In the manner of an online supermarket failing to fill an order, I find that I am sadly fresh out of things to say about Der Rosenkavelier, despite having previously promised/threatened to post about it. However, I did come home from Turandot the following night and write screeds and screeds about it, so have that instead.
The Opera Gods are very clear on the matter. If you have a chance to go see live opera, whatever your misgivings, you should go. I nearly disobeyed this immutable law this evening- I was comfy in my hotel room, there were a few movies I fancied seeing, I wasn't keen on the idea of standing room and I wasn't panting to see, or especially to hear, Guleghina. But even a bad night at the opera is illuminating; and this wasn't one.
I should start with a few disclaimers. Firstly, every time I go to the Met this particular Brit's heart starts thumping before I even leave the subway at Columbus Circle. I have very fond memories of learning about opera at Covent Garden, but the Met is something else. The building, the atmosphere, the historical significance- I don't know what it is, but I'm pretty sure it's my favourite place on earth. This may lead to a rose-tinted view of things. Also, given that I earn some of my modest crust as an actor, I'm naturally predisposed to be on Team Performer. God knows I have heard some singers perform roles they had no business attempting, but if someone is wholeheartedly giving their all in the service of their art, even if the results are underwhelming there's a kind of honesty there I respond to. Finally, I don't get to see live opera as much as I'd like, for reasons of simple economics. A seat in the Covent Garden equivalent of Family Circle costs about as much as a Dress Circle seat at the Met and alas, I don't have that kind of monetary clout. So going to the opera is rare enough to make me determined to enjoy myself. All this means that I may be a little more lenient on some of the drawbacks of tonight's performance than others might. Was it a golden age performance? Well, no. But Nilsson and Bjorling and Corelli and Tebaldi are dead, alas- and we still want to be able to see Turandot, don't we?
See is the operative word. Most of you will know that the Met's Turandot is a triumph for Zeffirelli the designer. It looks wonderful, and the reveal in the second act is a genuine coup de theatre. Zeffirelli the director fares less well. I had to surpress a giggle during 'Gira la Cote' because the production's intentions were so clear. 'Look! Tumblers! A dragon! I know it's only the chorus but DON'T BE BORED'! Even allowing for the fact that this production is on its umpteenth revival, there were some real clunkers in the staging of the first act. 'Lasciatemi passare' sang Calaf, to three people who were in no way blocking his path, and with his back to them. The poor old Prince of Persia took a pointlessly long back-and-forth route to his death (admittedly, this kind of illogicality had been present in Act 3 of the previous night's Rosenkavelier- is Sophie in the damn room or isn't she? And if she is, why does everyone insist on going the long way round and using the door?). What was frustrating is that all this extraneous stuff was so unnecessary, as the dramatic structure of that first act is so tight. The storytelling is brisk- the curtain rises, the chorus sets the scene, Timur falls, reunion, Prince of Persia, Signore Ascolta, gong. Jenufa is just about the only opera I can think of which gets through its exposition with so little fuss.
Musically this was probably the most successful act. There may be a better opera house chorus in the world than the Met's; if so I should like to hear it. As far as the principals go, Maija Kovalevska did a grand job on 'Signore, Ascolta' but it was pretty rather than moving. Interestingly, she was much, much more successful in Act 3. This was a Liu who was much more comfortable in defiance and action than in passive pleading. The voice is better suited to the heavier stuff late on, as well. Where the first aria was professional, technically strong, and all those other underwhelming words, the voice became more interesting the more was asked of it. 'Tu che di gel' had precisely the right mix of steel and melt, and reminded me of Gallardo-Domas back when she was, you know, still good. She brought the best out of Hao Jiang Tian's Timur, as well. In the first act he had been acceptable, workmanlike; after Liu's death he was genuinely moving.
I've been unlucky with tenors at the Met. The first time I went, in 2006, I saw Walter Fraccaro as an instantly forgettable Cavaradossi. Then, back in April, Mario Berti oscillated so wildly between the brilliant and the filthy that it seemed he was cramming the ups and downs of an entire career into one Trovatore. What I got tonight from Salvatore Licitra was my first Met taste of tenorial vocal glamour- something in the tone which excites and relaxes simultaneously. He doesn't use the voice with as much artistry as is ideal- nothing much happens below mezzo forte, and his phrasing can be a little rustic. Actually, the one time he dipped the volume below 7 something rather interesting happened. His challenge to Turandot on 'Il mio nome non sai' felt intimate, something for her ears only, a seduction. I've not seen that before, and it works. 'Nessun Dorma' was delivered with a swagger- this is the aria you're here for, he was saying, and listen to how well I pull it off. Relatively well, is the answer- came off that C pretty darn quick, didn't we, Sal? Still, on tonight's evidence, if he's not a great singer, he's nonetheless a good one. If I could offer him one word of advice, however, it would be to be less wimpish about his gong-work. The music isn't really asking for a careful underarm tap.
He wasn't the only tenor on display, of course (although Bernard Fitch as Altoum wasn't on display to me- his throne isn't visible from Fam Circ standing, and neither, annoyingly, is Turandot's first appearance), since we also have two thirds of the Ping Pongs. Zef the designer has a lot of fun with these three, and their bold colour scheme in among the pastels is another of the design elements that really works. Vocally, the highest praise I can give Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes is that they bore comparison to the dream team on that odd Karajan recording- Araiza, Hornik and Zednik (yeah, the Niks rule). For once I could see the point of their scene at the top of act two, a section which reminds us that this opera was written a quarter of the way through the twentieth century. It almost feels more like a musical theatre number than an operatic trio- Sondheimish, even, and I mean that as a compliment to both composers.
That's the whole cast, isn't it? Oh no, I missed one. The uncharitable would say that Maria Guleghina has no business singing Turandot at this point; the overly generous would point to the fact that she got through it with no glaring mishaps. On the positive side the voice, although nobody could claim it to be in anything near its prime, has retained its impressive size. But then, 'never mind the rest, it's so BIG' is a credo that has got better men than I am in trouble, in, ah, all sorts of contexts, so we can't just leave it at that. There are some parts where, if not ideal, a little vocal insecurity can at least be dramatic. Tosca, say, or Norma are in extremis, so we can excuse a wobble or a shriek as a character point. But Turandot when we first meet her is powerful, triumphant, impermeable, and the singing of 'In questa reggia' and the riddles should reflect that. Guleghina sounded like what she was, which was a soprano carefully navigating her way through a role which isn't in her voice any more. There's little point in the climax of 'In questa reggia' if the top C arrives late, squalls, and then is abandoned as soon as is respectable. In Act Two she was cranking out the decibels, but the tone was centreless; and when she tried something more caressing, it was touch and go as to whether it would work. At the top of the register, the vibrato has widened and spread into what is undeniably a wobble, and a big one at that- one of those 'which note, precisely, are you singing?' wobbles which always spells trouble. On the plus side, she fared a great deal better in the less demanding music that makes up most of Act 3, especially an almost gorgeous 'Del Primo Pianto', and she made some interesting dramatic choices, at least from the far distance of standing room. In the 'figlia del cielo' section - where that mp3 clip of the other night's performance had revealed her to be drowning- she evinced a real, believable vulnerability. By the way, Andris Nelsons had seemingly learned his lesson there, and he hurried it along at a significantly faster tempo than before; in fact, he didn't put much of a foot wrong all night. But to return to Guleghina, between the generous and the uncharitable lies a middle ground, summed up in a couple of questions. Can she sing Turandot? Yes, just about. Should she? Probably not.
See? There's always plenty to say about a night, any night, at the opera. I'm glad I listened to the Opera Gods- I'd have missed, ooh, about two-thirds of a treat, otherwise.