Cover Girls

Substitute singers uphold Wagnerian and perhaps Vivaldian standards

It always amazes me that many longtime Met patrons rarely arrive at the opera house with any idea of who’s in that night’s cast. At best, they remember a key name or two from The New York Times review—great, but casts change over the course of an opera season, sometimes very rapidly indeed.

Some expensive stars are only booked for a few performances; sometimes one singer, or team of singers, gets the season opening and another gets the radio broadcast. The major parts need at least one (and the Met, being the Met, usually has two) capable “covers” in the near vicinity, should illness strike down a principal singer.

On occasion, a capable agent ensures that a cover performer gets one or two scheduled performances of a role. This is especially true if the ostensibly more stellar “first-cast” performer being “covered” wants to go home for Christmas or accept a concert engagement somewhere, but in some cases—especially in very testing roles—it’s simply considered proper for a qualified professional accepting a cover contract to be awarded this courtesy. Sometimes on such occasions, stars cover their own less well-known covers. For example, when Deborah Voigt headlined the Met’s “Frau ohne Schatten,” in which her thrillingly sung Empress has no equals today, Sue Patchell—an experienced, stagewise and stylistically informed artist with an unhistoric but good voice—covered. Patchell got two pre-arranged performances, which Voigt in turn covered. This is high-level cover karma: no one would argue that the company should have designed the “Frau” production around Patchell instead of Voigt, but neither could audiences catching Patchell’s Empresses feel they weren’t hearing a fully qualified—though not the world’s reigning—artist in this tough role.

On Broadway, understudies in long runs often give exceptionally good performances. While the true “going out there an unknown and coming back a star” thing can happen—Roberta Peters and Teresa Stratas serve as examples—it doesn’t always work out quite so well in the opera house. Flu seasons, the declining dollar and the paucity of suitable candidates even for the first-cast choice of many leading roles once easily filled have sometimes led to second- or third-raters showing up on the Met stage, whether as last minutes subs or as scheduled cover performers. But there are in fact leading artists who do a lot of covering who reliably deliver better work than those singers they cover. Probably the champions of this category in the post-1966 Metropolitan Opera have been sopranos Johanna Meier and Joyce Guyer, plus baritone Allan Monk.

James Jorden wrote about the “Tannhäuser” revival in Gay City News two weeks ago, but December 3 found two new leading ladies in Wagner’s crudely drawn whore/saint dichotomy of love interests for Peter Seiffert’s title character, a noble minstrel/knight straying between the pagan love goddess Venus and his liege lord’s saintly, virginal niece, Elisabeth—a medieval Veronica and Betty, in other words. A capable and musical if not very individual-timbred full mezzo who’s sung in San Francisco and Washington, Elizabeth Bishop undertook her second Met role with Venus—she’s been kicking around the roster for a few years singing one or two Fenenas in “Nabucco” every season. She doesn’t seem a natural “bad girl” like such past Met hellions Grace Bumbry, Mignon Dunn or sultry Karajan protégé Dunja Vejzovic, whose house career lasted about a minute and a half. (No one, but no one, works that slinky, high-slit dress like Grace did.) But Bishop, in her first of two scheduled Venuses, sang her difficult music with enough firmness and poise to merit consideration for future demi-star turns like Magdalene in “Meistersinger” and the “Rheingold” Fricka.

Singing opposite Met newcomer Petra-Marie Schnitzer—Voigt’s cover for the run, but this one night was a scheduled debut—came more naturally to Seiffert, since the two are an offstage couple. As Elisabeth is one of the easier Wagner soprano roles vocally, it’s surprising how infrequent a Met debut role it has been. The character does not appear in the extended first act, so perhaps the reason is that no prima donna embarking on such a crucial ordeal wants to deal with debut nerves for quite so long. Also, as Jorden noted, keeping the quiet final aria—the prayer to the Virgin in which she virtually offers her life in exchange for the redemption of Tannhäuser’s soul—on pitch can be treacherous. Schnitzer, with native diction, good stage action and a basically suitable “juicy lyric” sound for the music, fared very well. Anyone encountering her Elisabeth in, say, Stuttgart would have felt lucky indeed, and for the Met she made a very well-chosen cover. Unlike Voigt, with her glorious upper register, Schnitzer “negotiates” the top—the high B near the end of ”Dich, teure Halle” tightened a bit, and that set the pattern. And though pleasant enough, hers is not a distinctive voice. More than two decades later, I remember the way Leonie Rysanek and Teresa Zylis-Gara sounded in this production; Schnitzer’s phasing and tone, heard five days ago, are fading fast. One role strikes me as ideal for the Viennese soprano’s attributes: Gutrune in ”Götterdämmerung,” Brünnhilde’s unknowing rival, who should be pretty and capable but finally unmemorable.

As it happened, the splendid concert at Zankel November 29 involved an unplanned soprano substitute. The dynamic conductor Andrea Marcon brought his pleasingly scruffy and generally excellent Venice Baroque Orchestra—though I for one could have used cleaner-sounding horns, but the string playing was infectiously good—to the task of “Andromeda Liberata,” a newly unearthed Venetian serenata, a short, chorus-free oratorio, at least part of which is by Vivaldi. Whoever crafted it, it’s a delightful piece of baroque music and the splendid Archive 2-CD set that Marcon and the VBO made would be on my short list for “What to buy the voice nut who has everything.”

Two of the singers on the CDs appeared at Zankel, and both were vocally, as well as sartorially, striking. The gifted German soprano Simone Kermes provided spectacular coloratura and pointed, if not unmannered, phrasing; she likes to fly up above the stave and suddenly decrescendo to vibratolessness, a pretty amazing trick. For this non-staged concert, Kermes as the faithful, simple Andromeda was attired like Patricia (“Shut up, Greta, Fassbander’s dead!”) Clarkson from ”High Art” attending the German Film Awards in an opium dream. Two broad stripes of bright rust “Run Lola Run” hair framed a darkly shellacked middle stripe. Somehow she had donned an angular, tripartite constructivist dress in sky blue, pea green and flaming orange, including a train that several colleagues stepped on, but flared up to reveal the left gam and silver ankle bracelets. She looked like Aelita, Queen of Mars, dressed by Betsey Johnson.

As the hero Perseus, her savior and suitor, Max Emanuel Cencic, a countertenor from Vienna tremendously impressive as to range and production, sported a Chelsea buzzcut over a gilt-trimmed, pastel chinoiserie doublet, suitable for Michael Jackson visiting Graumann’s Theater.

Their outfits seemed the more puzzling next to the ”chorister black” simplicity of tenor Enrico Onofri, singing Andromeda’s vain love object, and Ruth Rosique, subbing for Katerina Beranova as her mother. I thought Rosique’s sunny, unforced vocalism and delivery lovely. Marijana Mijanovic, playing the father, must be the thinnest contralto in world history; in a black pantsuit and heels, she looked like a brainy supermodel appointed to head some all-European Commission in Brussels. She sang with her accustomed beauty of tone and style, though the words weren’t quite forward enough. Onofri gave us clear Italian, but his singing proved rather nasal: Mark Tucker does better on those excellent CDs.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for “Time Out New York,” “Opera News” and “Opera.”

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