What's Become of the Good Old-Fashioned opera Gala?
Correction added 3/15/08
Our good friend, Sam Shirakawa, attended Thursday evening's OONY Gala. HIs review follows:
Following nearly 100 minutes of ho-hum turns by some of opera's brightest luminaries,a flash of longed-for lightning finally struck the Opera Orchestra of New York gala at Carnegie Hall on Thursday (6 March). Dowager super-diva Renata Scotto, who hosted the affair, appeared with the rest of the singers to participate in a round-robin rendition of the Brindisi from Traviata. Marcello Giordani and Bryan Hymel split Alfredo's lines, and Violetta's part was divided among no less than Renee Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova, Eglise Gutierrez, Dolora Zajick (yes!), and Signora Scotto (YES!).
Looking perhaps even better now than she did during her glory days as the Met's reigning prima donna (317 appearances), Scotto then shamelessly took possession of the stage, moving around the podium area, kissing and hugging her colleagues. Not to be outdone, Giordani knelt before Scotto and kissed her hand and then scooted over to Fleming and performed the same ritual. For a moment, the occasion came to startling life, reflecting fleetingly the days when opera galas were, well, fun!
All the more poignant, because Scotto's official contribution to the evening was a brief spoken introduction at the beginning of the program. While she dutifully advertised OONY's next event (Edgar, 13 April), she also launched into a recitative on her performance and the recording she made with OONY 21 years ago (was it that long ago?).
But her most telling statement, in which she established herself absolutely as the event's only true prima donna assoluta, was her departure from the stage, dragging her shawl (down-stage side, altro che!), as she receded behind the double doors.
The ensuing musical numbers were performed in assembly-line procession, a string of lyric lollypops that seemed mostly sweet but oddly mono-flavored. Owing to the absence of Latonia Moore, the order of the numbers were shaken up radically, so that you really had no idea who was appearing next. Never mind. Tenor Bryan Hymel, replacinf Stephen Costello who was listed to appear third, had the unenviable task of warming up the crowd with that aria from Rigoletto [you know which one]. His rendition was about as good as any I've heard in the past couple of years from tenors with brand-names. But the audience tossed him a few perfunctory bravos and sent him packing.
So it was with the rest of the intermission-less evening. Aprille Millo (who should get new publicity photos to match her current appearance -- on second thought, scratch that) and Stephen Gaertner substituted "Mira d'acerbe lagrime" from Trovatore without interpolated high notes, which would have been fun to hear. Millo returned later to give us the Mefistofele aria but declined to appear with her coevals in the evening's concluding Brindisi-- which was performed twice. Gaertner came back with Daniel Mobbs for "Il rival salvar..." from Puritani, the gala's only showcase for the lower register. A tune or two more from these rising suns might have been exciting as well as fun.
Eglise Guttierez and Krassimira Stoyanova have both been stoking fires in their recent Big Apple appearances, but they seemed a tad phlegmatic in their respective turns. Guttierez didn't miss an opportunity to fire off a high note, but her "Qui la voce" from Puritani seemed bereft of the pathos and delightful girlishness she brought to her riveting Amina in the OONY's rocking Sonnambula last week. What a thrilling scream-fest that was! Maybe it was too much to expect lightning to strike twice in the same place within eight days. Stoyanova couldn't quite get her sympathies around Anna Bolena's Home-Sweet-Home reminiscences, but she appears to have the vocal material for this kind of music.
She was joined by Marcello Giordani in the challenging duet from Huguenots ("Tu l'as dit), during which he drew gasps from the audience with his helium-induced high notes. Giordani hit them all bull's-eye perfect, but they sounded as though he was channeling a beefy Munchkin.
Anybody's guess who Renee Fleming may have been channeling in her "M'odi, ah m'odi..." from Lucrezia Borgia. Possibly Maria Malibran (1808-1836), who, like Fleming, was unconditionally adored by her public, even though some accounts say, she occasionally fell short of a high note. Fleming did fall a bit flat in the aria's climatic moments. Nonetheless, she showed herself, as always, gracious and musically elegant, even though the true riches of her estimable talent may reside in realms outside bel canto.
You may well ask why I've been harping on high notes and FUN. It's because the event I'm talking about was a gala. For me, that's an occasion for artists to shake off the shackles of convention and do something more and differently. Galas should, especially for the money they now demand, also be entertaining -- replete with high wires, acrobatics, fireworks and all the rest of it. They should be fun from start to finish. Dolora Zajick, for example, delivered a flawless "O mon Fernand" from La Favorite -- not the down-at-the-cuff "O mio Fernando" but the rarer and trendy French version. But it wasn't until her eyeballs frantically bounced over the sheet music for the Brindisi -- which she obviously had never seen before and may never look at again -- that I caught a glimpse of the Zajick persona that contributes to making her tick as a much-loved artist. In that instant, she grabbed the spotlight from Scotto and dominated. Scotto promptly took back the spotlight, but there you have it: a few seconds of a diva in real-life distress was worth the price of admission, which for me was free -- a birthday gift. In the proverbial Old Days, there was a lot more of this un-premeditation. Today, most galas resemble cheerless product demos.
Speaking of admission prices and concomitant demographics, the seat I was given cost $25, all the way up top. A bargain in this day and age. Most of the expensive seats downstairs were sold out, but despite the big-draw names -- there were bags of empty seats in the rear and sides of the balcony. Not so long ago, those seats would have been the first to go -- filled by combative regulars, rabid fans and enthusiastic young people. Where have they gone? When the cheapest seats for an important cultural attraction fail to sell, it suggests attrition in the baseline audience. All the more worrying when the competition for the same audience on Thursday at the other major musical venues was far from frenetic.
Perhaps the only person having a perceptably good time at this gala was an elderly fellow sitting alone in the empty row in front of me, a veritable front-seat conductor. Both hands were gesticulating broadly throughout the evening, to keep the orchestra and soloists together -- which didn't always happen. He appeared more than ready to give a few tips to Eve Queller, who, by the way, was celebrating her 100th performance conducting in Carnegie Hall. I'm not sure why I resisted the urge to tell him to cease and desist. Maybe because his frequently wayward beat was an hypnotic distraction. Maybe because I found the specter of chronic rhythmic inaccuracy as a possible indication of encroaching age too intimidating to interrupt. Maybe because it dawned on me that we all make our own fun. Ah, well, two entertainments to witness for the price of none -- remember, the ticket was a gift -- may be about as amusing as it gets...
© Sam H. Shirakawa, 2008
Correction: The changes forced by Latonia Moore's absence from the gala also fomented some confusion in reporting who sang and what they sang. I wasn't the only reporter who had difficulty keeping track of the proceedings.
The substitution of the duet from Trovatore with Stephen Gaertner and Aprille Millo in place of the originally programmed number from Norma with Millo and Moore was announced in a program insert distributed at the performance. I got that right in my article, the New York Times did not. What I got wrong was as follows: Stephen Costello was listed in the program to sing that Rigoletto aria, but Bryan Hymel took his place. That's Bryan with a Y. The details of this change are said to be in the press kit, which I didn't receive, because I was attending the performance as a member of the Great Unwashed. Sounds a bit like the plot of Mignon, but all this could have been avoided, if Ms. Moore had only shown up...