This At Least Was Obvious, Wasn't It?

I’m not saying it wasn’t worth the twenty bucks to take in the live Metropolitan Opera performance of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette on the big screen yesterday, although I listened at home with my soon to be glow-in-the-dark cats, thank goodness. It’s always worthwhile to hear and see opera live from the likes of the Met, but I was saved by the snowstorm. A frustration that I’ve frequently mentioned in these pages concerns the difficulty of explaining to people the inadequacy of the majority of classical music reviews. This may make me sound like a a mean or arrogant person, but I can assure you that somebody who goes to the trouble of acquiring a first rate musical education, and then devotes his life to classical music in both professional and personal capacities, can tell whether a performance is good or bad, every time. It’s just the way it is, and unless (as is sometimes the case) there are personal or professional reasons to, ahem, prevaricate, musicians admit the truth, to each other, at least. And few of us take the newspaper notices seriously, although when you get a good review, naturally you clip it and send it to your agent or your grandma. Musicians aren’t stupid!  How many times have I talked to a performer who preludes his assessment of a performance with “don’t tell anyone I said this, but…” Lots of times. If I had a dollar for everytime, I could take my wife to a nice restaurant or buy those expensive but probably necessary glow-in-the-dark operations for my cats.

Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna may be wonderful singers most of the time, but they both struggled mightily yesterday, with pitch, tone, register, and to some extent, French diction. Placido Domingo’s conducting was, let’s say, plebeian. I’m sure they tried their best, and maybe there were vocal issues related to having a cold or something, but that is what happened. This was a ballyhooed production, so one assumes that the effort was there. Nobody likes to be embarassed before a large audience. It’s well known that audiences boo in Europe (La Scala and Bayreuth, especially) but never in America. I don’t personally boo, because an inadequate performance isn’t the end of the world and I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but this business of automatic standing ovations has got to go. And unless a piece is new, it’s rather pointless to applaud the composition. Why applaud Tosca or Rigoletto? One applauds (or not) the performers. Anyway, one has a right to be critical. Look at the price on your ticket.

I love French opera, although not necessarily Gounod; I especially prefer Massanet. But Gounod, Meyerbeer, Bizet, Halevy, Offenbach, Thomas, and especially Berlioz are quite capable of providing a wonderful evening, but adequate, let alone great, performances of the French repertory are awfully hard to come by. Why?

1. Singers aren’t trained in it enough. You can fall off a log into an institution that will give you a great background for Italian and German repertories, but not the French.

2. For many singers, French pronounciation and diction are hard. They just are. Not everyone can be Nikolai Gedda.

3. French opera costs too much to be put on regularly, especially since audiences no longer clamor for it.  You need a ballet troupe, for instance, and big choruses, at least for the Grand Operas, and the scenic requirements can be daunting. What’s the point of putting on Meyerbeer if it ain’t grandiose? And French operas are typically long, which costs money as well. Do you wanna pay for the requisite rehearsal time?

It’s a shame. I want my Les Hugenots and Esclarmonde. Oh well.  

For an excellent Romeo et Juliette, try the Michel Plasson recording, featuring Alfredo Kraus.