Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Character Studies

I recently overheard a pompous young opera queen hold court while ranting on and on about how "Maria just wouldn't have sung it that way!" Simple mathematics told me that the child couldn't possibly have started attending live performances until after Callas had retired from the operatic stage. As a result, his judgments had to be based upon some wildly bizarre combination of having listened to the soprano's recordings (a false medium); having read her reviews (a falser medium); having taken as gospel the hearsay element in operatic lore (the falsest medium of all) and then sifting these ingredients together through the perverse thought processes of a frustrated young musician struggling to give vent to a tortured ego.

Many operatic performances lie enshrined within the hearts and minds of music fans. For some opera queens, no soprano could ever hope to match the artistry of Beverly Sills' Manon, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's Marschallin or Maria Callas' Violetta. For others, Norman Treigle's Mefistofele, Ezio Pinza's Don Giovanni and Franco Corelli's Romeo hold an aura of historical legend which gives them an other-worldly importance.

While such sanctified status is all well and fine for the artists in question and those people who were able to see them perform such roles, each and every operagoer must develop a feel for a character through the artistry of the singers he sees perform a role during his lifetime. Although, for many years, I've heard people rant and rave about Bidu Sayao's Manon, I personally never saw it and would not attempt to judge its artistic merits. Even though I am willing to accept the word of operatic historians and musicologists with a large grain of salt, I can't help but wonder if even their memories -- at least those that are genuine and not second-hand --haven't been glorified with the passing of time.

The observation of beauty, which rests in the eyes of the beholder, will always be a subjective matter. Nevertheless, two recent performances allowed me to observe what, for me, were the quintessential portrayals of two of opera's most beloved characters. Having waited a long time for these experiences, when they finally took place I left the Metropolitan Opera House with a sense of intense satisfaction.


Though she is probably in her late teens or early twenties, Bizet's Carmen is a woman whose survival skills have been sharpened by her sexual awareness, primitive intellect and willingness to accept change. To do her justice, she must simultaneously be portrayed as a spitfire street slut and a psychically-gifted woman. Although Julia Migenes-Johnson did a fine job in the recent film of Carmen, few sopranos -- at least in my experience -- have ever managed to reach inside themselves and get a handle on the blazing spirit of independence which lies at the core of Bizet's heroine.

For the past twenty years I've been waiting to see and hear a soprano who could live up to the peculiar requirements of this role. Those who sang it often couldn't act it. Those who tried to vamp their way through the opera usually had no voice left. Most of the singers I've seen have already reached the point in their careers where they will resort to operatic posturing (a process known as "giving Carmen-style attitude") instead of developing a dramatically viable characterization.

Last year, I walked out of Sir Peter Hall's Carmen because the production and mezzo-soprano Isola Jones' performance were nothing less than atrocious. Substantially restaged this season by Paul Mills (with the dances in Act II re-choreographed by Maria Benitez) the Met's production is now a much more tolerable affair. Indeed, largely due to the efforts of Agnes Baltsa, the Met's revival of Carmen became a deeply moving and surprisingly satisfying theatrical experience.

It's been years since I've seen a performance of this opera which was so intensely effective, but you'll probably have to experience Miss Baltsa's characterization yourself in order to understand why. The Greek mezzo-soprano's youthful and athletic body language, full earthy voice, oversized personality and sharply iconoclastic portrayal of Bizet's gypsy girl made me feel as if I had finally seen Carmencita brought to life. Soon to be telecast live from the Met, this is one performance which should not be missed, for Baltsa hits the musical and dramatic bull's-eye without resorting to any of the standard operatic bullshit. Believe me, that's easier said than done.


One of the most beloved characters in all of opera is the Marschallin, a woman who not only knows that time is running out on her but who understands that her physical beauty will soon begin to fade. And, although a successful performance of Carmen depends on the presence of a singer who can project lots of sex and personality, Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a much more delicate and refined affair.

In many ways, the Marschallin serves as a dramatic foil to Octavian's passion, Sophie's youth and the crudeness of Baron Ochs. Most of her music is shared with other singers; a great deal of her participation in Act I is strictly conversational. Therefore, the Marschallin presents a curious challenge to a soprano, for this is hardly the type of role in which one can get away with chewing the scenery or belting out high notes to please the canary worshippers in the crowd.

As one of the few introspective roles in the operatic repertoire, the Marschallin gives a singing actress a wonderful opportunity to win an audience's love through studied silence. The dramatic sagacity of turning upstage at just the right moment, looking out the window for one second too long -- or even letting an eyelash flicker seemingly out of control -- can transform a performance of Der Rosenkavalier into a theatrical tour-de-force for whoever is singing this role.

Although many have tried to capture the woman's character, few have succeeded as brilliantly as Elisabeth Soderstrom. Her interpretation reflects the kind of deft craftsmanship and profound artistry whereby a performer actually becomes the character she is portraying. Soderstrom IS the Marschallin; her every movement and reaction to her colleagues onstage so intensely correct within the dramatic context of Strauss's opera that her performance leaves the audience in awe of this woman's communicative skills.

The Swedish soprano's recent appearance in the role at the Metropolitan Opera was cause for both celebration and regret for, added to the Marschallin's wistfulness was the mercilessly dramatic overlay of Soderstrom's own body clock. One of the opera world's great artists (this soprano has consistently been hailed for her emotional honesty, musical intelligence, compassion, curiosity and versatility) Soderstrom is now in the twilight stages of a long and impressive career. Just prior to her sixtieth birthday, her recent string of Marschallins at the Met will probably turn out to have been her farewell to the American operatic stage. She will be sorely missed.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 2, 1987.

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