Sunday, May 9, 2010

Villazon ain't done yet: Not even close!

Good gravy some people really do enjoy nothing more than jumping to conclusions. Villazon returned to the opera stage a month or so ago singing magnificently two major roles: Lenski and Nemorino . . . and to outstanding reviews, sold out houses and enthusiastic audiences. I've been lucky to hear two of those performances, as well as some of the recent Handel outings which he's currently touring. I heard him as recently as last night and the voice is in fine shape, with a thrilling, pulse-pounding way with difficult florid passagework, his coloratura not always perfectly even, but measured and full of ping and yes, some hypermusical instincts.

He is not singing purely tenor arias, but a number of the most difficult mezzo/castrati arias which find him dipping down into notes more in the bass/baritone range, which he simply does not have. Blessedly, those notes are mostly short - quickly hit, let go and moved away from, but yes, if one is going to do this sort of thing one should also have those notes. Nevertheless, despite this shortcoming what is working are the middle and upper registers and they sound absolutely beautiful. I find it utterly remarkable that anyone would even be stupid enough to think this to be the end of someone's career
when there are plenty of working tenors who would love to have this facility and tone quality.

I simply don't get the twisted logic of the doomsayers who love to express "concern" that he's destroyed himself and believe they know the singer better than he knows himself. Remarkable.

The "Times" article was a hack job, as unrelievedly biased a piece of doomsday journalism, as any ten puff pieces I've read. Paragraph-upon-paragraph piling on as many negative aspersions as possible: the failed "pop star" reality TV show, that "mezzo soprano" pop singer, his resemblance to Mr. Bean, the bushy eyebrows, the crazy hair, the too wide mouth, the more-than-hinted at affair with Netrebko (which I still don't believe) the "Fourth Tenor" nonsense, his weekly psychiatric sessions. Several times, the article
references Hugh Canning's "review" which, like the article itself, spends most of its paragraphs setting up and tearing down its subject before ever critiquing a single note of music.

Canning makes the ridiculous charge that "the concert was clearly rescheduled to cash in" on his recent appearances in the failed (though oddly popular) reality show. Mr. C, seemed not to have noticed (or conveniently forgot) that the London concert was but a single one on the Handel tour with stops in Baden-Baden, Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, etc. Or perhaps merely by not mentioning the remainder of the tour he is able to make the tenor look greedy and desperate? Ah, yes, THAT's where he's going, as he ends that particular paragraph making the singer sound "broke" as he explains how "Villazon
cancelled many lucrative engagements. As Brecht wrote: 'First comes food, then morals.'" Yes, Rolando has been starving to death and just out to earn some scratch. Right.

He goes on to criticize the manner in which Villazon sings Handel "as if the past 50 years of scholarship and performing practice had never happened, transforming the music of the baroque era’s greatest opera composer into a sort of genteel, polite verismo." This is, of course, his prerogative, but "genteel" and "polite" do not show up in Villazon's Handel singing - it is wild, passionate (and mostly) accurate singing with an almost crazed,
unleashed energy that has most audiences exploding in cheers. Yes, yes, I know, people are idiots and don't know any better. Not in London, nor in Paris, Munich . . .

Of course Canning spends as much time talking about how he "feels" Villazon looks uncomfortable - but I find he's mistaken the tenor's naturally manic, hyper-animated stage manner for "discomfort" when it's simply not the case. No one (I believe) says the same about Ms. Bartoli and her similar frenetic stage energy, but with Villazon it's a different story.

Here's Rolando as Lenski, singing "Kuda, kuda" only a month ago. It took my breath away. If this is the end of a career than "oops, wrong planet" - black is white, up is down and wrong is right. You decide if, along with Mr. Canning, he is nothing more than a cash cow "alongside the Bocellis, Jenkinses and Pottses of this world," and if it's time to for those who "care passionately about opera will shed a few furtive tears over what might have been."

Like him or not I sense Rolando is on the right track and I, for one, couldn't be happier. Long may he sing!

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Met's Lulu: Lasciviously Delicious!

What a riveting, thrilling roller coaster ride of musical emotion was the Met's broadcast of Lulu today - closing the broadcast season.

Marliss Petersen, who seemed to struggle with poor Ophelie a month or so ago, nailed the difficult assignment of Berg's heroine with style, substance as though it were the most natural thing in the world. The stratospheric top notes were landed upon with such fullness and depth of sound, clear and open - they were stunning. The many trills came off as well - or perhaps better even - than I've ever heard them from almost any other Lulu (Christine Schaffer is up there in this role, too).

James Morris has fit into Schön like the proverbial hand-in-glove. I was thrilled to hear him sounding like he was really living the role - and sounding rather good doing so! Garry Lehman - one of the Tristans who saved the Met’s butt a couple seasons back - was equally wonderful as Alwa.

Anne Sophie von Otter’s Geschwitz was sung with ravishing beauty of tone as the role seems to demand and blessedly, often seems to be the case, but it was a treat to hear this amazingly versatile artist’s first go at one of most interesting, pathetic and noble roles in the entire mezzo oeuvre. (Loved how she stated about her make up and costume: “I look gooooood!” what a charmer she is!)

Fabio Luisi continues to absolutely and utterly blow my mind. What a sensuous, rapturous reading he led from the Met band this afternoon. The score absolutely sparkled in his hands, the sound emanating from the pit so well rehearsed the clarity of Berg's remarkable score truly revealed a lyrical beauty and allowed to shine in a manner one just doesn’t typically hear in this music, particularly from an opera house orchestra. It was a remarkable achievement and Luisi's absolutely stunning leadership and performance was greeted with a wall of cheers as rapturous as any I've heard in a good, long while!

Thank St. Cecilia and/or the gods for Cerha and his marvelous completion of the third act of Berg’s second greatest opera - ;-> - I know there are champions for leaving the third act off (Franz Welser Most, for one) but I always think those arguments are so much nonsense because the work simply fails to make its point when ending with the second act. It’s an unacceptable practice and I, for one, am happy the Met abandoned it almost as soon as it was possible. After two acts of difficult emotions, blasé attitudes, creepiness, disdain, total self-absorption, and (seeming) heartlessness, Lulu almost NEEDS to be violently killed in order for us to be won over to her side, to see her with pity and feel what we ultimately NEED to feel for this anti-heroine. And c’mon . . . who doesn’t wanna see Jack the Ripper on the stage?

Not all THAT long ago, when I was still a kid, all one needed was to MENTION "Lulu" being a beautiful work and you’d practically start a riot. Today? Well, it‘s nearly impossible to get a ticket - with something like 100 seats TOTAL available - and spread over the final two performances!

The second best thing I heard today was that the incredible Met telecast of “Lulu” featuring Julia Migenes, will soon be available on DVD. After wearing out several VHS copies, this is happy news and I hope I heard it right!

As if all of the above weren’t enough, Eric Owens was a masterful Quiz host, charming, hilarious and kept things rolling perfectly so well that for once one wished intermission could’ve been even longer! What an absolutely terrific gift from the Met to all of us, and what a marvelous way to end the Saturday broadcast season! Bravo, bravissimo! Until next season . . .