Friday, February 16, 2007

Believing Bellini

Anyone looking for evidence to support the idea that opera is more about music than drama need look no further than Vincenzo Bellini’s final work; the old adage “what’s too silly to be said can be sung” applies all too aptly to I Puritani.

The plot concerns a 17th century English puritan girl, Elvira, whose kindly gay uncle Giorgio somehow manages to convince her father to allow her to marry her sweetheart Arturo, even though he is a Catholic and a Royalist. (These are some very progressive Puritans.) When Arturo, just before the wedding, discovers that the Puritans are keeping the recently widowed Catholic queen prisoner – though she is free to wander around and sing with everyone else – he flees with her by walking out the front door. Elvira assumes she has been abandoned, and loses her sanity. She finds it again briefly in the third act when Arturo finally returns, but when the Puritans inform her that he has been condemned to death it’s back to crazytown. Fortunately, just moments later – indeed, a mere minute and seventeen seconds on the famous Callas recording – messengers from Cromwell arrive and announce a general pardon to Stuart loyalists, and Elvira regains her composure. I think today we’d call her bi-polar.

The only reason that the opera is still on the boards 170 years later is because the music – when the singing is good – is divine. There are endless opportunities for vocal virtuosity, including several “notes only dogs can hear,” as Beverly Sills put it. The tenor gets a high C-sharp in his opening aria, followed in the third act by a high D. Bellini also wrote an F above high-C for the tenor, but that’s generally ducked. (This recorded snippet of a San Francisco performance in the 1970s shows – hilariously – why.) In last night’s PBS telecast of a recent Metropolitan Opera performance the voices were largely outstanding.

The weak link was Franco Vassallo as Arturo’s jealous Puritan rival Riccardo. As the only native Italian speaker in the cast, he managed to be the only performer to convey a total lack of emotional connection to his text. He plowed through the beautiful aria “Ah, per sempre” with nary a nuance or dynamic other than forte, unless you count poor intonation as nuance. I’m not typically* in favor of cuts in the score, but if you’re not going to do anything at all with the second verse of a cabaletta, I shouldn’t have to hear it.

Canadian bass John Relyea is wonderful; it takes his kind of smooth, legato singing to navigate the interval leaps of the beautiful second act aria “Cinta di fiori.” It holds up the action like a jackknifed truck on the expressway, but becomes a pleasure when it’s that well-sung.

Poor Eric Cutler. In person, he’s really, really good-looking, a very nice match for Anna Netrebko. Unfortunately his hairstyle (not sure if that was a wig) and goatee were highly unflattering, it was like a comedic caricature of “Italian tenor.” He was disturbingly nasal for his opening aria “A te, o cara,” but his voice rounded out and warmed up for the difficult third act. (The death-defying duet “Vieni fra queste braccia,” with its high D’s, was transposed down a half-step.) Just fix the hair; he looks like Luigi from the pizza parlor.

The telecast’s co-host Beverly Sills, herself a famous Elvira and renowned actress, said there wasn’t much one could do with parts of this opera other than stand center stage with your arms down and sing beautifully. Until I saw Anna Netrebko, I would have agreed with her.

I really didn’t think it was possibly to effectively “act” Elvira, but Netrebko managed. And it wasn’t hokey, stagey “operatic” acting that looks so horrible on televison, it was just a constant awareness of her character’s situation and feeling behind every note. She even managed to make the famously undramatic – but pretty -- “mad scene” compelling. In the third act when Arturo says he has been away for three months and she replies, “No…three centuries, three centuries of anguish,” she was heartbreaking. She made Bellini believable, no small feat.

Her voice is unusually warm and dark for sopranos in this repertoire; she may not have the coloratura agility or the brilliant, easy top of some of her illustrious predecessors in the role, but it is phenomenal singing nonetheless. The thrill of her high E flat is not its security, but the risk she takes with it. That said, she could probably leave out a few of the earlier unwritten interpolations; the high D in the duet with Relyea was about two flutters of vibrato shy of a yelp.

The performance was very good; the telecast was excellent. I particularly liked the shots from the wings with the singers’ backs to the camera looking out across the orchestra at the audience and conductor. It’s pointless to try to make televised opera look “realistic”; this gave the viewer an exciting “insider” look. The intermission features – with Renee Fleming doing her best Katie Couric impersonation – were educational and entertaining. It was exceptionally gracious of Netrebko to agree to be interviewed in her dressing room between acts; she was charming and funny. I think it’s extremely helpful for people to discover that “opera singers” can be low-key, witty…and thin! I never expected to watch the entire broadcast, but I stayed entranced until the final high D.

*Puritani, as with most Bellini operas, benefits from judicious cutting.


jwc said...

i want to see john conklin smack you.

Andy said...

What an odd fetish.

john said...

A lot of opera singers are charming, gracious, funny and (yes) thin. Other opera singers have been interviewed between acts. Netrebko is not so unique. And this Katie Couric comparison is getting really tiresome.

Andy said...

A lot of opera singers are charming, gracious, funny and (yes) thin.

Why yes, here's one right here.

And this Katie Couric comparison is getting really tiresome.

Well, tell that to Renee.

DJRainDog said...

Andy, I'm always impressed with how well you know these scores. It was Netrebko, was it not, whom we saw sing con tutta forza for about three and a half hours at the Met last year? Nice to know she has nuance, in addition to her athleticism. ;-)

Andy said...

Well, I always loved the bel canto repertoire, which was nice because there were so many roles suited for my voice -- Riccardo in Puritani being a very good fit; I used that aria at auditions and performances more than any other. The 2nd act duet, in particular, was positively easy for me. I wish I'd gotten to do the role. Oh well.

Anyway, I happen to know Puritani well because I studied it, and I do love it, even though admittedly it's a dramatic disaster, if you put too much thought into it. Netrebko put just the right amount of thought into it, apparently.

And yes, she was the one we saw last year in Don Pasquale. I was worried because her runs were pretty sloppy and her high notes were loud and strident, and I didn't know if she had the chops for Puritani, especially the challenging, if silly, aria "I'm a charming virgin." (I like to refer to it by its literal English rendering, instead of "Son vergin vezzosa.") But -- from what I could tell via the very crappy speakers on my TV -- she was very good at Elvira; I heard all the notes! I thought she sounded great.