Verdi LA TRAVIATA, Met 04.02.2006; c. Armiliato; Gheorghiu, Kaufmann (d), Michaels-Moore.
Angela Gheorghiu, with that limpid lyric voice of a throbbing, lachrymose sound, fulfills all of Violetta's musical requirements merely by showing up in costume. When her voice flutters like a butterfly with cut wings, even during moments of joy and celebration, one is led to believe: a finite voice, in all its artful artifice and calculated architecture, breaks free of such limitations (as well as the parameters set by the score, stage, and physics) to give voice to our murky, shapeless emotions, and we forget how FAKE opera is. But the deception is by no means complete: despite the intrinsic sonic glory of Gheorghiu's Violetta, there are three major seams that need to be corrected: (1) over-the-top dramatic deportment, (2) careless vocal projection, and (3) bizarre tempo tendencies.
First: Gheorghiu's behavior on stage borders on hysteria. She overwhelms the production not by grand (yet simple) gestures but with lots of little nutty ticks and frantic movements. There are moments when such things are effective, but a monotonous kind of literal intensity held throughout the evening inevitably loses its sting, and quickly becomes visually tiring. Balance and measure make a Violetta more sympathetic, while a comical madness only confirms many stereotypes of opera. Some may find those things necessary aspects of 'diva', but what's more diva than to hold the attention of 4,000 by not moving at all. The kind of complexity and nuance in the sound emanating from Gheorghiu's throat jars with her crude stage presence: I recommend a more quiet set of motions to suggest some basic inner torment.
Second: Gheorghiu does not have a big voice, and therefore intelligent sound projection becomes critical in a cavern like the Met's. Some odd positioning, whether it's from poor stage direction or a diva doing her own thing regardless, resulted in significantly compromised aural impact: for instance, she runs to the back during the "Follie! Follie!", rendering the "sola, abbandonata" almost inaudible because she's still facing backstage. (Similarly, "E strano" is uttered while facing away, but since it occurs without orchestration, the only problem may have been the absence of 'face' to illustrate a turn of emotion.) Meanwhile, in the Carmen costume party in Act II, she was positioned far into that huge Zeffirelli during the heartrending "Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core," defeating her attempts at piano. (In contrast, Renee Fleming was only a few feet from the pit.) During Act III, Alfredo and Violetta's reunion music is sung directly to one another (face to face), with little regard for how much sound actually escapes out through the fourth wall. In some cases, the dramatic impact of such in-the-moment singing probably outweighs any physical considerations; elsewhere, however, Gheorghiu's habit of twirling around and singing to the furniture makes her voice seem even smaller.
Third: Like a girl on speed, Gheorghiu likes a faster pace, leaving everyone else languishing in more conventional tempi. She surges through Act II's "Dite alla giovine" with essentially the same temperament as Act I's "A quell'amore ch'e palpito"; the orchestra, here and in many other instances, finds itself involved in a pointless game of tug-of-war; the diva, by virtue of diva, wins every match; but we are all left with scenes that miss the overwhelming power of Verdi's quiet peaks. I venture to say that Maestro Marco Armiliato, who led without a score, bears the "correct" tempi. I don't think he has any interest in hanging out and milking dry the maudlin aspects of the score; there simply is an attempt to air the latent lyricism: nothing wrong with that. Moreover, this Violetta is vocally capable of drawing out the pathetic face of the character with a calmer pace (she may not have a large voice, but she has large lungs); I really don't understand why there is a rush to get to the next bar. Maestro Armiliato is an unusually attentive conductor, who has led this season's Cyranos with an energetic gayness, never the one to insipidly wallow in sugar: he should be given a chance to dictate the over-all pulse. Meanwhile, Armiliato (fast becoming one of Sieglinde's favored conductors) should also be credited with sensitively scaling down the pit further than usual, to accommodate Gheorghiu's precious decibels, and to do so without actually sending half the orchestra members home early. (This, by the way, has the side effect of rendering the Alfredo of debutante Jonas Kaufmann and the Germont of Anthony Michaels-Moore majestically Wagnerian in size.) The maestro must have a heart-to-heart with the diva before this coming weekend, for this point is the only purely aural issue (as far as microphones are concerned), and the one that can detract from a potentially historic 'she has finally arrived (... in NYC ... as Violetta)' broadcast.
A DAY LATER: Rereading the above, finding how petty many of the points seem, makes me question what the hell I want from life. One can easily read this post, diagnose Sieglinde to be a bitter 30-something in need of love and attention (or at least a good lay), and float on to better, more upbeat blogthings. These words may be a monument to the unhappy existence of the opera fan, not for the eternal longing for that performance in my mind, but for the mystery that colossally greater heights can be achieved by a synergistic action of little details done well: and no, it doesn't take a hack-connoisseur to experience such a separate ecstasy, for I know sensitive amateurs recognize when an indescribable magical thing happens on the operatic stage. (Think of your first experience with great wine, or fresh uni, or a new sexual position.) It is an elusive gathering of stardust: and when an artist like Angela Gheorghiu graces our lives with a vista of (or)(g)astronomic (de)light, we want more because we're reminded, yet again, that we can't live by bread and Prada alone. The law of diminished returns does not apply when the heights of artistry are concerned, for those 'petty' details are the rare jewels in the seams which distinguish legend from great, Diva from another Pretty Voice, metaphysical rapture from just a grand, glittery evening at the old opera house.