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.


  1. I wonder what Leonard Maltin would have to say about that.

  2. Actually, Polenzani wasn't in the Met's program.... But your point stands.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.