Saturday, September 29, 2012

Slow burn

Carmen - Metropolitan Opera, 9/28/2012
Rachvelishvili, Royal, Lee, Ketelsen / Mariotti

Leads Anita Rachvelishvili and Yonghoon Lee are, it turns out, who we thought they were: a pair of astonishing-voiced singers who can carry any production. Rachvelishvili still hits some pitch issues at the top of her range, but the main body of her sound is as fully and gorgeously textured as any mezzo in this Golden Age. Lee, meanwhile, shows here as strongly as he did as Don Carlo that he's something like an ideal romantic spinto tenor: he feels -- and of course shapes -- these parts' great tragic phrases so strongly, so grandly, that the striking squillo of his tone and the full expansiveness of his high notes come almost as obvious corollaries. More, please.

The other headliners were mixed. Best was American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, who in addition to being an appropriately handsome Escamillo was the most vocally authoritative one since Rene Pape about a decade ago. Less good was the Micaela, Kate Royal. She phrased just fine, but even a vibrato-aficionado as I -- Calleja, Radvanovsky, and Röschmann may be my favorite operatic sounds -- found little to enjoy in Royal's actual singing. Unlike these other vibrati, Royal's does not seem the healthy individual expression of a strong support, but something less felicitous. I hope she's indisposed or not entirely recovered from her last pregnancy or... something, because otherwise I'm concerned for the state of English ears. Her sound did not blend at all well with Lee's, but that at least makes a sort of dramatic sense.

Debuting conductor Michele Mariotti was somewhere in between. The current principal conductor at Bologna showed a number of virtues: precise control of ensembles, firm rhythmic sense, and the wisdom not to get in his singers' way -- and, indeed, helping them make much of slow climaxes of the piece. And so on this night the highlights were the Micaela-Jose duet, the Flower Song, and similar still segments throughout, here done with a rare unity and concentration. But despite all that -- and despite fairly snappy accounts of the first- and last-act preludes -- Mariotti seemed to have little interest in giving the piece an overall shape, quite happy to let the colorful bits slack unhurriedly, as if in fact on a hot Spanish afternoon, and to let the more urgent portions approach but never quite cross over into excitement. This appears to be Mariotti's legitimate view of the piece, and he shows skill in bringing it to life, but it's a letdown after how Nézet-Séguin opened the production three seasons back.

So the show falls into scenes, which is not the worst thing given the way its cast brings them successively to life.

*     *     *

Lee will, it seems, be back in the not-too-distant future for revivals of Ballo (new later this season) and Trovatore. In this interview from last year (around the Nabucco revival) one can see him talk about the time before his big break: fascinating stuff.


  1. Thank you for your review. I was also at the Carmen premiere and I pretty much agree with you on everything in the review.
    I have no idea what Ronald Blum from the AP or James Oestreich from the New York Times are talking about. Did they HEAR Yonghoon Lee or Kate Royal sing???
    Lee was bloody amazing in that show. His voice is HUGE. Seriously underrated.
    And I wanted to tear my hair out whenever Micaela was singing.

  2. Ack, what nonsense did the press write about this?

    To be fair, the squillante character of Lee's voice can itself overwhelm the other aspects on one's first hearing... though Lee should be familiar to any critic by now.

    To be unfair, Oestreich has long seemed in the mold of Holland -- another NYT writer who hasn't much liked that the classical music beat here is largely opera.

  3. Well, Ronald Blum (the baseball writer?), said that Kate Royal "gave the most rounded, believable performance and had a shiny, melting soprano top" and that Lee's "acting was somewhat stiff and his singing was with marred by poor French diction, with harsh vowels that jarred to the point of distraction".
    And Oestreich said that Kate Royal was "a fetching Micaëla, her lovely, clear soprano turning dark and intense in heightened drama" and that Lee "seemed perhaps more hapless than he needed to be at first, though he rose to striking outbursts vocally".

    Now, I am an amateur at this, and I am not an opera singer or a vocal student, but to my amateur ears, Micaela's voice didn't blend well with Lee's voice at all. She basically got drowned out by Lee.

    To be fair, some of their criticisms are correct. They are all young singers, so I did get the impression that they were still concentrating on their technique and sound.
    But I would rather hear good singing and stiff acting than good acting and bad singing any day.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.