There are two ways, at least, of looking at the kind of ovation that followed Juan Diego Florez's's' first jaunt through "Pour mon ame" in last night's opening of La Fille du Regiment at the whatsitcalled on the Upper West. Well, two ways of looking at the fact that it isn't, these days, atypical. The more cynical is that something in the audience has changed, and we're more likely to yell our fool heads off, the implication being that our standards are wearied and worn away. The other, no more convincing as an absolute, is that the Met has just gotten so consistently wonderful that it's all we can do to keep from leaping off the balconies to land on the stage. You know, in my head, that sounded like an expression of enthusiasm but now's I read it, I guess it's just a symptom of severe depression.
The point, such as it is, is that a number of things inform the newly vociferous audiences--I'm not making this up, right? My memory of performances in the Volpe era is that the reception was rarely so rowdy--for a number of reasons, some of them kind of intangible. Gelb has made a lot of changes, and cumulatively they have made Sybil's Barn a more exciting place to be, have not they?
Two people I spoke with after the performance expressed the same...I think we'd call it a concern. Which is that the rerun of the aria might become a reflex, as it did with "Va, Pensiero" that one season. And indeed, M. Armiliato was doing what in Charades might mean "turn the page back" pretty quickly on the heels of the last "militaire!" Not for nothing, the decibel level of the roar of the crowd did compress what might be considered the requisite wait for an encore; an ovation can surely be sized up by intensity rather than length.
To me, though, it did have the feel of something more set-up than spontaneous, which isn't a terrible thing, and the fact remains it was exciting singing, as was the rest of JDF's Tonio. My reaction may be tempered a little by the fact that, for my groschen, it was almost measurably less exciting than his reading of "Cessa di piu resistere," a year and a half ago. The Fille aria proves only one thing about a singer. The Fille aria, to be a little blasphemous, was delivered just as convincingly by a Met auditioner two years back, one Alek Shrader*. Could he have delivered the rest of the role with such charm, have sung "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" with such finesse? I haven't heard him since, so I can't say. But the aria on its own, well, for me it was a nice trick, and not the real measure of the tenor. I think it was a moment that had to happen--Fille now has baggage, albeit pleasant baggage, and you give it to a tenor with weighty expectations.
Part of what I'm struggling to say, if the point hasn't already been made too much elsewhere, is that Juan Diego Florez isn't The New Pavarotti, nor should we care that he isn't. What's so great about him is his own combination of strengths, not least his presence. The singers we love are the singers we feel we know; seeing them onstage is (in the least creepy-stalkery way) like seeing a friend. Florez, his physical energy, slightly nervous, his gait, his boyish eagerness and warmth, these are a part of why we carry on for him.
An older friend is Natalie Dessay. Well familiar to us, her intensity, her ability to find a dramatically logical physical flourish to go with a vocal one, her sense of fun at curtain calls, her spontanaeity. All on display here, to great effect. What I wasn't expecting was how much freer her voice sounds in this score than in Lucia, though her top isn't available nonstop like water from a tap like it used to be. Some will find her comic sensibility over the top, but it's an opera that begs for it. I think I've never seen anything so funny on an operatic stage as her brief piano solo during "Salut a la France." Also, she wins the Teresa Stratas Prize for being able to sing a high Q while being toted around or doing something that looked like moshing. It's a little bit of a shame that what they're taking out of the crate for her next season is something as dramatically stillborn as Sonnambula but then a Greek lady once made something of it, and wasn't it the Sonnambula scene in which she was so on fire at the Volpe gala?
Felicity Palmer remains a great asset to the company in whatever she does. I'm dying to know if she was singing anything in particular during her most comic moment (a good deal of the humor made use of the piano) or just improvising wildly, and I think she gets a prize as well for accompanying Dessay in the beginning of the trio. Marian Seldes, given sort of odd lines in an updated script, did a lot by means of her inherently expressive bearing.
Now the production I don't know quite what to do with. As you can see, I thought a good deal of it was funny, but there was some amount of WTFery going on, too, some clunky, unamusing staging for the regiment and other groups of chorus/supers, business I'd have to describe with a word like "zany" or some descriptor with a little self-destruct built in like that. The postcards that descend from the flies I find mystifying, and all the undergarments in the first act, cute at first but maybe overused. Overused underwear, great, didn't mean to leave you with quite that image early in the day, but..."Il faut partir," is not a comic number--it should be, while not grand tragedy, sweetly sad, and the audience giggled, as anyone might, when Dessay began it trudging across a stage, trailing a phalanx of soldierly underpants. On the whole it brought me neither delight nor fury, but I did wonder that it had been such a hit in London, unless that was just about the singers themselves, I suppose. The production team recieved a friendly but not raucous ovation, and it seemed about right.
My god, did anyone else notice that the season is drawing to a close?
Next up: maybe a Macbeth with the notably more intriguing cast
*JSU dissents, and I concede that I am at least to an extent making a point. Which is that the requirements of the aria are steep but narrow, and do not engage what I like best about the singer in question, his astonishing florid technique. And for some reason the staccato attack on the first of each pair of c's I find a tiny bit jarring.