Met opening — the performance

OK, I can’t resist. Just a few notes about the very blah show onstage at the Met Opera opening.

Renée Fleming. No heat onstage at all, either in her singing, or her presence. Occasionally an emphatic moment in her acting, but none of the acting was sustained. She doesn’t (to my ear) act through her voice in crucial long legato passages, like “Dite alla giovane” in the big Traviata scene with Thomas Hampson. But above all — no heat! If this is our reigning prima donna, than opera isn’t what it used to be, or what I want it to be.

And one vocal note. In the final part of the gala, when Fleming sang the final scene from Strauss’s Capriccio, she finally sounded fabulous. Here the wonderful evenness of her sound from top to bottom pays off for her. She sounds easy and natural. But not in Traviata! Verdi — even in a role that’s lighter than most of his other soprano parts — asks for more emphasis in the bottom octave of a soprano’s range than Fleming can easily give. She’s worked out a way to pump out some low notes artificially, but it doesn’t sound comfortable, and can’t work in the lower middle range, where so much of the role lies.

But then we already heard this when she did Bellini’s Il Pirata at the Met. Her role lay very low, with hardly any high notes at all — in most of her duet with the tenor, she doesn’t sing above G. And she just wasn’t effective. Her voice didn’t soar.

And now this year she’s going to sing Trovatore! Her role there is heavier and lower than either Pirata or Traviata. How’s she going to make that work? (Just think of the “Miserere,” where she’ll really have to dig into her lower octave.) I don’t get it, not at all.

As somebody commenting noted (though very kindly not in these words), I was completely out to lunch there. The Met will mount a new Trovatore this year, but not with Fleming. Though she will be singing Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in Washington this year, which is also not very plausible, for the same reasons. Like so many bel canto roles (despite the stereotype that equates bel canto opera with high notes), it’s written fairly low, and because it’s an intensely dramatic opera, requires the singer to hurl out strong emphasis in her lower range. Which Fleming’s voice just doesn’t naturally do.

Thomas Hampson. Fabulous singing, as Germont, in the Traviata scene. And strong, committed acting. To my ear, he doesn’t really have a Verdi sound, but what he does is marvelous despite that. The part lies very high — constant Fs and G flats — and he sang them easily. Most baritones, including many of the great ones (Tito Gobbi would be a notable example) sound like they’re working hard in that range. The notes sound high. They don’t come out easily. But not Hampson. He sounds like his range is just a whole step below the normal tenor range, or at most a minor third lower. So F and G flat come out like notes at the top of his high middle range, and he can sing them with marvelous color and ease, and with lyrical phrasing.

As he made his entrance in the Traviata scene, the orchestra played his music almost with ferocity. I just about jumped out of my seat. What was that about? But it turns out that, in Hampson’s idea of the role, Germont enters just about shaking with rage. James Levine had clearly caught onto that, and got the orchestra to play what Hampson was about to act. Bravo for that. Operatic artistry flying very high.

The orchestra. Of course the Met orchestra is marvelous, but I’d guess they didn’t have much rehearsal for this performance. Traviata, of course, they can play in their sleep, and the scenes from Manon, too. Not that they sounded asleep. Under Levine, they sounded wonderful in Traviata. But in the Capriccio final scene, they didn’t sound good at all. Clearly they don’t know this music well, which isn’t their fault — they don’t play it much, and some members of the current orchestra may never have played it all. And it’s tricky music, full of subtle shifts from one harmony to another. Or, often, in typical late Strauss fashion, shifts through several harmonies in succession, a kind of iridescent shimmer of evanescent chords.

And here the orchestra unfortunately sounded more than a little lost. They hadn’t learned to hear those shimmering chords as yet, and didn’t project them cleanly. There were ensemble, balance, and intonation problems, too, and the overall sound was often coarse. Maybe the conductor, Patrick Summers, wasn’t up to the job. I don’t know his conducting, and wouldn’t venture to judge. But I’m sure that if Levine had conducted all three scenes, instead of just Traviata, or at least if he’d led Capriccio, he’d never have let the orchestra sound that way. I can’t believe he wouldn’t have given himself enough rehearsal to make the music sound. I trust he’d never settle for less. (And so he shouldn’t settle for less when others conduct.)

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  1. thomas says

    Fleming is not singing Trovatore this year or any year, that I know of. She’s doing Thais and Rusalka. Both are well within her means, and she’s had success with both roles in the past.

    You’re right, on all counts. Thanks for setting me straight. Could she have once talked about singing in the Met’s new production, and then dropped out?

    But — she’s singing Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in Washington this year, and while that’s not as implausible for her as Trovatore, it’s still pretty implausible. It’s a low-lying role, with lots of emphatic singing in the lower part of the voice. Montserrat Caballe, on her studio recording of the opera, uses a lot of chest voice, something that wouldn’t be appropriate in the roles Fleming is best at.