by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 12, 2006.
The Metropolitan Opera season lumbered to a close with a gala in honor of Joseph Volpe, who is completing his term as the general manager of the house. With its mixture of bedazzling vocalism and befuddling lapses of taste, the event captured in microcosm—if a five-hour evening can be called a microcosm—the artistic vagaries of Volpe’s tenure at the Met. It also offered up opera in raw, pure form, its theatricality stripped away and its complexity minimized. Vocal jamborees of this kind have the appeal of a tribal ritual: favorite singers parade across the stage, and fans respond with ovations of minutely graded intensity. PBS broadcast the gala on June 1st, but, in a perfect world, it would have played on Fox, with explosive graphics, yammering commentators, and an atmosphere of gladiatorial bloodlust.
During the not infrequent lulls in the program, I got to thinking about opera’s odd position in American culture. Although the art is hardly popular, styles of singing that are described as “operatic” are integral to the pop mainstream. Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban sing to millions, purveying a hybrid genre that has been dubbed “popera.” Simon Cowell, the acidulous producer turned music critic who dominates the hit show “American Idol,” has organized an act called Il Divo, in which trained opera singers bleat pop tunes. Cowell’s projects have succeeded in making America sound like a gaggle of opera queens: at water coolers and barbecues across the U.S. of A., people chastise singers for waywardness of pitch (or “pitchiness,” in “American Idol” lingo), weigh the relative importance of technical precision and expressive force, and indulge in other forms of intermission second-guessing. There was a curious moment during this year’s “Idol” auditions when a young woman named Heidi Fairbanks came out singing “Caro nome,” and not badly, either. She was sent home, but she sounded less out of place than you might expect.
For a long while, during the macho decades of rock and rap, it seemed as though vocal floridity had been drummed out of pop music. But it turns out that there is an abiding hunger in the heartland for high notes, melisma, fioritura, and the rest. So why don’t more people warm to the grand original? One problem is that there is no way of capturing opera’s elemental thrill on television, or even on a recording. To hear a great singer such as Karita Mattila throw the emotion in her voice across the hundred and eighty-five feet that separates the middle of the Met stage from the back row of the Family Circle is not an experience that can be reduced to digital bytes. This is part of the reason that opera remains an open secret, at once ubiquitous and unknown. There is also the issue of opera’s obsession with the past, where most people understandably do not want to live. None of the arias that were sung at the Volpe gala were written after 1936, four years before the outgoing general manager was born.
If there was a consensus “winner” at the gala, it was Natalie Dessay, who sang the climactic sleepwalking scene from Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.” Like most bel-canto showstoppers, it ends with rapid runs and brilliant high notes, which Dessay dispatched with ease. But the true magic came in the slow aria “Ah! non credea,” in which Amina sings to a withered flower in her hand, and enters into a lingering duet with a lone cello. Dessay sang it as if with one breath, unfurling a long, luminous ribbon of tone. This singer has experienced difficulties in the past few years, having had operations on both of her vocal cords. If her voice no longer sounds as effortless as it did nine years ago, when she had her first major success on the Met stage, as Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos,” she has compensated by finding a darker, richer vein of feeling. It was almost disconcerting how good she was; you forgot that you were at a gala, and were absorbed into Amina’s dream world.
The fun of a first-rate gala is in seeing stars goad one another into tasteful excess. A trio of deep-voiced singers in the second part of the program—Dmitri Hvorostovsky, René Pape, and Dolora Zajick—engaged in a friendly fight to see who could sustain the longest line at the slowest tempo. Hvorostovsky gave a surreally robust account of Rodrigo’s death scene from “Don Carlo.” Pape tested the upper edges of his magnificent bass voice in King Philip’s Act IV lament from the same opera. Zajick produced what may have been the most decibels of the evening in “O mon Fernand,” from Donizetti’s “La Favorite.” For glamour made visible and audible, none could rival the majestic Mattila, in “Vilja,” from “The Merry Widow,” although Renée Fleming came close in a finely nuanced “Tacea la notte placida,” from “Il Trovatore.”
If the entire evening had gone like that, it might have been quasi-legendary. But, alas, I have left several hours unaccounted for. Having wasted a small but not insignificant portion of my life at last season’s new production of Franco Alfano’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” I hoped never to encounter that puddle of late-Romantic mediocrity again, but Plácido Domingo, at whose bidding the opera was disinterred, apparently insisted on bringing it back once more. This time, the great tenor conducted an aria, “Je jette avec grâce mon feutre,” which his putative successor Roberto Alagna sang; they were, respectively, stiff-armed and dry-voiced. Earlier, Domingo came onstage to sing the kitschy Spanish tune “Granada”; for Volpe, “That’s Amore” might have been a better choice. Deborah Voigt, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Waltraud Meier, Olga Borodina, Susan Graham, Stephanie Blythe, Denyce Graves, Ben Heppner, Juan Diego Flórez, Thomas Hampson, James Morris, and Samuel Ramey also made appearances.
The singers performed in front of sets from “Ariadne auf Naxos,” “La Traviata,” and “Die Fledermaus.” There was something vaguely avant-garde about the effect of seeing, say, Morris intone “Die Frist ist um,” the phantom mariner’s soliloquy in “The Flying Dutchman,” while standing in the middle of the ornate parlor set from Franco Zeffirelli’s version of “La Traviata.” Peter Gelb, the next general manager, has promised to modernize the Met’s productions, and it occurred to me, during another of the evening’s lulls, that Gelb could make a quick start by taking stuffy old productions and staging the wrong operas on top of them. For example, Zeffirelli’s picture-postcard “La Bohème” could be used as a backdrop for the bloody nightmare of “Elektra.” Or “Fledermaus” could be staged amid the peaks and crevasses of the “Ring.” The possibilities are endless, and it wouldn’t cost a cent.
Volpe took a couple of solo bows at the end of the evening. It was touching to see the Met’s brusque boss looking a bit awkward and overwhelmed. Volpe has written, with the help of Charles Michener, a lively memoir of his years at the Met, where he started out as a carpenter. Much has been made of his tough-talking, streetwise persona, which ruffled feathers at the hoity-toity house. In fact, as the memoir reveals, he had a well-to-do upbringing in Glen Cove. (You could have deduced as much from the tony home movies of his childhood, which were shown during the gala.) Despite his gruff exterior, Volpe had just the right touch to maintain the Met’s traditions. Production values remained luxurious. Casting was done according to the star system. Despite a few innovations and renovations, there were no seismic changes. Although I’m one of those who believe that the Met is in dire need of new ideas, I am also savoring every glimpse of those towering, opulent, meticulous sets, knowing that, in a decade, they will probably be gone.