Il Dougo in New Yorkia

Date: April 18, 1999

There are a certain number of combinations of place and time which are unforgettable.  All elements blend beautifully, creating an indelible lifelong memory.  My trip to New York City from April 5-April 12, 1999 was one of these delicious moments.

Operatically speaking, the week began with one of two performances I attended of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (April 6 and April 9).  Much has already been said about the appropriateness and audibility of this opera at the Met.  These are issues of critics, rather than real human beings.  Anyone in attendance, listening with their heart rather than a picky brain, must certainly agree as to the extreme power and effectiveness of this work.  And what a cast!

Renée Fleming, probably my favorite current female singer (with a major nod to Olga Borodina, as well as the rising Stephanie Blythe), was in excellent form as Susannah.  I've never seen Fleming act with such passion and drive before:  she clearly identifies with this tortured character.  The descent into lunacy was fully believable.  I've always known Fleming to be a fabulous singer, but this level of acting from her is new to me and certainly welcome.  Vocally, there are no complaints to be made.  Fleming has the most ravishing tone I've ever experienced, and this music is a perfect vehicle for the demonstration of that plush instrument.  The chest voice, in particular, was in wonderful shape, melding dramatic message and vocal beauty into one fabulous whole.  Both arias were exquisite, especially "The trees on the mountain," which captured Susannah's loneliness and hunger for human contact.  Fleming added a jazzy, blue-note embellishment from B-flat to C toward the end of that piece, inflecting tremendous desire into her ravishing pianissimo.  Few singers can do vocal tricks like this, much less make them dramatically effective.  I love Renée Fleming.

Speaking of audibility:  except for the climactic note of "Ain't it a pretty night," when Conlon conducted Susannah as if it were Mahler's Eighth, Fleming's every note could be heard.  The whole voice projects well (at least to my seat in the Family Circle)  I saw the opera twice.   I heard her perfectly both times.  Fleming is not Tebaldi.  Fleming is not Nilsson.  I have a feeling the comparison to Price's voice is accurate:  rather than grabbing you by the you-know-what and forcing you to listen, the voice stands off a step, enticing you to come to it.  Frankly, that subtlety is attractive to me, especially when such fine artistry and beauty of tone is attached.

Samuel Ramey also has his detractors, but I am to be counted among his most ardent fans.  Not every portrayal needs to be foaming at the mouth; not every performer needs to be Magda Olivero.  Ramey inhabited the role of Olin Blitch with his own special chemistry:  one can certainly understand why Susannah wasn't very hesitant to go inside with him!  Ramey seemed to focus on Blitch's extreme piety, as all prayer the character does was infused with a deep sense of spirituality.  No, the Revival Meeting Scene probably can't be compared with Treigle's (so I am told), but who cares?  Ramey sounded like a million bucks and acted from the bottom of his huge heart.

As for the other characters, Jerry Hadley was an adorable older brother for Susannah, but he could have gone much further with Sam's relationship to the other characters in the opera.  His interactions with Little Bat seemed phoned in, rather than truly demonstrating why Little Bat is so scared of him.  I can't say Hadley's singing is very impressive, but his characterization is good and his diction is superb.  The same can be said for John McVeigh as Little Bat, whose enunciation (we're talking every single word) made up for his truly strange acting and character tenor voice.  Still, he created a wonderful foil for Fleming's insanity.  Joyce Castle's Mrs. McLean illustrated the McCarthyian aspects of the work, playing up the creepy elements of her character.  The famous line "I wouldn't touch them peas of her'n" was delivered well.  The other comprimarii ranged from inaudible (LeRoy Lehr) to frighteningly bad (Jane Shaulis).

As I already said, Conlon conducts Susannah as if it were something much larger.  He's not dealing with heldenvoices here and should conduct accordingly:  as a wise many once said, it is a conductor's job to let all the singers be heard all of the time.  Conlon's symphonic grandeur, while pleasant to the ear, I suppose, was unfair to the singers and therefore most inappropriate.

Next up was Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame, with a truly stellar cast.  Under Gergiev's authoritative, authentic direction, the whole affair had a wonderfully Russian flavor.  Elijah Moshinsky's production squeezes every ounce of emotional oomph out of the work, blending well with Mark Thompson's sparse sets and Paul Pyant's intense, moody lighting.

Plácido Domingo's Ghermann is a revelation, a troubling study in isolation and obsession.  The singing was ardent and ringing, putting those who insist the man has no squillo to rest.  Even though I usually care about such things, I forgive the man any transposition and rewriting he may have done.  So good was the acting and the singing that all such matters are irrelevant.  Not counting last years Star Crossed Lovers concert (with the heavenly Fleming), this was my first live experience of Domingo in opera.  I hope I can attend everything else the man ever does: devotion, passion, and that beautiful baritenor voice are all present in huge chunks at a Domingo performance.  He was announced as sick and seemed to be saving himself somewhat in the first act, but the second and especially the third acts were wonderful.  I know it's a little trite by now, but Bravo, Domingo!

Galina Gorchakova is a very individual singer, pleasing some and not others.  I rather enjoyed her large voice, even if she could use a little more legato and sensitivity.  Still, her death was passionate and her interactions with Domingo were very well done.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky's reading of Yeletsky's "Ya vas lyublyu bezmerno" was possibly the most beautiful male singing I've ever heard live (reminiscent of the Gounod Valentin I heard him do--what an "Avant de quitter ces lieux" that was).  Some irritatingly loud breathing aside, Hvorostovsky's legato line and ample tone are just perfect.  He's not the most seasoned actor, but with divine singing like that, WHO CARES?  (And who said Russians don't have Italianate style?  Hvorostovsky's got it, much more so than most Italians right now!)

Elisabeth Söderström's Old Countess took my heart out of my body and cleaved it in two.  Completely different from Rysanek's hellish performance (which I only saw on video), Söderström's Countess is the most pathetic, heart-rending portrayal imaginable.  The Gretry aria ("Je crains de lui parler la nuit") was the most effective moment of all, with the worn, broken voice fitting the worn, broken husk of a woman.  I can't say this is the vocal shape I like to hear Söderström in, but better to hear a great artist in poor shape than never hear her at all.  I will never forget my all-too-brief encounter with this legend.

Olga Borodina's Pauline was so unbelievably beautiful that I found myself pinching my cheeks to see if this could be reality.  What a voice!  Treating me to the same sonic splendor I experienced when I heard her Marina last year at the Met, Borodina poured out luscious phrase and luscious phrase, almost making me wish this were Pauline, rather than Pique Dame.  I would also like to point out that, from where I was seated, her piano playing was wonderfully realistic.  The Les Troyens in a couple of seasons, starring Voigt, Borodina, and Heppner, will be one of the highlights of my life.

The less I say about Nikolai Putilin's Tomsky, the better.  This man's voice and I are simply not compatible.

Special mention must go to Olga Trifonova's beautiful Chloë in the pastorale.  I read in Opera News that she sang Amina in La Sonnambula in Russia: I would love to have been there.  Give this woman roles!  My ear could almost hear her as Manon...I hope so!

I then had the immense pleasure of spending the afternoon at the home of a friend and most devoted opera fan to whom I had only heretofore spoken online!   Taking in some of opera's greatest moments on video and audio, I came to admire even more his love for all things operatic.  His joy and love for the art and for its practitioners are most contagious.  So good to finally put a face (and a voice!) to his name.

Next was a repeat visit to the Valley and Susannah.  All performers, particularly Fleming and Ramey, were even more on than the previous viewing, proving to me the value of seeing operas more than once (I pity anyone who cannot understand this concept).  I had the immense delight of meeting Howard (the admirer of Rodney Gilfrey, elsewhere on this website) as well as several other opera friends I was meeting "en real" for the first time.  Everyone was delightful--instant friends!.  It's amazing how opera and the Internet bring us together.  After the opera, we all joined the esteemed Norris (von Brabant, and website owner) at Journeys for cocktails (diet coke for me...) and conversation well into the night.

Saturday's pre-opera dinner with more internet friends at Shun Lee was also unbelievable.  Looking around at such a marvelous (and, frankly, good-looking) group of people made me step out of my critical shell for a moment and thank God for the friends I've been able to make.  I am so fortunate.

The Met's production of Giulio Cesare is one of the affairs that looks like garbage and sounds like gold.  Strangely enough, the production was simultaneously too chintzy and not glamorous enough.  The costumes, however, looked nice, if a little uncoordinated and anachronistic (surely Cleopatra's attendants didn't dress like showgirls).  John Nelson conducts with athleticism and beauty, finding a surprising amount of variety and detail in the score.  Horn playing aside, the orchestra behaved itself, if playing a good notch or two below their usual level.

Stephanie Blythe is the star of this production (similar to Borodina starring Pauline, part of me would rather have been at Cornelia than Cesare).  Like Marilyn Horne, she meets Handel's music on her own terms.  Her huge voice is actually more beautiful than Horne's, and she sings with so much care.  Her performance can stand next to Ludwig's (on that fabulous Opera D'Oro set) with pride, the highest compliment I can pay a mezzo attempting this role.  There isn't a role in the repertoire I wouldn't want to hear Blythe in, but perhaps things could begin with L'italiana or La favorite.

Sylvia McNair wasn't good, but she's hardly as bad as the rap she's getting.  People love to complain, and she is an easy target.  No, the soft singing wasn't even close to Sills.  No, the pitch wasn't very good.  No, the coloratura isn't the cleanest.  Still, she was miles better than I thought she would be, judging from her truly disgraceful "Love's Sweet Surrender" album, a frightening collection of colorless, straight tone Mozart arias.  Her portrayal was better than her singing, as she moves and looks well on stage.  Some of her antics (clearly designed for Battle, the Cleopatra last time the Met staged Cesare) were adorable and her performance, while hardly good, was not a disgrace.  Ninety-nine percent of the audience seemed to be enjoying her.  Frankly, I think that ninety-nine percent is more important than the one percent of us whose skin crawls when we hear straight-tone voices and sharp singing.  Not a disaster, not a success.  For me, she was just there.

Jennifer Larmore is a very strange, frustrating singer.  Her soft singing ("Aure, deh, per pieta") is lovely, but her coloratura is not attractive.  Rather aspirated and artificially dark (in vain, as her lower and lower-middle voices still didn't project very well), this type of movement is not what is expected of a coloratura specialist.  The registers are not well-blended at all, adding to the frustration.  Still, her manly walk and high C were excellent.

David Daniels' soft singing as Sextus is truly a wonder, particularly in "Cara speme".  His recitative was not as good, as his voice tended to get a little extra hooty when he sought dramatic effect.  It's fine if you're Callas, but let's not kid ourselves.  The duet of leave-taking with Blythe was one of the greatest vocal moments of the season.  His acting is very campy and cartoonish, not in keeping with what I expected.

Brian Asawa has a beautiful voice, which carried well without being force.  He looked marvelous, baring his chest as Ptolomey.  His trill is good and I'd love to hear more from him (he's beautiful on the Davis A Midsummer's Night Dream).  Daniel Taylor sounds the most like a "real woman" of the three, although his costume robbed any seriousness he was trying to achieve.  Apparently Nirenius used to be an Ewok.  Julien Robbins was fine, if not particularly adept at coloratura, as Achillas.

I attended the Met Council Finals Auditions on Sunday.  The only singer there ready for a career was Kelly Kaduce, who made very individual statements out of the Jewel Song and the Song to the Moon.  She took a lot of weight up to the top, which was very exciting.  She had diction, demeanor, technique, and joy all down: she is ready.  Barbara Quintiliani, who sang "Leise, leise" and "Tu che di gel sei cinta," has a large, pretty voice which she is still figuring out how to use.  Stacey Rishoi sang the coloratura of "Parto, parto" well and hit a huge, beautiful note at the end of Der Komponist's "Sein wir wieder gut," but she was extremely boring.  Meagen Miller declaimed "Martern aller Arten" well, even though she sounded like she had never practiced her runs.  Her reading of "Ain't it a pretty night" wasn't very pretty.  The fifth winner, Jossie Pérez, had poor intonation, zero use of words, and wretched French, singing "Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?" and "When I am laid in Earth."

Of the non-winners, I rather enjoyed Daniel Weeks, who sang a very connected "Un'aura amorosa" and a characterful "Ah, mes amis," which was somewhat discounted because of nine pinched high C's (a poor repertoire choice for such a competition, to be sure).  The saddest aspect of the afternoon is that no one other than Kaduce, Miller, and Weeks seemed to be ENJOYING themselves.  Joy is the key to singing and it was sadly in absence.  If that's the future of opera, I'm worried.

In sum, a fabulous weekend, filled with excellent opera, excellent people, and excellent food.  I thank God for putting the Oasis and opera into my life, enabling me to find such joy and such excellent company.  Next year in Jerusalem!

Doug the Traveler

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