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Well, it’s been a few weeks since our last chat, and while there’ve been a few thoughts appearing at the Facebook page along the way, some things have become clear over the past 11 weeks of free nightly streams.  If this lockdown hasn’t upped your opera cachet dramatically, then on your own head be it…not like we haven’t done our part to intrigue the casual fencepole sitter!

But before we delve into the new material, let’s get everyone up to snuff with the previously vetted discussions, on three very different operas performed by three very different women…

Good GOD, what is WRONG with the Met?

After reading several negative reviews of the (admittedly bland and near twelve tone) score for the amazing production of Marnie the other week, we tuned in tonight to see the lovely Isabel Leonard again (here unrecognizable as a beefier brunette, but still quite fetching and showing off her…shall we say, admirable assets far moreso than as the trim and prim Marnie) in yet another modern production.

Unfortunately, this time the folks at the Met praise the no name composer as “the second coming of Benjamin Britten” (which should already warn the listener this may be somewhat subpar…) and his score, which began as a less interesting variant of the Marnie score, subsequently leapt headfirst into an unflushed toilet with the overlong appearance of an Audrey Luna as Ariel.

In a shockingly WTF moment, her entire aria/duet (and ongoing motif/trait in future appearances herein!) is to leap back and forth between two vastly separate atonal coloratura range notes, EXCLUSIVELY, for a good 5 minutes STRAIGHT.

The effect is like an apoplectic chihuahua yipping its little toy dog head off because she wants to be taken outside for a tinkle. The sheer ear grating inanity of composing and performing something so unutterably stupid, painful to listen to and presumably voice-ravaging as this suggests Mr. Thomas Ades be ushered outside the local British countryside barn and put out of his misery, lest he ever inflict his “compositional skills” on an unspecting public again…

And THAT’S the FI-nal WORD on THIS! (Scream that in three octave dissonant intervals at dog whistle pitch for the proper effect).

Thomas Adès’s The Tempest
Starring Audrey Luna, Isabel Leonard, conducted by Thomas Adès. From November 10, 2012.

You know, I never thought much of Renee Fleming till last night’s Marriage of Figaro.

The once much touted Cecilia Bartoli, who I recall having one of the more pleasant voices of her time, was a decidedly mediocre (if appropriately comedic and well acted) Susanna to her Countess, and the generally reliable Bryn Terfel was the man of the hour himself, but Fleming really stood out with a heretofore untapped (in my experience of her, mostly in her later career) chest voice mezzo that burst into crystalline bel canto lyric soprano.

One wonders if she was merely at the pinnacle of her powers being a decade or more younger, or if losing the weight made her lose all that resonance and power…she certainly didn’t display any of this in the recently aired farewell performance to her regular role in Der Rosenklavier!

Tip of the hat. The more this goes on, the more interesting material they seem to be unearthing…

Oh, and of course, like so many of the standout operas we’ve seen…not on home video! Someone needs to get these people at Deutsche Grammophon to get on this stuff already…

Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
Starring Renée Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Sir Bryn Terfel, conducted by James Levine. From November 11, 1998.

Not a fan of French opera per se (a quintessentially Italian art form, only select Germans (Wagner, Strauss) and Austrians (Mozart) could conjure even a passable facsimile thereof), but if there ever was a candidate for exception, it would be Massenet’s somewhat schizophrenic Manon.

Confusingly enough the subject of two operas by two very different composers under the same name (the other being the better known Manon Lescaut from soapy melodramatic drama queen and blowhard Giacomo Puccini, airing later this week), this is supposed to be a tale of a good girl gone bad, redeemed by love and a presumed “just punishment” ending in death. Pfft.

The inner workings hereof get a bit wacky, as the 15 year old Bardot type (right down to the quintessentially French schoolgirl outfit, long pigtail and coquettishly mischievous glint in the eye so familiar to fans of the younger BB) gets overwhelmed and tempted by the sights and potential of the Parisian demimonde and its rich patrons.

At first she whisks off into a quick but heartfelt courtship with a young Chevalier, but his uptight wealthy father (more on him later) arranges to kidnap him away from his bohemian love affair, leaving Manon to fend for herself and give in to the temptations of an easy life of patronage…while the Chevalier, embittered by the loss, becomes a novitiate for the priesthood.

But she eventually reunites with her first love, ending in a torrid evening in the chapel (oh, the scandal!) and using him as a front for her gambling hustle…which gets them both into hot water and leads to the expected unhappy ending, not so much when their accuser brings the police as when he drags in dear ol’ dad to bust them up again…

Despite how things may have been intended, it’s hard to read this one in any way other than the Chevalier’s father being a prime asshole whose sole mission in life is to ruin two lives: that of his own son, to protect the family name from scandal, and that of poor Manon, the lower class “bad influence” who keeps “corrupting” and distracting sonny boy from whatever asinine plans he has for him (his only other appearance is an attempt to dissuade him from pursuing the priesthood – no matter WHAT the kid does, if it’s not what daddy intends, it’s a no go!)

The score is all over the damn place, so light and silly as so feel inept and unfinished during the solely instrumental bits and oddly crossing light and airy sprechtgesang with moments of blatant spoken word (which leaves much of the opera rather bleh) and some dazzling arias and duets, filled with power and emotion.

Perhaps these saving graces can be laid more on the ever reliable Piotr Beczala and the voice (and actress!) of our generation, Anna Netrebko (who throws herself into nearly every role I’ve seen her in with surprising vigor, directness and raw sexuality), but if the entire opera ran more along the lines of these stunning high points, it would make a real case for French opera. As it stands, it’s standard fare, but with some very powerful moments.

But damn, that father has a LOT to answer for…namely the happiness and lives of his own son and the woman who loved him.

Massenet’s Manon
Starring Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala, conducted by Fabio Luisi. From April 7, 2012.

This far in to an 11 week, (almost) 7 day a week operatic marathon (there was a ridiculous time waster of a documentary on the building of the Met itself and the wonderful live from the divas’ homes Gala, the latter of which was previously addressed in an earlier post), and while the best (and worst) may have been addressed in these pages, there are indubitably several that will remain in memory.

Perhaps not as spectacular as the finest Netrebko performances (the savvy will note we refrained from discussing three or four far lesser productions she was head shakingly involved with, also aired along the way herein – and no, we don’t mean the oddly staged but wonderfully performed and moody Macbeth by that statement), these range from quirky but somehow quite palatable modernized stagings to quite likeable performances from perhaps less bombastic, sexual or well acted leads…who still had some je n’sais quoi working decidedly in their favor as singers, or whose performances stood out from the expected tired regurgitations of lighter, less memorable opera repetoire.

Case very much in point: the lovely Natalie Dessay’s well acted and surprisingly nuanced performance in the lead role of Bellini’s Sonnambula.  A light, silly comedy marred by the vindictive forcefulness of the male “hero”, this features a rather threadbare tale of a local village whose “innocent jewel” is afflicted with the titular medical condition, which leads her into hot water when she is discovered sleeping in the hotel room of the local Count (who unlike our rather crass President or “America’s Dad” Bill Cosby, did the honorable thing and walked away from her unknowing but easily mistaken nocturnal advances).

The groom reacts worse than the villagers and our poor lead is shunned by all save her longsuffering mother, until the Count returns to plead her innocence in the matter, couple reconciled, happy ending.

That is, if you hadn’t endured the very Latin temper of Juan Diego Florez, who all but beats our heroine amidst a torrent of whore slurs and literally ripping his engagement ring from her finger to fling her across the stage floor!  Talk about a turning point in the proceedings…my wife and I were both aghast (and she far more virulently than my own flabbergasted self) – whether in the libretto or an ad lib by the male lead, his acting here took things simply a step too far into nigh-Shelter Our Sisters territory.  And this in a light comedy?

Even so – check this one out for Dessay, she’s quite spectacular herein, delivering notes that sound quirkily wrong in their breathiness and lack of surety before quickly resolving into powerful coloratura runs with some real and unexpected power behind them.  I’ll definitely keep an eye on this lady – a performance that assured cannot be written off as a one off.

Bellini’s La Sonnambula
Starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, conducted by Evelino Pidò. From March 21, 2009.

On a similar but rather less offensive note comes a rather silly (but somehow appropriate) 1950’s greaser cum 70’s sitcom staging of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

The old trope of a bar room bet sends two officers off on a long, convoluted tale of wife…well, technically fiancee swapping, jumping in and out of roles as themselves and their “Albanian” alter egos, each of whom courts the other man’s girl to prove to themselves that their women are, after all, faithful.  Don’t ask for what you don’t want to know, guys…

That’s pretty much the entire thing, though there is a world weary truck stop waitress type who advises the confused ladies and a seedy Don who bet the guys on this nonsense in the first place…it’s absurd, overlong and leaves the audience rolling its collective eyes, but while unutterably stupid at core, has its moments (particularly given the oddball John Waters staging) and nothing so jaw droppingly offensive as Juan Diego Flores’ overly rough treatment of Natalie Dessay in La Sonnambula.  Performances are average, with the gents out performing the ladies for a change, but nothing to write home about – this one’s all about the staging.

Mozart’s Così fan tutte
Starring Amanda Majeski, Serena Malfi, Kelli O’Hara. conducted by David Robertson. From March 31, 2018.

Another pleasant visual that just seemed to drag on and on came by means of what I understand to be Renee Flemings’ final performance in the role, in Strauss’ overlong Der Rosenkavalier.

A sort of simplified take on The Rose of Versailles/Lady Oscar thing, this one features some heavy lavender screen overtones, with a rather butch gender bending Elina Garanca as the (ahem) “young man” romancing French princess Fleming, but this is not the Renee Fleming that took the earlier reviewed Nozze di Figaro by storm.

No, this is a post-slimming Fleming, whose chest voice, power and resonance seem to have faded all but entirely.  She still carries a light and pleasant bel canto voice, but it’s comparatively sotto voce and undistinguished – the Fleming I’d been used to from more recent years, not the bombastic if perhaps oddly unassuming diva of her late 90’s heyday.

As such, what we’re left with is a truly lovely and era appropriate bedroom set and some likeably relaxing background music that evokes a far better story and the much beloved anime that resulted therefrom.  Interesting, and perhaps of even greater interest to those of a given orientation…but hardly essential.

Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
Starring Renée Fleming, Elina Garanca. conducted by Sebastian Weigle. From May 13, 2017

One where both staging and performances worked to a combined advantage was an unexpectedly excellent 50’s Las Vegas “Rat Pack” take on the hoary Rigoletto, with Zeljko Lucic as the embittered, revenge driven hunchback clown, the ever dependable Piotr Beczala as the smooth player and ladies man of a Duke and Beczala’s luckless, lovelorn innocent of a daughter played by Diana Damrau (last seen traipsing about in a wonderful Met At Home Gala moment).

When sidekick and sycophant Rigoletto mocks the cuckolded husband of the Duke’s latest conquest, the latter “puts a curse” on him…which being opera, naturally comes true when the Duke turns his attentions to his beloved daughter.  Swearing revenge, Rigoletto puts a hit on the hapless Duke…only to be taken when his hitman’s stripper sister takes a shine to the guy.  Whose body to deliver?  Could it be the Duke’s enamored daughter, come to warn her former lover of his impending doom?

A straightforward Verdi tragedy, filled with his typically powerful, bombastic scoring and forceful arias, duets and ensembles alike, Rigoletto has long been a staple of opera troupes everywhere…but when removed to this particular context, with Rigoletto’s “clown” status and hump downplayed to emphasize a more internal and metaphorical level of misanthropic fool, Verdi’s themes only become more dramatically pronounced.  An excellent opera all around, for which all involved are to be commended.

Verdi’s Rigoletto
Starring Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, and Željko Lucic, conducted
by Michele Mariotti. From February 16, 2013.

Oh, what Natalie Dessay could have made of this!

A production marred mainly by a cast of newcomers and the untried (from the leads right down to the conductor, many of these folks were first timers to the Met and possibly to opera at this level per se), one of the most loveable and light heartedly amusing of Donizetti’s scores managed to squeak through mainly on its intrinsic charms and the winning composition of Gaetano Donizetti himself.

check out this Serge Gainsbourg looking motherfucker… backstage, it’s quite blatant. Serge said “give back my face!”

South African Pretty Yende (even the lady’s name suggests a pair of brass ones on someone’s part…) delivers an acceptable if indistinguished lead, with a tonality that suggests the chest voice of Jessye Norman, but working a coloratura bel canto.  As you can imagine, it’s an odd fit, and while she hits the required notes, there’s little “with gusto” to be noted herein – it’s fairly lackluster throughout.

About the best you can say here is in relation to the Dmitri Hvorostovsky clone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, who delivers a solid and assured snake oil salesman who inadvertently becomes the central player in our little tale, which revolves around a young man’s singleminded passion for Yende’s woman of apparent easy virtue (and make no mistake, she’s proud of it, it’s all over her arias and duets!) and her tormenting of the poor fool.

Until, that is, Dr. Dulcamara comes to town, promising a cure all for every woe in every bottle…including but not exclusive to his titular “love potion”, which gives the young man renewed confidence, garners him some serious local female attention and finally turns our lead’s cold heart towards him, to the point where she buys out his military contract just so he can be with her.

Oh, and there’s a guy who’s a dead ringer for Serge Gainsbourg who’s both in the military and a rival for her affections.  Don’t worry about him, just start humming your favorite off colour Gainsbourg ditty when he comes onstage.

Bottom line, it still works…but it would have been so much better in the hands of La Sonnambula’s virtuosic Natalie Dessay, or the fun loving couple who met and married over their performances in this very opera, Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak (as seen in a wonderful Met At Home Gala performance, strutting, dancing and acting all ’round their library piano).

At least Yende looked cute in the top hat and red cutoff jacket in an early village scene…

Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore
Starring Pretty Yende, Matthew Polenzani, Ildebrando
D’Arcangelo, conducted by Domingo Hindoyan. From February 10, 2018.