Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Chaste et pure

Chilean verista Veronica Villaroel is sharing with Soile Isokoski the role of Marguerite in the Met's new Faust. The two performances I've seen of the run (one each) showed an instructive contrast.

Isokoski's voice is clearest, purest and most focused through its upper middle portion, where much of the recitative sits. So we immediately hear her Gretchen's firm, delicious grip on the good -- that which so attracts Faust in the first place. The characterization in Isokoski's bearing and phrases is complementary; meanwhile the top notes, with a bit of vibrato-borne edge, are more dramatic than luxurious. This adds up -- intentionally or no -- to the most dramatically penetrating moment of the evening: the Jewel Song done not as virtuoso show-off, but as what it is -- a song of corruption, pulling Marguerite from comfortable purity to bright but uncomfortable high-flying exhibition.

Villaroel, on the other hand, starts -- and goes through the entire King of Thule sequence -- with a shallow, deliberately lightened sound before breaking out her regular, more chest-centered voice in the Jewel Song. This suggests a rather different character arc, where the old innocent Gretchen had just not yet become who she was, this woman fated to love completely and disastrously.

In later acts, neither soprano seemed to get much guidance from the busy production. Isokoski mostly disappeared before vocally dominating the last-act Trio, but Villaroel, more the natural actress, made much of Marguerite's utter desperation at Valentin's curse (neither could make a dent against the distractions of the Cathedral scene). She did much to make this vocal show-off fest into a humanly touching experience.

The other principals were in similar form both nights: Pape vocally commanding all evening (except for an odd loss of focus in opening night's Act IV serenade); Alagna somewhat rough (with those much-discussed pitch issues) in Act I, glorious in the central Act III, and a bit of each in the rest. Korean baritone Hung Yun, last Saturday's Valentin, showed a nice sound but lacked the confident ease and polish of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Levine -- after teasing the audience with a Parsifal-style account of the overture -- conducted as well and as energetically as he has for all this excellent Met spring. And Kristine Jepson, each time the excellent Siebel, has matured much since her undercharacterized Cherubino some seasons back. Too bad I missed her Octavian.

If various parts of this run have been wrong, the most essential part of the piece -- Act III -- has always been right.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.