Saturday, October 26, 2013

The tightrope / the passenger

Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 10/18/2013
Radvanovsky, Aldrich, Antonenko, Morris / Frizza
Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 10/24/2013
Meade, Barton, Antonenko, Orlov (d) / Frizza

Perhaps it's from some listener fatigue on my part, but one of the more striking things about last Friday's Norma seemed to be how much everyone else therein must have realized that this was Sondra Radvanovsky's show. Not just in billing or number of notes or decibel level, but in actual significance: the possibilities of the run turning out to be "about" someone else instead of or in addition to the named heroine -- always in the air at a first night -- had by this third week dissipated. So the air seemed a bit let out whenever the star was offstage, even as Aleksandrs Antonenko and Kate Aldrich rumbled through their love duet with full force and excellent accompaniment from Riccardo Frizza. They did their thing professionally and with no lack of skill, but only Radvanovsky dared to test the moment -- over and over, even this late in the run, continuing to respond to the challenges of the part and the by now frankly adulatory audience -- with new attempts at the boundary of what she or any singer can do. This time it was the big first cabaletta that exploded into the ear with yet-unheard fire, and if this first-act aggressiveness required Radvanovsky to dial back the excesses she'd previously delivered in the second act (instead of blasting with/over the chorus through their entire call for war and blood, she stuck just to her written bits until blasting a high note at the end) it was worth it not least because she went for it.

Only... in this cast, no one but the conductor Frizza seems fit to join her on that tightrope, in the glorious madness of the now. Antonenko is a wonderfully forceful and solid foil even when vocally a bit off, but that's it -- he's a foil, not a co-conspirator. Traditionally it's the Adalgisa who catalyzes the duets, but Aldrich is just overmatched, and while James Morris has set more than just rocks on fire as Wotan, well, here he doesn't get to play Wotan.

November 1 is unmissable even as a one-woman show, but with another more equal participant it (or its re-revival, if the Met isn't stupid) might be historic. I suppose we can't wait for Yonghoon Lee to take up Pollione, so it would have to be an Adalgisa.

*     *     *

Now last night's new-cast Norma probably requires both a fair evaluation and a just one. To be fair, Angela Meade is surely the second best Norma this production has seen: she can actually sing the part, with good volume and a pleasant, consistent, and more conventionally lyrical basic sound than her predecessor. There is a worrisomely broadening vibrato at the top of the staff, attempts to float high notes are touch-and-go on support and intonation, and she doesn't get everything one can from Bellini's score, but Meade certainly does the opera enough justice to make the it work. This has been rare over the years, and if we hadn't seen her predecessor, we might think it unreasonable to ask for more than what Meade delivers in any particular season's attempt...

To be just, however... this doesn't even turn out to be Meade's show. It's Jamie Barton, now apparently fully transformed from near-inaudible Council Finals winner to next in the line of great American mezzo honkers (as Dolora Zajick ages and Stephanie Blythe reigns), who most impressively compels eye and ear -- but if she hadn't stolen the show, Antonenko might himself have done it. Meade's account is a traversal, a negotiation -- not a dare.

Her weakness in this seems to me unfortunately tied to her appeal. Meade's basic sound is a comforting one -- clean, straightforward, not luxuriant but self-contained. Unlike Radvanovsky's disconcertingly vibrato- and air-borne sound, ready to arc to the next turn of phrase or feeling, Meade's notes seem settled in place even for the span of her coloratura. And yes, this makes it really uncomfortable when the aforementioned flaws in Meade's production crop up, but I don't think ironing them out would make for much more success as Norma. The real problem is that this settledness pervades Meade's musical and dramatic approach, so that the great non-sonic triumphs of Radvanovsky's account -- contrast and dramatic responsiveness -- are conspicuously absent. Perhaps it's unfair to expect a comparable dynamic range -- Meade seemed to sing most of Act I between mp and mf, not the ppp and fff we've been hearing, and didn't dare any of the messa di voce stuff (that is, a crescendo and decrescendo on the same long note, one of those absurdly difficult tests of full bel canto mastery) -- but gone too were the contrasts of mood and feeling: the cabalettas, shorn of their ecstasy, seemed like out-of-character showoff, and while she can execute attacks and follow Frizza in his energetic tempi, she's just along for the ride, even smoothing out rather than finding the thrill of these musical turns.

Dramatically Meade has the classic stimmdiva lack of bite and specificity. Again, though one can excuse her lack of high-priestess command that it took Radvanovsky many productions to internalize, the lack of fine attention to the emotional moment(s) is a big loss. The final scenes were most affected. Here Radvanovsky had, in the last few shows, been so seemingly charged by the energies of piece and of audience that she went for an emotional precision perhaps greater than what her production and colleagues could really support... Meade, while offering probably her best singing of the night (though no blasting over the chorus, even at the end, in case you were wondering), expressed only generalized rage followed by generalized sorrow, so that the transition seemed one of those inexplicable twists that people use to make fun of opera and not the sublime tragic resolution we had seen for three weeks.

These limitations didn't hurt Meade in the gloomy, largely passive part of Anna Bolena -- and indeed they may have helped. But Norma is singularly difficult for a reason, and, fairly or no, it's disappointing that Meade didn't more push her limits in this encyclopediac role. Again, note Meade's mezzo colleague: though uncongenially cast in range, figure, and likely even character (I haven't much seen her, but she seems rather too assertive for an ingenue), Barton went for broke on the (too-)high stuff, threw herself admirably even into the acting of Adalgisa's conflicted love and repentance, and seized her time on stage as Meade did not. And though Barton had less over the evening to do, her clear full resonant tone was the dominant force in the at-last-well-blended duets, which, not least for her presence, were the highlight of this evening.

Ievgen Orlov, a young Ukrainian bass with a nice, full, very Slavic sound, sang Oroveso in place of James Morris. Nice debut, will see how he develops.

Even with a better Adalgisa and a more balanced show, of course, Monday's repeat of this cast is very far in priority behind Friday's return of the originals. I hope you can see the latter.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The blank page

Eugene Onegin - Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2013
Kwiecien, Netrebko, Beczala, Volkova, Tanovitski / Gergiev

It's strange irony that the great stage actress Fiona Shaw, who's made her name with a rare and forceful talent for the extreme, is credited with directing an Onegin that, at least in its current incarnation, is most notable for the quiet details of its social-comic background. It's not her doing that the leads fizzle or that Gergiev feels obligated to make up for any exciting bit with a followup of utter slackness, but given these things we at least get a bit of the social observation that makes up much of Pushkin's original text. That's something... just not enough to justify a season-opener or moviecast.

I've seen sopranos fail or fall short in singing Tatyana, but I've never before witnessed one who seemed not to want to try. When Anna Netrebko started off the first act completely blank, I thought it might be the sort of lying-low she's used at the start of Manon and elsewhere to contrast with her more forward turns. But -- amazing to see -- even the letter scene brought neither urgency nor any particular emotion... nor, despite some impressive awake-at-last pit work by Gergiev, even the intensification of presence to signal the seizing of her scene -- just more routine phrasing and slightly louder singing. Nor is this just some misguided emphasis on Tatyana's rural backwardness: her high-society incarnation is no less blankly sullen, and only by the far-too-late final scene do we see traces of sonic-dramatic life.

How could Netrebko so utterly miss having a character? Perhaps she went literally by the descriptions her nurse and family give in the first act: pale, quiet, shy and downcast. That's fair enough, as far as it goes, but to look at this as Tatyana's central truth is to miss the crucial point of Romanticism, the significance of its characteristic subjectivity: that we are not merely our social manifestations, that not only our souls but our personal experience of existence may be significant -- and communicable. It's a contested subjectivity -- by indifference, rejection, competition, consequence, physical limitation, and, most characteristic in Romanticism's transplantation to the foreign space of Imperial Russia, the social order itself -- but one that's never far from the Romantic foreground. Particularly in this opera, in this very scene: Tchaikovsky has not only shaped the epic verse-novelist's view of the Pushkin original into lyric scenes, but has put the central (letter) scene inside the heroine's enflamed subjectivity as it cries for the intimate extra-social connection of communication. That she does not find it -- or rather, with tragic irony, finds it only asynchronously -- doesn't make what's revealed in her a null.

In fact it almost doesn't matter what the inner truth of Tatyana turns out to be: the opera has made sense here with the mercurial fragility of Solveig Kringleborn, the rapt earnestness of Renee Fleming, and the explosive frame-bursting grandeur of Karita Mattila. What matters is that she has one, and that the Letter Scene opens it out to us. Netrebko's doesn't.

Making matters worse is the cipher of Mariusz Kwiecien's Onegin. Yes, Onegin is meant to be a bit of a cipher, who until that second meeting with Tatyana may not himself know who, if anyone, he is and what, if anything, he wants. But he's a worldly cipher, one who begins having swum in the social sea so habitually that if his suavity ever lapses it's from jadedness or irritation, not awkwardness. Kwiecien, by contrast, offers a strangely alien (though somewhat reminiscent of his zestless Don Giovanni) Onegin, whose social manners and mannerisms seem constructed and imperfectly learned rather than second nature. And though it's awkward and assembled (and not, that is, attractive), we never do see what lies underneath... making Tatyana's attraction as wholly arbitrary as his rejection. Is this supposed to be Onegin as closet case, in an echo of Tchaikovsky's life experience? Unfortunately that -- or whatever is going on here -- makes nonsense of the actual events and thematic symmetry (he does become more attracted, after he's lost his social confidence and mooring, just as she becomes unable to reciprocate as she's gained hers -- again it's the classic Romantic contest between social and intimate existences) of the actual opera, which can't survive a lead couple with no connection or chemistry.

*     *     *

Hardly less fatal to Tchaikovsky's masterpiece is poor conducting, which Valery Gergiev provides in surprisingly full measure. Netrebko and Kwiecien are relatively new to their parts, but Gergiev led what was honestly one of the great runs of Onegin (as one can still see) not too long ago. This time -- for this moviecast matinee, at least, though reports suggest similar work at the other performances -- he seems to have lost his grip on the whole of the piece. Like Netrebko, he begins with a slack blankness -- seemingly attempting to show the soporific backwater comfort of the Larins' by sonic demonstration -- and though he does perk up more than she for notable sequences, he insistently returns to laxness with each new scene. Gergiev has used a similarly broad range of tempi before, but never so haphazardly or without overall dramatic perspective. Perhaps he was spooked by the protest (the current audience is protective and adulatory), or is bored of the old war-horse, or is as nonplussed by Netrebko as I was. In any case, he's no help.

Best here were the second couple. Bolshoi mezzo Oksana Volkova -- the premiere Maddalena in last season's new Rigoletto is something like the ideal Olga, about the only part that's been poorly cast here over the years. Piotr Beczala is, if anything, a better Lensky than he was for the otherwise much more successful 2009 run, closer to the specific joy and tragedy of the character while retaining his pleasingly plaintive lyric sound. Alexei Tanovitski (formerly spelled Tanovitsky for his Met appearances) as Gremin was more memorable than he was here as Wotan and less memorable than as the friar/ghost of Charles V. John Graham-Hall was a good Triquet, and I can't believe Larissa Diadkova is already at the point where she's singing the nurse (well enough, but really?).

*     *     *

It's not entirely clear to me how much Shaw and her collaborator-predecessor Deborah Warner are to blame for the wrongheaded and energy-sucking characterizations offered by the leads. In any case, they and their production colleagues do mostly provide a nicely textured human and physical background to the central drama that should (and in some future revival undoubtedly will) appear, though it in no way betters the evocativeness and lyric/realistic alternation of Robert Carsen's previous show. (Adding the second intermission back is no favor either.) Some of the directorial touches go too far -- having Onegin and Lensky embrace after they sing that they can't have that moment of connection and forgiveness is inane -- but that, too, can be remedied over time.

Next month's cast will have in Peter Mattei an Onegin long on suavity and outer charm (as well as, when called upon, unforgettably tortured singing). But I'm having a hard time thinking of a lyric soprano less temperamentally suited to Tatyana than Marina Poplavskaya, though I'm sure she'll at least go all-out in the Letter Scene. (Is Tatyana joining Marguerite as a part that everyone finds easy to cast except Gelb?) And Villazon... well he wasn't "back" a year ago, and I'm not sure why it would be different now. We'll see.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The fire

Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 9/30/2013 & 10/4/2013
Radvanovsky, Aldrich, Antonenko, Morris / Frizza

It was always clear that she had the pieces. That huge, instantly arresting sound, providing self-evident significance to every note. The marriage of force and flexibility (including trill!) in a true dramatic coloratura instrument. The control, the feel for the bel canto line, and the thrill of rhythmic attack... even a sort of dramatic gameness. But one would not have thought that the most indelible fact of Sondra Radvanovsky's triumph as Norma last Monday would have been the sublime extended musical-dramatic concentration of its last fatal scenes, as striking a feat as Joyce DiDonato's a season ago in Donizetti's four-years-later masterpiece Maria Stuarda.

For not since the first advent of her stardom in those too-little-seen Luisa Millers a dozen seasons back has Radvanovsky seemed so wholly at one with her part. Perhaps it took all the great parts in between -- most recently (Trovatore's) Leonora, Tosca, and Amelia -- to accustom her to seizing the action with the grand abandon of her characters. (And we in fact see bits of these previous assumptions in the private rage and desperation, public grandeur, and the interplay between these states that define this Norma's story.)

Vocally, Radvanovsky goes for big contrasts, to an extent one has not seen her try in a single night. The transition between the restraint and shaded control of Norma's public "Casta diva" to the explosive private emotional display that follows from the cabaletta is felt as well as observed, as she unlooses full sonic force for the latter. Similarly, the turn from slow to fast in her first duet with Adalgisa ("Ah sì, fa core, abbracciami") is so instantly marked by the thrill of forward motion that its message of release is clear just from rhythm. Many such touches abound, but most striking of all is the climactic pianissimo "Son io"... as Norma/Radvanovsky finally accuses herself in the way least familiar to us and to her.

*     *     *

It's even more to Radvanovsky's credit that she triumphs now in a revival production -- and not one of great note, but a workmanlike John Copely show that, before this season, had only seen failure. (She didn't get much dramatically out of a similar attempt at Vespri some seasons back.) In fact it's not a bad physical production: moon shapes and themes are clearly emphasized above the stage; it's just that the human action below is still a bit of a jumble. (That said, better this than David Alden's sense-free Ballo.)

But though no David McVicar was present, excellent musical colleagues were. Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza has had some moderate success here in Rigoletto, Trovatore, and Armida, but none of that was really noteworthy. Here, he is sharp and orderly, giving proper detailed expression to both the long and the urgent phrases of Bellini's opera without pulling the singers around. Excellent work. Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko is just the sort of big, dark-ish, confident voice one wants to hear as Pollione -- not too complicated (though seeing Yonghoon Lee in this would be interesting), but not as wholly stiff as, say, Giordani became over the course of his Met ubiquity. James Morris sounds a bit old and rhythmically inflexible as Oroveso, but he's always sounded off in non-Wagner appearances: in any case he retains his authority. Tenor Eduardo Valdes and new-ish Anglo-American soprano Sian Davies are as good in the sidekick parts as one expects from the Met.

The only lapse here is, as usual, Adalgisa, the big lyric soprano part eternally miscast with mezzos. To be fair, Kate Aldrich is (though a lesser singer) a much more appropriate choice for the role than the original in this production, Dolora Zajick -- Aldrich at least looks and can act the ingenue, and her lyric mezzo is more sonically plausible than the grand dramatic was. But the high notes aren't easy, she's far from an equal partner with Radvanovsky in the duets, and, well, even if one accepts that Radvanovsky is sui generis, Aldrich's somewhat grainy sound (perhaps because overtaxed) blends poorly with the star's unmistakable squillo. Unfortunately, as Gelb's Met is likely too set in its ways to hire, say, Ruth Ann Swenson, we're stuck with this approximate Adalgisa doing her best.

*     *     *

Gelb's Met is probably too set in its ways to somehow movie- or even radiocast this landmark revival either, so make sure you catch it in person. Radvanovsky seems to be getting only more confident, and though you likely won't see the awed emotionality in her bows that we got last Monday, any successful Norma is an event.