Verdi Would Be Proud
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
On Saturday night, the Metropolitan Opera staged one of the most anticipated cultural events of the season: Verdi’s “La Traviata,” in the Franco Zeffirelli production. What’s the big deal about that? The Met stages this production every other day. Yes, but Angela Gheorghiu has assumed the title role – for the first time ever at the Met. It was in this role that the Romanian soprano had her world breakthrough in 1994: She sang it at Covent Garden, under Sir George Solti.
Miss Gheorghiu proved this weekend that she is justly famous in the role. She has mastered it: vocally, theatrically, psychologically. Verdi did not craft an uncomplicated role here, and he would smile at this star’s execution of it.
First to talk about is the singing that Miss Gheorghiu did on Saturday night. She provided her usual beauty of sound, and her usual technical control – almost spooky. The voice is a good weight for Violetta: light enough to portray the fragile consumptive; strong enough to portray the fiery courtesan. At times Miss Gheorghiu sounded a little small in this big house – but you simply had to listen more carefully, and the orchestra had to pipe down. In fact, with her lyrical, unforced, almost conversational singing, Miss Gheorghiu drew you in.
She ripped through the coloratura in Act I. For those keeping score at home, she did not sing the high E flat at the end of “Sempre libera.” (Too bad, in my opinion.) Her pitch was almost always spot-on, and this was especially to be valued in exposed – and unaccompanied – passages (“E strano”). I have said many times that this voice can seem more instrumental than vocal. This is a hard thing to describe, but imagine a violinist: What he can do with his fiddle, Miss Gheorghiu can sort of do with her voice. She plays it.
Through all three acts, she never strained or labored. Every page of the part was governed by operatic judgment, or instinct. Miss Gheorghiu was duly poignant – if ever a life were tragic, it’s Violetta’s – but not histrionic. (Histrionics would have canceled out poignancy.) Her soft singing in “Dite alla giovine” was riveting; her “Morro” was nearly terrifying.
It’s said that, during one of those rehearsals in 1994, Solti confided, “I was in tears. I had to go out. The girl [Miss Gheorghiu] is wonderful. She can do anything.”
“The girl” is the object of much derision, chiefly for her offstage antics, or what those antics are reported to be. But she is a great singer, and a great singing actress. As Marion Barry said after he was elected to a fourth term as mayor of Washington, D.C.- this was following a stint in jail for cocaine – “Deal with it.”
There were other singers involved on Saturday night. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was making his Met debut as Alfredo. First, he has what you might call tenor-star looks: long hair, a Byronic profile. Second, he owns a substantial, regal voice. Often it is creamy and refulgent. He was a little tight in Act I – particularly in the Brindisi – but he opened up.
Alfredo’s big aria is “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” and Mr. Kaufmann negotiated that well. But he dipped a little on that sustained final E flat. He was also flat on a later high C – although the note was essentially there. This was Angela Gheorghiu’s night, but Mr. Kaufmann was not a negligible presence.
And doing the honors as Germont was the British baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore. He sang with assurance, and he conveyed the arc of his character: sternness, tenderness, deep remorse.
If Mr. Kaufmann wasn’t negligible, neither was the conductor, Marco Armiliato. The orchestra played very well for him. The Prelude to Act I was shimmering and beautiful; the Prelude to Act III was the same. Sometimes the pit and the stage were not quite together, but nothing too awkward occurred. In many spots, the orchestra seemed downright inspired: This was not another day, another dollar, under another multi-syllabled Italian conductor. Mr. Armiliato can be proud of what he brought about.
Finally, I might mention the audience: They coughed more than Violetta at her sickest. In fact, there was so much coughing in Act III, you almost couldn’t hear Violetta at all. I half-expected Miss Gheorghiu to stop and say, “Hey! I’m the one dying here!” But it’s February, and what can you do? You can do your best to stifle, that’s one thing.
Who is the hottest tenor on the planet (if you’ll forgive the People-magazine language)? Well, the young Mexican Rolando Villazon. A protege of Placido Domingo, he has appeared far and wide, especially with Anna Netrebko, the “hottest” soprano on the planet. Last summer, they created a sensation in “La Traviata” at Salzburg. This season, they brought their act to the Metropolitan Opera, in “Rigoletto.” That was less sensational – but still impressive.
On Friday night, Mr. Villazon gave a recital in the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur. Coming out casual, without a tie, he was accorded a tumultuous, almost operatic welcome. And then he proceeded to sing – Schumann’s sublime song cycle “Dichterliebe,” not usually the fare of the “hot” operatic tenor.
This was something of a statement. It said, “I am not only the Duke of Mantua. I am a real, versatile, all-purpose singer – gimme any language, any music.”
Before he began “Dichterliebe,” he pointed to the music on his stand and said, with mock worry, “It’s the wrong book.” He would be personable in this manner all night long. Then, the music about to begin, he put a determinedly poetic look on his face.
And how did he sing this song cycle? Much like a tenor star of Italian opera would. Much like a swoony, romantic Latin singer would. It was about the strangest “Dichterliebe” you ever heard. He slid up to notes, over and over, the way you would in “Besame Mucho.” His tempos were way too elastic. His gestures and facial expressions were at times clownishly operatic. In “Das ist ein Floten und Geigen,” he looked like he was going to die.
And he was considerably underpowered in spots. He did not have the low notes to give “Ich grolle nicht” its due. But when he hit the high A in that song, on the word “Herzen” – he was phenomenal.
Make no mistake: Mr. Villazon did some excellent singing in this cycle. This wasn’t a bad “Dichterliebe”; it was just a highly, highly unconventional one. “Ein Jungling liebt ein Madchen” was very pleasant and characterful. “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” provided a model of sustained mezzo-piano singing. “Aus alten Marchen winkt es” had winning verve.
In short, Mr. Villazon sang “Dichterliebe” like himself – he was thoroughly himself in it, just as Luciano Pavarotti would have been, if he had sung “Dichterliebe.” (Can you imagine?!)
Afterward, Mr. Villazon pointed to his music in a reassuring way. And I should mention that the pianist, Bryndon Hassman, was solid and sensitive throughout the cycle (and the evening). A canny accompanist, and a fine pianist.
After an almost punishingly long intermission – you could have had dinner at the Four Seasons during it – Mr. Villazon returned for more-typical recital fare, if you’re an operatic tenor: Liszt’s “Tre Sonetti di Petrarca.” This is Pavarotti territory, indeed. In the first song – “Pace non trovo” – Mr. Villazon missed the first note, or rather missed the beginning of the first note: The onset was high (sharp). But he hardly missed a trick thereafter. These are dreamy songs, and they were dreamily sung.
Mr. Villazon’s voice was amazingly flexible, and its beauty was extraordinary. So smooth was he, I thought of that phrase popular on television several years ago: “like buttah.”
To finish the printed program, he turned to songs of Obradors, the Spanish composer. He told the audience: “The diction should be okay, because it’s in Spanish.” It was indeed okay – better than okay – and so was the music-making. The closer, “Coplas de Curro Dulce,” was less wild than you sometimes hear it, but it was exciting enough.
Then came encore time – and here we had virtually a second recital. Mr. Villazon began with Massenet’s “Ouvre tes yeux bleus.” He had a memory breakdown in the middle of it, and flinging his arms out, he hollered “STOP!” Then he started again – and proceeded without incident. Next he sang a Spanish song whose words went, “I love you, a lot, a lot, a lot – and I will forever.” I myself did not know it, but I can report that Mr. Villazon floated a pretty little G in a head voice at the end.
He went on to an even more schlocky Spanish number. Again, I didn’t know it, but Mr. Villazon was obviously idiomatic in it.
And then? Tosti’s “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra.” In this, he was magnificent, triumphant. He provided a splendid example of singing forte – fortissimo – without bellowing.
Before the fifth and final encore, he said, “Is there a page-turner in the house?” There was indeed – and Mr. Hassman needed one. The piece was “La Danza,” by Rossini, the inevitable encore of the Italian-opera tenor. This is a quick, busy song – a tarantella. Mr. Villazon more suggested the notes than truly sang them. (Mr. Pavarotti sang every single one of them, crisply, unmistakably.) But Mr. Villazon performed with undeniable panache.
At one point, when he was spitting out the word “frinche,” repeatedly – he literally spat. And he made a funny, apologetic gesture to a lady in the first row.
Oh, how they loved him, this crowd, and they were right to. I had the thought, as I was leaving, that he made you want to sing. He made you love singing, all over again. And that is a wonderful achievement, for a vocal recital.
“La Traviata” will be performed again on February 7, 11, 16, 23 & 27, March 3, and April 6, 10 & 14 at the Metropolitan Opera House (Lincoln Center, 212-362-6000).