Friday, December 28, 2007

Much ado about nothing

Betrand de Billy and Natalie Dessay -- with intermittent help from Ramon Vargas -- tried to make something serious of the Met's current Roméo et Juliette production two years ago, with mixed success. The present revival (as heard last night) aims for nothing at all more than the sound of Gounod's operatic writing, but -- thanks to Paul Nadler, Anna Netrebko, and, above all, great American tenor Matthew Polenzani -- is fairly glorious thereby.

The parts fit the leads. After last season's Puritani disaster, Netrebko is wise to appear in a role for which coloratura and bel canto precision is a sideline (foregrounded only in the famous waltz), not the main event. She is not exactly expressive, but the more dramatically-driven pacing of her pieces lets her deploy the sonic bludgeon of her big ringing voice to best effect.

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As an actress, Netrebko is interesting but not exactly effective. It is amusing to return to Anthony Tommasini's 2002 review of Netrebko's company (though not house) debut in War and Peace, where he wrote:
Though a lovely young woman, she was not well served by Mr. Konchalovsky's direction, which must be responsible for the silent movie clichés that marred her portrayal.
In fact, Konchalovsky -- unless he's somehow been directing every one of her roles here since -- got a bad rap. Though they have, mercifully, been toned down in this production, "silent movie clichés" are exactly Netrebko's onstage metier.

Yet the real problem is not her physical vocabulary but its deployment. Her performance is almost entirely narcissistic, failing to connect with, adapt to, or often even acknowledge the presence and actions of anyone else onstage. I've noticed this phenomenon before, but in this production it reaches an almost admirable zenith of purity. Perhaps it's the contrast with her co-star, whose physical as well as sonic expression is pure, unforced, and unhindered. Polenzani's almost puppyish eagerness goes totally unregistered on Netrebko's body and actions, even in their love scenes -- a surreal sight. (I wonder if Netrebko's narcissism would have been even more surreally interesting paired with a tenor himself self-regarding -- that is, in this case, Alagna.)

Even odder, perhaps, is what happens between Netrebko's bouts of "silent movie cliché". When she's not trying thereby to grab attention, she is totally blank -- not the standard opera-singer "waiting for my cue" receptivity, but complete, almost uncanny blankness, as if she's not actually present. It's difficult even to see her onstage in these portions; the eye and mind find no purchase thereon. It's as if she's performing in her own highlight film. Perhaps it ensures that her fans only notice and remember her "best bits", but to a non-fan it's just bizarre.

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With such a heroine there was no chance of the story and drama's success, but the sonic success of the night was quite real. Much kudos to Paul Nadler, who shaped the score unobtrusively but with real romantic feeling. And the smaller roles were well done all around, from Charles Taylor's Capulet to Nathan Gunn's Mercutio to the ageless Robert Lloyd's Frère Laurent and Kate Lindsey's again perfectly boyish Stéphano. (The night was something of a showcase for the Met's Lindemann Young Artist program, with graduates Taylor, Gunn, Lindsey, David Won, and of course Polenzani himself.)

But Polenzani was amazing. His singing is so seemingly simple and uncomplicated -- beautiful, open, and direct of phrase and expression -- that there's little I can say about it except "listen". He maintained his high level through the whole evening, with sound never more vibrant and glorious than at the very end, for the climactic tomb scene.

The performance went out on Sirius, and Monday's (with the same cast) will be on both Sirius and a live internet feed, so if you get a chance (live or rebroadcast) to hear Polenzani: Listen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas to all

I feel odd enough offering critical material as it is, but more so today.

So for those at the family hearth: eat well and be happy. For all readers: may the season's joys find you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Notes, slightly stale

Thanks, Steve.

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Great moments in subscription management: I not only had a ticket to Matthew Polenzani's recital on December 2, it was my main reason for subscribing to the series (at the worst "Lincoln Center" venue) in the first place. Naturally, I completely forgot and have no opinion to offer. I suppose this means I have to catch one of Polenzani's (Domingo-free) Romeos next week. I'll save Netrebko thoughts until then.

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The year's final Figaro wasn't up to the rest of the run: comic and musical timing seemed, for some reason, slightly out of sync -- making what had been historic merely quite good. Perhaps it was simple performance variation, perhaps fatigue, but reading that it was Bryn Terfel's final Figaro anywhere suggests another explanation -- and has me just glad that I saw it.

"And it's an odd conflict, really, because I feel it could go to a deeper place, but in fact we are going to a shallower place."

Alice Coote gave an interesting interview to Opera News.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Twenty-five and three

As of this morning, I have been posting to this blog for three years. It has always been something of a solitary, contrarian project, and I thank you readers for bearing with me.

A bigger landmark, at least for me, was revealed by a program I turned up a few months ago: this week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my first visit to the opera. It was the Met's Tannhäuser with Tatiana Troyanos as Venus, and though my impression at the time was inconclusive, my current fondness for emotionally responsive, quick-vibratoed singers may have some primal lineage.

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Below is a selection of posts from the last year, which I will also append to the previous years' list. Note that I've omitted most Met reviews, as they are listed separately on the sidebar.
Review -- recitals by Kožená and Röschmann*
On the world premiere of Tan Dun's The First Emperor
On Ramon Vargas in Onegin
On Meistersinger and Simon Boccanegra
On Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Die Ägyptische Helena
On Ruth Ann Swenson
On the "theatricality" of Met movie broadcasts
Review -- Matthias Goerne in recital
On vocal and theatrical values in historic context
On Peter Davis' exit
On a pop fan's discovery of opera
On Wagner's Ring
On Pavarotti's death
Review -- Mary Zimmerman's season-opening Lucia
On Samuel Barber's Vanessa
(* posted before last year's roundup, but so close that I had no reason to include it at the time)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Led around

Is there some sort of requirement by Peter Gelb that he only be interviewed for publication by writers who don't actually know about opera? The unintentional comedy in this and this is pretty high.