The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The La Boheme that 'Met in HD' must keep bringing back - infamous 4/6/2008 listserv review (revised)

There can be no question why there are always people to attend Franco Zeffirelli’s production of La Boheme. It equally for twenty-seven years has become the tourist attraction that seeing Boris or Onegin in St Petersburg or Moscow has been for generations (or as expected on road-trips by companies from there). Intelligent touches, good singing, acting (the rather cool Stratas and Carerras, Stilwell, Morris alongside) do surface in some performances thereof - even a few insights from Zeffirelli himself. Even if the Zeffirelli Boheme was musically and dramatically brilliant enough to carry its own weight, no professional company staging any opera should ever assume such can happen automatically.

One really negative example of this was in Houston in the fall of 2002 – Handel’s Ariodante in David Alden’s quirkily brilliant, quasi-Gramscian production thereof, as conducted by Christopher Hogwood. I noticed long before it was over that Hogwood, brilliant Baroque stylist he is, was doing no more than conducting orchestral music and accompaniment; the glib acting and expression of Susan Graham and of two others followed suit. Alden, who knows something about opera - perhaps more than Hogwood - did not make it into town and left Ariodante to an assistant.

Who certainly blew Hogwood’s cover was he himself, as reported to me, at a conductor’s q&a – common practice here for several years. After the show one night, Hogwood was asked if he had any comments about the Alden production. He replied, “No.” At same time Ariodante was on, HGO continued its season opener run of La Boheme; for that I attended the ‘meet the conductor’ event.

The heavy p.r. shill Meg and Ira did on the Zeffirelli sounded assuming that we were all born yesterday - that a majority of listeners might have never heard of either Zeffirelli or the production. Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas could have been going on such a working assumption - the way they took to singing Mimi and Rodolfo.

The set sells itself. The garret for the four bohemians is spacious, comfy, roomy - swept clean to an extent that it would make the efficiency that a non-Afro, ethnic American Obama volunteer I know, just out of school has rented at the still newly, greatly renovated Rice Hotel for eight hundred a month look perhaps like boarding house space across from the Lorraine motel by comparison. This is not to denigrate my friend’s fine manner of grooming, decorum, etc., not to mention personal sacrifice he makes for ideals larger than himself. Instead, it should look a little more like a room out of such a Memphis boarding house or as how one would assume cramped space would look in the sadly dilapidated Rice Hotel ten years ago before renovation.

Equally lazy, plus effortful was much of the acting and singing of Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas. After all, the Zeffirelli production, no matter who is singing, is a success, even before the curtain rises. It sounded here like two middle-aged people affecting youthful love and passion, instead of genuine attempt at it. Intonation was suspect throughout, especially from Ghoerghiu, but ultimately from both.

Angela Gheorghiu, as Mimi, has been heard in more of a really complete interpretation of Mimi, denigrated a bit by maybe two critics as ‘in the grand manner.’ There is a tough side to the seamstress, which can be brought out without giving us the wodge and bulge at middle of the range, such as one turning over-parted soprano did, while interpretively approximating Mimi on the ‘classic’ 1977 Met telecast. Very intermittent intonation problems aside, Gheorghiu manages it very well on the very fine Decca studio recording also starring her husband; she brings surprisingly great dignity to the character. One completely feels Mimi's tragic plight. Their singing therein half a dozen times gets a little stuck in the groove of the at times relentlessly driving passion of Chailly’s work from the podium. It is, in context of assessing it, small price to pay.

Compensation seemed key to Gheorghiu’s approach yesterday, that is, for a half wiped-out middle register and insecure top, with coquettish ‘little woman’ touches she layered on, and mildly guttural verismo touches she applied to reveal to which extent what low notes are still left. Certainly, Gheorghiu is intelligent singing actress to still be able to fill out some phrases with the right color, weight, sincerity - all to have come across intermittently instead of consistently. In line with mimicking critical remark on Act 4 Traviata letter reading on a just released Los Angeles Opera dvd, some of Gheorghiu’s last dying phrases in Act Four of this sounded as though they could have led into “Io son l’umile ancella”, instead of where things are headed.

One had pretty good sense that Ramon Vargas would take the at-best dubiously Luigi Ricci interpolated high C at the end of Act One, and he certainly did. Perhaps it is true that Rodolfo is not quite right for Vargas, and certainly nothing heavier full-length than Rodolfo. The top frequently came loose from what was below. Some of the ardor too sounded cut and pasted over from or as had lapsed into the manner of singing Italian popular song. And yet, Vargas is musician enough that he, like Gheorghiu, achieved phrasing to fill out the poet’s lines, even if again only intermittently.

“Che gelida mannina” was taken a half-step down, so that the first and only high C we indeed did hear was one most likely not authentic with Puccini. It is good that it has been mentioned already that Vargas wisely delays layering it on right at the end until we hear the final grief-stricken C-sharp minor chords sound from the pit. However, the man on the podium had no concept as to how to give them the pulsation they need, toward sustaining line through their dying away at the very end.

Ludovic Tezier made the intelligently acted, but vocally threadbare Marcello, at least for its more dramatic passages. It is likely then one size too large for his voice. Notes in middle register for especially the Act 3 duet with Mimi tended to disappear into more or less a dead parlando. Ainhoa Arteta, wife of the fine Lescaut at Met in HD seven weeks ago and Musetta here in 2002 made a fine and sincere Act Four Musetta yesterday. She sang the part entirely well here then; even so it was clear, though managing all well, that the tessitura for Musetta, lies uncomfortably high for her, that is, until Act Four. Up until then we got a Musetta this time so bitchy (and badly out of tune) to likely have arrived directly off the stage of one timeless Albee play - such on which any halfway sensible Marcello would not spend significant time considering whether or not to chuck for good.

Oren Gradus, here in 2002 for both Handel and Puccini, though still a fine actor sounded conspicuously light as Colline. His voice as Colline better filled out the Wortham therein. Paul Plishka sang the landlord as though someone was constantly all the time sticking him in the ass. Any suspicion of parlando or humor the least bit genuine, also as Alcindoro, got thoroughly lost. I almost missed a very fine Papageno this season, had I not heard his fine Paolo Albiani for us, for how I first heard Carfizzi - Masetto last time Zeffirelli’s Don Giovanni was broadcast five years ago for the same reasons. Chorus and childrens’ chorus, the latter with ratty enough intonation to sound precisely like urchins, were both inadequate for either the Met or for major label dvd release.

Finest singer in this entire cast turned out Quinn Kelsey (Schaunard). Vocally, he was alone at being one hundred percent and captured every side of this enigmatic character of a musician, his vanity and capriciousness – without undue exaggeration.

Most seriously wrong with this Boheme was the conducting of Nicola Luisotti - his Met broadcast debut. Back in 2002, Houston had Sebastian Lang-Lessing, and from him, good to mention because Luisotti’s Boheme also, but more weakly helped celebrate the centenary of Karajan’s birth yesterday. His Decca recording of the opera, except for especially Freni and Panerai, I have learned long ago to despise. Most conspicuous, accompanying Ana Maria Martinez (welcome returning here now this week once more as Mimi) was the heavy enveloping of the opening of every phrase in both of her arias that almost deprived her of line, and then of so much else. Lang-Lessing had some technique to at least almost pull things off, but Luisotti seemed less certain much of the way through of what exactly he wanted. There was overall good sound and clarity from the Met orchestra in limning (as opposed to liming) touches of color and nuance, but seldom that would lead anywhere, as there was seldom ever any line.

Luisotti, said to be good at accompanying singers – one would have assumed better than Lang-Lessing - turned out no better instead. Part and parcel of being able to sing with good technique, especially on stage so large as the Met and set as large as Zeffirelli’s is to have reliable support from the pit. This was lacking. Angela Gheorghiu was said to have intervened on Chailly, about pushing tempo slightly too hard during Act Three of their studio Boheme together. I suspect she may have had to intervene, for the opposite to happen during Act Three; such intervention may have been all that could have partially saved it. Luisotti spoke during interview of seducing the orchestra and having the orchestra seduce him, and hinted at something in broken English of the peril of things falling asleep. Luisotti back-phrased so much on interlude preceding “Sono andati?” in Act Four, that “Sono andati?” simpered, fall flat as a result.

As to the chamber music approach to Puccini, and chamber like casting of some of the singers, the set on the Met stage does not match. Puccini did not write leitmotif in Boheme or anything so in-depth psychological as would call on such an approach, or even nominally that. The composer’s psychological insights in even Manon Lescaut were however of far greater depth than how lead players in yesterday’s Boheme expressed themselves. I invoked, in recently reviewing Levine’s Tristan, his chamber-music handling of numerous passages. For Puccini however, we know from the Karajan legacy, what a ridiculous euphemism this becomes, with someone (crudely) imitating him to make Puccini too easily mistakable for Mantovani or muzak, from the get-go.

Lang-Lessing, when called on during the q&a for slavishly imitating Karajan during Act Three (my impression strengthened of how much he did so earlier on as well while hearing the broadcast) took it as a compliment. When called on by my neighbor for the tackiness of allowing his tenor the high C at the end of Act One, he did not think to invoke in the least Luigi Ricci’s dissertation comments on this, as he may not know of them at all. As fine as these comments are, this option is still very musically suspect. Lang-Lessing settled for such response, as to typify a coach, small-time music department or church school faculty. Luisotti, recalling what he has said about how he accompanies singers, seemed more a coach than Lang-Lessing.

Luisotti’s accelerandi toward end of both the first garret (moving toward the high C) and Momus scenes were insipid. He was forced to speed up the tempo very awkwardly from taking the introduction to Act Three too slowly, denying pervasive sense to what might follow. Musetta’s music, looking at Decca (Chailly) liner notes here, turned to ‘(sentimentalized) operetta’ well before waltz got underway.

Trumpets starting Act Two were out of tune. Ensemble was suspect during several rapid-paced transitions to follow, and in closing quartet to Act Three - during which the Met’s horn section almost completely drowned out both Gheorghiu and Vargas. Contrasts in dynamics were otherwise frequently smoothed out, to extent of being comfortably tucked into a narrow range from piano to forte most of the way through. With things so rotten, how could have anybody enjoyed this? Well, leave not only your thinking cap, but your heart, that is if it could be for what Puccini wrote, at home. This was as much a post-Baz Luhrman Boheme as it was Zeffirelli, to whom the whole get-up this passing weekend has been tribute.

It was entirely possible to enjoy this Boheme. After all, singers in today’s culture do not really matter, except in how well they can look and charm the audience; another writer or two have invoked as to how Gheorghiu gratuitously played cutesy gestures to the gallery here. What they absolutely must not do is get in the way. God forbid any voice should ever be so distinctive to stand out slightly too much from the rest.

At the end, I just must ask then what reason would have there been for me to remain awake for more than twenty minutes of this, other than to be writing in. Lord knows, even a full, never mind very full, genuine outpouring of feeling or emotion might be more than our delicate psyches can take. It might even intrude excessively on our boundaries or space. Even Karita Mattila, in the Met Manon Lescaut and for one scene of the Houston one as well, long now proven fine singing actress, seemed obligated to play by, follow playbook of a production of this opera for the singer for whom it originated. Costumes failed to fit the taller Finnish diva correctly.

Given how lumpy Luisotti’s accents were yesterday, such as for the two octaves closing Act Three and outpouring of lament at the very end especially, it became reasonable to expect Celine Dion to enter with Titanic closing credits music to close the HD presentation. Very unlikely more than a few might bat an eyebrow.

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