Not one. Hair. Out of place. Quick impressions:
The Voices: Patricia Bardon in the trouser role of Andronico was the Unexpected Pleasure in this one. Her voice had a rounded, rich, androgynous quality to it that was just perfect, clearly female but with a depth and warmth not often found outside of a blues singer. All the voices were wonderful, letter-perfect without allowances needing to be made for a single person, but when I get the DVD I think the one thing that’s going to be annoying to me is that Andronico won’t be Patricia Bardon.
Sarah Coburn was a nimble, clear, sparkly soprano and very, very good — a bit too much of a “chill” in the high end, but sometimes a soprano’s high end can get a little piercing. Either that sharpness faded as her voice warmed up or my ear grew used to it, but she got better and better as the night went on. I tend to like the brighter sopranos in Baroque work; wonderful as Anna Caterina Antonacci was in my DVD of “Rodelinda,” her voice is a bit dark and heavily textured for that sort of thing to me. Now, I like those sorts of voices very well, just not in Baroque opera. At any rate, Coburn was definitely sparkly, nimble, precise and bright — a great singer for Haendel. I’d love to see her in more of his operas. She’d be a bang-up Partenope.
Mehta I wasn’t entirely sure about. I know that he, Scholl, and Daniels sort of make the Countertenor Triumvirate nowdays, but after digging a bit on YouTube, I came away with the impression that his voice was very bright and clear, but sometimes a shade off the center of the note. Live, he made a much more rounded, richer impression on me, not the very floral (not “florid,” floral) vibrato of Daniels and not the clear sheen of Scholl, but his own sound very definitely and a lovely one. Not a trace of the wood-bell concavity that falsettists sometimes have, a nice clean lower register, a delicate upper, and a considerable amount of power considering that a falsettist doesn’t use all of his voice to sing. He was also very good on stage, a very compelling actor who would be working in the industry if he didn’t sing, I have no doubt.
Jennifer Holloway as Irene was also fabulous, but I’m afraid that I had already fallen in love with Bardon at that point. I loved the way that she transformed herself into a “servant,” and the clever way that the director very subtly introduced two young “servants” in girl-Friday power suits to demonstrate how we were to interpret Princess Irene’s transformation into her own messenger in disguise. I love it when directors are clever without calling undue attention to it.
And then, there was Domingo. Everyone very clearly warmed up in the first act. They were all great, but the minute each person opened their mouths in the second act, it was clear that a switch someplace had been pulled and they had all hit their stride. However, Domingo in particular shocked me — such a fantastic voice in the first act (this is the first time I have ever heard him live), but when he hit the B theme in his first aria in the second act, he spent sparks up. Wow. There’s a reason this man is considered one of the world’s great living voices. He’s also a powerful presence on stage and made Bajazet a very sympathetic hero.
The Staging: I’m not fond of stagings that try to place an opera in too definite a context. Modern suits or futuristic sets are nice, but don’t set it too firmly in a definite era like the modern Middle East or the 1950s, two attempts I’ve seen that didn’t work as well for me. This staging was in the former category, modern without specifying one particular place or time. They used a lot of black and pale off-white, with only Bajazet and Asteria set off in bold, beautiful golds and reds. The other characters were dressed in dark, dramatic business suits, while the Turkish father and daughter were in more exotic and flowing silk robes, setting them off very nicely and making for a very attractive picture on stage. This made for a beautiful entrance for Domingo, who rose from a trapdoor in the stage with his back to the audience, in a magnificent, flowing bright yellow-gold robe with blood-red floral shapes splashed over it.
Red was the favored accent color, which pleased me greatly of course, including red lighting that used the glossy black floor of the stage well. The opening of the third act, where Asteria and Bajazet are in prison after her first assassination attempt, featured a lineup of “cop” figures dressed in dramatic black uniforms making a set of silhouettes against a red backdrop, mirrored on the black stage floor. Very attractive, especially when combined with the two defeated figures downstage in pale ivory prisoners’ robes.
There were also a few really clever devices that I liked, such as demonstrating the passage of time while Andronico broods during the first act by shifting the light coming from offstage to denote the movement of the sun and swinging of the shadows as the day wore on.
The Orchestra: Two theorbos (they stick out like sore thumbs, let’s face it), a passel of strings, harpsichords, and a few woodwinds. It’s wonderful seeing more and more plucked instruments like theorbos, lutes, and chitarras in modern stagings. To me, they add a sort of choppy angularity to the music that makes it more dramatic than the otherwise legato bowed instruments. Not that these can’t be staccato as well, but the quality of sound from a bowed instrument is just naturally smoother. The plucked strings add a pleasant contrast, making me wonder what these things would sound like scored for a more modern set of instruments, like modern acoustic or even electric guitars and more modern voices. People really should be more daring when it comes to old music.
The Audience: The two people sitting next to me seemed bemused by Bejun Mehta. I barely heard the man express some confusion that Mehta “sounded like a woman.” They left after the first act while everyone else in the auditorium remained right where they were and enjoyed a delightful performance.
I’m confused by his confusion, actually. I’m assuming they bought tickets on purpose, even if they were a season subscription. I can’t fathom coming to hear an unfamiliar opera and not looking into the singers in at least a superficial way. I don’t think they even knew what a modern countertenor was. Haven’t they even heard the Beach Boys before?
It also strikes me as bizarre to leave because one out of six voices displeases; even not counting the IMO excellent Mehta — who got the most enthusiastic cheer of all at the curtain call — there were five other wonderful voices as well. For pete’s sake, these people walked out on a Placido Domingo death scene! No accounting for taste, or a lack thereof.
The curtain call itself featured not only the non-singing parts of the “cops” and the girl-Fridays, but also the entire orchestra, which had emptied out of the pit while the main six performers were bowing and began filing onto the stage. It was a good gesture and one that I’d like to see happen more often in opera, especially with the smaller orchestras that you find in Baroque operas. No real stand-outs in terms of beautiful instruments; one cello had a much richer color than the others, which were mostly that slightly muddy, unengaging honey color that you find on many instruments. One violin was ruddier than usual, and both basses were an unremarkable shade of gold-brown. The goose-necked theorbos were typically improbable.
So a full night, one that I’ve been looking forward to for what’s felt like forever, and it more than met my expectations.
A few links:
An NPR Article about this staging in Washington, done with David Daniels. Costumes and staging were pretty much the same. You can imagine what a beautiful and dramatic impression was made by that yellow-gold and red robe as Domingo came up out of the stage!
Some great photos at the LA Opera website
A nice collection of links about the opera in Washington.
An ungenerous review in the LA Times