Monday, April 17, 2006

Five Fidelios

As Met Mattila Month approaches Phase Two (expensive lights! wriggling hands! a spear twirling in midair!), perhaps I might recap Phase One.

Karita Mattila was supposed to sing six performances; she did four. James Levine was supposed to conduct the run; Paul Nadler did so. Cover Erika Sunnegårdh was supposed to get one performance -- the last; she did three including the broadcast, and got a huge amount of media coverage to boot.

Beyond those broad facts were the actual events. I'd long anticipated this run as a chance to see Mattila's Leonore without thinking so much about J├╝rgen Flimm's production: after several runs, a bit of touring, a telecast, and a DVD, its flaws and follies are by this point fait accompli, something a repeat operagoer can more or less tune out. (I did overhear others, new to Flimm's take, stumbling over it.) The orginal run started fairly well -- you can get the gist of this from the DVD, which captured early performances -- but ended with a string of incandescent dramatic successes for which I lack sufficiently purple prose. Seeing one of the latter got me going to all* of Mattila's New York performances since.

[* Subject to circumstance, of course, and the fact that no sane person should see seven Salomes in a month.]

What most stood out this opening night was Paul Nadler's extremely brisk tempo choices and his even brisker phrasing. He's perhaps the best of the Met's no-name conductors, able to get good sound from the orchestra and to keep things moving well. But this time the absence of contrasting repose -- even in the quartet and the prisoner's chorus -- made Levine's cancellation more noticable: he, as indeed Peter Schneider in the last revival, had made much of Beethoven's slower writing without hurrying it forward. Further, many involved -- singers, chorus, and even parts of the orchestra -- seemed unprepared for Nadler's desire to press ahead over and over.

Second and third performances were better: more together and with a touch less haste, showing more of the virtues of Nadler's brisk conception. It seemed everyone was finally getting on the same page. Then, of course, the lead changed.

*     *     *

Sunnegårdh was nervous from the first at that broadcast-cum-debut: everyone in the house could feel it. There was this tense sensation that something really unfortunate was likely to happen. It was almost worse: when she got very lost in her big aria and had to stop, for a moment I wondered if she wasn't going to be able to continue at all... But she did, and only made one minor flub afterwards (fumbling the words to "Ich bin es nur noch nicht gewohnt", as oddly enough Mattila had done that Tuesday). She came back much stronger for Act II, and finished well.

There's much one could say about Sunnegårdh's voice and prospects, but I think this excellent Opera-L post pretty much covers it. The instrument is still unfinished, though, so who knows? As an actress I found her very interesting. Mattila's Leonore -- or, rather, Fidelio -- is so masculine that the breakdown she has upon finishing the deed seems quite natural. Sunnegårdh is more conventional, more feminine: one can see that Marzelline likes her Fidelio for his androgynous sensitivity, more Leonardo DiCaprio than James Dean. Act II is more desperate than heroic, and there's no post-rescue histrionics. But it's all quite natural and nuanced, and so easily done for her first time onstage in the part.

The supporting cast was strong throughout this run. Most praise to Alan Held, whose audible menace showed the value of a real (if still maturing) heldenbariton as Pizarro. Rene Pape succeeded with an unconventional, brilliantly acted, almost tortured Rocco in the original run; here Kristinn Sigmundsson was a fine conventional (fatherly, dark-voiced, somewhat jovial) one. Both Florestans did well, Richard Margison impeccable after a softly taken "Gott!" and Ben Heppner even better, as heroic as he's ever sounded and an order of magnitude better than he did six years ago. Gregory Turay was near-ideal as Jaquino -- not too pretty -- but Jennifer Welch-Babidge sounded a bit under the weather herself as Marzelline (Amy Burton, in her one performance, showed a clearer but somewhat harder sound). And for once, both prisoners (Lindemann tenor Russell Thomas as the first and unknown-to-me John Shelhart as the second) impressed in both voice and soul.

*     *     *

Mattila. She sang terrifically while healthy and quite strongly even upon returning (for the fifth performance I caught) with a bit of illness left over. It was the dramatic element that showed her distress: the live circuit between her and the audience, almost invariably "on" at huge strength, was that night surprisingly dimmed. (That is, she was just really really good.)

Always she's now entirely in the part, if perhaps a bit too noticably into the over-freshened details of the stage business (it's nice that the confrontation choreography had gotten cleaned up, but the re-highlighted banana-eating and picture-pulling are perhaps a bit too specific -- the wearing away and easing of this stuff over a run helps a lot of dramatic productions, though comedies may thus disintegrate). But as the Lohengrin shows, what Mattila has actually to do is pretty much irrelevant: that she has some framework to channel dramatic energy is the thing. So it works -- mesmerizingly.

I should mention that she took each evening's bow more or less "in character", hugging the tenor and Sigmundsson right off with a huge smile on her face. It didn't seem affected at all, but something -- after all that'd come before -- she'd have had to work on resisting. Also in character, perhaps, was her reluctance to take more than a short bit of audience adulation.

*     *     *

That this post, even, sort of skipped over mentioning how historically great is Mattila's assumption probably explains some of the wierd mix of coverage. (About which... Could it be possible that more English-speaking people -- not necessarily opera fans -- know of Sunnegårdh today than knew of Mattila six years ago?) Much of the rest is this: newspapers, despite acquired pretentions, are still essentially pop-cultural organs, promoting underdog stories and bored by mere excellence. There's some of that in blogdom too, of course. But presumably our readers take more interest in the actual content than the average Arts&Leisure section browser is supposed to.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.