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What Matters in Opera, Day 39

March 13, 2010

I can’t imagine anything more ridiculous than having to admit that attending an opera challenges me, but such is the case.  I love opera, especially when I have the amazing opportunity, as so often I do, to learn incredible works of music and drama while performing.  Although I hated the idea of watching opera as a child, I can honestly say I’ve been happily bitten by the opera-loving bug since I first attended Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in college.  On the other hand, there are still exceptions.

Sadly, I knew prior to attending tonight’s performance of Attila at the Met that while the reviews applauded the musical prowess of the performers and conductor, the opening night audience actually booed the director and designers of the show.  Intrigued nonetheless and further convinced by a low-priced orchestra seat offered by my friend Carissa Castaldo who performed in the chorus tonight, I decided to attend and ran the occasional risk of painful boredom offered by my favorite opera house.  Knowing the ticket included a view of the legendary Ricardo Muti‘s conducting, I expected a superb musical experience despite anything else that may or may not stimulate me or the audience this evening.

Said evening began when a small piece of paper informed me that Russell Thomas would sing Foresto instead of Ramón Vargas and an announcement stated that Violeta Urmana would perform Odabella with a cold.  He seemed to skim through a couple of unpolished runs (past several notes) and scoop up to his high notes in an overly stereotypically tenor way for my taste; however, on the whole Russell Thomas sang beautifully, adeptly winning the praise of the audience as an impressive cover for Ramón Vargas almost a week prior to his scheduled Met debut as Foresto.  Violeta Urmana sounded a little unusual at first, with an almost metallic ring I assume resulted from her cold.  Happily, as the evening progressed, she sang Odabella with a fierce beauty that made any sickness seem like a forgotten fable by the end of the opera.

Starring as Attila (yes, the Hun), Ildar Abdrazakov‘s convincing vocal lines conquered a beautiful but difficult score for the bass.  Unfortunately, his first few moments on the stage set the scene for my bad acting headache that would last throughout the entire show.  Although Giovanni Meoni also sang a smooth, present, and clear Ezio, the Lite Brite shoulder pads on Ezio’s costume by Prada didn’t help.  A naturally bright and shining star mercifully arrived briefly in the form of Samuel Ramey playing Leone in a blazing red bishop hat and booties, a mere two weeks prior to his sixty-eighth birthday.  While he himself had quite a few interesting things to say about this production, I couldn’t have been more grateful for his solidly acted and considerably well-sung performance in the midst of an otherwise hideously acted production by every other member of the cast.

So much attention has been given the awkward set, which admittedly confused and halted the action rather than adding to the production value.  To me, it seemed like Avatar had somehow eaten the set but that the singers weren’t allowed to interact with it.  Apparently, Ricardo Muti requested certain staging changes and placement modifications due to the difficulties of working with the original design, and one really cannot fault a genius like Muti who conducted the entire evening with a grace and flare that allowed all of the singers and especially the chorus (no doubt chorus master Donald Palumbo’s doing as well) and orchestra to shimmer and blend in the most magical of ways throughout. Personally, although I loved the lighting design, I gave up on the set the moment I saw how it somehow even added to the stagnation of the “actors.”

Finally we arrive at the challenging frustration of seeing certain operas.  I detest the antiquated standard of park and bark singing with ineffectual and meaningless gestures, aimless pacing, and therefore understandably self-conscious attempts at non-acting.  Coming from an amazing tradition at the Maryland Opera Studio, designed in many ways by director Leon Major to continue with some of the ideas set forth by Stanislavski as detailed in Stanislavski on Opera, I believe operas need singers who act convincingly.  We should establish relationships and objectives and something – anything – for the audience member to care about other than beautiful music, or else stop pretending to stage anything at all.  I could rant about this for ages but in short, despite Verdi’s gorgeous music, Muti’s unparalleled conducting, and the singers’ truly gifted voices, I might has well have attended a very expensive and unconvincing concert opera this evening, which personally rarely compels me to pay for a ticket to an opera house.  This city has more than enough other venues for concert performances devoid of real acting.

Not to leave on an entirely negative note, I did have a wonderful evening hearing my friends on stage and in the presence of a world class conductor.  I also had a lovely time with my friend Carissa’s husband and her two friends who attended the opera with us tonight, and I always love to visit my home away from my apartment.  Sometimes I think I’d rather live at the Met and someday, I hope to have that opportunity by having such long hours as the regular chorus works.  Either way, I desperately long for the trend of solidly acted opera to find its way to a permanent home in the grandest opera house in the United States.  Tonight, the audience seemed ecstatically happy just to have everything else in place.  Out of curiosity (no judgment!), what do you think?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2010 6:32 am

    A second career as a reviewer, no? In the midst of doing Julie in Carousel, I can tell you that if I just stood up there a sang beautifully without any connection whatsoever to anything, I would ruin the entire show. It is absolutely essential and one of the reasons I left opera. Not because I wasn’t acting or connecting but because no one was connecting with me. And, obviously acting exist in opera, true, but enough. But can you breathe just enough or do you always need to breathe to live?

  2. Laurie MacDonald permalink
    March 15, 2010 7:12 pm

    i still believe that fine singing is the most important thing in opera. Poor acting, however, does detract from the performance. As for production values, I’ve seen some productions where the sets and costumes intruded so badly on the singing (anything staged by Robert Wilson and the recent Nabucco at San Diego Opera come to mind…although the singers were pretty awful in Nabucco too.) that I would rather see singers on a bare stage.

  3. Ross Banerjee permalink
    March 18, 2010 7:34 am

    This might come as a welcome surprise, but who knows. As I probably mentioned, my brother is in the opera business, but he’s doing it in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany (with occasional gigs in the rest of the continent). He revealed to me that his preferred listening has very little to do with opera; opera is his job, he likes jazz.

    i could be wrong, but aren’t operaists part of the actors guild, rather than the musicians guild? If that’s the case, then the acting should hold as great a part as the singing – if the actor can’t act, who cares what his/her lines are?!

    • March 18, 2010 11:53 am

      Actually Ross, in the US we’re part of the AGMA union, which stands for American Guild of Musical Artists. Still, I agree with you – acting is paramount, in my opinion!

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