Off-Peak Performance

Bella Figuras? Barbara Bonney and Renée Fleming in Arabella.Photo: Beatriz Schiller

Blessed with a voluptuously beautiful and flexible soprano now at its mature high noon, Renée Fleming has the international opera world by the ear, and rightly so. Savor the moment – it never lasts long enough. Naturally, the Metropolitan Opera wants to make use of her services as often as possible, and in ways that show off her vocal persona to best advantage. Currently she is appearing in Arabella, a production as lavish and luscious as its star’s voice, and I wish I had enjoyed her performance more. Fleming has everything it takes to excel as the adorable heroine of this final collaboration between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal – the creamy notes, the physical beauty, the easy stage confidence, the banked inner fires that warm a deceptively cool exterior as she looks for Mr. Right in old Vienna – but I still came away disappointed.

Mannerisms and bad habits have lately crept into this valuable singer’s vocal style, and they are beginning to irritate. Something as basic as a clean attack on the initial note of a phrase no longer happens very often. Fleming almost invariably swoops in a fraction below the pitch and then cultivates a slippery portamento more appropriate for impromptu jazz scatting than singing an opera by Strauss, whose carefully shaped vocal lines define Arabella’s character so exquisitely. Yes, Fleming’s tone is always gorgeous, for all the slithery articulation and suspect intonation, but this is no way to sing Strauss or to explore the musical personality of one of his subtlest heroines. For me at least, a potentially distinguished performance was fatally undermined.

While I am ringing an alarm, what has happened to Barbara Bonney? Her light, silver-bell soprano is ideal for Zdenka, Arabella’s kid sister, but her voice has seriously weakened up top since I last heard it, while the middle register also lacks support and projection. Only a temporary situation, one hopes. The third link in this unhappy trio, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, is merely competent, a Mandryka with little charisma or vocal glamour. The best news about this revival is Christoph Eschenbach’s conducting. My memories of Met Arabellas go right back to the beginning, the American premiere in 1955, and not even Rudolf Kempe, the wonderful conductor of that performance, found more color, instrumental detail, sentiment, and dramatic vitality in a score that sounds more glorious each time I hear it. The supporting cast is also first-rate: Raymond Very (Matteo) and Adam Klein (Elemer), winning interpreters of two tenor roles with few rewards for much hard work; Eric Halfvarson and Judith Forst, vocally and visually impeccable as Arabella’s low-living parents; and Laura Aikin, a Fiakermilli whose cork-popping coloratura in the party scene is positively awesome.

The German countertenor Andreas Scholl recently made his belated New York recital debut in Weill Hall, much too small a venue to accommodate everyone who wanted to hear him, but just the right size for both this sweet-voiced troubadour and the lutenist Karl-Ernst Schröder. Not long ago, countertenors were regarded as exotics, and most audiences figured that one piping falsettist sounded pretty much like another. No more. Not only do Scholl and his American counterpart, David Daniels, get star treatment, but connoisseurs find their vocal styles as different as those of, say, Callas and Tebaldi. Indeed, the comparison is apt. Even in recital, Daniels is a stage animal whose singing crackles with drama, while Scholl tends to be, if not exactly elegiac, a more reflective spirit who produces an equally lovely sound.

Of course, Scholl’s program did not exactly call for high-powered melodrama. The music was drawn from his two most recent recitals recorded for Decca, a compilation of early-seventeenth-century English song and Italian madrigals and familiar folk songs from the British Isles. Singing in flawless unaccented English, Scholl cultivates all the classical virtues: pinpoint intonation, smooth register alignment, perfect legato phrasing, and a storyteller’s sense of what the words mean. His art is refined but never precious, and the voice per se is simply ravishing. Scholl has so far only dipped a toe into opera, and it will be interesting to see how this completely finished singer adapts to the stage.

Thank heaven for Teatro Grattacielo. Any opera lover who harbors a guilty passion for verismo opera – a vague term used to describe the florid music theater that flourished in Italy during the early 1900s – has precious few opportunities to see or hear these still-unfashionable, and virtually impossible to cast, operatic melodramas. For the past five years, Teatro Grattacielo has come to the rescue by offering a concert version of a choice work from the period, and this year’s pick, performed in Alice Tully Hall, was Franco Alfano’s Risurrezione, based on Leo Tolstoy’s last novel and first seen in 1904.

Although Alfano went on to compose many more operas, and in a far more advanced idiom than this early Puccini-esque score, Risurrezione remained his most frequently performed work, in Italy at least, and a gift to any singing actress eager to chew up the scenery. The role of Katiusha was a favorite with Mary Garden during her late years. The divine Mary always said she loved the part because it gave her a chance to play a different character in each act: an innocent girl in love, an abandoned unwed mother, an embittered hysteric jailed for prostitution, and finally a woman whose soul is resurrected in the bleak prison camps of Siberia. The opera has been kept alive recently by two classic recordings from the Italian Radio featuring magnetic performances by cult divas Magda Olivero and Clara Petrella.

Hardly in their class, Allison Charney made a game stab at Katiusha, but she lacks the vocal and dramatic authority to put the role over – and, let’s face it, mere competence in verismo opera simply won’t do. Her colleagues in the large cast were all at least well prepared and enthusiastic, and one came away with a reasonably accurate idea of the piece. That was mostly thanks to the supple and subtle conducting of Fiora Contino, an amazing musician in her seventies who may be the last conductor on earth with the music of Alfano and his generation in her bloodstream.

Opera by Richard Strauss; starring Renée Fleming; conducted by Christoph Eschenbach at the Metropolitan Opera
Andreas Scholl
Recital at Weill Hall.
Opera by Franco Alfano; conducted by Fiora Contino at Alice Tully Hall.

Off-Peak Performance