Tuesday, December 14, 2004

More shirtless emperors

Rodelinda may be the Met's event of the season despite everything. This Handel opera makes its house debut, and is revealed by a handsome new production and Harry Bicket's excellent conducting as a musical and dramatic masterpiece: a landmark, of course. The press sure thought so. And what a pleasure most of it was! Except...

Is it too much to believe one's own ears, and make the childishly simple observation that the "countertenor" voice is, by nature, monochrome? The peculiar falsetto technique now (contra this month's Playbill apologia, the modern crop shares little with Russell Oberlin's naturally high instrument) in vogue has yet to produce a voice with tonal variety or depth -- like, oh, Stephanie Blythe's. (She was in wonderful form, as impressive again now as when she stole the show as Orsini.) Perhaps that's why Handel -- despite their availability -- never used non-castrated male alto/sopranos in his operas, preferring women en travesti and tenors as castrato substitutes. It's been noted before, of course, and at length. But now, five+ years on, the taste-makers have lined up behind the innovation.

Stepping back a bit, it seems to me this is one of the less happy manifestations of the gay pride movement. How else can one explain the career of male lead David Daniels, who's brought this voice type to critical respectability and more? For of course a one-trick sound may still have a pleasant trick, as indeed Bejun Mehta's is (though it wore on my ear by the last act). But the Daniels voice is thin stuff. It is flexible, and he phrases energetically, but so do hundreds if not thousands of mezzos who can't dream of singing at the Met, much less receiving the lion's share of applause and adulation in a major production there. Daniels has virtues. He is approachably handsome, and looks good in stubble. He is an enthusiast for the art, and is versed in opera lore and history. And he is openly gay. This all makes him the vehicle for all sorts of audience needs and desires -- that is, a star! -- but really, one might say as much for Andrea Bocelli. How unfortunate that the latter handsome well-stubbled student of the art connects to heterosexual middle-aged women and not gay men! He makes more money, but is denied prestige engagements and reputation.

There is neither bad faith nor conspiracy, just intoxication for this avatar of a new virility (otherwise a strange description of Daniels' punchless instrument, which anyway sits too high for the Senesino parts he sings). We see it in the sillier bits of Stephen Wadsworth's generally commendable production: an overtly phallic memorial obelisk, oddly swishy mannerisms for Mehta's character, and an obligatory shirt removal for each countertenor. Those amount to little, but the casting of Daniels is something else. Especially while we're living in a golden age of mezzos. Are we to drop real voices from these roles because they don't look as suitable bare-chested? Opera fans tend to be aghast at such developments. And yet...

The faults of Renee Fleming, on the other hand, aren't systemic. The title role doesn't play to its strengths (too little use of her glorious top; the rest too often sounded constricted, particularly in fioratura), but hers is obviously a first-class instrument. When she skates by too much on this natural endowment, it's in a time-honored tradition of "stimm" divas. The published raves seem a bit much, but did the audience, even the droves who left early (10:30) at the second intermission, get from her what was advertised? More or less. I'm not sure one can say the same wrt Daniels.

Lost and (judging from applause) underappreciated among these reputations was the tenor Kobie van Rensburg, making his debut run at this house. He had a healthy natural sound, fluent coloratura technique, and handled the wide-ranging drama of the part very well. A nice change from the wooly or ugly-but-interesting singers too often heard in his fach. He, with the aforementioned Blythe and the always-reliable John Relyea, provided a core of excellent singing that sustained this event.

In fact everyone but the two "stars" acquitted themselves well here. But even their failure doesn't wholly mar Handel's genius, not with the excellent production and conducting the Met provides to frame this work. And if therefore this is still the event of the season to date, perhaps a kind thought is in order for hype and reputations, however acquired. Would we have gotten the hundreds-of-years-belated debut of this masterpiece without them?

Still, for a revival... Oops, more countertenors. Ah well. I'd love to see Kasarova as Bertarido, if they could get her to appear without cancelling. On a stage, she's twice the man Daniels is (sometimes unfortunately).


  1. I do recall Sarah Bryan Miller saying virtually the same thing and getting bitched out royally by a certain set.

  2. You're right -- but even she gave Daniels a free pass, though he may actually be the worst offender... Anyway, that 2000 article seems to be the last time anyone aired out the whole issue, though Miller does still let it out between the lines.

  3. I've noticed that the links in my original comment are now broken. The first one is supposed to go here, while the second one appears to have disappeared from the net.

  4. I agree about Daniels; his timbre is pallid and monotonous (and he uses WAY too much vibrato). But there are some good male altos and sopranos out there whose sound is unique to them, not an imitation of the female sound. I think Mehta sang the heck out of Ottone (in the recording I heard of it), and surely resembled no other vocal type but his own. Jaroussky traffics in questionable material but at times can be stunning, and, again, in a unique way.

    Whether these men are putting the admittedly grand array of mezzos out of work is another question — one I think best answered by the mezzos involved (the politics of the music business are way too murky for my eyes to pry into).

    As a lifelong performer of music I can only say that things are always changing stylistically. There was the big Baroque revolution of the 60s, the ongoing wedding of the medieval music scene with traditional, or "folk," musics, and now (among other things) the arrival of this raft of male altos and sopranos. YOu roll with it.

    As is usual with any innovation there are some good and some bad things about it. But I don't think it's just here because of the gay pride movement — or if it has been facilitated by that, it's a wrinkle I can accept.

    The music isn't going to die; the mezzos aren't going to starve; and stuff just goes along like it always has and will. If you're a player you adapt. If you can't stand Bejun Mehta surely there are recordings and/or performances featuring females in his roles for you to savor. I don't think Daniels is going to make the cut in terms of posterity. Jaroussky on the other hand brings tremendous musicality to his work, and Mehta brings enormous theatricality at least (useful in Handel!). And both have unique voices — the criterion I would cite above any other.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.