Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thank God for Peter Gelb

I just had the most moving opera experience of my life.

In a movie theater.

In the Carousel mall.

Today the Met broadcast Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin into movie theaters the world over, starring American household-name soprano Renee Fleming as Tatiana, opposite Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role.

(As I watched, rapt, a thought flickered briefly across my mind: why did I give this up, again?

Oh, right. Because I'm not Renee Fleming.)

I went not only because I'd never seen the opera, but also because I'd never seen Renee Fleming in action. Sure, I'd heard some recordings, seen a PBS gala performance or something, and read roughly 4/5 of her book (note to Mom: can you ship that to me?), but I've never, until today, seen the goods to back up all the fawning praise. This is probably not a secret to anybody who knows anything about opera, but Fleming is indeed all she's cracked up to be, and twenty times more. As a 48 year-old woman playing a girl of 16, Fleming was utterly convincing. More than that, her portrayal was effortless, natural. There are very few vocalists I've ever seen who can make opera-singing look unaffected, even conversational (or any sort of singing, for that matter), and Fleming's impressive showing sets an incredibly high standard for other performers of her stature.

Not to mention that she is an irresistibly gorgeous, elegantly expressive singer. It's not that she upstages her costars; everything about her is captivating. Her charisma seems expansive enough to translate to the back rows of the Met, for sure, but the movie theater experience provides an intimacy here that is unattainable in the opera house; Fleming's expressive eyes amplified every emotion. Fleming reads so well on a movie theater screen because the passion with which she infuses her role is not overwrought melodrama; rather, she acts and reacts intensely, as a normal person would, free of contrivance or artifice.

Vocally, Fleming's performance was smooth and seamless. I'm no Russian scholar, but to my ear, her diction sounded at times like French rather than Russian - that might be my only inexpert complaint. But, since I didn't understand the language anyway, I was more than happy to let the lush legato of indiscernible syllables wash over me. Fleming's voice has a lovely color to it from top to bottom, and it seems well suited to Tchaikovsky's music.

As Onegin, the silver-haired
Hvorostovsky gave an equally impassioned and impressive performance. Also playing a much younger character, Hvorostovsky was boyish and headstrong, the archetypal cocksure twenty-something male. Onegin begins the opera as such, patronizing and cold in his exchanges with the bookish Tatiana. In the second act, Hvorostovsky demonstrated commendable range as a singing actor, from a smarmy seducer to a listless youth to a man crazed and consumed by an impossible, tumultuous love.

Both leads were spellbinding in their roles, yet so natural I felt as if I weren't watching theatrics of any sort, just observing a real-life tale unfold. As the poet Lenski, the man who introduces Onegin into the story, tenor Ramon Vargas sang confidently and with a touching sincerity; Olga, the object of his affections and Tatiana's sister, was playfully sung and acted by mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba. These four main characters carried the production, but the supporting cast and chorus certainly pulled their weight.

I've seen a fair amount of opera productions in my day, in houses all across Europe and from respected American companies, but none as memorable as this performance. Maybe it was the immediacy, or the intimacy; or maybe Fleming and Hvorostovsky are just that good. All I know is that goosebumps rippled down my arms on more than one occasion, and the climactic moment at the very end of the opera (perhaps Tatiana's highest note sung) was so intense that, had I not been in a very public place surrounded by complete strangers, I would have burst into very messy tears.

Those of you who missed it, fret not: the Met has encored every opera so far, I think, and this should be no exception. You can find information on this and other movie theater broadcasts on the Met's website.

GO. Especially if you've never seen an opera. You will not regret it.

1 comment:

Carl Yost said...

That was a great review! Did you see Garrison Keillor totally agrees with you?

http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/02/28/keillor/