|Last minute Pav!|
3 divas: Kiri, Diana, Dixie
Holland the no-lobe
Bonnie and Clyde
questo e quello by La Cieca
|La Cieca practically set up housekeeping at the Met last week thanks to the biblically generous Enzo. Bordello, who treated La Cieca to four consecutive nights at Sybil's Barn.
We'll begin the tale of that fateful week with a little tag-team critique of Un ballo in maschera, a performance that came as a bit of a surprise. But Enzo tells it better than I do
Enzo: My dears, call it the luck of the naive, but I walked up to the box office today at 4 p.m. and asked rather sheepishly if there were any seats left in standing room for the sold-out Pav event. The box office worker replied: "No can do. Nothing in standing room." As I began to walk dejectedly away from the window, he offered: "But I do have two front row, center seats in Grand Tier." Unbelievable! Anyway, the Pav was mostly a shadow of his former self. He can still make some beautiful sounds and the phrasing was heavenly in the death scene. But rhythmically he was all over the place and he seemed to be both unsure of himself and disconnected from the proceedings. The audience was not encouraging, either, offering half-hearted applause throughout the evening; not exactly hostile, just indifferent.
Cieca: For the record, the Pav *did* leave the stage during the duet with Amelia, but he did take the (very fine) high C with Deborah Voigt. I kept thinking he was saving himself up for the last-act aria, but "Ma se forza" sounded tired and strained. He was really limping by then and sang most of the aria leaning on the desk, so he must have been in pain.
Enzo: BIG SURPRISE of the evening was La Voigt as Amelia. Folks, this wasn't artistic growth, this was somersaulting! In addition to a world-class voice, Voigt showed that she can act and phrase with feeling. The "Morro" was full of Italianate sobs and expressive touches. Newly svelte, Voigt looks radiant, moves with confidence and clearly relishes the challenges Verdi poses (unlike Sharon Sweet). BIG success with audience.
Cieca: Dite bene, dite bene! The biggest ovation was for Voigt, with Juan Pons a close second. Deb is about 30 lbs. lighter than last season, and I was amazed at her committed Italianate plastique -- very much ecole de Zinka, and I mean that as a *good* thing. The middle of the voice retains its warmth and purity, but the top is if anything more dramatic and more exciting. Thrilling sustained high B and C. The shocker is her gutsy use of chest voice, especially in the cadenzas to the arias. Her acting choices in the Choosing of Lots scene were always derived from the music, suggesting a history of domestic violence in the Anckarstroem household.
Enzo: Pons delivered yet another one of his honest, sincere, deeply felt, well-sung portrayals. Barbara Dever sounds like a dramatic soprano with a manufactured chest voice, but she sings with temperament and spirit. Say what you will about Roberta Peters and/or Judith Blegen but they knew how to perform Oscar with charm. Young Ok Shin comes off like Sumi Jo's untalented little sister. She should be taken out and shot, so annoying and badly sung is her Oscar.
Cieca: Shoot the whole family, and let God choose the soubrettes.
Enzo: Truth to tell, she was not helped by Piero Faggioni's unmusical, obvious staging and monochromatic settings.
Cieca: This guy gives the word "Faggioni" a bad name. The nadir of the many low points of this staging was the finale to Act 2, when Amelia, who has just been forced by her husband to be an accessory in the assassination of her lover, has her house invaded by mimes. Is this the worst night of her life, or what?
Enzo: James Levine conducts well enough, but he does punch up those climaxes (is it just me, or is he sounding more and more like a late Karajan recording?)
Cieca: Can't he create a forte that doesn't sound like the end of life as we know it? The orchestra was pouring out decibels sufficient unto Frau ohne Schatten. The only singer who did not suffer for this blitzkrieg was Mr. Pavarotti, who (shall we say) had some help from the man in the booth. (Don't start in on me! There were times the Pav's voice was originating from a point 20 feet over his heard, and his first cavatina was accompanied by an eerie high-pitched electronic buzz).
La Cieca did not have the best of times at the Met's new Wozzeck,
But even a freshly-emptied bladder could not have reconciled La Cieca to the performance of Maria Ewing. To her already notorious rapsheet of crimes against opera (hoarse, pitchless screaming; sullen attitude masquerading as stage presence; slovenly musicianship appparently just for the hell of it; and, of course, a solid decade of bad hair days) Ms. Ewing has added perhaps the most dastardly vice of all: utter cowardice. Following her fiascoid performance as Marie, she took her "solo" bow in tandem with the charming young actor who played the Child, in an obvious and cynical (and ultimately fruitless) attempt to stave off a volley of richly-deserved boos. When an audience is willing to jeer a four-year-old child in order to express their disgust with a singer's performance, you know even Ewing has scraped a new low. SHE CAN'T SING ANY MORE. No, I mean, *AT ALL*. The low notes are pitchless growls, the top rasping yelps, the middle mostly just labored breathing. Oh, but she's a singing actress, you say. Oh, but she's neither, I say. She didn't even suggest the character of Marie. Hey, folks, the Bible-reading Scene *went for nothing!* She just stood there, or sat there, and gave 4000 people that peeved attitude thing which is the only affect she seems able to convey. Hey, people who spend $145 a seat want just a little more than sullen, thank you.
Remember all those decades ago when the vocal music in Wozzeck was considered terribly difficult, in fact impossible to sing accurately? Well, Mme. Ewing tonight returned us to that golden age. Grace Moore could have sung the part more accurately. At times it was difficult to tell whether Ewing was attempting to sing the right pitch and just missing, or attempting to sing the wrong pitch and missing. The only thing she never did was to sing the right pitches.
(Or, as a new member of the parterre box family put it)
At least Ewing's utter inadequacy did have the effect of throwing into sharper relief the really excellent Wozzeck of Falk Struckmann. His vocal approach sounded like the purest bel canto next to his leading lady's one-woman cat duet, and his committed and energetic acting made us almost believe there was a relationship between Wozzeck and his mistress. (Only almost. Miss Ewing's elaborate apathy nipped that possibility in the bud.) This was a carefully-drawn and beautifully-sustained descent into madness, never cheapened by sensationalistic overstatement.
The other gentlemen in the cast, though perhaps not on the exalted level as Mr. Struckmann, pleased in their various ways. Graham Clark's Captain proved that a committed and vivid characterization can be achieved without the sacrifice of musical accuracy; Michael Devlin etched an eerie Doctor with his diminished vocal means. Mark Baker came close to making the impossible role of the Drum Major work, more through robust vocalism than dramatic believability.
The smaller roles were also in most capable hands: Donald Kaasch offered a sweet and sympathetic Andres, and Anthony Laciura overcame producer-inspired convulsions to chill us with his few lines as the Fool. A special word of praise to James Courtney's richly- detailed Apprentice, and I really must say Jonathan Press (Marie's Child) was quite simply perfect: had Ms. Ewing allowed this young thespian his own call, I know the audience response would have been clamorous. The singer who should have been doing Marie was instead cast as Margret: Wendy White just set the place on fire every time she sauntered onto the stage. I especially liked the offhand way she manhandled a drunk off a table during her "Swabia" ditty.
I still don't care for Mark Lamos's direction: to my mind he strives too much after "effects" (especially some admittedly striking stage pictures) at the expense of character and thematic truth. He was at his best in a convincingly unnerving First Inn Scene, but what were all those men doing sleeping on the floor in the Bunkroom Scene? (Those shapely supers in their skivvies looked like they had just wandered in from Death in Venice.)
But I'll cut Mr. Lamos a bit of slack: in a move typical of the current Met attitude toward "novelty" repertoire, the Met granted him a production budget rumored to be in four figures. Three big walls, a couple of sticks of furniture, and a whole lot of white light might make an effective Wozzeck in a college workshop production, but the vast spaces of the Met cry out for a less meager approach.
La Cieca thinks the spare staging was intended to shift our focus from the stage to the pit, for James Levine led the Met's orchestra in a performance that merited our undivided attention. I cannot imagine this score played more accurately or more soulfully. One might even feel a little guilty at the sheer hedonistic beauty of Levine's reading, as if we were gourmandising on Wozzeck's anguish. Levine brought the celebrated final interlude to a literally overwhelming climax: I saw people around me fall back in their seats gasping.
So, Met management, here's your mission: clean up the occasional silliness in the staging, find out if young Mr. Press has a baby brother, and tie a can to Ms. Ewing's tired old tail (you might try asking, say, Miss Malfitano nicely if she'd consent to a Gastspiel) and make this worthwhile revival a mainstay of the Met's repertoire.
And in between? In a word, here come the divas.
La Cieca had not seen the Met's Jean-Pierre Ponnelle Figaro since Cherubino still made his first entrance in the purple disco wig, and you know how long that's been. This production featured a Figaro who could sing OK but just stood there (Michele Pertusi) and a Conte who looked dashing but whose voice was in shreds (Jeffrey Black, loudly booed by those surrounding us in Family Circle), but Kiri te Kanawa rose above these and other petty annoyances to do her Goddess thing once again. Dame Kiri was self-assured, vocally plush, breath-takingly beautiful (as always!) and, unexpectedly, quite rollickingly funny in the last act slapstick. Susan Graham revealed a major talent as Cherubino, an important addition to the current embarassment of mezzo riches the Met enjoys. I liked particularly the plaintive note she struck in the faster part of "Non so piu," suggesting a boy half in awe and half in terror of his raging hormones. For Heidi Grant Murphy I have more mixed feelings: surely there is more voice inside her than the very pretty chirping that is currently finding its way out. And would someone please demonstrate chest resonance to Ms. Murphy? La Cieca was amused to note that all M. Ponnelle's stage action has found its way downstage into the audience's sightlines - sometimes singers are smarter than even the most "brilliant" superdirectors!
La Soviero's final Nedda of the season and, maybe, her swan song at the Met, found the soprano in demented form: voice, acting, commitment-it all was on. She enjoyed the advantage of having the ultra-scrummy Mark Oswald to nuzzle as Silvio. For once, the uncut version of the love duet did not drag: Ms. Soviero found regret in the first "Non mi tentar", anger in the second. Juan Pons treated us to his only Pag of the season in between two Ballos, and what a singing actor he has become! He is the first Tonio I have heard in years to sing the Prologo with such even scale and firm legato, building to a thrilling climax on the high G (not prematurely on the A-flat as many less imaginative artists do). A real night to remember, one even the incessant chatter of the unpleasant couple seated behind us (who responded to a quiet "Shhh!" with a hissed "Fuck you, asshole!") could not spoil.
Though not quite so mythic in its impact, the curtain-raising Cav was quite a show on its own terms: the unjustly neglected Ghena Dimitrova poured out molten tone, lacking only the extreme top notes. That much was to be expected; but her stylish (if old-fashioned) acting proved surprisingly moving: here was a Santuzza numb with grief, rousing herself only long enough to deliver a massive Easter curse.
Another surprise: Dixie Carter finally reconciled me (somewhat) to Master Class. The actress's innate intelligence, chic, and sense of humor refine the coarseness of Terrence McNally's script, suggesting the real artist hiding behind the tacky Gorgon mask. I think what I liked best was the way Carter threw away the insults without emphasis, as if Callas were merely babbling to cover her nervousness. (Zoe Caldwell, by contrast, aimed and landed the bitchy bits for maximum destructiveness, as if she were playing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the Superdome.) So what if Carter's accent is less than accurate, suggesting more Marlene than Maria; this lady breathes class whether she's enacting Sonnambula or merely adjusting her scarf. And, speaking of which, La Carter looks like a trillion lire in that black Chanel pantsuit. Miss Dunaway had better watch her back!
Hello, all. No, no, feel free to make yourselves comfortable. It has been brought to the attention of La Cieca (you will forgive me if I sometimes speak of myself in the third person, won't you?) that some slight interest in the so-called "Vec Metropolitus" has been expressed in various locations in that slightly sinister-sounding location "The Web." La Cieca will be happy to recount the amazing and indeed quite fictional tale of how she obtained this mysterious document which details the repertoire and casting for the Metropolitan Opera's 1997-98 season.
The document was placed into La Cieca's hands by an ex-boyfriend's ex-boyfriend, who obtained it from an ex-boyfriend of his. Sounds a bit like a social disease, doesn't it? (You will, I hope, forgive La Cieca her little joke!)
The *repertoire* revealed in this document was official as of April, 1996, just before it appeared in the print version of that indispensible periodical parterre box. That does not mean, of course, that the management of the Metropolitan will not abruptly change their plans, as the ticketholders for this season's revival of La forza del destino will be more than glad to tell you.
We (the various exes and I) reconstructed the casting from some official documents, some other leaks from Chez Jimmy, some informed conjecture, and of course a great deal of sheer blind guesswork. We made no attempt at a complete cast listing. You will note, for example, that Thomas Hampson's name appears nowhere on the document: that is mostly because none of us much cared whether he sings at the Met next year or not. (We do, however, have one thing to say about his rumored casting two seasons hence as "Werther" in the baritone adaptation: Mr. Hampson, get over yourself. You're no Battistini!)
Upon re-examination, certain casting details seem to be inaccurate: Mme. Bumbry (who is, as I believe you all know, like a sister to La Cieca) will, alas, most likely not appear in The Rake's Progress; and who among us is so foolhardy as to attempt to predict the behaviour of an Alagna a whole year in advance?
Eager to learn more, La Cieca has been quite vigorously pumping her source, but,as he is how happily dating someone else, it appears that this very useful leak has been plugged. (And if you insist on snickering, young man, you can do it outside!)
Yes, La Cieca is home writing her reactions to the Met's I puritani and, yes, it's only 10:45, and you know what *that* means. And believe me, La Cieca wasn't the only one walking out. This production wasn't a revival, it was a zombie.
The problem with Puritani is that it's just so simple: there's practically no plot, no action at all, and even the music is straightforward: the most limpid melodies, the most basic harmonies, the most unobtrusive orchestration. Nothing is allowed to distract from expressively beautiful singing.
And that's where you run into trouble. This show needs singers with the loveliest timbre and the most perfectly refined technique in order to make Bellini's tunes sound important. And, since the performers mostly just stand there, a dash of star quality is important to hold the audience's interest. Well, unless something incredibly dazzling suddenly happened in the last act, tonight none of these qualities was in evidence.
Maybe Ruth Ann Swenson (Elvira) was feeling the aftereffects of her ankle injury, or maybe she was just having an off night. Since last Saturday, I have wondered how you can injure your ankle doing Elvira; now I know: Ms. Swenson's acting performance was all darting and lunging, with fast, jerky gestures that made her look like Shirley Temple (the blond ringlets didn't help). What an odd idea to combine physical frenzy with vocal languor. Besides a world-class trill (as good as any I've ever heard, on stage or on disc) and some ravishing middle-voice singing, she didn't seem to have much to offer in this role: bel canto needs more than droopy portamenti and smudgy coloratura. Ms. Swenson's attempts at finessing the high pianissimi bored me after the 15th or 16th time: it all began to sound alike-- except for a couple of passages in "Vieni al tempio" that simply got away from her. The top notes were clean but not particularly energetic; the big set pieces never caught fire-- when the audience's attention wanders during "Son vergin vezzosa", something's way wrong.
Much-hyped Stuart Neill (Arturo) seems to be a one-trick pony: his high C-sharp is indeed impressively pingy, but the whole rest of the voice is either uneven or uninteresting. His middle voice is choppy, though he does some nice diminuendos just above the passaggio. Mr. Neill is, frankly, an unattractive stage figure, not only stout but ungraceful as well. The voice of Alistair Miles (Giorgio), while hardly glamorous, is at least technically secure, which puts him in a class above Thomas Hampson. The baritone tired before the end of his first aria, and then never sang in tune again the rest of the night. He could not excite the audience with the presumably sure-fire "Suoni la tromba", lacking even a solid high F. Furthermore, Hampson's stage demeanor was a medley of self-enamored poses that looked carefully practiced at great length before a pier glass-- and he might think about losing the John Travolta blow-dry next time he plays a 17th century Puritan. If he has any sense, he will start looking for a university teaching job: the opera career is over.
The mise-en-scene would look quite charming, if only this performance had taken place in Philadelphia in 1956. I have to take my hat off to Eduardo Muller, who held things together in the pit and in fact produced some lovely, well balanced sounds while following his singers' (especially Ms. Swenson's) sometimes idiosyncratic ideas of rubato.
For my money, the best performer of the night was Charles Anthony (Bruno), who showed a real understanding of Bellini style in his brief opening scene.
And, you know, La Cieca would have been home even earlier, but she stopped in for a moment at Tower Records, and would you believe that in the opera room they were playing Mr. Hampson's Leading Man CD? Oh, La Cieca covered her ears and bugged her eyes and screamed just like Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear!
La Cieca thinks she may apply to the New York Times for a position as a sports reporter. Well, no, La Cieca doesn't know beans about sports, but knowledge of the subject matter seems not be a prerequsite these days at the Newspaper of Record. Witness the ongoing employment there as opera critic of Bernard Holland, a gentleman who knows little about opera, less about operatic style, and nothing at all about voices. And lately he seems to be having trouble stringing a meaningful sentence together.
Recently Mr. Holland "reviewed" the Met's season premiere of Cav/Pag, which is to say he yammered for half the column about the background of the opera in a dumbed-down style that would do no credit to a freshman music-appreciation student:
Cavalleria Rusticana hits like a cyclone. Mascagni's lyrical inspiration never weakens. There are no dead spots, no lulls. "Cav" is one of the few operas that can be criticized as too short. "It never keeps us waiting," the conductor Thomas Beecham once said. "It gets on with it."
Now, even if we overlook the fact that dear Sir Thomas happened to be referring to La boheme with that remark, this paragraph can hardly be mistaken for even the outtakes from such real critics as Andrew Porter or Peter G. Davis.
And what's worse, it's not as if Mr. Holland has 30 or 40 column inches to fill with this chitchat: he leaves himself only a sentence or so to rate each singer's performance. A star mezzo's first attempt at a role central to her fach is summed up thusly: "As Santuzza, Dolora Zajick was loud and oddly impersonal." Yes, that's it, that's the archival record of the response to Zajick's Santuzza. Not a word about the chest voice, the blazing high C at the finale, the somewhat uneasy acting performance-- nothing.
Plus, Holland is often just plain wrong: he refers to Fabio Armiliato's "irrepresible flatness" in the Serenade, when in fact the tenor was singing consistently sharp. But the biggest howler of the day is Holland's unreserved praise of the conducting of Simone Young: he gushes over her "lovely legato blendings" and how "the prominence of winds and brass over strings seemed a conscious and happy emulation of the Italian village band." Look, La Cieca was there, wincing at thehash Ms. Young made of this score, and it seemed obvious to La Cieca (and to the many in the audience who greeted the conductor's curtain call with a deafening round of boos) that Ms.Young shows no aptitude whatever for this repertoire. (IMO, such vigorous booing in itself is news, and should have rated at least a mention in a competent review.)
New York, with its rich and varied musical life, deserves a better first-string critic than a no-lobe like Mr. Holland. How long will take until the Times gets a clue?
|Industry insiders have a new nickname for EMI Classics: