Nice!

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.)

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Comments

  1. robert berger says

    Hi Greg! I suppose it can’t hurt to

    reinstate encores,;I don’t object to them,

    but I still don’t think the previous ban on

    them necessarily proves anything negative

    about opera performances today.

    I was not there on opening night,but I also

    don’t think the encore necessarily proves

    any negative about performances at Carnegie

    hall or Avery Fisher.

    I heard the recent Met broadcast of Peter

    Grimes;I couldn’t evaluate the controversial

    sets and staging,but on a purely musical

    level,It was a terrific performance.In fact,

    one of the greatest opera performances in my long experience.

    I don’t think that there is any lack of

    great singers today;any age that has the

    likes of Voigt,Fleming,Borodina,Dessay,

    Netrebko,Heppner,Terfel,Hampson,Pape,

    Morris,Salminen,Gheorghiu,Florez,Alagna,

    and other superb singers active today has

    anything to be ashamed about.

    I am certainly familiar with the work

    of many great singers from the past,and there

    is a lot to admire on their recordings.

    That’s why I resent the absurd assumption

    that many fans of the so-called “golden

    age”make by telling me that”The only reason

    you like any of today’s singers is because you

    obviously haven’t heard any of the great

    singers of the past”. Some fans have actually

    said this to me!

  2. AR says

    I was under the impression that the reason opera theaters do not encourage encores is that they need to finish performances on schedule or face overtime payments to orchestra and chorus. If so, it is unlikely encores will become widespread, even though enthusiastic applause and an encore can transform a good performance into an extraordinary occasion. Another issue that might arise is what is appropriate for an encore. Obviously, any cabaletta is a prime candidate, but what about Casta Diva or Wotan’s farewell?

  3. says

    I agree with you about how Florez sounded: more correct than inspired.

    That’s the first time I’ve ever seen “golden age” used to refer to the postwar period. Turandot was a great role for Nilsson, but I could present some reasons why she would have been a second-stringer in, say, 1910.

    It’s also worth remembering that when that Turandot was performed, there were people in the audience who would have told you that things had been going downhill ever since Ponselle’s retirement. And certainly plenty of Golden Age singers were renowned for their acting abilities, including Jeritza, Farrar, Garden, and Fremstad, to name just four sopranos.

    Good point, Lisa. You can even read Pier Francesco Tosi’s famous book on singing, published early in the 18th century, and find him saying that the current generation doesn’t know how to sing. (And that it has no taste.) People are forever pointing to some earlier time — typically within their memory — as a golden age. You can see Stendhal, in his biography of Rossini, written while Rossini’s career was in its prime, decrying Rossini’s over-heavy orchestration in his later works. (Over-heavy according to Stendhal.)

    Now, though, we have recordings, and videos, too, from the past. So we’re in a better position to make comparisons. We could compare Florez with Pavarotti in Daughter of the Regiment, and with Cesare Valletti for general lyric tenor voice and style, and also acting. (Valletti was a fabulous actor. Watch his video of L’elisir d’amore.) At the very least, we could make comparative lists of strengths and weaknesses. Which, if nothing else, would help define what I mean when I say things were better a generation ago (at least for performance of the standard Italian operas) and what Robert Berger (see his comment) means when he says singers now are just as good.

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