Barking when needed: seeing and hearing three of today’s most remarkable operatic voices

Simon Keenlyside in Thomas Adès's 'The Tempest.' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
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Three of today’s most remarkable opera stars have visited New York over the past month.

Tenor Rolando Villazón sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verdi’s Requiem on Oct. 23 at Carnegie Hall. Baritones Simon Keenlyside and Gerald Finley are starring, respectively, in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.

Each of the three is his own man, but Villazón is a stark contrast to the two baritones. He has an entirely different temperament. In his 1999 autobiography, tenor Nicolai Gedda mentions the way that Maria Callas’s and Renata Tebaldi’s audiences were more than willing to forgive vocal imperfections; they felt that each soprano was giving everything she had to that particular performance. The two divas’ vocal longevity was compromised by their seeming aversion to vocal conservation. And yet that gave their performances an edge of emotional conviction, as well as excitement verging on hazard, that could be thrilling. Something of the same passion and recklessness has characterized Villazón’s career.

Now 40, Villazón (pictured below, photo by Wolfgang Lienbacher) began to experience vocal problems several years ago. In 1999, after taking a season-long hiatus, he returned to the Met for Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Anna Netrebko, with whom he’d forged a theatrically combustive, media-friendly operatic partnership. But Villazón’s cracked notes in Lucia caused him to cancel the rest of his Met appearances that season. He hasn’t been heard there since, although he sang a Lucia with them when they toured Japan a year ago. He’s also had throat surgery, and has resumed singing opera with companies around the world as well as sampling the crossover path.

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Finley and Keenlyside, by contrast, have managed their voices so prudently that, both in their early fifties, each is still at the top of his game. And they’ve done it without sacrificing emotional conviction. They never seem like they’re shortchanging musical or psychological truth.

Villazón’s vocal condition didn’t seem precarious, however, in his Requiem concert. Both here, and in his new recording of Ottavio in Don Giovanni for Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who also conducted—stirringly—the Requiem), there were moments when a residue of some of the crossover he’s done became mildly intrusive. His propensity for near-croon may also be a survival strategy by a newly-circumspect singer. In Don Giovanni there could also be an attempt to conform to Mozartean stylistic imperatives, which do not condone nor mandate blasting. In any case, with his exaggerated facial features and their Silly-Putty mobility, he remains visually as well as vocally winning. Like Callas’s and Tebaldi’s, the force of his personality and artistry is perfectly capable of overriding purist criteria.

Keenlyside’s Tempest Prospero marks his return to the Met after a two-year absence. He premiered Adès’s opera at London’s Covent Garden in 2004 and it has since gained a foothold in the international repertory. To me, however, Keenlyside’s return was not an unalloyed joy. As much as Prospero himself, Keenlyside frequently seemed marooned by the opera and this production.

Undoubtedly, there’s a secure place in the funding stream for new opera commissions by the world’s main stages. Managements obviously believe that

novelty stokes the box office. New works also assuage the profession’s qualms about being locked in a “dead” repertory. Whether the artistic results justify the effort and expense is another question altogether.

As The Tempest makes clear, too much contemporary music, opera included, is mired in derivation—call it influence, perhaps—from the big 20th-century boys: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Webern are among the composers whose sound-print becomes needlessly prominent as The Tempest progresses. On the other hand, given these giants’ importance and influence, how can today’s composers stand apart from their lengthening shadows? Today’s opera writers have my sympathy, if only infrequently my admiration.

The Tempest marks Robert Lepage’s third directing project at the Met.

By far the best was the first, his 2008 Damnation de Faust. Too often in Tempest, as in Lepage’s staging of Wagner’s four-part Ring, the director’s love of spectacle seems to trump his ability to effectively direct the lead roles. Keenlyside is a masterly performer in every way, but he is not well showcased in this production. Yes, Shakespeare’s Tempest describes a decline in the power of Prospero’s sorcery and sovereignty. But Keenlyside is often standing in dim lighting, and for a lot of the time he’s merely a spectator prowling downstage, peering through a scrim at the significant action. Both Prospero and Keenlyside have earned more deference, a more creative use of their personas.

Tempest runs at the Met through Nov. 17, and on Nov. 19 Keenlyside will be singing Berg’s Wozzeck in a concert performance at Avery Fisher. He seems to have a definite interest in music’s depiction of the outcast and alienated—witness as well his moving performance in Britten’s War Requiem here a year ago. I’m looking forward to seeing him foregrounded on the concert stage. .

About Finley’s Count in Mozart’s Nozze, I cannot say enough good. Jonathan Miller’s 1998 production is excessively sexed up, even for a roundelay of amorous cross-purposing as fervid as this opera contains. The endless grapplings and pawings sometimes even get in the way of the logic of plot resolution. But Finley (pictured at right, photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera) takes the opportunities given by the staging—and much of it is good—to make every action meaningful. His act three monologue and aria are punctuated by a lot, and I mean really a lot, of bits of business, but in his delivery all of it—or nearly all—seems organic. His sung dialogue is completely operatic, but packs the sting of drawing-room repartee. Finley maintains Mozartean suavity, doesn’t overload his sound, but nails crescendos and doesn’t shy from barking out a musical pitch if it will add to the fun and the stage reality. Indeed, his negotiation of words-syllables-notes and their mutual embrace is always interesting. He’ll be singing the Count through Nov. 17’s matinee; later this week he’ll contribute an aria to the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.