Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Lyric Art

I am diffident about attending opera performances.

I generally enjoy listening to recordings of operas, but I have not generally enjoyed most of the opera performances I have attended.

One of the problems I have encountered is that I have never been lucky enough to see and hear a remarkable opera performance. The opera performances I have attended have been pretty mediocre, or even worse. Apparently seeing and hearing a great performance changes one’s opinion about the art form for life. On the other hand, persons—such as myself—who have attended several opera performances without ever encountering anything special tend to become indifferent to the art form.

At this point in my life, I could forego attending opera performances for the next five years and be entirely happy.

I have attended eleven opera performances with Andrew—two just in the last two weeks—and my luck with performances has not been good. Not a single one of those eleven performances was worth attending, although I actually enjoyed a couple of the performances for one reason or another (but not because the performances were artistically fulfilling).

In order, we have attended performances of:

Gioachino Rossini’s “La Donna Del Lago”, performed by Minnesota Opera

Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales Of Hoffman”, performed by Minnesota Opera

Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme”, performed by The Hamburg State Opera

Leos Janacek’s “Jenufa”, performed by The Metropolitan Opera

Leo Delibes’s “Lakme”, performed by Minnesota Opera

Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo In Maschera”, performed by Minnesota Opera

Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”, performed by New York City Opera

Gioachino Rossini’s “L’Italiana In Algeri”, performed by Minnesota Opera

Giacomo Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”, performed by The Metropolitan Opera

Richard Strauss’s “Salome”, performed by The Metropolitan Opera

Carl Maria Von Weber’s “Der Freischutz”, performed by Opera Boston

The operas I most enjoyed were “Lakme” and “Manon Lescaut”, but my enjoyment of those operas had nothing to do with the quality of the performances. Instead, I liked the works themselves very much, and the performances did not manage to destroy my enjoyment, hard as they may have tried.

The most disappointing performance I have attended was “Jenufa”. I got to know “Jenufa” from the Charles Mackerras recording, and I grew to love the opera. I was looking forward very much to a performance of the opera at The Metropolitan Opera, and I was appalled by what I saw and heard on the Met stage that day. That “Jenufa” was my first introduction to The Metropolitan Opera, and I learned, very quickly, what a mediocre institution The Metropolitan Opera is. That “Jenufa” taught me never to carry high expectations to an opera performance, because I would be certain to be disappointed. I have observed this rule ever since.

My scrupulous observance of this rule got me through the awful “Salome” in New York two weeks ago and the even more awful “Freischutz” in Boston last week. Those performances made me wonder whether American opera companies intentionally sabotage their presentations.

I would, nevertheless, like to attend a performance of “Fidelio” one day, and I would also like to attend a performance of “The Magic Flute”. I would also like to attend a good performance of “Der Freischutz”.

I have only heard three “big-name” singers on stage: Ewa Podles, Vivica Genaux and Karita Mattila (the latter three times). Each was admirable in her own way, but Genaux was a star onstage while the other two singers were not.

I have also heard Anja Silja on stage. Silja used to be a “big-name” singer, but that was long before my time. She is now a carnival barker—in voice and in demeanor. I heard her Kostelnicka at the Met, and hers was the single most embarrassing performance I have ever witnessed. She made Wallace Beery look like a paragon of subtlety and restraint. I thought she was going to eat the scenery and, when she was done, start in on the lights.

Andrew has been luckier than me, because he spent a year in Vienna and attended numerous performances at the Wiener Staatsoper that year. He got to see and hear, night after night, how the German repertory should be performed, and to a high standard. My only comparable experiences have come through recordings; I have not experienced equivalent riches in person.

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