Differences of opinion among audience members with regard to any given musician's performance on any given night are certainly far from uncommon, but I've been absolutely fascinated to follow the reactions to Renée Fleming's opening-night rendition of the title role in Handel's Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera. About that performance, here's what I wrote in my initial post:
As for Fleming, she gave as fine a performance as I've ever heard from her. "Spietati, io vi giurai," in the second act, was perfectly pitched between desperation and furious abandon; later in the same act, she delivered a "Ritorna, o caro e dolce mio tesoro" that quavered with a complex mix of radiant love, anticipation and a slight edge of hopelessness. "Io t'abbraccio," the Fleming/Scholl duet that closed the act, was a stretch of almost unbearable beauty.
Looking at that again, I'll happily to stand by every word of it. I was slightly puzzled, then, when Sieglinde's report on that same performance suggested that Fleming had been somewhat off that night, noting:
It may have been a touch of cold or allergy phlegm: a kind of tiredness mars her usually fragrant middle range, and a handful of her top notes are unfocussed, unpolished, and lack the high-carb Fleming caramel. Commitment is still 101%, but we got a disturbing preview of what she would sound like 10 years from now.
Still, I was okay with that. After all, when it comes to issues of parsing nth-degree vocal production, I'm happy to defer to anyone willing to sit through Saturday's Rodelinda matinee and evening Lohengrin, as Sieglinde did today. (That should be a post worth reading... and, while I'm grossly overdue in saying it, welcome back, Sieglinde.)
But then came the Wellsungs -- bloggers Alex and Jonathan, whose keen expertise, exactingly worded descriptions, unhinged humor and all-around enthusiasm have long made their blog one of my mandatory daily stops -- and they were not at all impressed with Fleming. First, Alex:
It was like all of her most infuriating qualities on steroids. The most weak, contrived, covered sound you can imagine. Utter, baffling lack of precision (which is doubly inexcusable in Handel). Total sacrifice of any phrasing or larger line to trying, and failing, to make everything precious. ... Hopefully this is just the worst possible music for her and doesn't represent total submission to her demons. Because it really, really sucks to listen to. And it double sucks to hear 5000 people hoot about it pretending like they don't have ears on their heads.
And then Jonathan:
Renee Fleming is a disaster as Rodelinda. What the hell is going on? WHY does she sing this rep? It was like one big slur that lasted for four hours. I did not hear one consonant, and there was no sense whatsoever of where one note ended and another began. It was just this sort of formless, free-flowing sound that sort of skated over Handel's music--the music that was hiding somewhere under this drool-bag of vocal drivel.
Over at Parterre Box, where Fleming's name is routinely spelled "Renaay" and detesting her seems to be an article of faith, La Cieca posted Wellsung excerpts as if to chum the waters. Surprisingly few sharks rose to take the bait... but then, it's a weekend, and the broadcast was today. Anyway, I knew that Bernard Holland had been reasonably positive in his New York Times review:
Ms. Fleming's Act II duet with Mr. Scholl was a thing of beauty. She also sang affectingly in up-tempo arias. Given too much space and time to interpret, she tends to overload her performances with hesitating accents, surges of tone and other vocal ticks. The audience seemed to love them all, and I'm sure with reason.
But I decided to cast my net still further. (Most of this research was already played out in the comments field of Jonathan's Wellsung post.) I discovered that Bob Levine had fairly gushed in his review on Classics Today, that Martin Bernheimer had deemed Fleming "unfailingly exquisite as the lofty protagonist" in his Financial Times review, that Clive Barnes of the New York Post had cited (in a pan of the production) her "lustrous voice" and "controlled but fervent emotion," and that Fred Kershnit of the New York Sun had filed an overall positive review, despite some serious, well-detailed criticisms:
In her first aria, she landed well below the mark of her initial high note and struggled for breath in her beginning foray into the complex ornamentation that is the heart of this florid vocal style. But Ms. Fleming righted herself admirably and, except for some hard edges at the beginning of Act II, delivered a very fine performance.
So, what does all of this amount to? That the critics took an altogether too kind view of Fleming's performance? I doubt it. That opera bloggers hate Fleming as a rule? Demonstrably untrue in most cases, and both Wellsungs took pains to say it wasn't true in their case. That Fleming's performance sounded better in some parts of the house -- namely the orchestra seats, where the reviewers were positioned -- than in others? Perhaps, but I'm still doubtful. In the end, the best explanation for this phenomenon seems to be that offered by Jonathan of Wellsung, in one of his follow-up comments:
I think it is very possible that we get very different things out of Handel, you know? And I think maybe Ms. Fleming just doesn't sing in a style that I personally find really appropriate for the music. The notes are never crisp, defined, or precise---all the things I think make Handel exciting.
I think that's probably exactly right. I figure that Sieglinde looked for Fleming's usually dependable attributes, and found them wanting. I surmise that Jonathan and Alex looked for the kind of stylistic rectitude and precision we should rightly expect in modern, historically informed presentations of Handel, and found them utterly lacking. I can't speak for any of the other paid reporters who reviewed the performance, but I personally looked to Fleming not for the kind of punctilious execution that I'd expect of, say, my beloved Simone Kermes or anyone that René Jacobs might have cast in the role, but simply for someone who had something enriching to say about the character she was portraying in the drama at hand.
Looking back over my own comments, that's exactly what I emphasized: Fleming's performance, whether exacting in style or not, managed to neatly convey the emotional nut of each scene I cited -- the fury and nothing-left-to-lose desperation in one aria, the mix of anticipation and doubt in another, and a genuine, heart-rending passion in the duet with her long-lost husband. For me, Fleming nailed every one of those scenes, and a number of others besides.
Some might view that as trying to make the proverbial silk purse out of a sow's ear -- La Cieca's minions are saying, "Sow's voice, you mean" -- and I don't think they're wrong to be skeptical. Certainly not the Wellsungs, whose opinions are not those of soured partisans, but of precisely the sort of well-studied opera lovers whose passions keep this art form in acres of satin and working stage elevators. (Okay, aside from the multimillionaire donors and government subsidies.)
So wherein lies the truth? Lacking Fleming's enthusiasm, I can't imagine the Met would have touched Rodelinda. Thus, no David Daniels or Andreas Scholl, no Stephanie Blythe and John Relyea, no Kobie van Rensburg, and no killer side-to-side sliding stage. If lauding Fleming's performance smells like compromise, perhaps it is and it isn't. She may not have delivered a Handelian reading that we can rightly compare with those to which we've become accustomed in these period-informed days -- but then, who among the singers that might deliver such a performance are as yet capable of selling the nearly 20,000 tickets required to fill this house five times?
Far more importantly, Fleming didn't merely demand a Handel production in the Big House on the Plaza, but delivered a portrayal alert to every bold stroke and subtle nuance that this especially dramatic composer wrote into it. I don't automatically apply a stamp of approval to everything Fleming does -- the "jazz" album Haunted Heart was dire, despite the presence of Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell, and the Sacred Songs CD was worse. But Fleming's performance in Rodelinda was just enough, and more besides.
Despite our differences of opinion, I've found this particular back-and-forth with Jonathan and Alex extremely stimulating. I'm grateful to them for making me think so hard about a performance I'd already laid to rest. And I reiterate that not only is their blog one of the liveliest sources of opera reviews in NYC, but it's also without question the funniest, hands down.
Oh, I did actually attend a concert on Saturday night, and my head's buzzing with things to say about it. But since it was the first half of a two-parter, I've decided to wait until Sunday night to wrap it up. I'd also originally planned to take in both days of New York City Opera's VOX 2006 readings. Instead, I spent the most beautiful and temperate day spring has yet presented... in the office, chained to my computer, desperately trying to get caught up and maybe even a little bit ahead. So I'll be looking for a VOX play-by-play, same as everyone else.
John Luther Adams - The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies - Steven Schick (Cantaloupe)
Pelican - Pelican, Australasia and The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw (Hydra Head)
Napalm Death - Death by Manipulation and Harmony Corruption (Earache)
Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and IX: Equilibrium (Century Media), and Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire & Demise (Candlelight)
Heston Rifle - What to Do at Time of Accident (Ernest Jennings)
Augusta Read Thomas - Gathering Paradise*; Jacob Druckman - Summer Lightning; Stephen Hartke - Symphony No. 3** - Heidi Grant Murphy*, Hilliard Ensemble**, New York Philharmonic / Lorin Maazel (New World, to be released in June)