15 March 2007

Aegyptische Helena Prima Day

1. Deborah Voigt is back at the Met, looking slimmer than ever. But how is her voice? It continues to (d)evolve as she sheds poundage, and it is a cause for concern to me. I approach tonight's prima with unaccustomed suspicion, a little nostalgia, but also some amount of hope.

2. I was a staunch admirer of the pre-gastric bypass Voigt sound: a classic sonic mass that flowed generously, and without strain reached to fill every crack and crevice of my metaphysical being. A generous portion of lard. Or an echoing chorus in church. Or a high cliff singing if it could. Less about what the voice did with words, it was its sheer physical presence, the pleasurable superfeminine bulk, that charmed me into toxic submission. Her Sieglinde, Die Kaiserin, Chrysothemis, and Ariadne thrilled me beyond words. (I regret missing her Elsa.) I had found my comfort food at the opera house.

3. Then, the gastric bypass heard 'round the world. After the operation (June 7, 2004), her first outing at the Met (as Elisabeth) on November 18 of the same year (!) was a remarkable success. She was minus 80 lbs., but the glory of her voice, save for very minor glitches, seemed to have survived the brutal change. Then, there was a run of Ballo Amelias in April, 2005 that didn't make unusual news, and a concert of German operatic works (with Ben Heppner) at Avery Fisher in November the same year, at which point it seemed the sonic architecture of the voice was still largely intact. All the while, her weight continued to drop. In the spring of 2006, she continued her Italian campaign at the Met with a reprise of her Forza Leonora and then the unveiling of her first Met Tosca. During this two-month span was when I noticed first real signs of trouble: inconsistency in power and pitch, tentativeness, frayed edges, which (with a measure of fan-pardon) can be worked to a dramatic advantage in Tosca but can never fly in the Verdi. At that point, the voice, precarious, could have gone either way. Meanwhile, a tentatively scheduled Bruennhilde for the 2008-09 Met Ring cycle was dropped. Which I of course took as further evidence of distress.

4. In the fall of 2006, the Salome at Chicago's Lyric Opera: Voigt was unanimously praised by the print press and the internet public, echoing to one another the conventional wisdom that the drastic weight loss had not (thank heavens, hallelujah) altered the sonic velvet at all. I'm not a singer (though I possess a solid high B-flat in falsetto, I swear), I don't claim to know the fine aspects of vocal anatomy and production, but speaking purely from the realm of bio-physics, it would surely be a stunning feat if shedding nearly half one's mass does not affect the sound that resonates in, and emanates from, the complex musculature of the neck, chest, and diaphragm. I had held on to the hope of such a miracle. Till Chicago. To my ears, things have indeed changed, perhaps irreversibly. Voigt's Salome did not impress me as much as I had hoped. It may have been the poor acoustics at the upper reaches of the Lyric, an unfamiliar vantage point, or the rage of Karita Mattila still echoing in the empty chambers of my skull. But more likely it was the rich sound of Voigt pre-bypass, the sound I could ID half-drunk, blindfolded, and tied upside down in a Polish prison, that haunted my evening. To me, that sound was no longer there, and Voigt was nowhere in its vicinity. She acted well, she threw herself into the drama and words with an admirable intensity, but alas without the thing that mattered (to me) most.

5. (Not?) coincidentally, I temporarily suspended blogging around that time of the Chicago Salome. My partner saw it was my reluctance to face the disappointment in such a public venue. I was also busy hammering together a "career," but now I recognize a bit of truth in my partner's acute analysis.

6. Which brings me to tonight's Die Aegyptische Helena.