14 January 2009

Hard to swallow

Puccini LA RONDINE, Met 07.I.2009 and 13.I.2009; c. Armiliato; Gheorghiu/O'Flynn, Alagna, Oropesa, Brenciu, Ramey/Courtney.

The absence of the diva in last night's La Rondine revealed just how little there is in this Puccini work, as well as in this particular production. La Rondine's plush melodies remained beautiful, but without a multi-dimensional Magda they fell mostly to the saccharine ranks of operetta. More accurately, the need may be for a multi-dimensional diva to imbue Magda with at least some flavor and mystery. Angela Gheorghiu, whom I saw last week (pictured above), is right for the role, and I can appreciate why she thinks it her mission to take it on a tour of the world's opera houses. Gheorghiu, in silence, can still command your attention, effectively steering you away from the gaps and uninteresting trivialities, composed mainly by the supporting cast. (I will not enumerate; you know who they are.) I exclude Roberto Alagna, whose voice isn't quite holding up, but whose sex appeal and swagger still win my heart every time.

But last night, cover Maureen O'Flynn stepped in for an ill Gheorghiu (and she better be really, really ill, and not just resting from the high-stakes HD simulcast over the weekend). I've heard O'Flynn a number of times throughout the years. The first time was Gilda, back when she still had resplendent top notes, masterfully accurate and resonant. I was there when she subbed for an ailing Natalie Dessay in Romeo et Juliette; I actually preferred her soft Juliette to Dessay's usual elaborate overbearing excess. There was a Violetta or two, at par with the extensive roster of singers that have sung it at the Met in the past decade. Currently, however, it seems to me that her top notes have begun to lose their sheen. It's thinned out considerably, at times labored and pushed. Her middle range, unmemorable to begin with, is devoid of any complexity or weight, struggling to rise above Puccini's rich orchestra.

When people say that role X fits diva Y perfectly, as if the composer wrote specifically for her, I roll my eyes. But in this case, it's a true characterization: Angela Gheorghiu is the perfect Swallow (feel free to now roll your eyes). Her top notes remain brilliant, but it's the rest of her voice that performs the magical task of sustaining interest throughout the opera. Stage presence, histrionics, mannerisms all worked to perfection. The natural melancholic tint of her lyrical voice provided the welcome pathos. And her interaction with her husband is a further layer of thrill, stoking the voyeur in everyone.

Maestro Marco Armiliato led with overflowing life and joy, boisterous as a young lover, naive and sentimental. He conducted without a score (as his usual practice), but this time, on the podium desk rested two little heart-shaped paper cutouts, which during breaks in the music he studiously put side by side if they ever got out of position. After the last note of the opera was played, he picked both up and threw them lightly in the air.