Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Trafalgar Trav/ Squillo Square.

I'll apologise for those poor quality puns later, and I hope you'll understand why.

So, earlier today, I was having a friendly disagreement about tennis via the internet. Not one of those adrenalin-fuelled 'I can't go to bed, someone on the internet is WRONG' deals, just a lazy, easy-going difference of opinion. A pal of mine was saying that the reason he dislikes tennis is the way this country goes mental for a fortnight, paints its face with a union flag (or, nowadays, a saltire) and screams about whatever Brit just about makes it into week 2. His point was that this was a lot of people who aren't interested in tennis for the rest of the year, and it was a good one. My point, which was better, was that tennis is ace and why shouldn't they have a fortnight of fun?

Anyway, as I sat in Trafalgar Square (yeah, you're beginning to get the puns now, hey? They're no worse than 'Henman Hill' anyway) I began to think about this. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the ten thousand people who sat in the sun, glugging Sauv Blanc, snacking on identical M&S or Waitrose party food, and watching Fleming, Calleja and Hampson in 'La Traviata' (final bit of pun slips into place) weren't all that interested in opera.

But, like the Henmaniacs, they were interested enough to give up an evening to sit and look at some people doing fab things on a screen. I'm ambivalent about the Traf Square audience- they talk too much, mainly- but as a fan of a minority interest I do get a thrill when so many people turn up for what I'm constantly told is something rarified and inaccessible. It's worth remembering, today of all days (more later) that 'high art', whatever that means, ought not to be anything to do with wealth, class, or age. I was encouraged by the mass media when I was a kid to know all kinds of songs off by heart. They were mainly by Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and I still know them off by heart. I also, thanks to some records my grandad left me in his will, was encouraged in a different way to listen to something called opera, and with the obsessiveness of the pre-adolescent learned all that stuff off by heart too. In those days, I couldn't really see a difference: I just loved what I loved. Now I still love the throwaway music of my youth, and the throwaway music I listen to now in my (*ahem*) early middle youth- but I know what's better. Look, on the tube home there was a nice girl opposite me who had just seen 'We Will Rock You'. She was bubbling about it. I don't mind the songs of Queen, as it goes. But I know that if she knew Traviata as well as she knew Bohemian Rhapsody she would have had a better night in the Square than at the Dominion. Does that make me elitist, patronising? So I'm told. I have a sneaking suspicion that my conviction that everything should be for everybody makes me the exact opposite.

So, Mrs Lincoln, the performance? Well. I should start by saying how wonderful Calleja and Hampson were, both as singers and actors (to my surprise, in the case of the former, as I'd heard he was a stick. He isn't. On a big screen the intensity of his facial expressions more than complement the extraordinary sound of his voice. It's been said, and it's not fair, but i'll say it too- he reminds me of Bj*****g). So yes, they were great. And Park-from-Cardiff was good, and Anina looked like David in his Mrs Danvers drag, which was unfortunate, but was good also. Yada. You want to know about herself, and I want to tell you.

A lot has been said about Renee Fleming, and I'm not about to add to it. Is she the greatest Violetta there has ever been? No. But she GOES for it. There is not a moment in which she isn't thoroughly committed, vocally and dramatically, to portraying the character as best she can. Now, I come to opera from an actor's perspective, I know. And the thing about some singers is that they don't. And that will always, always, annoy me. La F wants to play the part, and wants to sing it gorgeously at the same time, and goes all out to do so. Give me that over a canary any time.

I liked her in act one, a few silent-movie moments aside. I had been led to believe that she was going to blues the whole thing up, and she really really didn't. Stylistically it wasn't great, but it sounded like what she is- one of the most purely vocally gifted singers in the world. Even the scoopy moments seemed less egregious when you could see her- she wasn't just doing something vocally vulgar, she was interpreting the character by her lights.

In Act Two, her dramatic limitations became noticeable, and her vocal ones faded. An actor I once worked with told me that certain performers will never make it because, and I quote, 'they don't go to the dark'. Fleming acted up a storm in Act II, but her eyes were always looking at sunshine. It made me realise why I love this act the best, and why I love my favourite interpreters of it: their voices (ie Callas) or their eyes (ie Cotrubas) should tell you that to give up Alfredo is to look into the abyss. RF gave us beauty, sadness, melancholy- and that's ok, but it ain't enough.

Where she scored for me was in Act III. The letter is fine. Hammy, but opera hammy. Certainly not the disaster other folk would have you believe. 'Addio del Passato' was gorgeous, if again generalised. 'Parigi, Oh Cara/o' was ace- she and Calleja played it to and about each other, rather than cheek to cheek and staring at the conductor. But what I really loved about this Violetta was her raging against the dying of the light. I guess one of the stylistic annoyances people have mentioned is her propensity to go into a big Leontyne chest note at the drop of a hat, but by GOD it worked in 'Gran Dio, Morir si Giovane'. It's a rare Violetta who can get you with that bit, and she more than did with the rage and despair she got into the voice. Interestingly, the following 'Se una pudica vergine' section, where you would have expected her to have scored big time with lovely lyric floating, was- well, lovely, but left me dry eyed.

I've written too much now, but I wanted to make it clear that we probably shouldn't moan about Renee. There's such a voice there- SUCH a voice- and an artist who is giving her best in the service of the work, which if it sounds like faint praise shouldn't, because she is so often accused of the opposite. And we should treasure and look after Calleja, because he is major. And Hampson is Hampson, and that's also cause for celebration. And- one last shot on Traviata- in the 1850s they had to put in a dull chorus/ballet about matadors or something to keep the crowd interested. In 2009, we want it to go away so we can get the story back. That interests me. We have bitten the bullet and cut Shakespeare, after all- do we really have to sit through any more half-hearted skirt swishing or campy matadors? Cut it.

So, yeah, I enjoyed the tennis and I enjoyed the opera. So did a lot of other people, here and there, and that can only, basically, be good news.


There's no arch, flippant way to segue to this, so I won't bother. Today would have been my father's 73rd birthday. If you would like to find out how ace he was, you can do so here.

Happy, happy birthday, daddy. I love you. I miss you more than language has the ability or the need to express.


David said...

How honourable of you to go out of your way to give us a fair picture of Renee (I nearly went last night, too, but was put off by friends in the centre of town who said it was so wiltingly hot, folk would talk all the way through it, which would be fine for Barber but not for Trav etc).

But I really don't know why you try your best to grace what has - over THERE - become a screaming-ground for trolls. Yes, we know La Jenks is pretty awful, some British crits aren't great, Renee doesn't always hit the mark. It's just become pure meanness.

Still, yes CZJ IS 39, and probably KJ IS 29 - that would fit with when she was at music college, and taught by a friend of mine. CZJ was terrific as Mae McGann in Street Scene.

All best,


David said...

Sorry, that should have been Mae Jones. And it was back in 1989 so of course you're FAR too young to remember it (you do have an age thing, don't you?)

BTW, I'm teaching Trav at the moment and was won over to Trebs and Villazon in the Willy Decker Salzburg production on DVD. It really is unbelievably intense. And, boy, could Rolando deliver in those days. He's completely bonkers in the accompanying documentary.

jondrytay said...

David- I *did* see that Street Scene- Kristine Ciesinski, Janis Kelly, Mark Richardson and all. And yes, CZJ blew the roof off (I was 16, by the way...)

I know what you mean about the screaming chez you-know-where, and I post there a hell of a lot less than I used to. And yet, and yet- it's still a good source of information, and there's a handful (if decreasing) of people there who talk sense, or at least entertainingly.

chelsea said...

I found your blog post via a google search and I normally don't comment when it's someone I don't know. I just wanted to say that your post was one of the most refreshingly honest accounts of Renee Fleming I have read in some time. I'm a huge fan of hers so I can turn the other cheek when she gets caught up in her "mannerisms" but understand that she can sometimes be frustrating to watch when she does start scooping and swooping. I appreciate her for what she gives on stage, and like you said, she is one of the most vocally gifted singers in the world. It's who she is and why I enjoy her as an artist.

Also a huge tennis fan and not just for a fortnight during the summer. But I am gladdened to see others get out there and enjoy things that I know to be quite enjoyable - tennis and opera included. If these movie transmissions grabs one lifelong fan then it's worth it.

jondrytay said...

Chelsea- glad you liked it.

As for the tennis, I'm probably just cranky because I didn't get a ticket in the Wimbledon ballot...

David said...

Good response about Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake over *there* - for most of us it WAS a gay thing, but you didn't have to take it that way. And I remember weeping buckets at the filming in the Pas de Deux (Pas d'action), thinking, hell, wouldn't Tchaikovsky just be amazed to see it danced so tenderly by two men?

If I still contributed over *there* I was going to say exactly the same thing about Ranjit Bolt. Never say never until you've seen the results - but that wouldn't apply over *there*, would it?