La Traviata. 8pm Monday 29th March 2010 Metropolitan Opera House.
This opera had some high points as well as some low ones. Angela Gheorghiu has a gorgeous voice but she seemed out of sorts and that beauty was only in evidence intermittently. Unlike the description of her by Papa Germont in Act II, she displayed little elegance and poise in her dramatic approach on the night. On many occasions she shook her head, sending the two sides of her flowing hair to the wind as she ‘skipped’ to the right then the left in what appeared to be a calculated yet awkward and ‘girlish’ manoeuvre. It did not help her singing as she got out of time with the conductor frequently. In two or three of these occasions, one with Mr Hampson, she caused a ‘train wreck’ of incoordination with the podium.
Her ‘Ah forse lui’ was less than sublime and she took major applause in the middle (before ‘Follia’) as if she wanted a break. At times she sang recitative pianissimo for no apparent reason, especially towards the end of the opera. She sounded as if she was intending to nail the E flat at the end of act I, omitting the second ‘il mio pensier’ but then just ending on a sustained A flat, a note most mezzo-sopranos can sing with ease.
The surprise and delight of the night was the Met debut of young American tenor James Valenti after numerous auspicious roles overseas including at La Scala. He has several of the important qualities required of a great singer. Tall, handsome, high notes, excellent breathing for a long vocal line, accurate pitch (not always THAT accurate on the night), lovely portamento, beautiful quality voice and good acting abilities. He was clearly very nervous and lost his timing ever so briefly in Act I before the Brindisi. However on balance it was an auspicious start for a young man who might turn out to be the (next) great white hope we have lost in Mr Villazon’s absence. It is tough now that Pavarotti is gone to g-d, Carerras is retired and Domingo sings baritone roles or conducts.
Act II saw Mr Valenti sing De miei bollenti spiriti as well as the full cabaletta Oh mio rimorso infamia including the sustained high C at the end (almost unheard-of at the Met or most anywhere else!). After a powerful and exciting vocal line he ended by nailing the upper tonic, held it respectably and then ran off stage to great and well deserved applause.
Unfortunately Mr Hampson and Ms Gheorgiou managed to almost destroy their second act duet (others might have called it a ‘train wreck’). It seemed to me that the soprano just was not looking at the conductor - she might have been doing what we were told in the program notes that Nellie Melba started singing Dit’alla giovine facing up-stage.
Mr Hampson is possessed of a full bodied and gratifying voice, showing his rightly deserves the Warren, Merrill, Milnes succession of anointed American baritones. He sang ‘Di provenza il mar il suol’ with strength and elegance, gaining enormous applause. For unknown reasons he left out the cabaletta so hated by some musicologists (in fact we are all musicologists in my view!). I have heard people say: 'Verdi did not really mean to write that cabaletta' … but he did! And it should be included in my view. The act thus ended precipitously with Alfredo finding the invitation on Violetta’s desk and declaring he will attend to take his revenge.
As Nellie Melba pointed out 100 years ago, most people in the audience would probably not notice, nor would they therefore care less about particular details of singing or repertoire (’sing them muck’).
The timing problems are obviously a combination of conductor and singers - it takes two to tango. Leonard Slatkin may not have been free of guilt in the numerous episodes of incoordination between the pit and stage. It was the first night and also nerves or inadequate rehearsal might each also have played a role. Despite numerous high points, this was not an overall satisfying performance in my view. That is a disadvantage of seeing the opening performance of anything - it is always the most unpredictable and rarely the best artistically. This is in stark contrast to the Aida on Friday which was electrifying in almost every respect.
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
[post script: please note that shortly after this posting it was announced that the conductor would be replaced for the remainder of the season. The reasons given seemed euphemistic. See http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/conductor-slatkin-leaves-mets-la-traviata/
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