Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tale of Two Divas

What are the synonyms for opposite? ...antipodal, antithetical, contrary, counter, counterpole, diametrically opposed, different, differing, dissimilar, diverse, polar, unalike, unsimilar. None quite captures the range of difference between two sopranos I saw last weekend.

First, Diva1. The Metropolitan Opera's production of Thais was all about a diva at the height of her career. Renee Fleming's voice is incredible. She's young and slender and fit. The Met PR machine has made Fleming into an opera supersuperstar: last year they made her the host of their Met HD program and featured her in Met ads; this year she was the centerpiece of the opening gala; and finally the Met hyped this production to the hilt, making it clear to the world that it reserves Thais for the greats. (They last mounted it 30 years ago with Beverly Sills in the leading role.) They hired a couture designer to make a series of magnificent gowns for Fleming, and they created magnificent blond wigs for her - normally a handsome woman, in Thais she is glamorous and beautiful. The direction was all about her. They cut a few corners in the plot to keep the attention firmly on the diva. They even threw in a few extra flourishes: at one point she raced up a flight of stairs, struck a pose, belted out a couple of high Cs and raced back down; in the final death scene, instead of being in the narrow convent bed that the plot calls for she is inexplicably ensconced on a throne raised above the stage.

To put all this in context, companies that attempt to mount Thais have a lot to live up to. As Lawrence Gilman wrote in a review of a 1939 production, "[Thais] has never lived again with the kindling veracity that Miss [Mary] Garden gave her [in a 1907 production]. But what would you? There has been only one Mary, and there never will be another. On that November night in 1907 when she first appeared upon a New York stage, lithe, slender, dazzling, indescribably vital and magnetic, as she entered, with long and sweeping strides, the presence of the adoring crowd, flinging her roses among them and greeting rapturously her waiting lover, she transformed the papier-mâché figure of Massenet and his librettist into a creation that will always haunt the minds of those who were present to observe it. This was one of the great entrances in the history of the stage. And this was Thais, authentic in grace, fascination, and reality. Since then Thais has walked among us, but she has never wholly come to life."

In the Met performance, La Fleming did not disappoint. Her voice is magnificent, particularly in the middle range, and most of all when she is half-swallowing the notes. Her character's religious conversion brought tears to the eyes of this cynical old atheist.

I could have skipped the parts that most sopranos apparently can't sing. Fleming has a lovely voice, but the high notes are not as special as the middle ones. It is supposed to be very difficult for sopranos to emit the harsh laughter called for in the score, but the harsh laughter didn't sound good and it added little to the plot. Maybe it just seemed out of place in the diva showcase revue that this opera has become.

That was Diva1. In my opera adventures last weekend, Diva2 was so bad that I won't even say who she was or where I saw her. I'll tell you that it wasn't in Toronto. Diva2 was young, but seemed to have been trained in the 1930s: she had a warble that could vibrate tarnish off a spoon. I don't know that any amount of proper training could have made her voice appealing. I described it as a "whistle"; my companion thought a better word was "strained". Her volume was a problem. Plus, she didn't hit all the notes. She braved it out in the title role of Traviata, and I would have admired her chutzpah if I didn't suspect that she doesn't realize how truly, truly awful she is.

Unlike the Met performance, Diva2's production was on the cheap. It was billed as opera in concert but at the last minute they threw in surtitles, put a couch on the stage and tried to act it out, the result being the crappiest production in operatic history. I'm a big fan of opera in concert as it lets you concentrate differently; this production I saw last Sunday was truly the worst of all worlds. The orchestra was on the stage with a chorus standing behind, and the principal singers tried to act out the story in the couple of feet at the front of the stage. Apparently nobody had coordinated costumes: at one point Diva2 was dressed in a plain sweater and skirt while the singer playing her maid was all dolled up in a cocktail dress with high heels. When I'm at opera and something's off, I try to concentrate on something else. But there really was nothing redeeming about this performance: the fellow singing Giorgio had an upper-range caterwaul that was the worst noise ever emitted in a professional performance; there was an out-of-tune violin during the first half; one of the tenors in the chorus was singing to a different tempo; and so it went.

As often happens these days, when the pathetic horror finally came to end people immediately screamed "Brava" and gave it a standing ovation. The local paper, ever supportive of the arts, said that Diva2 had a "commanding vibrato" and called it an "impressive show." (On the other hand, they once reviewed Swiss Chalet and said it had excellent service and outstanding ambience.)

Both performances left me unsatisfied. The second was so bad that it gives a bad name to the art form. But the first wasn't quite right either. I'm all for great tour de force performances - I was enchanted with Renee Fleming in this year's Met opening gala, in which she sang excerpts from three operas that highlilghted her great talent. But when you mount an entire opera the production shouldn't be so much a star vehicle, no matter how great the star. For example, I don't like it when the audience continually interrupts an opera to applaud individual performances, and that's because to me an opera is a play with extra dimensions. Can you imagine applauding the actor playing Hamlet after each soliloquy? Treating it as a concert of songs is just wrong, and takes away much of the emotional punch. The same is true of making the entire production a frame for a star.