Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"I'd say ample for a regiment!"

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.


Anonymous said...

Maury - I think you mean crowd surfing instead of moshing. Moshing is technically the subtle art of hurling your body at others in a large pit.

But thank you for your always insightful and humorous reviews. Any plays in the future after the Met season?

Maury D'annato said...

onkle: no, you're absolutely right; I just thought the sentence was funnier with "mosh." Sometimes I do that. It is a small dishonesty on my part.

I'm glad you liked the reviews. Yes, I should go in for more theater after the season ends. I go so rarely. It's kind of a shame.

Kathy said...


I always enjoy your reviews. And I too wondered about the staccato attack on the Cs - it didn't seem to sound quite right to me. But I don't like the comedies as much as the tragedies, so I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be that way. Glad you mentioned it, because it made me feel I wasn't crazy!

Anonymous said...

Florez encores the aria on the Fille DVD from Genoa, and my impression, possibly mistaken, is that he's been doing so generally in productions of the opera -- so maybe less a question of it becoming a "reflex" than of it having been a foregone conclusion that has not so much to do with the Met per se. And as such, probably thoroughly in keeping with 19th-century performance practice (just as the reprise of "Va Pensiero" itself is traditional [though not dating to the premiere, as is often supposed -- a different, duller chorus was encored in 1842, oddly enough]).

Chip Michael said...

And what's wrong with screaming our heads off after a performance? As a director, I used to tell the cast, "The audience wants to enjoy the show. They don't know what you're going to do (exactly) so act like you meant to do what ever it is you're doing and they'll love you for it."

Now, this isn't quite true. Certainly in productions where we know the piece, there are expectations we have of the performers - but there is still room (or should be) for the performers art to come through.

And, while a performance may not be as good as someone else's performance (thus the reason for critics to determine the quality of one vs another), we, as the audience have paid money to be entertained. IF we feel we have been then we should show our appreciation - and applauding rauchously is fun.

Maury D'annato said...

Kathy, of course it's all a matter of taste, but yeah. I, in turn, am reassured to find someone else doesn't find it ideal--makes me feel less like I'm being needlessly picky.

Maury D'annato said...

anonymous: thanks for that about "Va, Pensiero"--I had no idea it wasn't the chorus originally bis'd. That tradition, too, strikes me as a little...I want to say self-congratulatory. "Here's where we clap until the chorus takes a big visible breath, because that's how it's done, and we know it." But then so much of the act of connoisseurish listenership has a self-congratulatory air, so maybe it's a silly distinction I'm making.

winpal said...

I saw Florez in recital a couple years ago in Berkeley. He sang the Fille aria on the regular program, and then repeated it as a final encore. When ya got it, flaunt it. (As a side note, von Stade was in the audience shouting bravos with everyone else and looked fab.)

Anonymous said...

On 'Va, pensiero," again, see Roger Parker's book 'Leonora's Last Act' - it was "Immenso Jehovah" near the opera's end that was encored (go figure), though once the Risorgimento mythos sprung up around Verdi , "Va, pensiero" became patriotically charged and its tradition as a number that had "always" been encored became fixed.
It reminds of me of rock shows where when the band says "this is our last number" everyone knows they'll be coming back for a several-song encore after a few minutes of clapping, but everyone participates in the fiction all the same.
Frankly I'd like to see a soloist come back encoring an aria from another opera altogether, mess with the integrity of the work on a whole other level and reassert the primacy and authority of singer over composer. Then we might recapture something of the bel canto era that would force us more profoundly to rethink our assumptions.

stewball said...

I suppose Florez could have celebrated his successful traversal of "Pour mon ame" by having a go at "La donna e mobile" and some might have been just delighted. But then I'm imagining what happens when all the co-stars get into the act and the audience is no longer able to proceed with the assumption that a performance of La Fille du Regiment isn't actually going to be a performance of Rigoletto or even Matilda di Shabran by the time of it's conclusion. I guess we've all had dreams that pursue this sort of random trajectory, and we all want to see the opera performances of our dreams, so hey, this turns out to be a fantastic idea. Bravo!

mostly opera... said...

Thanks for an excellent report. I was particularly interested to read what you wrote about JDF, as I saw the HD telecast and found his attack on the high notes (and rhythm) staccatoish - exactly as you stated, something I haven´t read anyone else point out. Furthermore there is a sharp ring to his high notes, at least as they appeared on the HD.

Not that these things really detract from his performance, which I found was wonderful, but good to know that he is not completely above criticism after all :)

Anonymous said...

I think audiences have become more eager to cheer and have standing ovations recently (I can't comment on the Met, but this has been my expirience in England). it feels now that an audience (certainly for opera, but also sometimes for a musical) doesn't feel like it's had a good evening unless there is a standing ovation, with cheering at the end. Almost so that the audience members can go home and say 'it was wonderful, absolutely brillian, there was a standing ovation and everyone was cheering.'
I've been to productions where it was very mediocre and still had a standing ovation!

Anonymous said...

I saw the HD broadcast of Fille this past weekend, and I sympathize with your reflections. While JDF did not do a bis, his performance was so self-conscious of the audience reaction that it did not ever really become part of the story being told. Dessay wins us over by totally immersing herself in her character. JDF seems to want to be himself all the time. Maybe it's not inappropriate for bel canto since is emerged in a time of celebrity. Sigh, I still prefer acting.

Unknown said...

I went Friday night, and my favorite part was Felicity Palmer busting out "Che faro", in the second act. I was laughing so hard at the universe gratifying my Gluckiness. Yes!

An esteemed friend of mine thinks Florez pinches the vowel on the 'mon' too much, and I have to agree, but it's still a glorious thing to hear.