Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Thoughts before Jenufa

I suppose it bodes poorly for the house's future that my favorite Metropolitan Opera evenings of the season have been lightly attended, while some of the most heavily-sold (and promoted) engagements have been outright disaster. This month's Jenufa revival, which began yesterday, continues the trend -- on the unseen/terrific side.

For this unpopularity one might blame whichever fool is holding up release of Karita Mattila's Salome video... Or perhaps Mattila herself (if she's not suppressing her own recording!). Taking the same productions -- Jürgen Flimm's Fidelio, this Olivier Tambosi Jenufa and now Tambosi's Manon Lescaut -- around the world has its plusses for her and the opera houses, but by the time a much-traveled show hits town the second time, it's got little novelty to sell it. (The Met's increasing forays into co-production make this an important point for the future.) And further, she seems to take little interest in non-opera fame (outside of Finland, anyway), being remarkably low-profile for the most universally and deeply admired singer around. Having found herself at the height of fame, she said in an interview last year, she found that she didn't like it:
Colleagues such as Renée Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu have their official websites, publicists and Rolex contracts, but Mattila shuns these. 'As my husband says, it's a question of how famous I want to become. I wouldn't be able to handle it. I know myself. After Salome in New York, two years ago, people started recognising me on the street. I felt like an animal in a cage.'
You recognize this when the curtain falls: her bows are short, and she quickly deflects attention to her colleagues. But a certain amount of accepting adulation is not only good for business, but proper. (Applause, as I've noted, is the consummation of drama, and squelching it is as poor form as Gheorghiu-style milking.)

But enough dissatisfaction: that evaporates as this show's curtain rises.

[Review in a post to follow.]

Monday, January 29, 2007

Short late Traviata notice

On a friend's recommendation, I saw the Met's Tuesday presentation of La Traviata. Renee Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu aren't in it: the more modest casting that's dominated this production since those two cancelled its 1998 premiere is. But that has its advantages.

In Aristotelian terms, for example, Gheorghiu's portrayal offered a decent amount of terror but not much pity. One was impressed, stirred even, without being so touched by personal sympathy for Violetta's plight. Hei-Kyung Hong, who sings the part again this Thursday, reverses the balance. Neither voice nor stage presence dominates the stage -- it's what some might call a lack of star quality. But though the instrument lacks force and is going raw on top, the soft singing it produces is terrific, and perfectly complements Hong's utterly natural portrayal of the courtesan. The whole effect varies by act: the first takes too much vocal husbanding, though her body's illumination by love is priceless; the second with its extremes of emotion isn't as striking as it is for others; but the third act, with a letter-reading and aria (in only one verse, sadly) that in its touching believability puts her predecessors to shame, is Hong's triumph.

Whether by chance or to attract Korean crowds (if it's the latter, it worked), Hong was matched with debuting tenor Wookyung Kim. He seemed nervous at the beginning, but strengthed as the evening went on. (This run includes the sometimes-cut cabaletta to his Act 2 aria, "O mio rimorso".) His liquid, Italianate sound and basic phrasing is very appealing.

Another promising young singer, recent Lindemann graduate Charles Taylor, was the elder Germont. He has a big, enjoyable voice that was doing well until an oddly choppy and pinched rendition of his big aria ("Di provenza"). Taylor has had to cancel a previous performance in this run, so perhaps this poor patch was a fluke.

Carlo Rizzi got better sound than the orchestra usually produces for him, but had occasional coordination problems with a number of the singers. It's disappointing that the Met brought him back for this run, after a few years blissfully free of his routine.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Between the acts

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra does a lot of accompaniment, but it's still notably rare for it to have a soloist as inspired as Christian Tetzlaff was Sunday. He played Beethoven's violin concerto, a piece in which debutant Sergey Khachatryan made a huge impression at last summer's Mostly Mozart Festival. But Tetzlaff's success couldn't have been more different.

The young (now 21) Armenian's triumph was largely one of sound: his wondrous tone had so much color and breath in it that he could have spellbound the audience just playing scales. Tetzlaff lacks that resource. His tone, while not dull, is mostly notable for its focus: among world virtuosi it will never be renowned for warmth or amplitude. But this whitish sound is remarkably responsive within its scope, becoming vividly tense or mellow, outspoken or intimate at will. And Tetzlaff's interpretive instinct is to use all of these extremes, and similar varieties of impulse and rhythm, at the service of an aesthetic I can only describe as very German. (That is, he shares none of the postmodern approach to styles of sound that makes listening to his countrywoman Anne-Sophie Mutter sometimes feel decadent.)

He has, in other words, the tools for a great, dramatic -- Beethovenian -- performance of this great piece. And this is what actually happened. Tetzlaff was helped by James Levine's steady but responsive accompaniment (the considerably enlarged orchestra was transparent and balanced throughout, even with the soloist's love of the mp-ppp range) and an audience remarkably attentive even after an undernourished and apparently underrehearsed Brahms 3 and a new Charles Wuorinen piece of middling success. The dramatic element -- the dynamic of performer before audience -- that is a huge aspect of opera is not absent from instrumental performance, particularly before an operagoing audience. That the listeners were so present as to break into spontaneous applause after the concerto's first movement was no small cause of the day's success.

Tetzlaff, after a series of huge ovations, did share with Khachatryan the decision to play a bit of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas as an encore. Tetzlaff's first recording of these was not so much German and dramatic as needlessly romantic. Perhaps his new version -- apparently coming soon -- will be better. Meanwhile, now that they've hit the fifty-performance milestone, perhaps the Met could look into releasing some of the best of these Carnegie Hall outings onto Sirius: there's a searing 2001 Verdi Requiem (Fleming, Borodina, Giordani, Pape) that's still echoing in my head.

*     *     *

I have noted that my primary sensation of music is of time; Tommasini's NYT review of this Tetzlaff/Met Orchestra concert seems to indicate the same about him. Interesting.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Teflon Diva

This blog began by noting the multiplicity of legitimate perspectives on opera performance, some of which have little (or nothing) necessarily to do with singing. So I suppose it's no surprise that I float this question:
What, if any, is the number of press (and TV, etc.) clippings n, after which these non-sonic perspectives are so charged that it literally does not matter what sounds come out of a performer's mouth?
It seems to me that Renee Fleming reached this point years ago, at least in the United States. That's not to say that she's always or even often below par, but that it simply does not matter to her career and public perception. (I note that next month's Onegins -- her first Tatyanas in a major house -- sold out in a flash despite a very poor Letter Scene at last year's Met Orchestra concert.)

And that's why I've called Anna Netrebko the Russian Renee. But she should be careful, for she may not have hit that point yet -- at least in the United States.