Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hooker with a Voice of...well, you know

You know, it's a little difficult to get up the steam to write an opera review when this guy, by contrast, has used his blog to do a real and substantial service.

But I'm gonna anyway. You knew that.

All else aside, it's Traviata, probably the first opera I ever loved. If you'll pardon me while I vaseline the lens a little, Papa D'Annato used to load us in the jalopy and take us to Cincinnati Opera and I remember thinking during Manon Lescaut, at age 12 or something: please, please, please die already. That was what my reviews would have sounded like back then, yup. If we'd had blogs. "Um, so like this lady? She wouldn't stop singing?" etc. And then a few years later we went to Traviata, and it became immediately clear I would never, ever like football. One day I'll indulge my nostalgia and figure out if anyone in that cast was someone I heard later.

So the thing about an opera that plays that kind of role in your life is there's a good chance you'll listen to it way too much and not be able to hear it anymore, which is pretty precisely what I did. I'm always tempted to lunge for my undergraduate understanding of critical theory in discussing this because famed Russian mieskeit Roman Jakobson and his Ikettes, the Formalists, described this all very well: things become routinized, and good art must shock us out of our perceptual habits. I do think parts of La Traviata are lost to me forever. I can judge a good "Sempre Libera" but never again will it totally grab me by the balls, right?

Not entirely right.

I'm not about to crown Angela Gheorghiu the queen of the lyric stage, because that would be corny and premature. I will say, though, that I was very taken with her performance and at times very much moved, and there's not a long list of singers that really move me, whatever their other merits. See, Gheorghiu kind of does the Callas thing. Not a tic-by-tic phonetic masquerade ecole de Tiziana Fabbricini or Lucia Aliberti. Rather she has what I'm just going to go ahead and call a marvellous kind of negative capability. She doesn't flail about after gestures. She just has a good old school knack for physical and vocal melodrama. I never believed the stuff about Callas being Callas because she studied the scores word by word--singing is not geometry and critical intelligence is very, but very different from creative intelligence. What it means to be a creature of the stage is, for instance, to know as Gheorghiu does (instinctively, I suspect) when to slow your movements down and when to speed them up.

This is why, when she started condensing her gestures and walking so slowly as to fit in to a Robert Wilson production, it really launched her "Amami Alfredo" straight into my heart, or my gut, or somewhere signifying a happy reception of good singing. This and the fact that it was luscious. It should be mentioned, by the way, that some of us had misgivings at the beginning of the opera that her Violetta was going to be undervoiced. The first few minutes were remarkably quiet. In the final analysis, nobody would complain if the voice were a size larger, but I do tend to think kvetching about the size of voices is about half the time the last refuge of he who has nothing else to say.

A few weeks ago in this space I whined most gratingly about how the Met puts on Lucia but never Bolena or the other, far more enjoyable Donizetti. I didn't have any definite idea at the time about who should sing them, but now I do. It occurs to me that Gheorghiu put "Al dolce guidami" on her early recital album, the same one where you can hear her and Mr. Gheorghiu do a delightfully dreadful "Tonight!" from West Side Story. I liked it at the time and, lack of notes above C notwithstanding, I'd like to take my turn in the great tradition of Bloggers Futilely Adressing the Universe about Casting. Gheorghiu=Bolena.

Act III was dramatically dead on (except for maybe the "You can hear me but nobody else can!" spotlight...and come to think of it the entire physical production, not least the Dancing Cow Convention. That the headliners overcame this is much to their credit. Yes, I'm going to extend this parenthesis as long as I damn well please, and while I'm on the staging, is clapping-for-the-furniture making a slightly unwelcome comeback? I've heard it said that when the new house opened, people clapped for the chandeliers as they made their 7:59 ascent. We all like clapping, but let's be reasonable.) and the letter and [spoiler alert!!] death scene were riveting. And occasioned a stomping ovation which for some reason they quashed early on by means of the house lights.

Speaking of absolutely nothing, I swear there's a riff at the beginning of Act III that Philip Glass quotes in Koyanisqaatsi. I'm high, right?

Kaufman's success and equally enthusiastic reception was not a surprise to me. You know how a bunch of us heard Sondra Radvanovsky backstage singing The High and Highly Repetetive Priestess in Aida in what must have been 1998 and knew she was eventually going to knock everyone else aside for the spotlight? I think I had this same thing happen at the famously uneven Heppner Otellos in Chicago, thinking: who's that Cassio, and why on earth is he Cassio? It's a shock, but the good kind, to hear a voice with such a low center of gravity in this role. I find food metaphors irritating but red meat does kind of irresistibly spring to mind. And no, the C in the cabaletta didn't quite plug in, but my reaction a lot of the rest of the time was what a lot of you, apparently, experienced hearing Filianoti. That is to say gratitude that someone was making the right sounds and vocal gestures. I'm guessing Susan Graham was feeling some gratitude of her own, if she happened to take in any of these Traviatas, since Mr. Kaufmann has kindly displaced her in this season's Worst Wig competition. (Ms. G's wigs were much better, though I'll have to admit the act II one made me think of Alanis Morisette*. It's possible she'd look good in any wig. Not to belabor the obvious and much noted, but girlfriend is a knockout.)

ETA: an anonymous reader informs me that those ain't wigs. The problem with posting in a public forum is being publicly wrong. Anyway I'm hoping the Alfredo do is a styling choice by someone at the Met, because he does not need to be walking around the streets with that hair.

Anthony Michaels-Moore sang with admirable conviction, though if I had a magic wand he probably would have traded roles with John Hancock. Who may actually be younger than Gheorghiu but is also perhaps literally seven feet tall, so I think we can all feel comfortable calling him daddy.** Gallons of voice, from what I can tell having heard him in a couple of thankless roles. Germont's aria is another thing I've listened into a flavorless pulp, and even sung in the shower much to the horror of my soap I can only assume. It's almost an argument against listening to the likes of Tibbett, because I sort of casually assume nobody's going to do that ever again, which is not something a fair or sane person would hold against today's Germonts. But there it is, nonetheless, this little nagging voice in the mind's ear, and the sometimes clunky way Michaels-Moore's voice gets from one note to another did nothing to appease it, though I must reiterate that the role assumption was on balance a success.

You'll hear it Saturday, nu, and you'll tell me if I'm wrong.

*A year and a half later I removed the link to this picture where Alanis looks exactly like A.G. I kept getting hits from it and thinking "these people don't want to see my opera blog."

**It's moments like these when one is grateful there is little danger of the subject reading the review. To wit, statements of distaste or, well, compliments nobody's going to put in their press materials. "Maury D'Annato of blogspot.com says, 'this is one tenor I'd like to roll around in a vat of passionfruit Jello with, and his use of voix mixe is also tastefully stylistic.'"

p.s. as noted by Alex there does seem to be a February slump going around, as if there were some transcendental blog oversoul. Why we're all having crises of purpose at the same time is anyone's guess.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

FYI... neither Kaufmann or Gheorghiu wear wigs.

Maury D'annato said...

Huh. Aright. Correction impending.

Henry Holland said...

I sort of casually assume nobody's going to do that ever again, which is not something a fair or sane person would hold against today's Germonts. But there it is, nonetheless, this little nagging voice in the mind's ear

Ah, I know that feeling when I listen to Elektra: Birgit simply *IS* Elektra and try as I might, I simply can't erase her studio performance from my memory when hearing another soprano do it. Though, Gwyneth Jones in San Francisco in the early 90's (with, I think, Voigt and James King, C. Thielemann conducting) came close. Ms. Jones was famously inconsistent but she was ON that night.

Allegra said...

"Maury D'Annato of blogspot.com says, 'this is one tenor I'd like to roll around in a vat of passionfruit Jello with, and his use of voix mixe is also tastefully stylistic.'"

That totally made me laugh out loud. That's a review I'd love to get just for the freaking hell of it.

Clayton said...

Regarding overlistening to a first favorite opera: A Russophile here, I practically did that with Prince Igor. I went to three performances of it during a college semester in Moscow (with Nesterenko as Igor in one performance); saw another performance at the Kirov on the way out of the country. 25 years later, I have most or all of the recordings available. I could still stand to see a good American production of Igor. Now, I'm finally coming around to Verdi. Though I'd heard it before, Traviata finally made a big impression on me here in Baltimore in a production conducted by NYCO's Julius Rudel last year.

Anonymous said...

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