Fearing that I wouldn't like a significant portion of the program and being curious about the alternate presentation (my previous reservations thereon being here and here), I watched this year's Met season opener from a Manhattan movie theater. If you missed reading about it, soprano Renee Fleming sang Act II of Traviata, Act III of Massenet's Manon, and the final scene of Capriccio.
Technically, the show was mixed. Epic fail at Traviata's start: it took until halfway through the first scene for subtitles to appear. More jarring, though, was director Gary Halvorson's addiction to the moving footlight-level camera (the technical name of which escapes me), which he used to constant and disorienting -- even woozy-making -- effect during this scene. Unfortunately all camera trickery failed to find an appropriate angle for the second scene's final tableau, which absolutely demands that all three principals be put in the same shot. Instead we got an incoherent mess. Awful.
The next two segments were better-shot, with the low-level moving camera actually being put to good use during Vargas' prayer-aria in the St. Sulpice scene. As for the non-operatic bits, we could have done without the 40-minute Met infomercial (with additional product placements!) before the action, but if it works as marketing, sure... The Martha Stewart drink-mixing demo in the last intermission crossed some line of decency, however.
Still the overall effect was, for the first two acts, hugely successful. The transmitted soundtrack is oddly shaped, and one misses at least some essential 15% of the singers' real sound (particularly the physicality of Fleming's in climaxes), but the singers -- most of all Fleming herself, despite a couple of memory glitches -- seemed energized and inspired by the occasion and, in Traviata, by the presence of James Levine. Both Traviata (with which Fleming and Vargas so memorably opened the 2003-04 season) and Manon were really moving, even framed by infomercial frippery and Lagerfeld's awful Manon dress. (Not to knock hosts Susan Graham and Deborah Voigt, who did well with what they had.) Incidentally: both of the Traviata cabalettas were cut, which was a bit odd considering that at least the first has been done regularly at the Met of late. I assume this was both to keep the focus on Fleming and to protect Vargas who came out cold to his aria.
The Strauss was another matter. He and librettist (and greatest of Strauss conductors) Clemens Krauss crafted a work of art about art -- specifically Strauss' own idiosyncratic notion of opera. They add complication upon complication to the piece's initial poetic-musical seed until, from a comic Octet, they strip all away almost to anticlimax. What's left, by the end, is the prime element of Strauss' art: neither words nor music (the ostensible focus/decision point of the story) but the eternal-feminine -- musing on her own existence.
But Fleming in this place is curiously empty, all too ready to fall into embarrassing tics (the cocktail-party laugh, the thing that looked a bit too much like vogueing) and unironic emotionalizing. The Countess, like Der Rosenkavalier's Marschallin, muses into her mirror, and though I think they (and the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten) are essentially the same person, this opera makes quite clear what sort of character is its star. "You look back at me a bit ironically?" the Countess asks her reflection as she tries to decide, "I want an answer and not your questioning look!"
Smilingly ironic silence as the expression of a heart in love: though Fleming's lush voice isn't built to sound this combination, she could at least enact its phrases and externals. And I believe she tries... but the experience is too far from her own being. The Countess' exterior emptiness (blankness) is a pregnant one, full of (and protecting) the possibilities she holds in balance and does not (cannot, for the Empress, which is her problem) allow love's compulsion to touch -- and full, for Strauss, of the art born therefrom -- but for Fleming it's a vacuum, uncomfortable to put on and quickly filled by whatever comes to hand. The constant close-up perspective of the moviecast highlighted the issue.
Nor was she helped, this time, by conductor Patrick Summers, who led a literal and seemingly underrehearsed account of Strauss' orchestral part. Sometimes I think a really strong Straussian hand -- these days Thielemann, or perhaps Luisi -- could do something remarkable with and for Fleming in these roles, but Summers is far from that ideal.
On the whole, it was a worthwhile evening -- even in transmitted form -- with excellent stretches of performance. It's hard to imagine better promotion for Thaïs and the Levine-conducted shows.
[Related past posts: Fleming in Traviata (2007); Fleming in Manon (2005); school-of-Fleming soprano Pamela Armstrong in Capriccio (City Opera 2005)]