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A series of ones and zeroes

“’I’m analytical, not wild,’ [Elina] Garanca told an interviewer in 2009. ‘When I’m onstage my brain is running like a computer.’ If that is no way to be a singer, it is also no way to direct an opera.” [New York Times]

70 comments

  • panache says:

    Something is seriously wrong here. I’ve appreciated much of Zachary Woolfe’s criticism in the past, especially as an antidote to the sophomoric Tommassini, but it sounds here like he’s linking these two disparate musical events under a neat umbrella, in order to put forth his “theme”. And that’s what this is about, Mr. Woolfe’s theme. That is in the nature of criticism, and it sometimes amounts to criticism at its very best. Here it seems so woefully dismissive of the great artistry Garanca brought to Carnegie Hall last Saturday, which I attended. To compare her performance with that of an actual “machine” and a production that cast that machine and the multifarious effects it creates as its conceptual centerpiece, is a grave injustice.

    Mr. Woolfe grants that Garanca’s recital was “exquisitely sung”; he spoke of her “radiantly beautiful” voice, “smooth” and “even”, “richly soaring”, “alert to the texts”. But… BUT? Of course Woolfe is entitled to his response, the feeling that something essential is missing, perhaps what he deems most essential. But he seems to take the attributes he notes as a given, and of little consequence, when they are so rarely heard on our concert stages and in our opera houses. Voices with major flaws and singers of questionable musicianship grace the Met stage nightly. Instrumentalists who receive hallowed praise I often find to be woefully deficient in precisely the department Woolfe finds deficient in Garanca. Depth of feeling, passion, he calls it. I call it the direct communication of the subjective essence of the music, its human essence. That which it elicits in the interpreter, he/she will hopefully impart to those who are listening.

    I’m a classical instrumentalist myself, and I set a high bar when I listen to performers, wanting so much to be stirred, moved, as Mr. Woolfe does. If any part of a performance does that for me, I am pleased, and grateful. The first half of Garanca’s lieder recital, the Schumann songs, did just that. I think that sometimes singers with prodigious instruments, really so far above the norm, are not given their due. Critics official and not quibble with this or that shortcoming, failing to recognize that we are already being treated with something so vastly superior, qualities that I bask in, for their rarity. I put Angela Meade in this category as well, who I find utterly thrilling. Anna Netrebko doesn’t do this for me; I don’t think her singing will ever “move” me. But Meade sure does.

    This is overlooked, I think: A brilliant technique does not guarantee a stirring performance, we know. But technique is the means with which one executes the language of music, and the more skilled the technique, the greater the potential to realize and communicate the music’s essence and the musician’s conception. I would never take its importance, and that which it does indeed achieve, for granted, as I feel Mr. Woolfe has done vis-a-vis Ms. Garanca.

    I also think that we judge singers differently from instrumentalists. We laud instrumentalists for refinement and the beauty they create through it, but want singers to chew the scenery, wear it all on their sleeves. We miss the subtle inner, the often-sublime artistry, because we want it outer. Garanca and Meade have both thrilled me at the Met, with performances that transcended most of what I hear there. I don’t take that for granted, at all. There are lots of components in an operatic performance. Give me SOMETHING wonderful, gorgeous, moving, and I am grateful, satisfied.

    Meade got me, when I heard her debut, filling in for some star…I don’t even remember who it was…in Ernani, at the Met. I’m new to Garanca, heard her gorgeous Sesto in Clemenza, which inspired the trip to Carnegie. Didn’t see her Carmen…but my Mom, who did, who’s reviled the opera Carmen all her life (as I have), became a convert upon hearing Garanca’s. And I can tell you, that was no small feat.

    Sorry this is so long…

    • Porgy Amor says:

      Don’t apologize. A great post, in my opinion…and a valuable point of view.

    • Bosah says:

      That was a wonderful post. It touches on the recent discussions about what is expected of opera singers nowadays, and whether technical proficiency is no longer deemed important (or at least as important as other factors).

      It was not too long at all.

      • oedipe says:

        Well, technical proficiency is important, but it CAN be acquired, especially by a singer who has a great instrument to begin with. Charisma CANNOT: it’s a matter of pheromones (or sex appeal, or whatever the right term is) and you either have them or you don’t. It’s therefore easier to find singers with technical proficiency than singers who have a lot of charisma; most people are just bland, let’s face it.
        Now, I should nuance my statement by saying there are degrees of charisma, and there is also an element of subjectivity involved in appreciating it. For me, for instance, Garanca has a good deal of charisma -cool, cerebral charisma, but still charisma-, whereas Meade has NONE, she is the perfect klutz.
        As I said before, there may be some subtle sexism at play here too. People have deeply ingrained models of feminine charisma and cerebral cool does not quite fit them. Were Garanca a man, she would be considered very charismatic by many of her detractors here. Interestingly, the roles she generally gets most praise for are trouser roles: Sesto, Octavian, Romeo.
        Conversely, especially in the anglo-saxon countries, a man is supposed to be cool and restrained and (somewhat) cerebral; he is not supposed to emote much or be too sensuous. Thus the disdain for Latin male charisma, which makes anglo-saxons very uncomfortable.

        • La Cieca says:

          Were Garanca a man, she would be considered very charismatic by many of her detractors here.

          A cold male fish is no more charismatic than a cold female fish.

          • oedipe says:

            A example: the very charismatic, cool and cerebral Herr Kaufmann.

          • La Cieca says:

            There’s a difference between “cerebral” and “blank.”

          • oedipe says:

            As I said, our opinions are undoubtedly colored by a degree of subjectivity. But independent of one’s sujectivity, Garanca does not strike me as “brainless”.

          • La Cieca says:

            Who said “brainless?” I said “blank,” that is, absent of emotion. Woolfe goes on at some length about how thought-out and considered Garanca’s singing was; the opposite of “brainless,” in fact.

        • Nerva Nelli says:

          “Thus the disdain for Latin male charisma, which makes anglo-saxons very uncomfortable.”

          Ah--hence the unpopularity among anglo-saxons of Enrico Caruso, Rudolph Valentino, Mario Lanza, the young John Travolta and the Three Tenors.

        • luvtennis says:

          Oedipe:

          Sorry, but I have to take issue with the first part of your post. I think the suggestion that technique is mechanical and can be acquired by those willing to work is to sell its importance very short. By contrast, charisma is entirely in the eye of the beholder, subject to all sorts of manipulation, and ultimately not a very good basis for meaningful critical comparison.

          Maria is considered the epitome of charisma -- but would she be if her great productions had been directed in the current regie fashion? Who knows…. Yes, her recitals show her to be a riveting presence, but some of that is due to our knowledge of those productions with Visconti. Coming to her without that background, one might just find her self-conscious and affected.

          • oedipe says:

            I am not sure I understand very well what you are trying to say, but technique CAN be acquired, by definition. Technique, in any human endeavor, is something that can be abstracted, defined and transmitted. Or else, it’s not technique, it’s magic, or some innate characteristic. Now, some people may be more gifted, or more hard working than others, or they may have better schooling, or whatever. But these factors don’t change the nature of what is being learned.

            As for charisma, yes, there are differences in perception, that was actually my whole point. But still, I have a feeling that when someone is extraordinarily charismatic, you just know it. Which, BTW, does not necessarily mean that everybody loves that person, it’s just that one cannot deny it’s THERE: that je n’sais quoi, for everybody to see. I think Maria is a perfect example; but there are others too, Netrebko for instance.

  • la vociaccia says:

    I completely agree with what you say re: instrumentalists. I hold the same standards for piano that Woolfe holds for singing . I usually take it for granted that the pianist’s technique will be flawless, so the very fact that they’re hitting every note in Gaspard de la Nuit means nothing to me; fine piano technicians are really a dime a dozen. Just as with Woolfe’s assessment of Garanca, even the finest musicianship doesn’t move me if it doesn’t seem to come directly from the performer’s gut. I saw an all-chopin recital in January that made my skin crawl because I didn’t get the impression that the pianist felt like the music he was playing was important.

    Conversely, since fine technicians in the vocal world (especially among *stars*) are few and far between, I can forgive just about anything if they really have the goods.

    • MontyNostry says:

      It’s interesting that a consummate technique is pretty much simply the starting point for professional musicians other than singers. A pianist who couldn’t sustain a legato line -- or, and I have to say it, trill -- would not be credible. It just goes to show what a mysterious art singing is, both in its functioning and in its effect on the listener.

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        I also think that good vocal technique isn’t always the one that sounds best to audiences, and there are many different takes on what good technique is when it comes to singing. At least, good technique is often something that people think, rightly, contributes to vocal longevity, among other things. You get vocal longevity, in most cases (with some notable exceptions), through putting the voice under as little stress as possible, ie taking it all very easy and being tension free. But when it comes to C18th repertoire with a lot of coloratura, the people who seem to be the biggest hits with the public are those who are as tense as all get out, which is how they can nail all those semi-quavers (Simone Kermes, Vivica Geneaux, Cecilia Bartoli etc). Producing the voice with that much tension, to me, is not good technique. But for other people, being able to do such spot on coloratura, no matter how, is the very definition of it. For an instrumentalist, you’d never even think about it, but then again you’d also never have an equivalent of somebody like Birgit Nilsson for example who had a good technique as long as it was Wagner, Strauss, some Puccini or some Verdi.

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    DiDonato made comments very similar to those of Garanca about her experience of being on stage, in her Julliard Masterclasses. Both of these ladies are honest enough to acknowledge that they are constantly policing everything they are doing, and thinking very technically all the time. The case where a performer is lost in the moment or has ‘become’ the character is very rare indeed. It’s part of being a professional -- you ‘manage’ what you are producing, but in such a way that the audience experience is of a sincere and involved portrayal of the character.

  • semira mide says:

    Garanca was wonderful in Clemenza, as others have pointed out.
    But I would like to make a case for her Angelina. Rossini’s La Cenerentola is a difficult opera to perform well. The singing has to be first rate, but it is too easy for it to slip into hyper-sentimentality (Gossett has refers to it as a sentimental opera)
    Garanca, it seems to me made a compelling Angelina( the best I’ve heard since Lucia Valentini Terrani) probably because she created a character that is very introspective and thoughtful. It just made the “happy ending” more joyful. Sometimes the reserve that Garanca is “accused” of makes one reach deeper into oneself. Not always a bad thing.

  • Bill says:

    When Elina Garanca sings her Octavian at the Met next
    season, probably all criticism of her will be admonished.

    Some Viennese feel her Octavian is the best they have
    heard (and seen) since Trudeliese Schmidt and going
    back further to Jurinac, Ludwig and Seefried. Having
    seen Garanca’s Octavian several times in Vienna I would
    tend to concur.

    Garanca’s Carmen at the Met was also sung with gorgeous tone. But then I prefer to listen to de los Angeles or
    Berganza in this role not the gutteral Carmen’s who
    keep spitting out ugly chest tones -- but that is a very
    personal taste. I was not so appreciative of the
    stage direction of the new Carmen for which Garanca was
    engaged -- Carmen does not have to spread her legs a dozen
    times in the course of the opera to guarantee sex appeal -
    there are other far more subtle ways to seduce Spanish
    soldiers and Bull Fighters. I have not found Garanca
    to be mechanical on stage (or in lieder recitals) -- her
    Octavian next season will surely prove that and should be
    highly anticipated by a hopefully discerning audience.

  • The Countess Geschwitz says:

    Far be it from me to crassly to imply one’s critical apparatus is influenced by one’s sexual apparatus. Yet one can’t help be struck by the rather dichotomous and predictable analysis of “charisma” on display here. Garanca’s “persona” of cool elegance coupled with a passionately controlled tone may utterly compelling (in that explicitly Bergmannian sense), but not the usual cast of Parterrian suspects.

    Spelling it out, perhaps it takes a conventional lesbian sensibility (whatever one’s apparatus) to fully appreciate Garanca’s enticing and intelligent reserve, fully on display vocally as well as in vehicles like the Claire Alby documentary.

    On the other hand, one is loathe to engage the critics on this antiquated binary field, thus one is left with “there’s no accounting for taste.” Which is not an altogether unhappy divide, frankly. Let the camp followers chase their mirrorballed divas, let the high definition queens atomize their Nordic beauties. The rest of us, perhaps many of the more Sapphic persuasion of all shapes, will meditate on the mysteries of perfection, the challenge that Garanca throws down like a spread-eagle yet unsubmissive, steely-eyed Carmen.

  • olliedawg says:

    I’m late to this particular party, but have only now felt the urge to log in and make a comment.

    I, too, discovered Garanca through this season’s “La Clemenza…” at the Met. As a matter of fact, I’ve been away from opera for so long, I said to a friend that this mezzo will probably have a great career ahead of her;-)

    In any event, I was so blown away, I decided to find out more about Garance, both musically and personally.

    • She’s a true polyglot and an amazing talker — I am always impressed by anyone’s ability to juggle 3-4 foreign tongues. Garanca juggles 5-6, and can babble on in any of them with abandon. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any opera singer who talks so much about so many topics or with such velocity as she, which lead me to my next discovery…

    • She’s extraordinarily intelligent — I’ve heard lots of opera singer interviews, chers Parterre colleagues, and most are professional, but unilluminating. Garanca manages to be frank, funny (check out her Live in HD comeback in to Thomas Hampson a few seasons back: “Elina, how do you adapt your singing for such a large house like the Met?”…”You sing louder!”), and incisive…which leads me to my last discovery…

    • She’s warm — In all interviews I’ve seen/listened to, and in her stage work, you can feel a big bruiser of a voice coupled with warmth and character. I don’t understand much of what I read here at Parterre about how dull, cold/icy, deliberate, monotonous, etc. Garanca is. Are the rough comments and putdowns related to her good looks?,general resentment of Mr. Gelb’s new productions (good or bad) and favorite stars?

    And, here’s where I know I’ll be flamed mightily: I really don’t care about someone’s performance back in the day — I saw Troyanos as Sesto and she was amazing, too, but that was 198x, nice memories, but can we move on? A singer who can command the stage, keep an audience quiet and engaged, act with commitment, sing with intensity (when she banged her chest and spit out the phrases about being a dirty, rotten traitor…wow)…c’mon, lighten up.

    I will end my rant with one carp: Garanca needs to step away from the music videos. Both the “Samson et Delila” and “El Vito” videos, in a word, suck.