The Metropolitan Opera premiered this season’s run of “Daughter of the Regiment” two nights ago, featuring many high C’s from Juan Diego Florez. And to go along with the review — which appeared today — the New York Times features live audio of Florez singing the C’s, followed by an ovation and his tradition-smashing encore. (Well, obviously encores are an opera tradition, but the Met long banned them, so this smashes a Met tradition, while returning to an older and better one.)
I think this is wonderful. And even more so, because the Times plugs the audio, links and all, in its teasers at the bottom of the front page. I got up, bought the paper, scanned the front page — and went to my computer to hear Florez.
And fine, this isn’t the highest artistic achievement in classical music. But it’s fun, it’s a part of opera (which traditionally is in some ways like sports), and best of all it makes something in classical music a genuine event. Why does someone go to “Daughter of the Regiment”? To hear Florez’s high C’s. Which is a more vivid, tangible attraction than most nights at the Met (or the Philharmonic, or Carnegie Hall) can boast. Good for the Met, for understanding what they get from this, and for making the audio available. Good for the Times, for running with it.
And for those in classical music who might not care what Florez sings — the most artistic things will (in classical music, in pop music, in literature, in film, you name it) often, maybe most of the time, get less audience than the spectacles. But you need the large market to keep the small market healthy. You need the large market to generate funding, some of which seeps down to the small markets. (That’s certainly true of government funding, as I’ve seen at first hand. Nobody creates the Opera/Musical Theater program at the NEA to fund Meredith Monk. But once the program exists, to fund the Met, the Houston Grand Opera, and non-profit musicals, Meredith can say, “I’m music theater, too,” and she gets funded.)
So we should all be happy to see live audio from the Met, hyped on the front page of the Times. Alert use of the Internet, too, by both parties. Bravo to both.
(My own reaction to Florez? I wasn’t at the performance, but the audio sounds fine. Certainly he aces the C’s, so easily, in fact, that I’d like to hear him transpose the aria up. Joke. But there’s also something a little abstract about the exercise, something uninvolving, at least for me, and maybe a lack of real fun, real verve, real showmanship. So by the middle of the encore, I was bored. Some people, I know, think Florez brings back some golden age of singing, and that’s not entirely crazy. Certainly it’s not as crazy as thinking Robert Alagna does, or Natalie Dessay, who on her current bel canto aria CD sounds like a careful singer without much verve, passion, or pathos, and whose voice, heard live, can often turn acrid. Her strength is her acting, which doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a “golden age” singer — though, going back many ages, the baritone who premiered the title role in “Rigoletto” was described by a British critic of the time as having a useful range of only one octave, for which he compensated by being a great actor. Getting back to Florez, he sounds too careful and too self-conscious, at least for me, to bring back a golden age, which — again for me — would be partly defined by the electricity in the hall, the communion between stage and audience, the sense that something exciting might happen at any moment, the understanding that if the Met did “Tosca,” during any given season, with five sopranos singing the title role, all of them would be worth hearing, because all would really connect with the music, and all would do that differently. Thanks to Herbert Breslin, for making that point some time ago to me and my wife. Since we don’t have these conditions now, restoring a golden age is tricky. But restoring encores — and with them, a sense of genuine event at an opera performance — might help! Along with media publicity for the encores.
(And were the “golden age” performances really that good? Yes. We have audio, and even video, to show what they were like. Just one example — a “Turandot” at the Met in the ’60s, with Stokowski conducting, and Nilsson, Corelli, and Anna Moffo — who’s just as good as her costars — in the leading roles. Hold a steak near the speakers when you play this performance, and you’ll fry it.)