Patti LuPone tonight. Hoping to REALLY piss her off by taking two cellphones. One with a big flash to set or off and another to ring REALLY loud during selected standards…like “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledged the rising soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky. Sadly I missed Ms. Radvanovsky’s Leonora because I was busy having a mental breakdown, but I’ve had the privilege of hearing her live…and privilege is an understatement. Ms. Radvanovsky’s voice is like a big layer of chocolate cake yet she still shapes phrases with lyrical grace and silvery top notes. But more importantly, she’s an actress and clearly cares about her characters. She’s a consummate musician who thinks about what she is delivering to an audience. She’s trim (for the most part) and quite beautiful and deserves all the buzz she’s courted in the opera world…
In conjunction with my article about Le Comte Ory at the Metropolitan Opera this week, I got to thinking about singers today. As usual, the critics had their way with each singer’s voice. The problem is, tastes are so diverse and so personal, it’s hard to really get a general consensus. The laundry list of qualifications - Is it really Bel Canto singing? Is the voice warm enough? Is the coloratura precise? Is the voice too small? - all play an unfair factor in assessing a singer…and you thought the fashion industry presented an unrealistic standard of beauty?
Every critic judges a voice based on some paradigm - consciously or otherwise - and so, most assessments of singers comes down to simple comparison. Here in lies the problem: every voice is different. Every. It’s the same as attempting to judge which fingerprint is the best.
Personally, I tend to favor singers who use their voices as an instrument for the drama. I welcome expressivity, unique phrasing, even ornamentations as long as they are justified by intention and drawn from the text. Sure, there are certain vocal qualities that are not to my taste, and there are voices that are just plain bad. The ultimate measure for a singer’s sound should be, Is this a sound you want to listen to?
But when I’m in an opera house, I want more than sounds. I want artistry, personality, and risk.
Diana Damrau is an extremely talented young artist. She is - by and large - beloved by the opera public for her musicianship and technical prowess.
I seem to be in the minority of people who are not totally enamored with everything she does. She has a beautiful voice - I find it a tad strident at times - and she’s an intense, energetic actress. I just haven’t been moved by her on stage before. To me, she seems to lack any personal statement as an actress and artist.
So, I found myself perturbed after reading Anne Midgette’s assessment of her performance in Le Comte Ory. Ms. Midgette wrote, “[Diana Damrau] phrased with skill and sensitivity to express the nuances of her character’s sometimes outraged modesty. I wanted a little less nuance. Italian opera wasn’t written to be delievered with good taste; I wished Damrau had taken more opportunity to show off.”
As a longtime reader/fan of Ms. Midgette, I found this comment to be puerile and insulting. Clearly, Ms. Midgette wants Ms. Damrau to sing her music with a gorgeous tone in full voice…and nothing else. Essentially, Ms. Midgette is implying that Ms. Damrau’s singing is too thoughtful and personal, when it should just be blandly pretty. Whatever happened to musicianship? Why shouldn’t she sing this music her own way? Without any personal stamp, what distinguishes her from any other soprano? Moreover, isn’t the practice of pulling nuances from the music part of the drama? I would define that as acting through the voice - something which opera critics bemoan the loss of.
More frightening was a blurb on Ms. Damrau in an article by Anthony Tommasini who wrote, “Some critics thought Ms. Damrau’s Rosina in Bartlett Sher’s inventive new production of Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” this season was too willful and intense; a sweet but resolute young woman emerged as a quarrelsome spitfire.”
What is the point of performing these operas time and again if you don’t have a fresh take on them? It is stultifying enough to put a mandate on singing, but the suggestion that there is only one way to play a certain character debunks all notion of opera as drama. This isn’t literature, it’s theater.
No one asks Kevin Kline to do Hamlet ala Sr. Lawrence Olivier. Why not release Rosina from the clutches of…god. Who knows how many sopranos!?
Every element of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory,” which opened this week, has been chewed over by critics and opera lovers.
There have been pro, con and mixed reactions to the director Bartlett Sher’s production; to the singer’s voices; and to Maurizio Benini’s conducting of Rossini’s score. By now, this has become de rigueur for a new production at the Met; since Peter Gelb became general manager, new productions frequently draw mixed to lukewarm reviews.
Gelb has drawn heavy criticism from the opera world in just about every respect. Most accuse Gelb of favoring attractive singers over stronger voices. Others surmise that he’s building new productions specifically for HD transmissions - hiring directors and singers who use a naturalistic approach to acting with a small economy of movement that wouldn’t read from a stage.
This week, in a bold stroke , Gelb wrote an article for the New York Times that addressed almost every accusation aimed at him. It was a fascinating read and I thought it was long overdue.
If you ask any actor or director worth their salt, they’ll tell you that a motivated, believable performance will translate to the stage or screen - a point Gelb emphasized in the article.
Many opera critics feel that due to the HD transmissions, singers have been downsizing their performances; utilizing acting techniques that are too subtle to register in an vast opera house. They argue that opera requires a highly stylized performance with singers using big, expansive gestures.
The rationale for this argument, is that opera is a whole different animal than, say, film or theater and thus, should be staged differently. While I disagree, this assertion is not entirely untrue. Music is the drama in opera and it serves many aspects of the storytelling. However, opera is theater, and nuanced acting does not diminish any aspect of the art form.
Great actors of yore tended to move and emote in ways that, today, would be considered beyond camp. Indeed, using larger-than-life gestures, mannered intonation, and affected speech-patterns, the Shakespeare of the early 20th century, was not the Shakespeare of today. Styles change. Perception changes. By the early 20th century, a whole new school of emerging directors, actors, and playwrites - who strove for verisimilitude and increasingly complex characters - changed everything.
Even screen performances have changed. Just compare any movie from the 20’s, 50’s to today, and you’ll see a distinct difference in the acting styles.
Opera has long been confined to it’s own little bubble - the preservation of the music has fostered the notion that everything be preserved. But opera must evolve as all other drama has over time. Hamlet’s text has largely survived unaltered through the centuries, but the readings/interpretations have changed and evolved.
Bart Sher’s production of South Pacific was a great example of how music, drama, and heightened emotions can merge into a transcendental experience at the theater. Lavishing as much detail on the music as on the acting (with an exquisite cast of singing actors), these characters, once thought of as dated, suddenly emerged as living, breathing people. The singing was perfection, the acting was subtle and nuanced; when the characters broke into song, they tapped into a well of complex emotions that cannot be achieved through mere prose.