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I Fanciulli del Met

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

One of the particular pleasures of my duties at OPERA NEWS is the privilege of attending final dress rehearsals at the Met. If anyone had told me as a young teenager, when I was first bitten by the opera bug, that some day going to the opera would be part of my job, I would have been in a much bigger hurry to grow up.

Of course, just getting to sit there for free in a red-plush seat (during the work day, no less) watching the great vocal artists of our time ply their trade is a pretty nifty perk in itself. But for me, a big part of the fun nowadays is being present along with a whole balcony-full of young people as they discover opera — many of them, no doubt, for the first time.

Last week, the Met revived Gian Carlo del Monaco's lively spaghetti-Western production of Puccini's brilliantly colorful and dramatic, achingly sentimental Fanciulla del West. It gave me a great kick to sense the surprise and excitement of those youngsters as they realized that this elevated art form had room in it for lusty barroom brawls, live horses and gunslinging women holding their own in an overwhelmingly male world. There was a distinctly twenty-first-century-feminist tinge to the audible reaction from the peanut gallery when Minnie first pulled her tiny pistol out of her bosom to fend off the advances of Jack Rance. And there's definitely something to be said for straightforward realism, especially where new audiences are concerned. I strongly doubt that if Minnie and Dick Johnson had appeared in some high-concept production, in the guise of, say, apes or bumble bees, the kids in the family circle would have burst into spontaneous, giggly applause when the heroine surrendered to her first kiss, or cheered her so heartily when she arrived just in time to free him from the posse.

There are times when audience noise can be a most unwanted distraction. (At that very same rehearsal, one fan was so eager to share his admiration of Marcello Giordani's "Ch'ella mi creda" that he shouted "Bravo!"at the top of his lungs just as an emphatic chord from the orchestra punctuated Jack Rance's punching the unfortunate Johnson in the gut. This musically and dramatically misplaced interruption gave the effect that the shouter was encouraging the sheriff's brutality.) The irrepressible and instinctively appropriate responses of the schoolchildren at the back of the house, on the other hand, lent an added charge to the proceeding that enhanced the experience for at least one jaded operagoer down in the orchestra section. spacer 



The Big Buzz

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Arts Journalism) Permanent link

There's no ignoring the power of buzz, and no singer this season has yet proved as buzzworthy as Marina Poplavskaya, who recently made her Met debut as Elisabetta in Don Carlo and is poised to sing Violetta with the company in Willy Decker's already-famous "red-dress" La Traviata. It's a rare thing — it always has been — for an opera singer to be the subject of a major profile in a mainstream magazine. So when Gay Talese's profile of Poplavskaya appeared in the December 6 issue of The New Yorker, I was happy to see the magazine, which is increasingly weighed down with wobbly fiction and dominated by lengthy political analyses, paying a little more attention to cultural matters, which are, after all, what established its reputation.

Since Don Carlo opened, I have received an amazing number of phone calls from friends and colleagues who wanted to know what I thought about Poplavskaya. What I find interesting is that they don't really want to know what I thought about her performance as Elisabetta, which I heard recently. They want to know what I thought of Talese's profile. "Have you read the Poplavskaya piece? Have you read it? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU HAVEN'T READ IT?" I was beginning to get the feeling that the other things occupying my thoughts — what to get my sister-in-law for Christmas, where to find a contractor to do house repairs, whether to take my cat to the dentist, or finding the time to finish writing my latest book — were all things I didn't deserve to be worrying about. I should instead be experiencing what I was beginning to think must be a milestone in cultural journalism.

This morning, I finally sat down, closed my door, turned off the telephone and read Talese's profile.

It opens with a very New Yorkerish nonfiction trick — the relating of a specific action in the subject's life, told in plangent detail. You know the type: "On a recent chilly morning in September, Estelle Rubin left the apartment she had occupied for the last forty-five years on Manhattan's West Side, on a grocery-shopping expedition. As she approached her neighborhood Food Emporium, she noticed a man she had never seen before standing on the corner, wearing nothing but ankle socks and a surgical mask, loudly singing a ballad from the obscure 1940s musical Ankles Aweigh...."

Talese's article began this way: "On an August night this past summer, the opera singer Marina Poplavskaya lay motionless for nearly three hours on the floor of her mother's apartment in Moscow, having collapsed shortly after 4 A.M. from inhaling noxious smoke from the forest fires that were burning out of control in the countryside...." The author developed this scene at some length, in the process confusing me. I was beginning to wonder what the point of it all was: was he suggesting that Poplavskaya had somehow started the forest fires? But the point eventually became clear. The soprano telephoned a friend: "'Darling, I'm about to die," she whispered into the receiver. 'And so I ask that you help take care of my mother!'" It was Talese's clever way of setting up Poplavskaya as a creature with a truly dramatic nature.

I was expecting this to be a prelude that was going to make the link between the diva's often excessive and outrageous behavior in real life and the spell she weaves on the stage. But that never happened: Talese's piece was really just a catalogue of bizarre personality quirks, ranging from Poplavskaya's tendency as a child to burst into song in the classroom whenever she was bored, through her terrorization of cab drivers and rehearsal pianists, to her insistence on bringing her own towels to her Met dressing room. At no point did Talese attempt to connect all of this with her artistry and musicianship. Nor, for that matter, did his article delve into her singing in any detailed way. Seven pages of text, plus a full-page photo — and no real discussion of her an artist.

I think there's plenty to say about Poplavskaya. Listening to voices is a highly subjective thing, and I don't quite agree with critic Zachary Woolfe that her tone has a "smoldering darkness." The night I attended the Met's Don Carlo, I didn't hear a great deal of color in her voice at all. But she can act, and she has presence — and she was certainly light years ahead of her countrywoman Anna Smirnova, who was vocally the clumsiest Eboli I've ever experienced.

Talese has sometimes not shown the best timing in his career. His 1971 novel Honor Thy Father, about the mob, appeared two years after another book on the same topic, called The Godfather, caused something of a stir in the publishing world. But his article on Poplavskaya never gets out of first gear. It came as something of a jolt, given the magazine's distinguished history of music reporting — from Winthrop Sargeant to Andrew Porter to Alex Ross. Does the Poplavskaya profile represent the standard of cultural coverage we can now expect from The New Yorker? spacer 


Elina Garanča’s Body Language

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances) Permanent link

Some of the Met's revivals this season have been somewhat dispiriting for audiences and critics, so I am particularly grateful for Elina Garanča. Her interpretation of the Gypsy in Richard Eyre's production of Carmen, which I saw again last Tuesday night, has only improved with further outings. She has been criticized for "under-acting," but I find her calculating, fatalistic Carmen gripping. Garanča is at her best in Act IV: I have never seen a Carmen who physicalizes the final confrontation so breathtakingly. The way she works the train on her dress, whipping it through the rose petals strewn for the toreadors or collapsing into it when Don José tackles her to the ground — it’s an achievement in itself. spacer

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