16 December 2004

Never the Same

My third Met Rodelinda

Addiction. Odd to think that I've seen Rodelinda three times already, but now its music is part of the constellation of my daily life. I'm finding that the sextet performance varies quite significantly in the three evenings, with the premiere night the best vocally over-all. My second was the cast's second as well, and everyone (save Bejun Mehta and Stephanie Blythe) seemed to have relaxed down from their intense adrenaline prima posture and delivered a good (but still admirable) product. Last night, the heart of the run, they've all managed to find their world-class stride, with the exception of Mehta, who was taken off after Act I and replaced by Theodora Hanslowe. It was so obvious that Mehta was ailing in Act I, as his little show stopping ditty, which he delivered with true vivace style previously, never took off, and instead weakened so much that the conductor Harry Bicket was forced to shush the orchestra to almost a whisper by its end. The collective audience sensed it, as they received it with lukewarm applause (when, of course, at this point on previous evenings, Mehta temporarily overtakes David Daniels in the applause/bravo meter measure). The serendipitous comparison with Hanslowe reveals that countertenors possess at least the power and presence of a light mezzo (but with Daniels' cabernet instrument a couple of sizes larger).

Diva undressed. My third experience with Diva Renée Fleming allows me to look beyond the cookies and cream and give a more balanced assessment of her work as Rodelinda. The delicious sauterne of her voice can overwhelm anyone's palate and in a single sitting will impress beyond words. But then multiple tastes of her rich voice in a Handel role presents a series of mini-paradoxes, which when gathered become significant: singlehandedly, she brought this production into fruition, yet among the principals she's probably the least qualified to sing Handel; she's the title role, yet there's always this wish to hear her golden instrument in anything but; along with Daniels, she delivers the most heart and pathos to her role, yet certainly Handel was limited by his era, and his music (no matter his genius) just doesn't (and can't) anticipate verismo, such that Renée's constant battle with the mechanical harpsichord (and I feel the harpsichordist needs a bit of flexibility himself), with her predilection to recline the voice into a 19th century legato, somewhat tears the neat celestial balance; she is technically flawless, has always been, yet her technique can't quite grasp the requisite cleanliness of the baroque line; she is diva, free to choose whatever role she can contemplate, yet she chose a vehicle that doesn't utilize her extravagant gifts to the fullest. Some argue that the Met Il Pirata two years ago was a stretch; I'm not one of them, and in fact if there's a neglected genre that needs a diva, it's bel canto, a genre that comes to life, relies almost exclusively on the individual interpreters that bring them to being. I have no argument about bringing Handel to the masses, but solely in terms of Renée, I would say that this is a detour costly for all of us and for opera.

An ecstatic renunciation. Having said all that, Renée is the one singer that can still pull it off. This is the ultimate paradox. Indeed, the confetti that rained from the upper balconies is testament to the singular power of Diva with Voice. Our beloved art is more art than art itself, and the magic of a holy voice transcends any critic's petty existence and any roach fan's backroom bickerings.

Icing on the cake. Now back to more mundane matters: Daniels last night was nearly the Daniels from premiere night, and even if he never reaches the peak again, he'd still leave a grand legacy in the form of the new year's day broadcast. It's an impossible role, and there's no active mezzo that I know who can do anything close to Daniels' work. (Question: who is covering this role for the Met??) His smoky, 3-D instrument is beyond a Barnum & Bailey falsetto-spectacle. This is the real thing. His duet with Fleming ("Io t'abbraccio"), as I've said before, remains a season highlight.

Ornamentations. Blythe wants to "live on the down low." Her voice is built an upright pyramid (opposite your typical soprano construction), solid and unbelievably resonant in the bottom and middle, but her top, while still pitch-accurate, seems to have only been grafted on out of necessity, lacking the polish and grace that La Horne (despite her apparent difficulty up there) possessed. But once she plunges down there, her voice evolves into a formidable hammer, made even more gargantuan by the spare trappings of a Handel movement. The Met will be wise to cater to her further development, for we have a superstar voice that will soon enough be dictating its own opera settings and new productions a la Fleming. As for Kobie van Rensburg, I will quote Bill Fregosi's opera-l post, which sums up my view (to the letter) of his work as Grimoaldo: "Earlier, a list member asked why Kobie van Rensburg didn't get more applause for his performance. He seems a valuable artist but I will make two observations: the voice while well placed, bright and of good size is not particularly beautiful;and his coloratura while absolutely secure and fluent is also somewhat hard and mechanical. He is a handsome presence and a very good actor." And the role of Garibaldo is too short for John Relyea to exhibit his, uhm, sizeable gifts. His two rocking arias (in Acts I and II) were nice little jewels, and his thigh-high leather boots are da bomb.

Supersized Handel. The Met walls shake for Wagner and Strauss, Verdi and Puccini; the strings vibrato across the wide hall and immerse the queen in unholy sound. Handel has none of that; the truncated orchestra (about three dozen players) emits a musically/technically accurate sound, but passes through the cavernous auditorium just once, and to those who make the Met their second home (me, me, me), the over-all effect is disappointingly flat, much like attending a philharmonic evening at Avery Fisher Hall. The feeling I treasure is staggering out of the Met into the cold New York night nearly spent from bearing a thunderous aural orgy; none of this happens during Rodelinda evenings. New York must build a space for baroque.