Thursday, May 04, 2006

One Rodelinda, Please. Hold the Rodelinda.

Oof.

I really have to throw my two cents in here about the crimes against humanity's ears and general musical sensibilities that occurred on Tuesday night at the Met.

How do I put this delicately... Renee Fleming is a disaster as Rodelinda. What the hell is going on? WHY does she sing this rep? It was like one big slur that lasted for four hours. I did not hear one consonant, and there was no sense whatsoever of where one note ended and another began. It was just this sort of formless, free-flowing sound that sort of skated over Handel's music--the music that was hiding somewhere under this drool-bag of vocal drivel.

I will reiterate what Alex mentioned--I don't get off on disliking Renee Fleming. By HER, I think I am reffering to her singing. I have definitely enjoyed and respected elements of her singing in the past. But I don't f-ing want to hear her sing Handel ever again. Also, I resent that somehow people have convinced themselves that it is good--or even that it is vaguely acceptable. The crowd of deaf (evidently), bravo-screeching Renee devotees were really pissing me off. She really, truly is singing her own precious little arrangement of this role--her covered, safe little sound cowering behind the deceptively daunting challenge of singing Handel as written. And I really want to make these people understand. Or at least make them go away.

OK, that said, it was actually a lovely evening all in all. John Relyea had me at Ciao. Actually, I was pretty convinced of my adoration for him back in October after his virile turn in Lucia. Stephanie Blythe's characteristically near-baritone sound was as precise and impressive as ever. I feel like she is one those Met go-to singers who gets a fair amount of work, but rarely gets to really show off the goods as much as I'd like.

The Wellsung Prize for Awesomeness goes, without question, to cutie countertenor Andreas Scholl's heartbreakingly beautiful turn as Bertarido. His flawless precision and control culminated in an breathak artistry that actually made up for the lack of substance in the leading lady.

Also awesome was this production. As it is a year old I will not say much--it manages to strike just the right balance between detailed extravagance and understated elegance. It is an accomplishment.

It looks like we were at a different performance or Rodelinda Starring Renee Fleming than Steve Smith. I think Mr. Smith is a terrific writer and critic. Though I have to quote, for humor's sake more than anything, Alex's thoughts on the discrepancy in our reactions:

"I mean, there are differences of opinion, and then there are the noises she was making."

Seriously.

9 comments:

Steve said...

It's a pretty remarkable disparity, isn't it? And Bernard Holland came down somewhere in between:

"Ms. Fleming's Act II duet with Mr. Scholl was a thing of beauty. She also sang affectingly in up-tempo arias. Given too much space and time to interpret, she tends to overload her performances with hesitating accents, surges of tone and other vocal ticks. The audience seemed to love them all, and I'm sure with reason."

Just out of curiosity, and not that it would make so very much difference, but where were you two sitting?

Alex said...

We were in the last balcony box on the right (facing the stage)...

Steve said...

Hmmmm. I can't see that position would make much of a difference in what we all heard, but it seems the critics in the orchestra seats had a much better opinion overall of Fleming's performance. Here's Bob Levine from Classics Today:

"Soprano Renée Fleming, for whom the production was conceived, is back in the title role, and she is as radiant as before. ... Ms Fleming colors each aria skillfully, dispatching the difficult music with grace and beautiful tone. Her tendency to scoop up to notes and over-Romanticize the vocal line is kept in check most of the time – though not as effectively as last season - and aside from some obvious tiring near the end, her performance is stunning."

For Martin Bernheimer in the Financial Times, Fleming was "unfailingly exquisite as the lofty protagonist." Clive Barnes in the New York Post refers to her "lustrous voice" and "controlled but fervent emotion."

Fred Kershnit, in the New York Sun, is far more critical, but even he seems to have been convinced:

"In her first aria, she landed well below the mark of her initial high note and struggled for breath in her beginning foray into the complex ornamentation that is the heart of this florid vocal style. But Ms. Fleming righted herself admirably and, except for some hard edges at the beginning of Act II,delivered a very fine performance." (This goes on for two more paragraphs.)

Please, know that I didn't go gather all of this to suggest that I'm right and you're wrong; I've got far too much genuine respect for the two of you -- and Sieglinde, as well -- to even consider that. Really, I think I'm just reassuring myself that, if I was indeed on the pipe that night, we must have been passing it around pretty liberally downstairs.

Henry Holland said...

Considering that I loathe Handel's operas--I wouldn't trade 30 seconds of Korngold, Schreker, Zemlinsky or Braunfels for his entire ouvre--I think you're all very, very brave to have sat through the whole thing.

Jonathan said...

Steve--that is so interesting.

I don't know why I always feel the need to reiterate that I don't get off on disliking any given singer (neither I daresay, does Alex.).

I think it is very possible that we get very different things out of Handel, you know? And I think maybe Ms. Fleming just doesn't sing in a style that I personally find really appropriate for the music. The notes are never crisp, defined, or precise---all the things I think make Handel exciting.

Oh well. I did not listen to the broadcat today, but I will be interested to see what people think!

Steve said...

Jonathan, I think you've probably nailed it there. But I'll add that it's precisely the specificity of your criticisms -- and the clear, concise and colorful ways in which you state them -- that compel attention to what you and Alex are saying, here as ever.

Just as you've taken pains to make it clear that you two aren't Renée hatahs, I'd like to think that my regard for a lot of what she does -- although far from all -- has to do with something more fundamental than the gravitational pull of her celebrity. (But given a choice, I'd far rather hear Simone Kermes in the role.)

Thanks to both of you for engaging in this conversation.

Anonymous said...

Last year, I saw Fleming in the same production with David Daniels, and I thought she was great. Sure, she has only one vowel and no consonants, but man, what a vowel! I think that you're right to say that there is no one way to sing Handel: Renée's is lush, rich, extravagant; Bartoli's is fierce and intense (and a little scary); Lorraine Hunt's languid and earthy. (You can see the difference between the three by looking at the covers of their recent Handel compilations: Renee in voluptuous red, Bartoli anguished with her fist to her chest, Hunt in black and white, with very little make-up.)

With that said, I went to see Rodelinda last night, and I was shocked when I saw Fleming: she appears to have lost a good deal of weight, and she looked a little haggard, even old. Her face was pallid and angular, and she was wearing a terrible wig that only heightened the shadows on her face.

Her first aria was off, and my friend and I chuckled a little during intermission about her appearance. It was in Act three, however, in the concluding cadenza of her very last aria, that things fell apart: Fleming's voice broke. During the rapid descent from a high note, Renée's sumptuous singular vowel became a piercing cackle worthy to match her old, haggard wig, and the audience gasped. Fleming quickly recovered, and the opera concluded shortly thereafter.

Then came the curtain call. Renée walked out for a second time, alone, to all those "bravos" shouted by the men who adore her, and with a meek smile immediately tried to rush back offstage as quickly as possible. When the entire cast came out again for a final bow, Renée was practically pushing her way off again. Clearly she was embarrassed at her momentary break, and I suddenly felt awful: here we were, chuckling at her looks, picking apart her costume, and pointing out her mistakes, when this poor woman was trying as desperately as she could to look, sing, and act like a goddess. It made me remember that there are deeply ethical implications for the words we say and the judgments we make. Lest we ever forget, opera singers are human, too, and our expectations that they be perfect can have devastating consequences for the singers themselves (one wonders why Renée lost so much weight in the first place).

Fleming has probably only five years left in her career. We should let her go with kindness and dignity.

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