Wednesday, January 5, 2005

JH - What's Opera, Doc?

One of the only nice things about winter is that the weather can cooperate to create a good excuse for staying in on a Saturday afternoon so that you can hear the entire performance instead of just snippets while getting in and out of the car. I'm talking about the radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and last Saturday was one of those days. In the Twin Cities we got pelted with a sleet, freezing rain, ice thunder storm, making travel impossible. Unless, of course, you enjoy waiting to be towed out of a ditch on the side of the freeway. We don't, so we stayed in and enjoyed the wonderful experience of hearing a live, full-length Handel opera, in this case Rodelinda.

This was a first for the Met and I believe the Saturday performance was sold out. I love the chestnuts, too, but I was eager to hear an opera that I'd never heard before. Or had I? A Handel opera is a far different animal than it's later cousins by Puccini or Verdi or Wagner. It's more like an oratorio interrupted by applause, and I've heard many, and sung in several, oratorios. Like many other composers, Handel borrowed frequently from himself. More than once I expected to hear the familiar strains of an aria from Messiah or Samson. (Who can blame them; if you had to come up with a new piece for a church service every week or at the whim of your royal employer, you'd probably recycle a bit too.)

Handel's operas are accused of being static and perhaps they are. Since I was not able to see the action, I can't make a fair comment on that. In a sense, only being able to listen to them on the radio, all operas are periods of singing interrupted by applause (except maybe Wagner who rarely left room for applause). In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed this performance, even though I'm wasn't crazy about the singers. I'm not a big fan of Renee Fleming; I find her voice too cold. And I don't like countertenors; I think that their sound is too forced, too jarring to be pleasing to my ear. However, Miss Fleming did a wonderful job and even achieved moments of sweetness and David Daniels sounded heroic at times. Perhaps his unnaturally high voice sounded even higher because the opera was being performed on modern day instruments which have a higher pitch than did instruments in Handel's time. It would be interesting to hear the work played on period instruments or modulated into a different key to approximate the original.

I've always enjoyed listening to and singing baroque period music so hearing Rodelinda was a real treat. It's so unusual to hear a harpsichord during a broadcast from the Met. This is an orchestra that can do almost anything. Large or small, they always sound great.

Judging by the ovation at the end, the audience must have liked the performance too. It was wonderful, but I suspect that some long-time opera goers were just glad to have something new to sink their teeth into. Because we live in a place where live opera is so limited, I'm a sucker for almost anything the Met does. Perhaps if I lived in New York or Chicago, I'd be more jaded, or at least more discriminating. As it is, I say bring on whatever the season holds, and thank God that the Met is still broadcast on the radio, at least for one more year.

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