Cher Public

Reason to believe

While not especially eager to trudge to the Met for yet another La Bohème, I was extraordinarily happy to have done so Monday evening to encounter Angel Blue and Russell Thomas as Mimi and Rodolfo. 

More than a decade years after his Met debut Thomas was finally being given a multi-performance run of a leading role, and having read both Big James‘ and Little James’ raves about Blue’s debut during the season’s opening week, I was eager to experience her live; together they did not disappoint.

A generous open-hearted performer, she brought a fresh soaring lyric soprano that nicely filled the Met. Her quick vibrato adds an interesting tang to her timbre and in the lower voice it occasionally reminded me of Barbara Hendricks’s. If she didn’t yet bring a wealth of individual touches to her music, her emotional honesty and sincerity proved quite touching.

She’s also a vivid stage presence: there was never any doubt about how ill Mimi was. For the first time in memory there was more coughing onstage than in the audience.

Her chemistry with Thomas was palpable; together they brought an interesting spin to the all-too-familiar Mimi-Rodolfo relationship. Rather than naïve lovers, they seemed to have both been around the block a few times. Their interactions had both a fresh eagerness but also a slightly world-weary acceptance of the ebb and flow of relationships.

This came through particularly well in the third act when they decided to reunite just one more time, a moment suffused with both joy and a foreboding of the inevitable unhappy ending ahead.

Despite being a graduate of the Met Lindeman Young Artist Program, Thomas has been a puzzlingly infrequent presence in the house. In July he starred in Peter Sellars’s new La Clemenza di Tito which opened the Salzburg Festival while his surprising, wry and exceedingly well-sung Loge nearly stole the show at the New York Philharmonic’s gala Das Rheingold send-off for Alan Gilbert.

Despite recent successes around the world as Pollione, Cavaradossi and Don José, he’s been cast in roles like Ismaele in Nabucco and Andrès in Wozzeck at the Met.

While Rodolfo might not show off the intense tenor’s best qualities, he sang beautifully, ardent and nuanced, showing more care for dynamics than a number of others I could mention. If the top didn’t always have ideal freedom (he took the aria down), it manifested a convincing Italianate ring.

He gets lots of points in my book for not joining the soprano for the off-stage high C at the end of the first act, unlike far too many of my previous Met Rodolfos. Let’s hope these Bohème performances are a harbinger of more regular appearances for this evolving artist at the house.

This opera has become a revolving door for singers in recent years: Monday’s six principals only came together for just that one performance. The blunt Marcello, Michael Todd Simpson, sang only Thursday and Monday; Lucas Meachem returns on Friday which will be Blue’s final Mimi.

Matthew Rose’s first Colline of the season which featured a surprisingly choppy “Vecchia zimara” happened Monday while Javier Arrey makes his Met debut as Schaunard on November 1 when Anita Hartig takes over as Mimi. Duncan Rock, my suave Schaunard, debuted the same night as Blue and returns on November 4!

The dizzying cast shuffling might explain why the efficient conductor Alexander Soddy more often followed his singers rather than led them. Other than the indulgent conductor, the sole constant in the fall run of Bohème is the harsh, unsteady, cartoonish, incomprehensible Musetta of Brigitta Kele who also sang seven Musettas last season—why on earth?

Before Blue knocked on the garret door to ask Thomas to relight her candle last week, some had wondered if there had ever been an African-American Mimi and Rodolfo at the Met. Some intensive detective work turned up just a single previous instance over thirty years ago when Roberta Alexander and Vinson Cole loved and lost on that vast stage.

Although Monday evening’s enthusiastic, flower-throwing audience seemed unconcerned about this near-novelty of casting, I thought back to the recent stink caused by the refusal by the estate of Edward Albee to allow a black actor to appear as Nick in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Portland, Oregon.

As Nick is described as white, blond and blue-eyed, presumably Albee’s executors believed it crucial to preserve a certain dramatic verisimilitude that opera-goers surely ignore on a daily basis?

Hasn’t a “willing suspension of disbelief” evolved into a cornerstone of the art form? Do sopranos resembling Middle-Eastern teenagers ever sing Salome? Shouldn’t Cherubino really be played by a man? Of course not, but unfortunately certain roles seem to up-end opera’s usual gender/age/color-indulgent casting expectations.

Just yesterday the Met posted photos from rehearsals for its upcoming revival of Madama Butterfly with Hui He in the title role. Is an Asian soprano inevitably thought of? If you scan the Met archive for performances by Yoko Watanabe or Liping Zhang you’ll discover that they sang only Cio-Cio-San and Liù. Surely audiences loved Martina Arroyo as “Madame Butterball” too!

After her success in the film Diva, did Wilhelmenia Fernandez have any business singing Aïda?  I wonder how many times Blue has already been offered that role. One doesn’t need to speculate about Thomas and Otello as he sang his first Moor in concert with the Atlanta Symphony earlier this month. But in a fascinating twist, the Desdemona, Iago and Lodovico in those performances were also African-American.

A friend of mine was in the Met children’s chorus for a gala performance of La Bohème that starred Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti.  Even as a kid he only cared about their voices and was carried away by the visceral thrill of their singing and not distracted by their visual unsuitability.

My first-ever opera at the Met was Bohème during the initial season of the Zeffirelli production and in it a pale, frail Teresa Stratas in her last-ever Mimi was about as close to a physical/dramatic ideal as one has ever gotten in the hundreds of performances since. But Blue and Thomas, both in blooming good health still moved me tremendously.

Despite occasional moments of under-rehearsed routine, I enjoyed Monday’s revival and the Blue-Thomas pairing brought a special frisson to a tired yet still effective production I’ve now seen way too many times. It was “simply” Mimi and Rodolfo falling in love and breaking our hearts. They perform Bohème just once more this season on Friday.

  • Christopher: Thanks for this lovely review. We’ve had Thomas in Toronto a few times, as Hoffman, Don José, and Pollione. I like his voice and have enjoyed his singing. But I don’t hear an Otello in his voice. Do you?

    • Greg Freed

      He’s young, yet, isn’t he? He certainly wasn’t overparted as Pollione out here a couple of years ago. I wasn’t listening with an ear to “is this an Otello voice?” but it wouldn’t surprise me a ton if it were five or ten years from now.

      • I found his voice just right for Pollione, but it strikes me as a medium-sized lirico-spinto. I just don’t hear Otello in it. I doubt he’d be asked to sing it if he weren’t black.

        • CKurwenal

          But he could of course have turned it down, so must feel himself that it’s appropriate. And I’m not so sure he wouldn’t have been asked if he weren’t black although of course it could have played a part -- but it’s a very hard to cast role, I should think a lot of tenors of a certain standard get asked, who never expect to sing it.

          • Fair enough. We probably only hear about a fraction of the different role requests — from wacky to interesting — that singers get.

    • Greg Freed

      (Oh wait, is he already singing the role? That does seem ambitious but I’m not a signer or a vocal coach so I guess the proof is in the pudding, if I’m using that phrase right.)

      • In the eating, as in “All the better to eat you with…”

      • CKurwenal

        It’s in the eating (of the pudding).

    • RLT TV

      No I am not an Otello voice, but I can sing it. I sang it. Although, I must admit its not a visceral one the likes of Del Monaco. Maybe no one wants to hear a musical otello, thats what I was going for and I will trot it out a few times.

      Maybe you are right Kashania, I probably wouldn’t be asked to sing it if I were black. But I am Black. Unapologetically so. And its about time thats a blessing in this business and not a curse. But the companies that are asking me to sing it today are the ones that also offer me other ‘medium-sized lirico-spinto’ tenor roles.

      I dont believe there are any true Otello voices today, other than maybe Limmie Pulliam and Galouzine. Other great Otellos today have been tenors that excelled in other rep. For instance Johan Botha was a great Otello. Hell, I think he was great at everything but I doubt anyone would say he was a ‘true otello voice’.

      You will be able to tell me soon enough or the folks here at Parterre if you think it was vocally convincing. I hope if you’re not convinced about it vocally, you will be musically or dramatically. If not, hopefully my cast mates make up for where Im lacking.

      • Porgy Amor

        It is good to see you here, Mr. Thomas. I followed the accounts of your recent Atlanta performance with interest.

        I do think that oftentimes people—and I am not referring to kashania, who is a very thoughtful and open-minded listener—can fixate on a sort of ideal they have in their heads, and there are ways to admirably serve a character and a piece that differ from that ideal.

        One can go to YouTube and read all sorts of abuse, some of it personal and ugly, heaped on a German tenor who has been singing Wagner roles very beautifully for many years now. He has a clear, radiant sound that suffices in large venues; he is a good musician; he elegantly shapes music; he certainly knows what every word means. The best conductors, the best venues have engaged him. But he isn’t what these people hear on their records, and does not pick up the story wherever these people joined it in progress. So they reject him; they want “Wagner with balls!!!!!!!!”

        And it’s one thing to say that someone isn’t your own ideal, and then either take him on his terms or listen to someone else; it’s another to start telling us what the composer would think, or how the composer would react, absent a séance. There is too much of that.

      • Mr. Thomas: thank you for your measured response. I appreciate your perspective and the chance to respond to you. And yes, I would appreciate a musical Otello. Last thing I’d want to hear is someone trying to be MdM without his once-in-lifetime instrument. I have no doubt you’d deliver a finely musical Otello.

        I hope my comment about you being black and being asked to sing the role did offend you. It certainly wasn’t meant to be offensive. In fact, I agree with you about the scarcity of Otello voices and I imagine many tenors are being asked to sing the role, regardless of skin colour.

        Personally, I’m a proponent of colour-blind casting and don’t feel it necessary that singers’ faces be darkened or lightened for some superficial “believability”. Frankly, I’d appreciate a black tenor being cast in all manner of leading roles, including romantic leads.

        While I have you, allow me to say that I thought you and Anita Rachvelishvilli tore up the stage in your final scene of Carmen. I was not expecting to leave the theatre so elated after my umpteenth Carmen.

        Cheers.

  • CwbyLA

    It is wonderful that Thomas and Blue are being featured in this production by the Met but I can’t stop thinking how ridiculous it is that in 1300+ performances only once before two black artists sung this role together at the Met stage.

  • grimoaldo2

    Russell Thomas is great. He was the tenor lead in I Masnadieri with Lisette Oropesa at Washington Concert Opera a few years back. There was a duet in which they *trilled* in unison, he has a true trill and treated us to fabulous singing all the way through.

    • Amika

      There is no trill like an Oropesa trill. I bet that was thrilling!

  • Loge

    Thanks for this review. We just had the pleasure of his first Otello with the Atlanta Symphony. The Desdemona was the excellent Mary Elizabeth Williams. The Iago was the underpowered Nmon Ford.

    • Kenneth Shaw

      We had Thomas in Cincinnati as a stentorian, yet beautifully wrought Florestan. He truly moved me, and I’ve become a huge fan of his work. He and the terrific Christine Goerke we’re thrilling together, along with Nathan Stark as Rocco, who should be heard in this role as often as possible. Regrettably, Nmon Ford was inaudible as Pizarro, but for the D’s in his aria.

  • Jane Ennis

    Er, no, Cherubino is a travesti role, he is supposed to be played by a woman.

  • Jane Ennis

    Saw Thomas as Adorno in SIMON BOCCANEGRA at Covent Garden a few years ago, he made a very good impression, hope he returns to Europe soon.

    • CKurwenal

      I did too, but I found him rather strained and unpleasant to listen to. I’ve read nothing but good about him since though, I’d very much like to hear him again in a different role.

  • Countessa Salome

    I agree, it’s great to see two African American singers in leads at the MET that’s not Porgy and Bess. It’s a shame it only happens once in a blue moon.

    • manou

      Did Blue moon?

      • nachtEule

        Discreetly — it could only be seen from the proper Angel.

        • Betsy_Ann_Bobolink

          Oh my, I am happy.

          Such a dastardly exchange of puns.

          Whee.

          Now I forget what I came here for