Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Lepidoptery for fun and profit

Sorry for the delay. I like to imagine y'all were sitting around humming while you waited.

There's a moment I'd always like to judge a singer or even a whole production of Butterfly by, that being the lady in question's outburst of "E questo!" in the middle of Act II. Unfortunately I cannot. For a moment, I am always derailed, and it would be like trying to review a storm at sea. (Points deducted here for mixed metaphors of travel, but onward...) Fortunately, thereafter, the thing returns to paint-by-numbers pathos, and as for the rest of this most popular, most awful wallow, I'm pleased to report that it is in every way improved from the last time you saw it.

The things that were iffy still are iffy. I'm not cheating by going back to look and see how I felt about the puppet last time, but for all the marvel of watching really intricate stagecraft, I now bang my operatic gavel and rule that it is too unintentionally Brechtian and dulls, for instance, the death of Butterfly, a moment so precariously balanced between heartache and melodrama to begin with that you want all the other factors exactly right. Oh and if you had any kind of ambivalence about the puppet ballet that begins the last...scene, I guess (The Metropolitan Opera: Now Serving Drinks Between Arias!) I'd suggest the back seat in a balcony box, whence you simply can't see it.

Anyway the main point is of course that Patricia Racette is done being Lucine Amara if she wants to be and should agitate for an opening night, having shown them last night what Butterfly without compromise is like. Oh, um, fasten your seatbelts. Epic digression ahead. There's this book about the history of Yiddish called Kvetch, and even though I totally only read two chapters of it, it's really interesting. It starts out with a Yiddish joke (formerly known as Jewish joke) where this old Yid is in a train compartment, presumably in Russia, and he keeps muttering "Oy, am I thirsty....oy am I thirsty," ceaselessly, into the night. Finally the other fellow in the compartment has had it and goes and gets the alte kaker a glass of tea. He chugs it [I bet Yiddish has a great verb for "to chug." Yiddish is handy with stuff like that] and a moment later begins muttering "Oy, was I thirty....oy, was I thirsty...."

The book then theoretizes the joke in a way I don't entirely follow, but my understanding of it is: if you relish things, truly, you relish complaint, and if you relish them almost to the point of insanity, then complaint even in retrospect becomes a sport, an art. I bring it up because I don't want to jump right back into slapping Gallardo-Domas around, great as the temptation is. It's being done elsewhere, if you're in a spectator mood. So I'd like to compare the two geishas, hey, two geishas walk into a bar, isn't there some kind of joke in there?, by way of praising Racette, and the CGD-bashing that may occur is an unavoidable by-product.

The first thing of course is that PR's top is healthy, full, and in tune. Maybe the soprano-killer last note of The Big One was clipped off a moment early [oh god, the temptation to lapse into wretched Orientalist imagery, clipped off like a chrysanthemum not fully....blegh, nevermind] but it was dead centered on the pitch, had spin and throb, and filled the house like a trillion, uh, marshmallows. Fine, a trillion jasmine flowers, whatever. There's one odd thing, cognitively, which is that while Racette's voice is robust everywhere it needs to be, the basic sound is not spinto in the least, but then neither was Toti dal Monte's and it didn't hurt her any. Apparently the point is that there's more than one kind of Butterfly, and though it's fun to dream about one in the Tebaldi mode, Racette's is something different and equally worth having. The high-and-soft stuff probably comes from what the wags, ages ago, termed "the fake place," but it's killingly effective.

At a moment I've had to rely on others to identify for me as the utterance "ei torna e m'ama" so refulgent was Racette's tone in its own way, and so wrenching, in that moment, her connection to note and text, that a Monday night audience broke into fairly persistent mid-act applause. This was a highlight, but her ability to blur the line between singer and character was admirable throughout. I get the feeling from interviews the lady is a no nonsense sort, and Butterfly is one of opera's most enthusiastically foot-seeking doormats, so it's interesting to wonder about the process by which the singer finds her Jungian shadow. [Yeah, Jung is the least interesting and most gratingly coopted face of psychoanalysis but I couldn't think of a better way to say it.]

Alagna for Giordani feels like more of an even trade-off, though given the choice, I'd rather hear Alagna. Some heft is sacrificed, though he phrases as if he had the spinto goods, if that makes any sense, leans into the notes as if they were about to knock you out, and they never do 100%. It's fine, though. His voice is obviously younger and less toughened than his predecessor's, and they share a sauvity onstage that lends some kind of complexity to one's internal fantasy of breaking him in forty pieces for being the foot that seeks the mat. Even if he does remind me in an itchy way of Kevin Kline. I thought "Addio, fiorito asil" might get some more of that applause that ignores the lack of a musical platform, but it didn't. I suppose we're lucky he didn't storm off, ha ha. The reception at curtain calls was very warm, and deservedly so. The one real problem was his tendency to play tug-of-war with the conductor, especially in the first act.

Maria Zifchak continues to make improbably much of a truly thankless role and continues to get a roaring reception for doing so. Luca Salsi brings gallons more voice to Sharpless than Croft before him, though in the conversation with Butterfly where the humming chorus music starts up in the background, the opera's other heartbreaking moment for me, I remember a marvellous ability to convey guilt and regret through body language in Croft that wasn't really there for Salsi. I meant to tell you that I got a good read on the voice of Mr. X who sang Yamadori but it's going to have to be a later edit because my program's at home.

I do think I'm done with Butterfly for a little while, unless Mortier gets someone to stage a radical feminist reading across the plaza wherein "Butterfly! Butterfly!" is the death cry of Pinkerton upon being stabbed by a geisha who changed her mind about who in this picture needed a good knifing.

Next up: the one with the girl and the guy and their parents getting all uptight and the poison.


Anonymous said...

I grew up knowing the yiddish word LUP-CHUH to be as close to CHUG as any other . Typical Usage "Look how fast he can lupchuh that whole bottle of soda"

Hope that helps

Maury D'annato said...

anonymous: my hero! Always looking to inflate my cache of Yiddishisms.

Anonymous said...

David Won sang Yamadori, or at least he did at the dress rehearsal.

Chalkenteros said...

That radical feminist reading sounds brilliant ... ya think it's been done before? Call Mortier!

really, though -- how can one be "done" with Butterfly?! Pshaw, Maury.

Maury D'annato said...

Chalkito: we likes what we likes, y'know? It's just never been my fave...

La Cowntessa said...

Can I just gripe, nay, kvetch about the "fake place" thing for a second?

There is no such thing.


There are two ways in which a soprano can achieve a quiet high note, and only one way in which it'll be heard in a large house.

The first way is basically singing off the voice. Not particularly healthy, but not horrible either. It won't be heard in a house that seats more than a handful, either.

The other way, the correct way, and what Leontyne Price, et al, did, is just flip to pure head voice. And it'll be beautiful and tiny, and it'll be HEARD, and it is NOT in any way, shape or form, "bad" singing. In fact, it's the only way to do it that's healthy for your cords and larynx.

A normal high note for a soprano is a mix of headvoice (for color, warmth, spin) and chest voice (for projection, loudness, cut). Done healthily, it doesn't pose a vocal problem. But doing it many, many times throughout an opera is very fatiguing, and fatigue is the arch-enemy of the singer, because physical problems start to happen when you get exhausted and are still singing.

Singing in headvoice, however, requires minimal effort, and is a way to reset the larynx, give it a break, etc. So, in a way, using the pure heady sound for your quieter notes is "smart" singing. And it'll make the big, loud notes all the more satisfying because they're fresher.

So there.

(Sorry, pet peeve issue that irritates me every time someone talks about the "fake place" like it's some sort of evil that soprani are visiting upon them.)

Maury D'annato said...

Anonsopran, no need to apologize. I'm glad of the explanation. I was never sure what made it "fake."

Lisa Hirsch said...

You just persuaded me to catch Racette's Butterfly in SF in a couple of months. Well, okay, I was planning to go anyway. Maybe I'll buy a ticket.

About voice size/type: you're telling me various people on opera-l are even now talking about Tebaldi's Cio-Cio-San?

Albanese, who didn't have a monster-sized voice, was a great Butterfly, I'm told, though I've never run down the broadcast.