Fleming, Scholl, Kaiser, Blythe, Davies, Shenyang / Bicket
The Met premiere run of Handel's opera seven years ago occasioned this blog's first review, largely concerned with the scandal of David Daniels -- that show's Bertarido -- offering less to the ear than any other big-name, critically praised lead singer (who hadn't wrecked his/her voice between hiring and performance, that is). But even the 2004 Daniels would have been preferable to last night's version of Andreas Scholl.
It's not that Scholl can't sing. He can, and he phrases well. It's just that his voice is too weak to carry a lead at the Met, both in timbre and in force. The latter was particularly evident in "Vivi tiranno", Bertarido's climactic last-act aria, which struggled dreadfully to be heard even over Harry Bicket's modest and well-conducted Handelian forces, but the lack of even an approximately distinguished tone-quality was just as damaging throughout. Perhaps his voice has had better days, but at the moment Scholl is doing the house and this revival a disservice.
As in 2004, the secondary countertenor outshines the lead. Iestyn Davies, in his Met debut, shows as clear and full a sound as one can expect from this characteristically monochromatic voice type along with good musicianship. I'd call it a promising debut except that the inauthentic practice of using falsettists in Handel seems to me as unwise now as it was in 2004 (or, indeed, 1725). If I must hear a countertenor somewhere, though, Davies is clearly a better option than Scholl (notwithstanding the latter's fame).
If Renee Fleming's voice sits more comfortably in the title part now than it did in 2004 (when the role was unflatteringly low), her style has this time slipped into the phrase- and pitch-bending stylings that make purists furious. I wasn't furious, but I wasn't thrilled either.
Most affecting and involved, perhaps, was tenor Joseph Kaiser. I would never have guessed him to be a notable Handelian, but he sings both with clean technical skill and the full measure of Grimoaldo's torment in his crucial last-act monologues. What Kaiser doesn't have is a true star-quality sound to amplify these other attributes into an unmissable whole. (It is still, let's be clear, an order of magnitude better than Scholl's.) Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang does have a star sound -- I've witnessed it elsewhere, and he won Cardiff for a reason -- but he still hasn't quite worked out how to produce and use it consistently over the course of a full production at the Met.
Closest to a full-spectrum success on the night was, of course, Stephanie Blythe. But by Blythe's standards it was an ordinary success, not outsized like her Orfeos or the mini-roles in Trittico. This is one show she can't singlehandedly carry.
Stephen Wadsworth's production has had its original nonsense (gratuitous chest-baring, etc.) mercifully excised and stands as a fine example of his work. But since when does a director get a curtain call for a show's second revival!?
Like Don Giovanni earlier in the year, this would have been a much better production with, say, Susan Graham starring instead of the European import.