Friday, May 22, 2009

The elixir

L'elisir d'amore -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/22/09
Calleja, Cabell, Vassallo, Alaimo, Huang / Benini

From one perspective -- that of much, I believe, of the audience -- this performance a month ago was a revelation, the discovery or confirmation of a major tenor voice of boundless sonic and musical potential. From another, it was something of a disappointment for being no more than that.

Soprano Nicole Cabell was the 2005 Cardiff winner, but her performance as Adina was not much encouragement for her having the eventual superstar success of Karita Mattila (whose inaugural win way back in 1983 has done much to legitimate the competition), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1993), or -- soon -- Anja Harteros (1999). Pitch issues took a while to settle down and her basic sound I found, frankly, unnaturally darkened and a bit grating, but most alarming was her general unwillingness to engage with the role.

Adina does not take an intense, technically sophisticated singing actress like Angela Gheorghiu (Cabell's immediate predecessor in the revival) to do justice -- though Gheorgiu has done great things in the role. Like other classic "-ina" parts (e.g. Zerlina, Rosina, Norina -- but not Amina, heroine of the big rustic hit of the year before Elisir's premiere), she's a fairly straightforward coquette, blessed with enough charm to risk abusing its power. But that doesn't make her one-dimensional: the whole interest of the coquette character is in the interplay of the true and the mannered, and Donizetti and Romani have left a soprano plenty to work off for both. (In fact, the whole story is of two suitors, each embodying one side of the duality within Adina. She is forced to choose and discovers, perhaps to her surprise, that she prefers true feeling.) But each singer must still use what they've given her.

Take, for example, the play-within-the-play: the little wedding-drama at the beginning of Act II. Adina and Dulcamara enact a little tale of a virtuous gondolier girl rejecting the advances of an old lech in favor of her poor lover, but it's in the form of a humorously regular barcarolle -- and sung at her own unserious wedding! In the right hands (and Ruth Ann Swenson was terrific here) this is a truly delectable segment, my favorite comic bit of the opera, but it goes for nothing here. Cabell's Adina just seems bored and detached, Cabell herself fails to savor the vocal opportunity, and -- well, Dulcamara can't carry the duet by himself.

Nor can Nemorino carry the entire show, though Joseph Calleja gave it a good shot. I've written much about him before, and I won't try to describe his instrument yet another time. Enough to say that on the night it sounded like the unquestionably significant thing it is. His generally grand and ardent lines were a bit clipped by coordination hiccups (in this regard the show sounded like what it was: Calleja's first and only time in this production, probably with minimal rehearsal) and a certain restlessness that's appeared in his singing this season, breaking the old-style, nearly-decadent composure and firmness of underlying time that he's shown before (most recently in Macbeth). Whether the latter is a phase in his singing or just some difference of conductors, I'm not sure. Still, a remarkable display.

There is very little clowning in Calleja's stage persona, nor much of the raw everyman appeal of a Pavarotti. But he still made Nemorino work, not so much as a good-hearted village idiot but one too earnest and naive for plain success at love, both hapless and dignified at once.

The tenor role is known for the one big concluding aria, but Nemorino is onstage for much of the opera, with quite a lot to sing. This is fortunate, because the rest of the cast (including, as mentioned, Cabell) didn't inspire: Simone Alaimo's Dulcamara was, I thought, its only other commendable part. Franco Vassallo has all the strutting mannerisms of a great Belcore and none of the vocal or personal impact. His Sergeant thus seemed more of a buffoon than Nemorino, spoiling the balance of the story. Ying Huang, the over-elaborating backup Amor in Orfeo, was reasonably charming in her tiny part as the head of the village girl chorus: switching her with Cabell might not have been a bad idea. Conductor Maurizio Benini did decently, allowing the Met orchestra players to phrase with their usual feeling in the two great closing arias.

If you missed it, Hoffmann isn't so far off.


  1. Cabell fan-
    It's too bad bloggers continue to review these shows, with no real credit to their journalism credentials. What of the people who loved Cabell's performance? There were many! I was there. She was very charming and had a beautiful voice. But, bloggers are entitled to their own opinion, which is the reason blogs were invented, weren't they? It's disappointing if they're taken seriously, and I encourage anyone who reads these reviews to research the artists and find the real reviews, which are often much more objective and professional. I doubt Miss Cabell's career is hurting from your review.

  2. "switching (ying huang) with cabell might not have been a bad idea"

    Careful. You're showing your ignorance. You should study opera and opera voices a little more before writing something like this. I have to say I agree with anonymous.

  3. You are "Anonymous", dear. Can the sock puppeting and get over it.

    Few things are worse for a singer's internet reputation than a crazed fan.

  4. "She was very charming and had a beautiful voice." Your critical analysis/persausive abilities leave a lot to be desired, sweetheart. "I loved it. Therefore it was good." On the rating scale, I'd say this review was "unhelpful." I love Wonder Bread, Cheez Wiz, and butter fried in bacon, but that doesn't make them the epitome of gormet cooking.

    Many people love a certain singer's bel-canto abilities. Ohters think that they're non-existant. I guess "objective" is now a synonym for self-validating, but that's the way things are these days. Fortunately many people grow out of the urge to whine and squeal like a 12-year old girl.

    What would we do without Cabell fan and other postmodernists to tell us how to search for "objective" advice on the internet.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I'm done with you, Cabell troll. If you want to spread her gospel you'll have to find a less poisonous way than trolling this blog.

  7. Naturally it must hurt to have someone say something painful about you. That's why it's understandable that you would not post something "poisonous" on your blog directed at you. But just try to think what these cruel things you say feel like to the person (or singer in this case) that you're talking about. It's about having a little humanity. There are kinder ways to critique and say what you think.

  8. It doesn't hurt at all. I actually welcome criticism, correction, and alternate perspectives. If I've missed or misread something important in a performance, I want to hear about it.

    Grudges, sock-puppeting, and angry missives based on the "how dare you criticize ____!" template are, on the other hand, utterly worthless and unwelcome. I've seen many times how quickly opera discussion can be sent to the sewer by one determined asshole given permission to shit in the commons.

    This isn't going to happen here. You don't have permission to hold a grudge, and you don't have permission to stay anonymous. Find some constructive way to support your diva -- elsewhere.

  9. Dmitri won in Cardiff in 1989.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.