May 11, 2014

The Met's Cenerentola: DiDonato retires from a role

Thoughts, reflections and memories inspired by my viewing of the Metropolitan Opera's HD presentation of Rossini's Cenerentola at my local Cineplex...

  • For an opera that no one would ever characterize as "brief", the time flew by. Why do some bel canto operas drag, and others sparkle? The material, or the staging? Both, I suppose.
  • I had not seen this opera nor heard any of the music in the 17-years that have passed since I was cast as Don Magnifico in a production of Virginia Commonwealth University's Opera Theater. As I watched the wonderful bass-baritone Allesandro Corbelli work his way through this gigantic role, I had a moment of clarity in which I was overwhelmed by a stark question: "How the HELL did I do THAT?" Also: "What were you THINKING?"  
    Me as Don Magnifico, ca. 1996. Buffo or goof-o?
  • I'm glad I can say I saw the final performance of Joyce DiDonato in the title role. I have to resist the temptation to call her a "goddess", an appellation commonly bestowed on practically every female artist the public favors. I resist simply because what makes DiDonato special is her humanity, not some aura of divinity. She's very much of this world right here. She could be a soccer mom; the girl you dated in college; your next-door-neighbor; a professional woman in some office building. She's real. Her eyes bespeak humor, intelligence, perception and easily-accessed emotions of every description. Attractive rather than gorgeous, she radiates the sort of positive energy that outshines even her flawless coloratura chops. 
  • Okay, what the hell - SHE'S A GODDESS. But... you know... like, a human one.
  • Quibble: the large ensemble that closes Act 1 was staged as a dinner for which there were not enough place-settings, leading to a slapsstick sight-gag of cast members fighting for a seat. Highly choreographed, it might have been fun to watch if not for the cameraman INSISTING on following the criss-cross paths of cast members as they migrated from chair to chair. It was dizzying in the way of televised hockey matches, where the erratic flight of the puck can make for hectic camera-work. I would have preferred the same panoramic view that the poor slobs sitting out in the Met's audience were afforded. 
  • Speaking of sight gags, I imagine one either adored or was annoyed by the "evil sister" act as presented by Patricia Risely and Rachelle Durkin as Clorinda and Tisbe. No middle ground. Over the top? Um, yes - that's a "yes" on that. Such mugging! The two of them made Carol Burnett look like Helen Hayes in comparison. It was funny a lot of the time, but let me say this about that: the sisters kept up their mugging, schtick and "business" even while other principals were singing solos. I gotta tell you, my stage career began in 1967 and continued through 2010; every single stage director I ever worked with would have CASTRATED me with a BUTTER KNIFE if I had taken the focus off an artist singing a solo. In "Glenn-World", it would be a cardinal sin to do anything remotely distracting while a colleague was singing. So: has this concept changed? Are audiences bored by arias now? Is this another attempt to inject "the dying art form of opera" with more audience appeal? The result, on this afternoon, was a cartoonish sensibility, which may in fact have been the goal.
  • I nearly did an unintentional "spit-take" of my water bottle at a moment during the intermission interviews. Our hostess, the soprano Deborah Voigt, was firing softball questions to Corbelli and the afternoon's Dandidi (Pietro Spagnoli) and Alidoro (Luca Pisaroni). Responding to Voigt's question about how one learns to sing Rossini's passages of rapid patter, Spagnoli explained in thickly-accented English how he starts by drilling at a slow tempo, gradually increasing the speed until it's up to tempo. "It takes a lot of rep", he said in conclusion, using the abbreviated form of "repetition". One problem: he used a very Italianate closed "e" vowel, so it sounded like our long "a". So it went like this, phonetically: SPAGNOLA: "Eet takes a lot of rape". VOIGT: "What?? It takes... what???"  For just a hot second, the color drained from Deborah's rosy cheeks before she realized what he meant and continued the interview. Priceless!
  • Though a university production at a school without a national rep (that's "reputation", smarty) in music, we did boast a pretty good young artist in the role of the valet Dandidi. That would be Matthew Burns, who went on to develop a busy and successful career as an opera singer. Here's his website. So remember: talent can come from anywhere, my friends. 
  • I enjoyed prancing around as Magnifico, but one particular memory of that time dominates all others and casts a pall over my nostalgia. On opening night my dad, Glenn Winters Sr., lay in the Intensive Care Unit of Williamsburg Hospital, having suffered a stroke either that day, or possibly the day before, I don't recall. His was literally at death's door; though he lingered on for several more months, he was never the same again. The rest of his days were a losing battle with dementia, unsuccessful efforts to re-learn how to walk, and a succession of rehab centers and nursing homes. I did not share this situation with the opera staff or the cast members; they had a night of comedy and very difficult music ahead of them. It wasn't a time to be needy.
  • As for the Met HD affair, I'm pretty sure that the excellent tenor Juan Diego Florez had no trouble beaming at his Cenerentola with fond affection during her triumphant final scene. Those two artists have a brother-sister relationship forged by many years of being onstage together. Mr. Florez, his singing done for the afternoon, looked especially emotional to me. Or maybe he's just that good an actor...
  • Speaking of Florez, let's talk tenors. I was mildly disppointed that the Prince was not being sung by the new "flavor of the month" at the Met, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena. Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times was positively gushy in his recent review. Florez, however, did not disappoint. (I found this video of Camerano singing his Act 2 aria.) Here's the difference between the two. Camerano, as you can hear on the above video, has an incredibly brilliant and well-placed top range, even topping Florez's high C with an interpolated high D. Florez, after several thousand high C's in his long career, had to work a bit harder to keep his support up there in the stratosphere. He's lost a smidgen of effortlessness. HOWEVER: Florez's phrasing is of regal elegance as it has always been. Camerano, in this short clip, was a bit more rough and ready, concerned less with phrasing and letting the "little notes" speak, saving his energy for those immaculate and electrifying C's and D's. We are fortunate, you and I, to be living in the Golden Age of Rossini Tenors. 
  • In conclusion: After 17 years cheerfully ignoring this opera, I can aver that it's a remarkably good piece, only slightly less clever than Barbiere di Siviglia. But will SOMEONE please explain to me the purpose of the thunderstorm in Act 2? Excuse me very much, but it is the most RANDOM thunderstorm in all of opera! NOTHING HAPPENS. NOTHING. In this production, Cenerentola ran around putting buckets under leaky places. Magnifico took an oblivious nap on the couch. After a while, it was over. LAME, ROSSINI ---  LAME. 
  • But let's not end on a sour note. What struck me about Rossini's telling of this fairy tale was its sweetness. Some Italian buffo comedies - Barbiere for one - are so farcical that the word "sweetness" doesn't enter into the discussion. But Cenerentola  becomes very touching when our heroine turns the other cheek and charms her dad and sisters out of their inclination to pout in the finale. Her good-hearted forgiveness of the abuse she suffered at their hands makes for a particularly warm ending. And when a warmly human interpreter like DiDonato is the source of the charm, well -- it's as good as bel canto opera gets.

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