Saturday, May 20, 2006

Rodelinda, Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Can there be a happy medium between too experimental and too traditional? Or, better yet, one between too stupid and too, well, boring? If there is, the Met certainly hasn’t been able to find it. Unlike companies like San Francisco (Doctor Atomic) and Los Angeles (Grendel), most of the new operas that the Met has premiered have been more traditional, late 19th-early 20th century stories like An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby. In set design, the Met has been similarly conservative; it seems like the most experimental they’ll get is Robert Wilson (who’s already well known and, bafflingly, thought well of) and Julie Taymor (who has her Broadway reputation to legitimize her). The hypocrisy of me, the sworn mortal enemy of theatards like Robert Wilson, complaining about things being too traditional isn’t lost on me, but really, I’m ranting more against the complacency and predictability of the Met more than anything else. I wouldn’t want to see a Robert Wilson Rodelinda, but at the same time, I also don’t need an exact recreation of life in an 18th century palace, complete with servants and horses.

That’s what the Met offered though, a solid, attractive, utterly traditional set (it did move in useful ways, but other than that, it was strictly the covers of Baroque Interiors Today magazine). The set on its own would’ve been great, except for the fact that the Act II library set made the audience applaud for it. (Audiences, scenery is inanimate. It can’t hear you. And if you’re clapping for the set designer, they’re not there. In some older productions, they might even be dead.) But the Met, either due to some bizarre notion that Handel is boring and audiences must be distracted from it or just purely in the spirit of smug show-offery, cluttered up the sets with pointlessly wandering servants and a horse. During some of the arias, the servants would go about their business in another part of the stage, or they would stand there and stare at the singer and put on an air of somewhat bemused exasperation, but why? Is it some kind of strange metaphor that I’m just not dumb enough to understand, or is it just the Met’s way of saying “Look how many supernumeraries we can hire!” It was the same with the horse. The horse was pretty and everything, but it served no purpose. The stable building was clearly a stable, so we didn’t need the visual cue of the horse to let us know what it was. Why did Garibaldo ride offstage on the horse in Act III, when he’d been fine with walking up until that point? (The audience applauded the horse, by the way.) The horse was a distraction, because the whole time it was onstage, everyone was holding their breath and wondering when it would neigh or pee everywhere or drop a few apples onto Renée Fleming’s wig ([Senator Tankerbell]Oh, I wish, I wish![/Senator Tankerbell]). So why was it there? Because the Met could afford for it to be there.

This constant activity wasn’t limited to supers and horses though; even the principals were constantly in motion. It reminded me of Harold Zoid’s idea of what talkies should be like in “That’s Lobstertainment!” I almost expected Eduige and Unulfo to start throwing pies at each other or doing ape impressions or something while Renée Fleming was busy skinning the cat that lives in her throat. After Grimoaldo and Garibaldo’s entrance in the first act, Grimoaldo spent most of the scene glaring at Garibaldo and pointing emphatically at spots on the floor, while Garibaldo, glaring back with his big, weird eyebrows, would stomp over to wherever Grimoaldo had pointed. Um, OK. Were they working out some kind of basketball play, with Grimoaldo as the point guard? Then, in Act III during Bertarido’s aria “Vivi, tiranno”, Andreas Scholl had to follow Kobie van Rensburg (Grimoaldo) back and forth across the stage while somehow maintaining a laser-accurate stream of coloratura. Just because something is in motion doesn’t automatically mean it’s interesting (perpetual motion machine, for example? Boring as hell).

It seems like the director didn’t trust Handel enough and thought he had to spice things up a bit. Maybe he read the libretto and realized that Handelian arias tend to be one verse that’s repeated a few times, and thought, “That’s boring! It will be more interesting if they’re shelving books as they sing!” In print, yeah, it seems boring and repetitive, but anyone who knows anything about Baroque opera would realize that the verses, though repeated, are never identical. They should be ornamented differently, built on with passages of coloratura, each given a subtly different emotional shading.

That concept was also lost on Renée Fleming, unfortunately. This entire production was created just for her last season, and it seems as though she was more interested in the fact that she’d have eight arias to sing and less interested in actually singing them in the Baroque style. Instead, Fleming opted for her own signature style, which is a mishmash of verismo-like sobs, swooping up to notes, atrocious diction, and spastic facial contortions. Basically, she sucked an asshole inside out. She was AWFUL. Most.overrated.soprano.EVER. It's like she wants to be Maria Callas, only she can't act, so she's just stuck with the asstastic, mannered voice. I can’t listen to Callas because I feel like I can hear too much of the physical act of singing. It’s not just breath or teeth or lips or anything; it’s like I can hear the flappy bits of her vocal cords and her tonsils and her nasal cavity. It’s like listening to someone sing with a wet sock stuck at the back of their throat, and Fleming’s voice is becoming the same way. There was excessive Kermitting, pigeony cooing, chickeny clucking. Not one note of her singing struck me as beautiful or enjoyable, and that’s not just my anti-soprano bias talking.

Fleming’s diction is so destroyed by her retarded singing style that it doesn’t even sound like she’s singing words; everything comes out in a series of mismatched, cobbled-together sounds like a necklace of mismatched beads or a prom dress made out of old carpet remnants (like Leela’s prom dress). During the duet with Scholl in Act II, “I’o t’abbraccio,” instead of changing the emotional tone and adding different ornamentation to each repeat the way Scholl was doing, Fleming would just randomly shriek “AAAAAA! T’abbraccio!” The shriek might have kind of worked at the end of the duet, when the anguish is at its peak, but mid-way through? Not so much. She also couldn’t (or wouldn’t) match her ornamentation to Scholl’s, though he would match his to hers, and so they ended up out of synch. Part of that was also due to the fact that he’s one of the best Baroque singers in the world, while she…isn’t. Instead of being able to hit the quick, rising notes straight on, Fleming had to swing into them, so she constantly sounded like she was yipping or barking, whereas Scholl could hit the notes immediately, and she just couldn’t catch up to him. At the May 10th performance, she blew the last note of her last aria spectacularly, and then tried to cover it by adding some coloratura on top of it, so she ended up with a series of missed notes instead of just one. It was delicious. Mmm…schadenfreude, you are so sweet. At the May 13th performance, Fleming tried to show off her range by going low at the end of one of her arias instead of high, as is more customary. It didn’t go so well. She didn’t miss the note exactly, but it was just inappropriate. Rodelinda isn’t supposed to sound like Santuzza. A big range is fine, great even…if your voice sounds good throughout its range. Yeah, Mariah Carey used to have a huge octave range, but she sounded like a tone-deaf porpoise at the top of it, so who cares? Fleming, on the other hand, when she dipped into her lower range, sounded like she was trying to hold back a burp. Sucked. ASS.

Vocal problems aside, Fleming couldn’t act worth shit either. Most of the time, she has this annoying, beaten-puppy, on-the-verge-of-tears look on her face. Only with puppies, you feel bad when they’re beaten. With Fleming, you begin to root for it to happen. She can’t be steely or scary, even when she’s threatening to use Garibaldo’s head as a step when she ascends to the throne, because she just looks a bit peeved. Maybe on the verge of a foot stamp, but that’s it. In her first angry aria directed at Grimoaldo, she would point (a theme in the first scene, I guess) at him with these bizarre, jerky jabs of her finger that went along with the beats of the music. It was laughable. She was in an extremely unconvincing tizzy. When Rodelinda discovered that her presumed-dead husband was actually alive, she sang a happy aria while waiting for him to arrive, and Fleming’s idea of a wife about to be reunited with her husband was to walk around and dreamily lean against poles (this is an operatic staple, it seems), twirling her hair. It was just too…I don’t know…Sophie in Rosenkavalier or Juliette. Rodelinda is a grown woman; this isn’t her first love, this is her husband.

Most egregious of all was her loud sobbing when she discovered Bertarido’s bloody coat and assumed that he was dead (again). I never thought I’d paraphrase Tom Hanks in anything, but there's no sobbing in Handel! Come on! Sobbing is far more suited for Puccini. (In the same scene, she put the coat on and then started rubbing the sides of it over her face. It looked retarded, like she was trying to check the coat for pit-stink.) With the way she was singing, I would've expected her to be wandering around the stage in a bloody nightgown. I think what’s happening is that Fleming is incapable of coloring her voice with emotion, acting with her voice alone, so she resorts to these overblown hysterics.

But enough about how much Renée Fleming sucks (a lot, by the way). Let’s talk about how much everyone else sucks! Actually, apart from her, there was very little suckage, singing-wise. Kobie van Rensburg (Garibaldo) cracked a few times, but overall, he was fine. His tenor is very light and can sound thin, nasal, and tight very easily. He didn’t seem to really get down into the coloratura and instead just kind of fudged through it; the sound and note-changes sounded like they originated in his throat instead of in his diaphragm. Acting-wise, once he got over his very angry John Stockton impression (mercifully sans the Stocktonesque short shorts) in the first act, he was good. Since I’m incapable of writing a review of a performance without comparing it to a performance I’ve seen before, van Rensburg wasn’t fit to kiss Kurt Streit's elegant patent leather wingtip (and he wouldn’t have looked nearly as good in lipstick as Streit did), but he did a decent job. Also, he looked like the hypothetical lovechild of Hal Linden and J. Peterman from Seinfeld.

John Relyea’s Garibaldo was…exactly like everything else John Relyea does. His voice is pleasant enough, once you get over the unceasing forte volume he uses. Oh wait, I’m lying. He actually varies his volume from forte to fortissimo. Some woman behind me one night was saying that Relyea is the next Sam Ramey. Sure he is…only without Ramey’s rich, chocolaty voice (he’s the Ovaltine of basses), acting talent, and, of course, outrageous coiffure. While Andreas Scholl varied his performance from night to night, Relyea did everything exactly the same at each show. I think he’s actually a Relyea-bot, and before appearing in Rodelinda, he inserted his “Garibaldo” disc and downloaded the role. In a fit of obviousness, the makeup department gave him diabolically dark and arched eyebrows, so we’d all know right away that he was evil. Or Vulcan. I guess the angry clomping around would’ve disabused us of our Vulcan notions pretty quickly, since stomping about for no reason is profoundly illogical. Relyea’s acting was also lacking, relying as it did on a lot of nostril-flaring. I think he might have been the valedictorian of his class at the John Black School of “Acting.”

Stephanie Blythe as Eduige was fine vocally. I know “fine” is a pretty wishy-washy endorsement, but I can’t say much beyond that. I didn’t really care for the sound of her voice, even though it was clearly huge and could be quite pretty in the higher parts. However, she liked dip down into the lower part of her voice quite often, as if to say “Who needs countertenors? I can sound more manly than any of them.” (Blythe’s repertoire overlaps a bit with that of countertenors), and it just came off as a Marilyn Horne impersonation. I find that low tone unpleasant coming from Marilyn Horne, and it was just as bad coming from Blythe. At least Blythe knows what she’s doing when it comes to singing Baroque music. She was onstage a lot of the time, and I wasn’t quite sure why, since that isn’t usually the case. Most of the time, it didn’t matter, but it was just stupid in the Act II scene in the library where Grimoaldo and Garibaldo are talking about her and she’s sitting right there.

Christophe Dumaux (Unulfo) reminded me of Jack Morgan from the second series of Look Around You, only cuter. I wanted him to break out with a searing Baroque rendition of “Little Mouse” or at least hold his nose and say “Pongo” while Renée Fleming was singing. Because it would’ve amused me. His voice is rather small and very girlish; I wondered at first if he was a girl, since a mezzo is playing Unulfo in some of the performances. That sound isn’t one I’m all that fond of in countertenors, but Dumaux did a nice job with the acting (he was especially good with the little boy who played Bertarido and Rodelinda’s son).

The undisputed (except by the idiots in the audience who are either paid or programmed to piss themselves over Renée Fleming) star of the show—the Lord and Master of All Things Baroque, if you will—was Andreas Scholl as Bertarido. In spite of a few lingering nerves at the May 6th performance, he was amazing at all three performances that I saw. Though he has only performed in staged operas in three productions (one production he did twice), he is already becoming a great actor. I would go so far as to say that he was the best actor in this production. Part of what makes him so great is that even when he’s not singing or being sung at, he’s still constantly reacting to what’s going on. Not overblown, hair-tearing, chest-clutching reactions, just subtle changes of facial expression. He even managed to keep a straight face while Renée Fleming screeched her way through the most tone-deaf piece of coloratura ever, and that’s saying something. Before he sings anything, Scholl reads text out loud to himself until he can say it the way he thinks it should be said, and then he sings it that way. That preparation is very well reflected in his facial expressions when he's singing—he looks completely natural. That’s why, though he hasn’t always been entirely comfortable on the operatic stage, I knew that Scholl would turn out to be a very good actor. No one with that much respect for the words and the meaning behind the words could be a bad actor.

It still amuses me to hear the reactions of people who have apparently never heard a countertenor. After one scene with Bertarido and Unulfo, an older man sitting behind me said, “I was watching two gays up there!” Because, you know, the depth of one’s singing voice completely determines sexuality. Along with the common homophobic reaction though, at least with Scholl, is a sense of breath being caught, a gasp, almost a reverence. When he starts singing, it’s a surprise at first that such an ethereal sound could possibly come from that tall, solid body. Countertenor voices tend to be bit smaller than those of other singers, so Scholl’s voice never filled the hall to brimming the way Stephanie Blythe’s did, but it didn’t really need to. His audience was rapt (most of them; a runaway TB patient or two always manage to sneak in). Scholl never had to struggle to be heard, and even his softest tones carried wonderfully. I love that softness in his voice; you can feel him become more dramatically focused, more intent, and yet there is such an intimacy to the sound. It feels as though he were singing right in your ear; it’s like a caress.

Scholl’s voice has definitely changed over the years; it’s no long the impossibly angelic sound on his early recordings, but something more human, more manly—there’s blood in it now—but it is no less beautiful. He doesn’t use as much vibrato as most opera singers, and he hits each note so cleanly, so perfectly, so some people accuse his voice of being too cool, too glassy, unemotional. It’s not the smudgy, fuzzy hooting mezzo sound of David Daniels, but why should clarity automatically mean emptiness? I don’t know why I always end up comparing my favorite singers’ voices to Monet’s paintings, especially since I don’t like Monet that much, but while I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I saw a Monet painting called “The Ice Floes”. At first glance, it seems like a bare white canvas, with a few rather indiscernible forms. I snapped a picture of it with my digital camera, and when I looked at the picture on the camera’s screen, it came to life—shot through with color, iridescent as the glittering internal facets of an opal that spark through the milkiness of its surface. Scholl’s voice is the same way—it might seem too perfect, but when you get past the seeming impossibility of it and really listen, it has an incredible dimension and color to it, rich and varied, utterly complete.

Almost as soon as he appears onstage, Bertarido has to launch directly into an aria, the beautiful, longing “Dove sei, amato bene”. Scholl excels at the gentler cavatina parts of Handel arias (though he can do pinpoint coloratura too), so “Dove sei” should’ve been one of those moments, like “Aure, deh per pieta” was in Copenhagen—one of those moments when you begin to wonder how it’s possible that your aural nerves could process something of such incredible beauty. Unfortunately, I realized later, Scholl’s “Dove sei” never really had a chance to become one of those moments, and not through any fault of his. The conductor seemed to be pushing too fast at the beginning of the aria, for a start, but the stage direction also hamstrung the aria. For “Aure” in Copenhagen, Scholl was mostly seated at the side of the stage, not constantly moving around or even gesturing a great deal. The music spoke; the thrilling passion and softness in his voice told us what the character was feeling. In Rodelinda, he was kneeling for most of the aria, but he also walked around a bit, and while the movement didn’t interfere with his voice at all, it was distracting. The aria was still incredibly gorgeous though, especially at the May 13th performance when he did the high note on “Vieni”, which he had omitted at the previous two performances. Scholl also has this wonderful way of starting a note out softly, building it to fullness, and then drawing it back into softness again. It's really seamless and very intense. When he first begins the note, it’s so quiet and somewhat inhuman, almost like a vibration on a violin’s string, and then it grows and develops and is fired with emotion, before slipping away again.

After “Dove sei” came Bertarido’s furious outburst “Confusa si miri”, in which he sings of his wife’s faithlessness (it is, of course, discovered later that she is faithful). “Confusa si miri” is over quite quickly, and it’s pretty straightforward emotions-wise, but I love it because of the way Scholl dips down into his lower register, maybe even down into his baritone chest voice, and then rises back up to his falsetto without missing a note. Maybe the taking the mallet to the monument part was a bit much (just like most of the direction really), but I think overall Scholl played it very well. Anger and grief don’t lend themselves much to grace, and he definitely captured the kind of helplessly messy aspect of the adult male tantrum.

"Con rauco mormorio" in the second act was another lovely moment. It's not the same kind of showpiece that "Dove sei" or the coloraturathon that "Vivi tiranno" is, but it seems more like a lullaby, which is odd because Bertarido is describing how all of nature shares in his mood. Scholl really portrayed Bertarido's tiredness in this aria, his inability to go on now that his wife is unfaithful and even nature has turned against him. The second act also contains the only duet in the entire opera--"Io t'abbraccio", between Bertarido and Rodelinda. This is where Scholl set himself apart and above the rest of the cast. Throughout the evening, the other singers, even Stephanie Blythe, either didn't vary their ornamentation in the verse repeats, did it inappropriately (Fleming and her shrieking), or botched the ornamentation (Fleming again and van Rensburg). In "Io t'abbraccio", it became clear just how badly Fleming sings Handel. With "Io t'abbraccio", the emotion is supposed to be ramped up with each repeat of the verse--Bertarido and Rodelinda have been given five minutes to say goodbye before he is carted off to prison (and probably execution). By the last repeat, the sadness should be inexorable. Fleming, on the other hand, decided for some reason that it would be better to start doing her impression of a howler monkey mid-way through. Scholl, on the other hand, added new detail to each repeat, so the intensity spiralled up and up and became more and more complex. It was like some glorious aural Fibonacci sequence. He took Bertarido from the initial sadness of being yet again separated from his wife, through disappointment with himself, all the way to utter despair. Unfortunately, he had to drag Fleming along like a very noisy deadweight.

Bertarido's Act III aria, "Vivi tiranno" was marred only by more of the pointless movement that interfered with just about everything else. The scenery moved during part of the aria, which drowned Scholl out a bit, and the fact that he had to follow Grimoaldo all over the stage didn’t help either. Scholl’s Bertarido progressed from being still unsure of his position to being a king again over the course of the aria, but he could’ve done that just as well (if not better), if he’d been allowed to just stand still for a second. When it comes to the lightning-quick coloratura that “Vivi tiranno” requires, Scholl really can’t be beat in the countertenor world. With David Daniels (the Met’s usual choice for countertenor roles; he played Bertarido in last season’s Rodelinda), the long coloratura passages run together into one long hoot, like you’d expect from a pigeon with great lung capacity; the notes are never distinct and precise the way they are when Scholl sings them.

The Met orchestra played well under Patrick Summers, but they were not at all Handelian, probably by design. Baroque specialist Harry Bicket was the conductor last season when this production premiered, and presumably the sound was much more authentically Baroque. The conspiracy theorist in me says that since Renée Fleming obviously loses at Handel, it was decided that a less authentic orchestra would accompany her voice better. Unfortunately for Miss Fleming, she is a Fortress of Suckitude and nothing can mask that. The orchestra included a few period instruments, but for the most part, it lacked the crispness and ping that a real period orchestra can achieve.

I feel like I'm being needlessly petulant by complaining about the production, since without Renée Fleming, it would've been nearly perfect. With all the endless movement, wandering supernumeraries, and the horse (of course), it just seemed like the Met was overegging the pudding. It was the visual equivalent of Renée Fleming's singing--it started out with a pretty good base, but then threw in a bunch of extraneous, annoying bullshit. Handel doesn't need the Met's help to make his operas interesting. The fact that his music has survived for nearly 300 years pretty much proves that. I'm not advocating a return to the old Pavarotti-style "stand and sing" opera, but in the end, the voices tell the story, not the movement. If that were the case, we would all go to see mimes.

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