14 December 2005

Tragedy, part 3

Verdi RIGOLETTO, Met 13.12.2005; c. Fisch; Netrebko, Melo (d), Guelfi, Herrera, Halfvarson, Courtney.

I won't go much deeper than to say I was quite disappointed by what I heard tonight, and to explain why, in the fewest possible mean words. This goes beyond the last-minute cancellation by tenor du jour Rolando Villazon and the resulting debut of longtime Met cover Raul Melo. I can forgive the nerves, the lack of power, the insecure money notes--can you imagine a more stressful opportunity to debut, with the house packed and wound for the centerfold lyric couple, expecting ecstacy? I believe I can tune off much of the hype and blogbuzz, as well as compensate for the requisite pain from the fall from unreasonable expectations--and I tried my best to give the music that extra lift in the ear, the added sparkle and ting, but one can't do that all evening and not get exhausted.

Anna Netrebko's voice has darkened considerably since her debut season a few years ago; it has a lovely, tearful hue. But the top notes are conspicuously absent, and faced with a voice that likes to travel by land instead of air, this Gilda isn't your conventional studio-CDable creation. That could be good and exciting, except that there is a laziness intrinsic to the technique, a sort of amateur musicality that is so noticeable in this thinly orchestrated Verdi. Moreover, Gilda demands considerable pinpoint accuracy in the handful of coloratura passages written for her; Netrebko doesn't like to dot and puncture directly at the notes, and instead legatoes/finesses her way up to them. She tends to lose steam at the end of phrases (during duets); labored singing exhausts the listener as well. The over-all result isn't the prettiest line; whatever hints of inspiration are quickly overcome by the insecurity of the voice in this particular music. Certainly, too many recorded and live Gildas in one's memory bank can be toxic to its live performance, but there's a reason why certain types of voices sing certain types of roles. She sings Violetta, which I haven't heard (live or recorded): that may be her better vehicle. Tonight, she had an endearing 'Tutte le feste' but that aria doesn't make Gilda Gilda; the 'Caro nome' was professional, but even the penultimate top notes were omitted from what I thought was standard, singer-proof cadenza. (Oh, the half-empty house I attended a few years ago for one of Maureen O'Flynn's Gildas was closer to the mark, in my opinion, than this full house extravaganza.)

Essentially unhelpful, the pit, led by Maestro Asher Fisch, was mostly lukewarm in this music: may have been a bit too interested in precision such that blood wasn't easy to detect. Fisch was likely compensating for debutante Melo's tiny tenor, but there was palpable hesitancy even when the Duke wasn't on stage. Here we go ... regarding Carlo Guelfi, the tragedy is multilayered. People have said bad things about Juan Pons, but tonight how much did this stage miss him. Guelfi half-spoke/half-barked his way through Rigoletto's tremendous music, fading in and out, losing tonal integrity during key moments. But his most glaring fault is the lack of musical rapport with Gilda. The duets between Rigoletto and Gilda are among the most poignant in the Verdi canon: with a patched up baritone and a darkened soprano, the simple fire never came close to igniting any good emotion in my heart. I'll stop here.

I don't know how this will all sound this weekend; I suspect the return of Villazon will only add to everyone else's performance. But based on my observations, hype is all it is. (A similar hype surrounded the early years of the Gheorghius, but that was buttressed by true, magnificent singing.) Is Netrebko really just another Anna Kournikova? I hope I'm proven wrong.

Incidentally, Villazon waited till the last minute to withdraw, cancelling only after 5 p.m. (another tremendous strain on Raul Melo). (BTW, I don't forgive the lone booer who interrupted the applause following his 'Parmi veder le lagrime'. I've heard worse, from people not debuting under this kind of cauldron.) I'm told Villazon is suffering from allergies. Under more normal circumstances, he may have gone ahead and sang, but instead he decided to shore up his stuff for this weekend's critical broadcast (his broadcast debut, I believe). Entirely understandable. But that blows for me.