Monthly Archives: August 2017

Two Traviatas–2.

At the end of our last episode, we left Michael Fabiano on the brink of attempted Reconstruction, his singing of Alfredo’s aria having whizzed by in a blur of theatre-games foreplay. How had he actually sung the piece? We can jigsaw together audiovideo renditions, but these fall well short of giving us the voice’s presence and quality, and the performer’s three-dimensional in-person self, in opera-house space. That’s why we must seek out the live experience whenever possible. (And a quick alert: here comes the first of these posts to get into some musical and vocal thickets in search of crucial but often subliminal performance micro-events. If you’re not used to that, please consult the Preamble of Aug. 4, and try to hang in.)

By the beginning of Act II, I’d had time to form a general impression, and that was certainly positive: a strong, well-balanced lyric tenor of pleasing timbre that carried into a clear ring at the top; well-centered intonation; decent legato and sense of phrase; some control of dynamics–in sum, one of the best of his type now active. He’d sung the little turns of the Brindisi with fair elegance, and given “Un dì, felice” a well-drawn arc. The structure of the instrument is of a sort that has become the norm for such voices post-WWII. It always makes me slightly nervous. It’s generally darker than would once have been considered desirable, and this is most evident in the lower range and in the way the singer approaches the mezza voce (see below). Technically, this is a result of greater pharyngeal dominance in vowel formation, and in at least some cases from an emphasis on very low laryngeal position, creating a longer tubular space between the tone’s vibrational source and its point of emission. Recent examples of this structure, with many individual balances of strengths and weaknesses, would be Neil Shicoff, Marcello Giordani, and Jonas Kaufmann. The worrisome aspect is that in the lower range and /or at lower dynamics, the clearer, more tensile center of the tone may drop aside, leaving insufficient underpinning for greater stresses or a clear, refined half-voice. But Fabiano’s voice is at this point a well-modulated specimen of this set-up, and young.

In my Reconstructive noodlings, I’ve found two audiovideo versions of the Fabiano “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” complete with Annina and cabaletta. There was, briefly, a third, sneaked out from this 2017 Met run (O, these traitorous leaks!). I watched it once, intending to return, since to grasp the sung interpretation on a video it is necessary to listen at least twice with eyes averted, then look again to see where vocal moments do or don’t seem to coincide with the staging. But it vanished before I could get back to it. So I’ll proceed with the other two, with the caveat that neither represents exactly what I heard on March1, 2017, to the extent that I heard it. Then I’ll offer some comparisons, by way of clarifying points I’m trying to make about interpretation for the eye vs. that for the ear.

Two Traviatas–1.

As its title indicates, these initial posts were intended to assess aspects of two performances of La Traviata, one here in New York and one in Naples, that fell conveniently close together. But based on my recent Italian experiences, the state of the operatic art in its Motherland is especially dispiriting, and closely related to peculiarly Italian economic and political realities that serve to amplify the already serious problems faced elsewhere, and whose artistic weight is hard to judge from outside. The San Carlo Traviata was, especially in consideration of its venue, all too representative of the situation, and I haven’t the heart to give it any rigorous scrutiny. Bits and pieces of it, and of the Andrea Chénier seen in Rome on the same visit, will likely surface in the context of future discussion.

At the Met, it was The One With the Clock—Willy Decker’s auteurial fantasy that was first given at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, came to New York five years later, and is now reportedly in retirement. I hadn’t seen it before, having had a potent antidote in the form of a sampler DVD thrust upon me while innocently on my way into the opera house one evening. It showed me the clock and enough else about the production to curb any incipient enthusiasm, plus the discouraging sight of Rolando Villazón, whose earlier Alfredo had been among the happiest Met debuts in a couple of decades, in what looked to me like extreme discomfort with his surroundings. So, untempted by the annnounced cast, I’d passed and had never caught up, though I did acquire the Salzburg CDs, mainly to hear Anna Netrebko’s Violetta. This year, I decided to transcend in order to hear two trending singers, the soprano Sonya Yoncheva and tenor Michael Fabiano.

The production has been described often enough, and now survives in video halflife. I’ll engage with only a few of its particulars. While it avoids some of the most destructive extremes of contemporary Regie, it is otherwise a walking, singing catalogue of everything I think is wrong with “advanced” operatic theatrethink. So my eye spent most of the evening in a state of aggravation. Still, I can’t deny that from the middle of Act II, Scene 2 (in original sequence) through to the end, I was intermittently moved. I’ll have some thoughts about that below. First, to the eye-aggravation. That would have begun even before the staged Prelude (Violetta in pantomime with Death Himself who, as we suspect all along, is none other than Dr. Grenvil, or vice-versa) had I read the program annotations in advance. Let’s pretend I did.

First, under the heading “Synopsis,” comes an anonymous, flatly written recounting not of the Piave/Verdi work, but of Decker’s auteurial fantasy. In the absence of any effort to distinguish between the two, this is misreprentation and miseducation and is, simply, unethical. Next, under “Program Notes,” Cori Ellison gives us some solid historical background and a dose of Budden-inspired speculation on the work’s story as timeless and mythical, in the course of which she puzzlingly states that Traviata was first sung in time-of-creation costume by Gemma Bellincioni in 1866, at which time la bella Gemma (a/k/a Mrs. Stagno) would have been two years old. (I)N: Mary Jane Matz’s Verdi, whose authority I would be loathe to challenge, states (p. 329) that the first such performances were not until 1906 in Milan, with Rosina Storchio—though, as Ellison (citing Shaw) comments, individual prima donnas were no doubt dressing themselves à la mode  before that. In any case, it cannot have been G.B. in 1866.  Finally, we have Decker’s “Director’s Note.” It’s perfectly kosher for a director to explain him/herself and to argue for any departures from the creators’ specifications (though once again, these last are not honored with representation). Like most directors working at this high a level, Decker is obviously intelligent, inventive, and highly skilled. His mind, however, again like those of so many of his brethren, rattles about in a postmodern, neoMarxian cage. We’ll meet some of his thinking as we encounter it in action.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. N: Mary Jane Matz’s Verdi, whose authority I would be loathe to challenge, states (p. 329) that the first such performances were not until 1906 in Milan, with Rosina Storchio—though, as Ellison (citing Shaw) comments, individual prima donnas were no doubt dressing themselves à la mode  before that. In any case, it cannot have been G.B. in 1866.