Monday, September 24, 2007

I hardly know 'er more

In the late 1980's the public library in Lexington, Kentucky was beginning to exit the age of the cassette, and among their fairly sparse classical acquisitions was what is cheekily known as Lucia von Lammermoor if you're that kind. It was my first Callas and maybe my first full opera recording, and then I gave it up for a good fifteen years, not the recording but the whole work. Even with Callas, it felt antique in its expression, like a music box. I gave it up so completely, in fact, that a few weeks ago not only did I find I didn't own a recording, up on which to bone, but...well, I was the fellow standing in the corner of Academy, hoping they didn't have a no-cell-phone rule, muttering at anyone who would pick up, "can you google, uh...try this string: callas, lucia, sextet, encore." Because as it happens, there's a Karajan/Callas/di Stefano from La Scala, so how was I to know? Well, I got the right one, with a little help from my friends. What I didn't remember, actually, is that di Stefano gets a notably warmer hand from the folks in Berlin than Callas. But that's neither here, nor there, nor any of several other places.

It turned out I did remember Lucia pretty damn well. When it's the first opera you practically lock yourself in the bathroom with, it's not recording over anything else. And, as I know I'm in favor of performance cuts, right? Even pretty brutal ones. I can't imagine any reason at all to listen to every fucking bar of La Vestale, you know?* I read in the program this evening that Melba pulled the world's most hilariously get-a-load-of-me diva trick and had them lop off everything after the mad scene of Lucia, but I think she started from the wrong end.

The first act of Lucia is approximately as dramatic as clipping your nails. You'll never hear Normanno over the choir, the fountain scene is like an Anna Russell skit making fun of what bel canto operas are like, and okay, it's probably just me, but "veranno a te" has always seemed ideally suited to olympic skating. I feel like the only way to stage it that would be in tune with the hokiness of absolutely everything going on would be for the tenor and the soprano to stand side by side, swaying, and encouraging the audience to follow suit. It's just pure banality. Mary Zimmerman didn't find any way around it, although the dramatic highlight of the act had either to do with Mary Zimmerman flopping a pixieish French voodoo doll around backstage somewhere or an unknown plotline in which Lucia comes up against the dreaded invisible Scottish banana peel of County Clare or wherever the hell Lammermoor is.**

If you were listening to the broadcast and heard excessive audience response to Regnava/Quando rapito, which frankly were good but not star material, sort of Dessay set on "stun", it's because she took a dramatic tumble right in the middle and DIDN'T MISS A SINGLE NOTE. The thing she did miss, it must be said (now that other reviewers have reminded me of it) were the trills. They made an appearance later on, but in this act, I guess they were still in storage.

I think we should talk about Mary Zimmerman for a minute. I mean should we? Nevermind, I forgot I can't hear you. Yes, rumor had it that she and My New Best Friend Natalie Dessay (henceforth: MNBFND) were not sitting up nights braiding each other's hair and talking about boys. I shall never know, as I'm not exactly a lightning rod for gossip. But it does make you wonder: I've heard stories of theater directors showing up for an opera not knowing any of what we ex-linguists call "the target language" at all, and I've heard one particularly alarming tale of a director saying "wait, there's music here but nothing's happening. What's everyone supposed to do?" (At which point the very ground opened up and the earth spake thusly, saying: that's what YOU'RE supposed to figure out.) Like, when your tenor is killing himself and the chorus is singing "Wait. Don't." There has to be SOME reason they're not stopping him unless the revisionist backstory here is that they never liked him that much anyway. See also: when everyone is sitting, waiting for the bride, they should not move in perfect unison like a school of fish when glancing around to see if she's there yet.

I think some of that may have been going on. This was not a bad production, but it didn't make much of a case for replacing the old one. A few touches I liked a lot included one that could have gone horribly wrong: during the sextet, a photographer was grouping everyone but Enrico the Drama Llama (nay, Enrico the Drama Dalai Llama) together for a supremely uncomfortable photograph, complete with flash at the end, so it's a good thing there wasn't an encore this time, though I'd have been all for one. Right, photo. Did I mention the update? I guess the thing going on was kind of Wilkie Colins illustrated by Edward Gorey? There was also some need to literalize the ghost story parts, which I found questionably effective. The other big problem was the use of drops with big holes in them to make two sets out of one. In one of those fickle realism/not-so-realism moments, for me it was the gigantic, scenic version of a plastic pair of glasses with nose and fluffy moustache. Lighting choices were occasionally perverse, as the apparent sunrise followed immediately by rising chandeliers. On the whole there was nothing startling, nothing to boo the production team about.

But, hey, it's all about the mad scene, a bewitching piece of stagecraft all around, and a musical home run, wherein the baseball player in my metaphor then takes a taxi over to a basketball court to sink an equally metaphorical slam dunk. Yes, you get a certain amount of love from the assembled public if you hit all the notes, but it's not by any means an automatic triumph. I once heard the lovely Ruth Ann Swenson sing the thing as if it were the theme song from "Barney." You can put what you want into it, and that includes not only tonally radiant dullery and riveting word painting, but also many combinations of these and any degree of physical acting. It has been lamented in some parts that the Met is heading in the direction of singers who act with their faces but not their voices, and not without reason. Dessay is simply not implicated in this scheme. She's in for a penny; in for a pound.

One had worried about Natalie Dessay. Reports of nodes. Questions about the workability of a shift into solid lyric terrain. If there's anything going wrong now, I can't tell you what it is. I used to find the color of her voice a little acrid when it hit the heights, but what she's doing now is working. The florid facility is still there, the acuti are neither clipped nor taut, and she's comfortable enough doing all of it that she can lend a wonderful improvisational flavor to her ornaments, if they are not in fact improvised, which I don't know. Several of them were certainly not standard. And she walks like she's losing her mind, and though the palette is still not as prodigious as that of the ever-looming Greek shadow, she is able to play a kind of more frenzied neurasthenia to such a pitch as to really impart that thing we hope for: a sense of risk.

No, I'm not actually going to tell you much about the other singers, because I just wasn't as tuned in to them, and that's certainly not their fault. My general impression is that Kwiecien and Relyea gave their all, which is plenty, and though I'd rather hear Giordani in something more dramatic where the sweetness of tone is not missed, he sang with great style and sometimes with lyricisim. A heads up: you might want to catch the performance in which Stephen Costello graduates from...Shemp, or whatever the character's named, to Enrico, because I think in a year or two you may have trouble getting tickets to hear him. This is just a hunch still, based on not that much, but I will tell you the boy isn't even my type so I'm at least not listening with the ears in my pants.

I posted recently about the lack of long ovations. The ovation after the mad scene was long and lusty. The one at the end of the show, so protracted as to be awkward when the lights were already long up. Dessay was hilarious, making fun of her fall, and waving a lot and, well, not so much clapping for Mary Zimmerman, what do cats say in French, miau? And they did the ritual of trotting them all out onto the balcony for the crowd in the Plaza to yell their fool heads off, and when they came back in we yelled some more from the staircases.

A couple of gents carried on the wear-kimonos-to-Butterfly tradition with their kilts, which means I'm going to start a furious campaign to have a season opener of Porgy & Bess one of these seasons just so I can see 90 year old ladies from the Upper East Side in blackface. Renee Fleming and Nathan Gunn will star, with Anna Netrebko as Clara. Ok, it is officially time for me to shut the hell up. [Which I did, kind of, and then posted more in the morning, and then got edit-happy, and my god, if you have this on any kind of feed, you will have received like ten versions of this. Sorry!]

I suppose I didn't really comment on the overall quality of the thing here, spent my time on the trees and neglected the forest. The thing is, I'm really not kidding about cuts, though I suppose I'm, yeah, kidding about cutting all of Act I. But I have older performances in my head, before Bonynge started bobbing for eighth notes in dark cupboards in Italy, bringing home semiquavers for Joanie. And I just think sometimes (as in the end of "Quando rapito") it doesn't make for any great musical truth to restore every last trip through the key signature, and in cases like the Wolf's Glen scene, it is really worth asking why it was so often cut. Here the answer is: it ruins the dramatic pacing. Maury's Law of Editing states that completeness is not the same thing as perfection. There's something extremely satisfying about the arc of superficial cheerfulness-extreme awkwardness-high drama-terror that then sends us out the door with (ideally) the pathos of the tenor's double-header, pace Madame Melba.

Just the same, thanks to Local Hero Levine and yes, also to Mary Zimmerman no doubt, everything after the maybe unavoidably draggy first act (ok, for me, everything except for the Wolf's Glen scene, honestly) was in gear. The second act in particular was transporting, producing near the end that feeling of small-scale cardiac arrest. If I never got that feeling, I'd stop going to the opera. Some have complained of Levine's temperamental disconnect with Donizetti, but I'd have to disagree strongly. I'm as much surprised as pleased to welcome Donizetti With A Pulse from the baton of our hometown Wagnerian.

Last thought: Dessay's post-crackup exit was staged in such a way (and of course I don't know if this was the intended effect) as to milk longer response from the audience, which it certainly did--longer and louder, I can report, having found myself seated in front of that well known purveyor of "private recordings" whose "bravo" is the loudest in the spectator biz.

*sorry, Straussmonster

**I hope it's Scottish and not Irish. Listen, all my life people from the northeast asked if I was from Tennessee and people from the south asked if I was from Connecticut. Don't start with me. p.s. Lammermoor doesn't seem to exist.

Oh wait. I'm not done. You'll be wanting to know what famous people I saw, right?! Well, I almost walked into the ravishing Mary Louise Parker, one of those people who actually is even prettier than you think she is from tv. Um, and there was some gal in an orange frock, and I had a conversation in Spanish with this guy with a camera to try and figure out who she was, and my Spanish being what it was, if this happened in English it would be like

Me: Lady in dress who is?
El dude: blrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmovierrrrrrrrrr
Me: (to his girlfriend) I say, dress in lady who is? Is orange, dress is.
La chick: blrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrLeonardo di Capriorrrrrrrrrr

Spanish. It's fast. I guess she was in a movie with Leonardo di Caprio. Or she's his mom, and the guy just likes talking about movies.

Who else...Bob Balaban....some lady in an ornate dress with red hair I decided was Tina Louise, but ok maybe not...Marilyn Horne, who went up and spoke to the MC beforehand and then must have been quite surprised to hear same MC two minutes later say to Trebs (who looked great) "Oh, you're the first opera singer that's come up to talk to us."

Here for pics of the plaza crowd. Here for a somewhat less than impressed review. Here the always worth reading Mr. Bernheimer finds the cast making up for the production, and also waxing enthusiastic about the young Mr. Costello. I'll stop updating the links now.

Ok, seriously. Good night, opera folks.


Anonymous said...

Interesting and amusing as always, but I think you've confused Edgardo (the tenor) with Enrico (the baritone).

Maury D'annato said...

Oh dear me. You're right, of course. And Ezio (the butler) and Elfriede (the neighbor, who is secretly a Valkyrie) and Erica, who got tired of waiting for Anatol and took a Scottish vacation. I confuse them all. Semper Maury, Semper muddled.

Chalkenteros said...

I caught the Sirius broadcast and was watching the stop-action animation webcam of the jumbotron in Times Square. MNBFND seemed resplendent.

Upper East Side dames in blackface ... hmm.

Ya can't beat that. But the plastic-surgically-stretched queens in Chinese silk blouses at First Emperor last season came pretty close.

jondrytay said...

Yep, County Clare's in Ireland.

Midlothian is where you want to be heading for yer Walter Scott. But, as you say, there's no such place as Lammermoor so it's moot at best.

Maury D'annato said...

Chalkz: maybe if Nixon in China ever shows up on the west side of the Plaza, all the wealthy patrons and patronesses will come dressed up as republicans. Oh, wait...