28 September 2005

The Met's Manon

Jens F. Laurson of ionarts says of Renée Fleming's newest release Sacred Songs, "I cannot stand her self-conscious, über-vibrato-infused voice when she goes into 'let's-impress-everyone' mode. It's one of the most unnatural sounds, artificial, and affected. The wobble that masquerades as vibrato turns her already round voice into mush while the increase in decibels drives home a point about her ability, not the music--much less beauty itself. To be honest: I suspected this album might be annoying to my ears after repeated listening. Sadly, it is annoying from the first notes on ... If you ever wondered what narcissism might sound like ..."

I don't have to listen to the album myself to agree, because I've heard more than my share of previous albums, and am able recognize that JFL's bull's-eye description is oh so patent Renée. In the recording studio, she swoops and scoops and swoons and reclines and mystifies everyone. But then she turns around and delivers a glorious Manon, live from the Met stage, and we are all mystified again. I saw the premiere last week and was so thoroughly enchanted that I'm plotting to see it again (and again). Meanwhile, over the summer months of no opera, I listened to a tape of Renée's Met Traviata (from two seasons back) with some regularity. I'm in love with her Act II, Scene 1 exchanges with Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Germont. I melt with every modulation of timbre, I hold my breath for each of her exclamation marks, I close my eyes with her every whisper.

The freedoms given by the recording studio and by her well-established artistic (and commercial) stature as diva result in such toxic cream-on-butter albums. Each phrase can be thought about, reimagined, managed, re-recorded, and so she does. Because she is so good at micromodulating the delivery of every line, and her precision instrument of a voice can do as told, a five-minute aria turns into a grand tour of the literature of expression. Much like downing a tall glass of ice cream shake after devouring three full slices of New York cheesecake, a sitdown with a track of recorded Renée can leave one light-headed, sick in the gut, and thirsty for a gallon of pure spring water.

Renée on stage is a different story. She is constrained by the ostensibly "live" event: her costume and the sets that surround her establish boundaries, her co-stars demand some form of emotional rapport, and the swelling music pushes a particular narrative forward (more or less). In the awesome evening cascade, there's little time to pose and linger, to beautify, to toast the voice with champagne. If the conductor isn't too much of a pushover, our thoroughbred is kept focused on the grand arc of the scene. Even as she experiments heavily on fioritura each night (as she did all through the Traviata run at the Met), the fence that the composer has erected pretty much remains firmly set. And once in a while, during purely operatic sections of the soprano's music, even mushy delivery is appropriate. Massenet's music plays with her voice so well. This Manon, vivid and breathtaking, high D's and all, is among her fullest achievements.

Voices from Heaven (via the Marketing Department)
A Rare 'Manon' Sighting [NYT]
Fleming Stars in 'Manon' at Met [AP]
She's sweet 16, but rest is a bit sour [NYNewsday]

Meanwhile, music critic Martin Bernheimer, who isn't easily impressed, thinks much more highly of the Manon libretto, and in thinking about it all during the singing, "missed the crucial illusion of spontaneity as (Fleming) traced Manon’s progress from waif to vamp to victim." Personally, I don't know what else Renée could have done to address Mr. Bernheimer quite elusive argument.

Plenty of Gallic grace, but a lack of passion [FT]