperation. I’m even accused of making up an alternative narrative: in fact, Struckmann was horrible, but I had to praise him in order to find a vantage point from which to bash Fleming.

        No, it’s a lot simpler than that, actually. I have things I think are important in an opera performance, and I think I’m pretty clear about what they are. If a performance delivers these qualities, I tend to praise it, and if the performance misses the target, I tend to say “this didn’t happen, and this and this, and that’s why I didn’t like it.”

        Look, I get it if you preferred Fleming’s performance to Struckmann’s. But you’re not the one writing the review; I am. So I have to call it as I see it. I thought Struckmann was the only artist who really delivered, gave a thrilling performance, made me happy and excited to be there. I would go back to hear Struckmann sing Iago again on my own dime; I honestly don’t think I would go back for Botha or Fleming. So, for me, Struckmann “stole the show.”

        Again, I’m terribly sorry I hurt your feelings by not being enthusiastic enough about your pet singer, but I’m not writing for a fan magazine, after all.

        • MrGuy1804 says:

          First of all I wanted to thank you for clarifying that you are the writer of your reviews. It was good of you to contribute to the conversation in such a fruitful and productive manner.

          Here it is, sir.

          You wanna address Fleming’s vocal estate in relation to the greater operatic whole, gravy. But you should do the same with the one you praise to the high heavens. His singing was not merely secondary to his dramatic rendering.

          It was bad.

          Out of tune, throaty, and imbalanced. His voice did not ring. At any time. On any notes. Opera is a musical and dramatic art form. As a singer, Struckmann performed very poorly; your dismissal of those booing him and fabricated “ring” aside. And to me, that completely discredits your review. As does any evaluation that offers praise to an operatic artist that includes a wholly (and objectively) inaccurate account of their vocalism.

        • Bosah says:

          Thank you for the response, JJ. As I said, I do regret the tone of the comment, but it does accurately reflect my thoughts.

          Ironically, Fleming isn’t a “pet singer” of mine, although I really do enjoy her singing. I do find her mannerisms often over the top and recognize a loss of power. But, I also think, just as certain “fans” may go into a performance intending to love it in spite of flaws, sometimes critics who don’t particularly appreciate a certain singer (and it’s no secret that you don’t appreciate Fleming at this point in her career) may, likely subconsciously, be more apt to focus on the negative and downplay the positive. It’s human nature, I would think.

          I do agree that I shouldn’t have made an accusation of jealousy under your review -- I didn’t have you in mind when writing it. You’re one of the most fair-minded critics, I think, but I also think -- a performance like Fleming gave by another soprano may have gotten a better review, simply because you’d be predisposed in that direction. Perhaps. I don’t know, really, of course. But that was my thinking. Apologies for any offense.

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        As has been pointed out, Botha has sung Otello previously extremely well. You can’t blame the Met casting department when the Royal Opera has also cast him in the role with very successful results from a vocal point of view (as usual, that’s all we got from him, but it was outstanding). The Met casting department had no reason to believe he wouldn’t be excellent, based on his proven track record with the role. I hope he manages to return to form for the rest of the run -- having heard that, when Jose Cura turns up later in the season you’ll be wishing Botha would come back!

    • messa di voce says:

      “The only person who even remotely sounded like an international level artist was Renee Fleming”

      But Botha and Strukmann get excellent reviews at the world’s leading houses, so they are, by definition, international level artists, regardless of what you thought the other night.

      And don’t people think that Bychkov may have been thrown off by a tenor who was in extremis much of the night?

  • Gualtier M says:

    Just a note to everyone about comments on the singing: Poison Ivy saw the dress rehearsal and so did another friend of mine. Neither of them heard the train wreck that Botha produced on opening night. And unlike Heppner, reports on Botha’s singing have been consistently good at all the theaters he has sung at.

    Therefore, I would not consider last night to be indicative of his current vocal estate but the product of a quick and severe vocal indisposition. Supposedly some Russian tenor is the Otello cover (not Atlantov or Galouzine who are retired and busy respectively). Whoever it was, the cover was not ready or not prominent enough to put onstage on the opening night. Botha did attempt to focus his voice in Act III and ended the evening respectively.

    I wouldn’t beat up on Botha for his bad singing on Tuesday night since I really believe he was indisposed and not “indisposed”. His acting actually was better than it was in 2008 but that plus his lumpish stage presence still didn’t cut the mustard as JJ so accurately described.

    Whether he is an Otello whose interpretation should be permanently preserved in high definition is another matter.

    • bluecabochon says:

      I wrote about this in chat a couple of times -- I was at the dress last Friday as well, and while Botha is not an ideal Otello, he did sing beautifully, so what I heard on Tuesday night was shocking. That must have been some cold or allergy.

      While Botha underacted and showed fatal reserve while playing this role that requires menace as well as charisma, Stuckmann almost made up for things by overplaying. I was very disappointed by this production, which I find short on everything except height, with its too-tall massive phallic columns.

      This beautiful opera deserves so much better, from conduction to singing to design. Ms. Fleming was the only principal singer on that stage who transcended the staging and gave the score its due.

      The cover for Botha is Avgust Amanov.

      • rysanekfreak says:

        If we are talking about bad tenor singing in Verdi, did anyone else listen to the Forza from the Liceo today? Urmana, Giordani, Tezier. Giordani was in very bad shape. Crooning, bleating, whining. I heard one loud boo after his big aria; it sounded like three or four people were booing him during the final curtain calls.

        He managed to hit a couple of very good loud high notes, but that didn’t make up for the constant
        dry strangled sound. Not pretty at all.

  • Maury D says:

    Is it against the rules to say that the best singing came from the most famous, hyped singer in the business? Is it against the rules to give her an overtly positive review since it’s the trend to bash everything she does?

    Who are you arguing with? He gave her a pretty good review. “…remains a lovely fit…knows exactly how to spin the gentle lines of the ‘Willow Song’ and
    ‘Ave Maria…’” This is bashing? I suspect he didn’t say she did the best singing because he didn’t think she did, not because he’s obeying some imaginary rules.

    • MrGuy1804 says:

      I did not say the review bashed her. I questioned his completely inaccurate assessment that Struckmann “overshadow[ed]” Fleming in light of the current trend (Parterre often included) to bash everything she does.

      He did not.

      You can debate the merits of his interpretation ad nauseum, but his high notes did not “ring.” To the contrary there was no much tone to speak of. He was largely inaudible and he was apparently operating under the delusion that intonation is optional. Instead of accepting the response of the attendees, the reviewer attempted to reconstruct a fairy-tale version of the audience reaction (playful boos) even when it clearly did not support his analysis.

      I’m not proposing an anti-Fleming conspiracy theory. This was simply lazy journalism and displayed a refusal to acknowledge the merits of the actual performance.

  • Satisfied says:

    I bought tickets for this (as well as tickets for this Sunday’s show at Carnegie) primarily to hear Bychkov conduct. JJ is right: the real tragedy didn’t occur on stage, but rather, in the orchestra pit. I’m greatly considering donating my tickets for Sunday if Monday’s performance is any indication of what is to be heard.

    WHAT HAPPENED??!!?? Only two years ago I saw two exceptional performances led by Bychkov: Tannhäuser at the Royal and Shostakovich’s 9th with the Royal Concertgebouw. Two performances I will not soon forget for their intensity and (wonderfully) chilling mood. Tuesday’s performance, on the other hand, was erratic, poorly paced, and indifferent to the performers on stage.

    Sure, no one had a perfect night, by Bychkov’s conducting made everyone’s job a little harder. I’m not Rene’s biggest fan, but she was the only reason I didn’t leave during intermission.

    • Camille says:

      Very glad I heard this performance night before last, as we had tickets for the Carnegie Hall Met Orchestra event on Sunday and am now truly relieved we’ve found a buyer for those tickets as I shudder at the thought of what might be made of the Strauss Alpensifonie, a big, long, loud piece that without enough rehearsal and the wrong conducting—o my god. The Titanic.

      • mia apulia says:

        a horrible piece under the best of circumstances

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        Was it supposed to be Bychkov for the Alpensinfonie? If so I can’t imagine it would have been anything other than great. Fair enough, he has not had a success with Otello this week, but he’s done a hell of a lot of first rate work in other places with other rep, and remains a great conductor. What he did with the Lohengrin prelude when I heard it was out of this world, and I also saw the Tannhauser Satisfied mentions above -- 2 of the best conducted opera performances I’ve been to.

        • manou says:

          Hear hear Cocky -- I heard (heard) both the Lohengrin and the Tannhauser and thought them wonderful.

          Are *allergies* contagious?

          • oedipe says:

            I have heard Bychkov several times (mainly romantic music or Wagner) and found him very good.
            Maybe he doesn’t travel well (especially long distances), like wine…

        • Camille says:

          Yes, it is Bychkov.

          He got lost in Cyprus the other night so I don’t want him as my Alpinist tour guide. There is another Alpen symphony uptown, in any case, same day.

          I had only heard good things about Bychkov, as well, so it was rather a surprise. Maybe the SS Botha tanking on him got him out of sorts. Who knows what.

  • javier says:

    this seems like a fair review. although i would argue that perhaps fleming’s desdemona does not command the stage because desdemona is such a fragile, complacent…dumb character? it is very difficult to add dimension to desdemona since there isn’t much there to work with. she could chew the scenery or flop about like a maniac, but what fleming chooses to do is offer a delicate portayal and allow her golden voice and delicate gestures to convey as much of the character’s emotion is possible. why is she not praised 100% for this? why say that she got upstaged by lago, who is supposed to be this beguiling, cunning character by design?

    anyway, the assessment of botha seems to be right on. fleming did her best to praise him on the “this month at the met” sirius xm broadcast, and he makes her look like a liar by cracking and sounding embarassing. she describes him as this wonderful “teddy bear” but he is this obese blob who will look horrible next to her in hd.

  • arepo says:

    MrGuy:
    In your subjective opinion Struckmann didn’t overshadow Fleming. Fine. But that’s YOUR opinion, not fact.
    We all hear things differently.
    I thought Struckmann was superb and stole the show. I also thought Fleming’s voice was, as usual, gorgeous and velvety, but her over-acting leaves a lot to be desired and therefore it would be difficult to say she outshined Struckmann who was deeply into his characterization.
    So does that make me right?
    No!
    It’s simply my opinion.
    So please dthink about not responding like you know everything and others know nothing.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      I’d add, if I may, that it isn’t even just down to opinion -- JJ has explained that as well as opinion and taste, he has a different sense of priority in terms of what makes a good performance from that of MrGuy.

  • kashania says:

    I did not hear the Otello broadcast but I do remember Struckman’s Scarpia when Radvanovsky sang her first Tosca at the Met (when she was having difficulty with pitch). He was hair-raisingly good. Jago (like Scarpia) is one of those roles where I can forgive a lack of bel canto finesse if the dramatic qualities of the singing compensate.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      ‘when she was having difficulty with pitch’ which narrows it down to any point between April 1995 and February 2012 ;-)

      • kashania says:

        Oh, I knew I was leaving myself open to comment with that. LOL. Let’s say that she was having particular difficulty with pitch that evening.

    • Bianca Castafiore says:

      kashy, that was what, two seasons ago? as I said, I went to two of those performances… I guess you weren’t at the one in which Struckmann lost his voice. But as I said, he was absolutely loud and terrifying, which is why I’m puzzled as to why mrguy would say he was inaudible. That doesn’t sound possible to me. In any event, his Scarpia was much more preferable to James Morris later that season.

  • Clita del Toro says:

    Of the three leads, Struckmann was the most (only) dramatically satisfying singer in Otello. I, however, would have liked just a bit more, as Kahsie puts it, “bel canto finesse” in his singing. But, who is complaining? I will listen again next week.