We’ve teamed up again to chat our way through Met’s New Year’s Eve Gala, which streamed lived from Augsburg Germany, and featured Angel Blue, Javier Camarena, Matthew Polenzani and Pretty Yende in a program of bel canto and verismo arias, and some other random stuff, like Neapolitan songs and “Auld Lang Syne.”
First things first: a very special Happy New Year to one Christine Goerke, who in addition to being a charming host for all of these livestream concerts, has really upped the fashion game by appearing in tonight’s intro in what appeared to be a dress covered entirely in metallic scales and a sparkly tiara-headband thingy. She looked like she was cosplaying as both a princess and the dragon who guards her tower, and it was fantastic. She also looked down at her watch and said, with a straight face, “Oh look, it’s Champagne o’clock” before giving herself a very generous glug of bubbly. What an icon!
Like our last review, Callum and I walked away with a few hours of audio, that we’ve transcribed and trimmed and will present in the order of the program.
Javier Camarena, looking positively dashing and sparkly-eyed in a red bowtie, started us off with “Ah, mes amis” in a set from Fille du regiment, followed by Pretty Yende singing “Chacun le sait.” A bit later, they followed with “Quoi! Vous m’aimez.?”
CB: What a wonderful way to start!
GF: I thought that was just fantastic. Those C’s! And first of all, Camarena absolutely looks like a kid in a candy store. He looks like he’s having so much fun.
CB: I have never seen someone look more genuinely in love with Marie while singing this aria. He looks like he’s about to bounce off the stage. He sounded so steely, his voice was metallic and bright and energetic. It’s everything you want.
GF: Ten out of ten, Javier Camarena!
GF: Now on to Pretty Yende. She looks absolutely beautiful, and that was gorgeously sung and utterly charming.
CB: She brings a girlish earnestness to it, so bubbly and full of energy.
GF: They are perfectly matched, vocally, and they’re so wonderful on stage together. I really want to see them both in this now, I want to see the whole opera.
Angel Blue and Matthew Polenzani followed with the classic set from the first act of La Boheme, starting with Rodolfo’s and Mimi’s first arias and ending with “O soave fanciulla.”
CB: Oh my gosh, that was amazing.
GF: They were both fantastic, and they look great together.
CB: Matthew Polenzani is such an understated actor. He makes everything seem so easy and so relaxed.
GF: He’s kind of shockingly natural on screen, so natural on stage. He brings so much sincerity to Rodolfo who, depending on how you play him, is kind of a pompous character–ultimately, I think a good character—but a bit into himself. And Angel Blue! What a revelation. I did not get to see her in this last year, and now I’m sorry I missed it. She brings a very welcome intelligence to Mimi. She seems extremely smart and a little bit knowing, which I don’t think is how you see Mimi played very often. You get the sense that, in this world that the two of them are creating, Mimi has already had relationships with other men and they haven’t worked out. She’s lived a life; she’s not just this boring virgin who lives next door. It makes me love this character in a way I usually don’t.
CB: I always think of Mimi is such a bland character and yet she made her interesting and really funny.
GF: Yeah, and so warm. Another thing that impressed me was this: sometimes when I’m watching this opera, the dissonance between the age of the actors and the presumed age of the characters is a bit hard to get over, particularly when you’re seeing them up close, but it really works to the benefit of the characters here. Matthew Polenzani is in his fifties—he looks great, especially with that silver hair, and I completely buy him as a romantic lead— but he’s in his fifties, and Angel Blue I presume is in her thirties, though she really looks ageless. Regardless, we’re watching two grown-ass adults play characters who are often presented as very young. I like that both of them use what they have to make these characters different by just making them be mature, instead of the weirdness you get when you’re watching a watching a 50 year old pretend to be 25. Here, we’re just watching Rodolfo and Mimi, in a way I found so compelling in this opera that is often played as the glorification of youth.
GF: I mean usually Rodolfo comes across as kind of horny and hot-blooded and Mimi comes across as like impossibly innocent, but they’re both really mature here. It really rounds these characters out. It was so much more touching.
GF: She’s got a big voice for it, too. She sounded just extraordinary.
CB: It’s a really warm voice but it sounds fabulous. It suits the characterization of Mimi as this knowing, intelligent, and interesting figure.
GF: This string quintet, though? What the hell is going on with that? (more on this later).
Javier Camarena returned with “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro” from La Cenerentola, and Pretty Yende absolutely burned the house down with “Una voce poco fa.”
GF: Okay, what did you think of that?
CB: She was just phenomenal. That was a superb performance.
GF: I think that might be the best version of that aria I’ve ever heard.
CB: Oh, hands down. That was unbelievable. Every time I thought she couldn’t take it any further. She added another ornamentation and other bit of cadenza.
It never sounded hard. It sounded like she was just making it up on the spot!
GF: And she’s so funny. No one should be allowed to be that beautiful that unbelievably talented and skilled and also funny. Leave something for the rest of us, Pretty Yende!
CB: You know what I really like is that she found a lot of humor in the way the music was written. She wasn’t adding very much, she was just picking up on things that Rossini does in the music.
GF: I desperately need Pretty Yende to be given a romantic comedy. Could there be an opera TV show? Maybe on Netflix or something? She is just unbelievable and I wish everyone could see it, not just opera fans. She’s totally electrifying. I was laughing the whole time, which for me is basically my highest compliment. You know when something is so good that you just laugh, because it’s almost ridiculous that anything can be this good? That was this for me. She is perfect for these bel canto heroines.
CB: No, she’s absolutely made for the screen. She’s so natural even when she’s doing these in a very unnatural vocal feats, and I’m really surprised at how even her voice is across these registers. And she moved too quickly between them! It’s so smooth.
GF: Let’s just give Pretty Yende the presidency. She just drips brilliance and intelligence and being the quickest person in any room, you know? It’s just fabulous to watch. Nothing makes me happier than when I get to see opera characters who seem smart.
CB: What about Camarena’s aria?
GF: I thought he sounded good, but he did not sound as good as he sounded in “Ah, mes amis” and then he has the unfortunate task of being compared to that “Una voce,” which was just incomparable. He had some ridiculously gorgeous high note in there, though. All his high notes are gorgeous, he approaches them with incredible bravado.
CB: I did think those were amazing, but I felt that the kind of slow opening especially when he’s in his middle voice could be a little thin: still perfectly beautiful, but just not quite as robust.
GF: I don’t know if that aria is totally perfect for him vocally because there is just so much of the middle voice, which doesn’t let him shine enough. He’s just wonderful dramatically, though. I love watching him, he’s extremely engaging and his face is so open and bright. He also has beautiful skin. Tell us your skincare regimen, Javier, you look great!
GF: I have to say, whoever thought “You know who would be a great pairing to put with this pairing? Polenzani and Blue,” Bravo! This is brilliant. Within each pair they complement each other, and then each pair also complements the other pair. And it could have gone so wrong. Obviously, it has gone somewhat wrong with the fucking string quintet, which we will bitch about later, but with the singers, if any one of them had not either been on par with everybody else or had not sounded this good with one another, this would have been ruined.
CB: At end of the day, these are four really excellent practitioners of the bel canto technique. They’re doing it in slightly different ways and they all have slightly different voices, but they all really know what they’re doing and they know this repertoire, and it has really come through so far.
Next up was Polenzani with “La donna è mobile,” before Angel Blue, um, blew us away with “D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. GF followed with this rant.
GF: I love “La donna e mobile,” even though it’s totally overplayed, and I think Matthew Polenzani acquitted himself gorgeously. I think your comment about him being a really subtle actor is completely right. It’ s so cool because you can see how the very same thing that made him a really likable and compelling Rodolfo is exactly the same thing that makes him a deeply terrifying Duke of Mantua, which is his amazing ability of coming across as really sincere. How cool to see two totally different sides of that sincerity and that naturalness. In his characterization, you can tell that this man really doesn’t like women, and even if he’s trying to play this aria off as a joke, it’s not. What a fascinating take on this character, who is so often played as a dumb playboy who’s cruel because he’s careless and oblivious, as opposed to this, where it’s clear that the Duke of Mantua is really fucked up. He has serious issues with women: he wants to hurt them.
CB: It’s very subtle saunter rather than an outright cockiness, and I thought that really worked.
GF: It makes him appealing in a totally different way and, to some extent, in a more dangerous way.
CB: Oh, yeah, I got the danger. He has this steely look in his eyes, something a little bit malicious. It’s the difference between a goofy frat boy and Jeffrey Dahmer.
GF: I mean, I love Verdi so much and why I think I like Verdi is that he has one of the most incredible ways of creating….just…. bastards, you know? He writes bad people better than anyone else writes bad people.
CB: They’re all so horrible!
GF: And they’re complexly horrible too. Verdi just seemed to have this understanding of the nuances of shitty people and their terrible psychology. He’s fascinated with them and fascinated with how they pull in people around them and destroy their lives, particularly the women. These are questions that I also find extremely compelling, especially today, because these types of bad men still exist in the world. But it seems to take really specific singers and really specific directors to bring that out in a way that is as shocking as I think it should be.
GF: Okay, Angel Blue. Wow.
CB: She did phenomenally. Angel Blue is the perfect Verdi heroine. So steely and expressive, also really strong and staunch. She has so much power.
GF: She gives off this feeling of a truly good and noble person, but someone who is so tough. I mean that was incredible. I truly started crying at those repeated high notes.
CB: And it was so classily done, beautifully shaped phrases. It was a very manicured performance, and I like that she did it all down by the piano. It brought an intimacy, like she was really speaking to me on a personal level.
GF: Yes, absolutely. As if she is saying “I have to tell you this thing that’s really meaningful, and it can’t be from the stage. It has to be real.”
CB: This is a wonderful voice that seems to float at the same time that it’s also feels really robust and full. It just sits in this beautiful, rich, and vibrant place.
GF: It’s rich without the weight, and light without the flightiness. It’s really extraordinary.
CB: Gosh, yeah, absolutely. And this was really nice programming because just as we heard “La donna e mobile,” I was starting to get a bit sick of all this of upbeat stuff. And then she really brought it.
Four duets followed: Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena sang, “Son geloso del zefiro errante” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, with Angel Blue and Matthew Polenzani returning with “Lippen schweigen” from Merry Widow. After that, we heard Yende and Camarena on “Mattinata,” a Leoncavallo piece neither of us had heard of. Then we teleported with Blue and Polenzani into a music box with De Curtis’s “Torna a Surriento.”
CB: Ok, for me, the last two duets were the absolute nadir of the concert. Partly, it’s a programming issue: ultimately, they’re two really boring numbers – really dull compared the big opera arias we’ve just heard! But primarily, it’s the string quintet, which takes everything so slow. It’s such passionless playing, yet somehow rather noisy and rather ugly at the same time. And this is the thing that really makes me angry: The Met have a fantastic orchestra that has not been paid in 10 months, and yet they are subjecting us to this terrible, terrible cacophony. They could have flown five of their excellent musicians over to Germany like they flew the singers. Instead, we are forced to endure this nauseating, turgid, raspy playing. It’s really grinding my gears.
GF: Especially given that they have a fabulous accompanist who’s just sitting backstage.
CB: She’s probably sitting back there with cheese in her ears so she doesn’t have listen to the string quintet! I honestly think that this pianist – who, I must note, remains shamefully uncredited on the Met’s website! – was glorious. She was the absolute star of this show. And she was only in like five numbers or something.
GF: This accompanist probably could have sightread all of these pieces better than this string quintet. And shame on the Met for not hiring their own people. Shame on them for trying to weasel around the union. And I actually liked the Lehàr and the Bellini. But – and this is a BIG programming problem – why are we suddenly doing Neapolitan songs?! There’s literally not a single Italian on this stage. And it’s not like they don’t sing it well. But up until that point we’ve had a program of music that was clearly calculated to be perfect for these singers and then we suddenly turn to this kind of cheesy schmaltz! And you know it’s bad when I, Gabrielle Ferrari, perhaps the most cheese-friendly person ever, thinks it’s bad. This is too cheesy for me? I’m the queen of cheese! But this was just terrible!
CB: They’re much too subtle performers for this rep.
GF: Again, the first half of the program was defined by this overwhelming sense of intelligence and cleverness. And then suddenly we’re singing with Mr. Big at Da Marino?! What’s happening? Nobody wants this! I didn’t ask for this and I am Italian! They don’t go with the operatic pieces just because they are also in Italian. And after their magnificent Verdi arias, both Blue and Polenzani looked like they were thinking: “I don’t really know why I’m doing this.”
CB: Frankly, they looked embarrassed.
GF: And I pity them having to sing with this string quartet. I’m surprised that they can even sing at all with how all-over-the-place the string quartet is and how slow they are taking everything. It’s out of control!
CB: And I’d imagine that duet is really hard to sing anyway. The musical textures change every two seconds and the whole number just sits in a really awkward place in the voice. And the singers executed it really well, I thought. But it always felt like they were trying to second-guess what the quintet was doing.
GF: I’m not sure I’ve actually heard string playing this bad in a professional setting. There’s no blend at all. You can hear every instrument, and not in a good way. It was like the Hulk playing the violin. And these arrangements! Arrangments are crucial: if you have bad arrangements of fabulous tunes, it really cheapens the whole experience.
Everyone sang the final three numbers, starting with “O sole mio,” then a shockingly bad arrangement of “Libiamo, ne’ lieti calici.” Finally, the tech crew busted out the drinks for “Auld Lang Syne. ”
GF: So, the main question I have is, were they drinking real booze on stage?
CB: I think it might have been, or maybe it was sparkling grape juice?
GF: That was so awkward: everything about the distributing of the drinks, the clinking of the drinks, and then getting into the Brindisi.
CB: That whole sequence was possibly the worst party I’ve ever seen onstage. It looked so sad.
GF: You really noticed that there was only the four of them. I hope they all went back to someone’s hotel and got drunk after this.
CB: It reminded me a lot of an awkward family gathering. Everyone is uncomfortable. And no one really likes each other. Which we know is not true because we know that they have excellent chemistry when they’re not contending with the awkward blocking. The Brindisi is a duet with chorus for a reason, and it just doesn’t work in this strange quartet format. It totally works in context because it’s a diegetic song and we get that build-up to the whole chorus singing at the end and the big high note. But there wasn’t that build-up and having them all on the high note just felt dull. Kudos to them for having fun with “O Sole Mio,” though.
GF: I loved that adorable thing that Angel Blue did! She sang this really gorgeous, quiet high note and then did this funny little double-finger-wag-thing as if to say: “See, I did it!”
CB: And I didn’t expect that because the two tenors had done some kind of cadenza and she just held that high note and it was just so perfect! I mean the tenors were great. But you expect that from them.
GF: But she made it subtle and artistic, and also kind of sexy.
CB: I actually really liked “Auld Lang Syne.” I was thinking: “this sounds so much better than the ones before it.” Then I realized that it was because the piano was playing, so suddenly had full, in-tune harmony. It was so much richer! And it made me think: “maybe I would have liked some of the other numbers if they’d been done with piano?” And this particular pianist has a very fiery touch: everything is very firm and very bright and very clear. I feel like it would have suited these final numbers, which really do need to be snappy – otherwise, they’re really dull.
GF: So, let’s wrap this up because it’s nearing Champagne o’clock down here.
GF: Wow, I’m so sad that that ended so poorly because it started so fabulously. And that is very frustrating. I wish it had been the opposite way around: at least then it wouldn’t leave me with such a bad taste in my mouth at the very end.
CB: I mean frankly, I just got a little bit bored.
GF: Yeah, I did too. I definitely got bored. And I wasn’t bored at the start. I was actually on the edge of my seat. And even the things that I didn’t like that much, like the Puccini quartet, just felt like a little blip in an otherwise fabulous production. Then to get the unbelievable “Una voce poco fa” and the unbelievable Trovatore aria. It just built and built to this absolute fever pitch! And then it was like someone just let the car drift off the side of the road.
CB; What I thought was really missing from this program was just one more big serious aria for Polenzani. I felt like he just needed one big showpiece that was really his.
GF: I think you’re right. I like him so much and “La donna è mobile” is just not long enough or weighty enough to show how good he is, vocally, though I was still entranced by the dramatic take.
CB: I wanted something with a recitative, a cantabile, and a cabaletta. I really felt like he needed something to sink his teeth into because everyone else had a big, fantastic moment! He sang really beautifully in everything, but “La donna è mobile” is too light for such a serious vocalist.
GF: I felt like they were pandering: like, “It’s New Year’s Eve, so we need to do a drinking song!” But we would always rather they do something good, regardless of whether it’s thematically or seasonally appropriate, than do something that’s seasonally appropriate but not that good.
CB: I feel like the one thing that all four singers do really well is creating character. And that was what made the first half so good is that they could really get under the skin of these characters. These are dramatic actors. And I felt like I was getting Meryl Streep to perform in the Christmas panto.
GF: Yeah, it’s like Streep in Mamma Mia
CB: Above all, I just feel like it would have been interesting to see how the two very different voices work together – say, Pretty and Matthew or Javier and Angel. Even just for like one number here and there. I don’t know what kind of repertoire they would have chosen that would allow for that; but they might have offered interesting moments of contrast.
GF: If I were to recommend this to someone, I would say to just watch until Angel’s Trovatore aria. And if you really want to laugh, then skip to drunk Christine Goerke at the end.
CB: The rest can be background music.