Sunday, December 05, 2010

The prince

Don Carlo -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/3/2010
Lee, Poplavskaya, Smirnova, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Nézet-Séguin

Alexei Tanovitsky (the friar/ghost) this time struggled through his Act II opener, but otherwise Friday's performance was rather similar to the production's opening night... Except, of course, for an entirely different leading tenor.

One difference between Yonghoon Lee and the other Carlo, Roberto Alagna (the two are alternating through the run), was apparent before the Korean newcomer, in his second night at the Met, opened his mouth: Lee is much taller (he's also, the ladies seemed to think, fairly handsome). But the sound is even more different. For while there are certainly other qualities (generally appealing) to it, the initial impression (also appealing) of Lee's voice is that it's nothing but squillo. There's a base of dark (but neither baritonal nor Jonas-Kaufmann-super-dark) tenor sound at the core, but it's the ringing emanation that hits the ear on pretty much every note. Those starved for a real spinto tenor in this great lyric tenor era should be thrilled -- and, judging by a curtain call that outdid even Furlanetto's, they are.

The squillo also, unfortunately, swallows most of Lee's diction, and the near-conversational musical eloquence that Alagna commands here in both large and small touches is also lost. In fact, though Lee certainly can sing softly and even has a trill, the less all-out parts of Carlo's role are hit-and-miss: conversational exchanges went for nothing, the bottom of the voice could disappear, and though he handled Act V's closing duet with Elisabetta with wonderful softly-sung concentration, Lee was unable to sustain the long lines of Act III's (mistaken) serenade of the veiled Eboli. But that's mostly just to say that Lee doesn't also have the virtues of a lyric tenor. He does, in full measure, have the essential trait of any worthy spinto: the ability to shape and hold the grand phrase, to feel where and how Verdi put his tenors' impassioned climaxes -- and to deliver them.

*     *     *

Lee's acting was equally distinct. His starts a vainer prince than Alagna's, one spoiled by the admiring unrealities of a court. Alagna's Carlo waits sincerely for Elisabetta's reaction on first revealing his portrait, but Lee's indulges a pleased flourish of "here I am!" before she looks. And so it seems that the disappointment of Fontainebleau (where the ladies' outfits look more and more ghastly each time out) was the first real thwarted inclination of this prince's life, and he accordingly takes it at first with petulance and hurt vanity -- not the existential angst with which the trauma hits Alagna's prince.

But we see it ripen and take root into something real. The scene with Keenlyside is again (as for Alagna) strong, but the dynamic is interestingly different: Alagna is eloquent but ever about to spiral inside himself, while Lee is just as nervous as his baritone -- making the contrast now one of a man who has mastered his neuroses (Rodrigo/Posa) vs. a man who is at last feeling their true sting (Lee's Carlos). By the time Lee reappears in the next scene to confront Poplavskaya (Elisabetta), he's a pretty convincing wreck, with his (characteristic, and therefore never-quite-gone) note of self-regard now supplemented by a bitter, desperate, and somehow still-noble self-pity.

By this point Lee's bodily movement has picked up as well... Though he's a tall man and doesn't try to duplicate the amount of activity of a small one, Lee isn't afraid to fly and stumble across or off the stage as his character's emotional state seems to demand. As with his singing, when he's not animated by full passion the body stuff doesn't always click and can be a bit stiff, but when Lee is so charged it all works.

*     *     *

Everything written last time about the production, conductor, and remaining cast still applies. As for the tenor options, both deliver excellent performances of different types: you can't go wrong unless you've a blind spot for one sort of singing or the other.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.