22 September 2005

Sound Check

I'm usually the most reliable ear in the business, at least as far as judging vocal volume at the Met. I sit in the same general area most of the time; I see multiple performances of the same opera during the season, and with various casts; I'm attuned to the acoustics of the Met, how the sound of the voice projects upward from the stage about 10 feet in from the pit, reflecting back down from the sloping ceiling to bathe us all in sound, and how standing a few feet deeper cuts down the sound that reaches the top tiers significantly; I've heard loud, soft, and points in between, in the space I've called my second home; I'm intimate (at least empirically) with the dynamics of orchestral sound, the ways it could cover a singer's voice, the ways singers compensate and improvise, within parameters set by this particular space. In short, I know this space like the back of my bra. So I've been scratching my head lately, mystified by the near-unanimous judgment of the opera literati that Angela Gheorghiu didn't quite put together an audible Tosca at the Met prima earlier this week.

We can all agree that she's no Millo (the last to inhabit the role at the Met before Gheorghiu); heck, lately even Millo's no Millo either. But Angela's not the Sylvie Valayre "I can't be heard, I don't care if you sit front row orchestra" kind either. Tosca is a punishing role, and in Act II, her vocal line jumps off cliffs and falls squarely on the chest voice many times, the orchestra surging all the while. The middle range is tested, and as I've said before, many sopranos, including Gheorghiu, begin to fail in this arena by mid-career. She, however, maintained full volume in the upper-middle and upper registers: I distinctly remember pulling back in response to her arching screams (on pitch) during one exchange with Scarpia. Gheorghiu wasn't served by comparisons with Terfel's booming baritone, as well as the kind of support Levine's "I don't give a flying f*" conducting lent, but in terms of sheer decibel, I didn't think Gheorghiu was close to being "barely audible." These diaries may appear to like La Gheorghiu much more than others, but loudmouth Sieglinde's the first to condemn a singer for not meeting fundamental requirements of operatic singing (volume and pitch).

There won't be any second chances to "clean out" my instrument for a reevaluation of the sonic size of Gheorghiu's Met Tosca. Fortunately, there are tapes. Faulty as they may be, tapes should at least be able to distinguish between "barely audible" and "normal." I'll report as soon as one of them surfaces.