Cher Public

A voice that must be heard

The Metropolitan Opera’s new tagline, ‘The Voice Must be Heard,” was on bright display Monday night when, at the center of the company’s revival of Puccini’s La bohème, one found the rich and layered talent of Angel Blue. In her debut at the house, Blue sang with a consistent, shimmering soprano that was both vocally secure and emotionally engaging; it conveyed through controlled phrasing her character’s psychology and stark affective trajectory. 

Blue’s Mimì exuded a celestial warmth, embodying a preternatural innocence without relying on cliché or hackneyed gestures. Such qualities made her an ideal musician for the role of Mimì. In her voice, the opera’s text seemed to resuscitate and expand.

If only her colleagues performed with equal facility. Unfortunately, Blue’s remarkable gifts often outweighed and overwhelmed her most important partner—Dmytro Popov, as Rodolfo. This was especially evident during Act I. While Blue’s “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” displayed exceptional musical polish, Popov struggled through the more demanding passages of “Che gelida manina.” He strained when singing above the passaggio. He did not deliver an acceptable high C. As a result, the scene’s overall effect was disappointing and anticlimactic.

Similarly, Brigitta Kele flubbed her big moment in Act II. The singer looked perfectly coquettish as Musetta, but she sounded shrill while attempting notes above the staff. Moreover, her screeched high B in “Musetta’s Waltz” did not diminish to piano, as the composer’s dynamic markings indicate. Fortunately, as Marcello, Lucas Meachem provided some necessary drama with his round, robust baritone.

Duncan Rock (in his debut) and David Soar were affable and adequate as Schaunard and Colline; they added nothing special to the proceedings. However, their consistent, comprehensive performances brought a limber, spontaneous element to an uneven ensemble. Similarly, Paul Plishka was unexceptional as both Benoit and Alcindoro.

Alexander Soddy coaxed from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra all the romance and grandeur the score affords. The precision and dexterity with which they played especially illuminated Mimi’s Act III aria, “Donde lieta uscì”—a performance of startling grandeur.

To be sure, if there was any reason to recommend this performance, it was Blue—her voice indeed must be heard. Otherwise, once again to encounter this redundant iteration of the opera, with its nostalgic embellishments and overreliance on supernumeraries, is to risk having a seizure.

While Franco Zeffirelli’s production might have provoked feelings of awe and wistfulness when it debuted over thirty-five years ago, it seemed ridiculously repetitive and stale on Monday night. It failed to make the opera’s more urgent claims clear; and it especially miscarried any attempt to tend to our culture’s current concerns regarding poverty, disease, and art. Why the company continues to cling to this superficial, mawkish laziness is beyond me.

Some might argue consistent ticket sales as justification for the same old Bohème, season after season. As the Met struggles to find new audiences, it is, perhaps, financially risky to mess with some of the more trusty warhorses—its vertiginous and bloated Bohème being the tacky crown jewel of such repertory.

Recently in the New York Times, Zachary Woolfe perceptively pointed out a shift in focus at the Metropolitan Opera—a pivot away from theater directors (and their ham-fisted attempts at innovation) and back toward the singular capabilities of singers. Noting the “Voice Must Be Heard” slogan, Woolfe wrote, “the company is tacitly admitting that concentrating its marketing energies on its productions—the focus under Peter Gelb, its general manager since 2006—hasn’t solved its consistent problem of getting people in the seats.”

His pragmatic argument continued, “The only thing (if anything) distinguishing one Turandot revival from the following year’s is the singers.” The same could be said, even more fervently, of the company’s Bohème. Year after year, the same old thing—all that changes is the cast. When a performance features singers as talented and charismatic as Blue, then there’s little to complain about—however, when the voices fail, the proceedings become exponentially drearier.

Yes, the voice must be heard; by all means, sing out Louise. But to borrow Wagner’s application of the term Gesamtkunstwerk, opera is a medium (like film) that has many components, operating on several levels of communication and sensual cognition. Why not explore every tool in the toolbox? Such mismanagement of the company’s resources suggests (once again) that the Met’s artistic leadership has a fundamental misunderstanding of the product they are selling.

Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

  • Camille

    Mr James—

    Could you possibly link the Zachary Woolfe Times article to which you refer? Thank you.

    • Peter
      • Camille

        Thanks Peter. Are you the same Peter as peter?

        Nice that ZW referenced AI in his article.

        For the rest, can the critics actually get a new glossary of descriptive terms for vocal categories and production? At least he does NOT utter “dusky, muscular, earthy”, and the like, so for that much I am grateful!

        • Peter

          Hi Camille. Yes, the same Peter as Peter :-).

          • Camille

            !!! One can never have t(w)oo many peters!!!!!

  • Paul Johnston

    Great voice but tell the Met that nail polish wasn’t around in those days

    • Armerjacquino

      Given that nail polish originated around 3000BC, this must be a very unconventional production.

      • Paul Johnston

        This is exactly why I’ve stayed away from this website for years. The littlest remark gets pounced on. But I don’t think the Egyptians used Jungle Red lacquer, nor would a poor girl like MiMi use it while she made lace.

        • Armerjacquino

          Oh, hey, I didn’t mean to pounce. Huge apologies. What I meant to do was make a joke.

          • Nelly della Vittoria

            Well I went looking in a lazy but avid way (Is that a real way?) for 1890s French nail polish ads, but instead found that the Scientific American Supplement of 1903 wanted you to make your own using this very safe- and sperm-whale-friendly-seeming recipe. They also want you to make something called Violet Toilet Powder. You’re welcome. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/385d2d35cfc25d6bb5a52fc6681a746228d272f64867854be520b67a64d586b9.png

            • Camille

              Nell,

              Lazy but avid is MY way!!!! So it’s at least real for MOI!

              Oh, and Violet Toilet Water, or Vinegar Toilet Water scented with violet is STILL a very real thing — it is made by Santa Maria Novella and it is really excellent, (if ungodly expensive — US$60. for a bottle) as a tonic for the hair after washing. It clarifies and makes it a little more resilient. I’ll try to find a link for Santa Maria Novella, but you used to be able to get it through LAFCO.

            • CKurwenal
            • Camille

              Thank you so much Monsieur Kurwenal, and did you know--there is a special Aqua di Maggio for opera lovers? It actually has L’opera a Firenze Maggio Musicale fiorentino on certain bottles, which I, of course, could not resist.

              The SMNovella line used to be hard to obtain here but is now increasingly accessible, thank goodness, as the rose water is essential for old bags like myself and Miss Marple.

              Buon dì, or pomeriggio where you are!

        • berkeleygirl

          I’m not being critical, but it does surprise me that the Met let her get away with it. Even in podunk little local houses, the rule was that only clear nail polish could be worn.

          • La Cieca

            The video was filmed during a dress rehearsal.

  • Savannah Dillard

    WOW! This is, regrettably, only the first time I’ve heard her sing. But in the above clip… wow! (There’s the word again!) She is magnificent.

  • grimoaldo2

    “Yes, the voice must be heard; by all means, sing out Louise.”

    According to your review, though, there was literally only one voice that had to be heard, the Mimi.
    I did not see or hear the performance, I would think it was very dreary though sitting through a Boheme in a tired production and only one of the singers really special.
    Surely it must be possible for one of the world’s leading opera houses to put together a Boheme cast with an outstanding performance in every role.

  • Joggerboy18

    I accidentally discovered Angel Blue just the other day when I was looking for videos of Mefistofele on YouTube. Such a great voice!
    https://youtu.be/5T1qV6fZofo

    • She sings Mefistofele?!

      • Joggerboy18

        Yeah, she was Helen of Troy in Baden-Baden last year

      • she does act 4 Trovatore with that fake baritone..she is a spinto..not a Leonora…but who cares…..I will now have to be another unpaid agent…..I am owed 678,000 for fees from Stapp,Soviero,Galvany,Zeani…….

  • Rick

    Why is it that The Met has stopped casting Musette from strength and instead use Susanna Philips (yawn -- and already 44 times!!!) or (the apparently horrid) Brigitte Kele? This season at Royal Opera House London it is Joyce El-Khoury (also in Madrid) and Danielle de Niese, in Munich Golda Schultz and in Paris (and Vienna Aida Garifullina. And in the past at the Met singers such as Ainho Arteta, Mimi Benzell, Nicole Cabell, Mary Costa, Barbara Daniels, Hilde Güden, Ana Maria Martinez, Karita Martial, Leona Mitchell, Edda Moser, Inva Mula, Patrice Munsel, Carol Neblett, Anna Netrebko, Ailyn Pérez, Patricia Racette, Sondra Radvanovsky, Regina Resnik, Anneliese Rothenberger, Renata Scotto, Elisabeth Schuman, Elisabeth Söderström, Diana Soviero, Ruth Anne Swenson, just to make a few.

    • Paul Johnston

      Maybe do they can phone in their performances?

      • Rick

        It’s probably both witty and clever -- but I’ve no idea what you mean by that comment, Paul.

    • Kenneth Conway

      Good question! It is indeed perplexing.

    • Bill

      not to speak of Welitsch once at the Met (she regularly sang Musetta in Vienna alternating with Seefried).
      Welitch sang Musetta auf Deutsch 42 times in Vienna over a 11 year period (and only 2 Mimis).

      • southerndoc1

        Welitsch as Mimi -- that boggles the imagination. I guess we can assume little Lucy left Rudolfo for a truck driver.

    • Kullervo

      Well the less-cynical answer is that maybe Kele *isn’t* “horrid” and just had a bad night? Maybe they agreed with you that they should give Susanna Phillips a break and put on someone they perceive as a rising talent?

      But if you’d rather have a circle-jerk where we compile a list of luxury-cast Musettas, have at it.

      • Rick

        Of course, you are right about Ms Kele maybe simply having a bad night. My bad.

        I wonder, however, what you mean by “rather”? What rather than what? Of course, if you think it makes you snappy, edgy and cool to talk about circlejerks, it’s no skin off my back.

        • Kullervo

          I mean exactly what I wrote and had no desire to be perceived as snappy or edgy by saying so.

          I think it betrays an unfortunate attitude when your immediate inclination, upon reading an unfavorable review of a singer (from a performance that you, I assume, did not hear yourself), is to lament how the Met has somehow lost their way in casting Musetta and then proceed to provide a few dozen examples of singers who represent superior casting.

          It bears mentioning that a good number of those singers would hardly have been, on paper, considered luxury casting at the time they sang Musetta at the Met -- I imagine that if the then-unknown, debuting 27 year old Leona Mitchell had had a poor showing as Musetta, someone in your shoes may similarly yearned for the days when the Met cast singers such as Rothenberger in the role. Similarly, I’m sure there were people in 2000 who might have longed for the days of Barbara Daniels when Sondra sang her 12-tone improvisation on a theme of Puccini.

          If you would like to celebrate the examples of La Boheme productions that treated Musetta as a star vehicle (while leaving out the equal portion of Colette Bokys, Heidi Kralls, Laurel Hurleys and Loretta di Francos who also sang it at the Met), perhaps you can find a way to frame it that doesn’t involve characterizing a debuting singer as being emblematic of a decline in casting standards.

          • Armerjacquino

            It’s worth saying that Musetta is not, at any house, a part which is routinely or even often cast with a star. In Italy it was traditionally seen a part for a house singer and it’s only really studio recordings that have made people expect a name. It’s fun when a name is cast, but it doesn’t reflect badly on a house if a young, not-widely-known singer is cast in the part: indeed, it’s one of the best ways to ease in someone promising.

            • steveac10

              That was the case at the Met well into the middle of the 20th century as well. In the Gatti years it was pretty much treated as a role for soprano comprimaria and house singers -- like Lenora Sparkes and Bella Alten.

            • Ivy Lin

              Hmm in recent years I’ve seen Marina Rebeka as Musetta and she was pretty wonderful. Ailyn Perez was good too.

          • Rick

            Well, as I already wrote, I should not have referred to Ms Kele as horrible based on a few reviews of one performance, agreed.

            I am probably too sensitive but in my view the word “circlejerk” should only be used about, well, an actual case of circlejerk…. (c;

            When that is said, you are, of course, right that there are numerous singers I could have mentioned that might have been better examples of “star” casting of Musetta than the cases I mentioned -- and taking into account where these singers were in their careers at the time would also have made. (Another example of a star, albeit in Paris, would be then Ms Dessay sang the part some years back.)

            I guess my primary annoyance (and this is not something I should have taken out on Ms Kele) is that Ms Philips have been more or less monopolising the part of Musetta in recent years when there is absolutely no evidence that she brings anything particularly wonderful to that part.

    • Luvtennis

      What happened to Cabel????

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20OCWZHszCQ

    Bless Parterre Box for awakening me to Angel…NO WONDER!!She wrote me she worked with Diana Soviero in Montreal..FIGURES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!