‘Otello’ and ‘Platée’ open the season on engagingly vibrant notes
Sure, opera is the highest of all artistic achievement. Any opera queen will bend your ear with that truism. What is often overlooked, however, is that opera can be sheer fun. The first weekend in October offered examples of both facets of the art.
Representing high culture was a revival of Verdi’s “Otello” in Elijah Moshinsky’s tasteful but stolid production at the Metropolitan Opera on October 1. Ben Heppner, singing his first run of the role in New York, achieved a solid and respectable success with the most consistent vocalism I have ever heard from him.
In the past, Heppner has suffered spells of cracking on high notes as well as some ungainly scooping, faults that he now seems to have surpassed. In fact, I cannot recall a more evenly sung performance of this notoriously difficult part. It is true that this artist lacks the bulked-up tone color of the true dramatic tenor; essentially his is a lyric voice that happens to be rather loud. As such, some of the big moments of the role inspire respect rather than awe. But the sweetness of the sound and Heppner’s scrupulous musicality go far to suggest the nobility of Otello’s character.
Physically, too, Heppner underplayed the “raging bull” aspect of the character. He is a big man, tall and stocky, given to slow, deliberate movement. The two or three times he moved rapidly (for example, grabbing Iago and flinging him onto a table) stood out in sharp relief. The movement was a virtue of necessity, perhaps, but still a strongly effective acting choice.
As Desdemona, soprano Barbara Frittoli has refined her performance to the point that it begins to lack a sense of spontaneity. There’s a whiff of “Great Lady” to her elegantly flowing movement and subtly arched phrases that feels calculated, even a bit manipulative. The quality of the voice is attractive when she sings quietly, but the tone loses purity and spreads as the volume increases. I would not go so far as to call Frittoli “mannered,” but I do hope she will not fall victim to her own good taste.
There are some singers who are “stage animals,” that is, natural acting personalities. Carlo Guelfi (Iago) is not one of them. Perhaps to compensate for this blandness, the baritone gruffly barked out the text and struck a series of unconvincing stage-villain poses.
Without an electrically vital Iago onstage, the task of driving the drama of “Otello” fell squarely on the shoulders of conductor James Levine. The maestro struck an ideal balance of exquisite orchestral detail and raw primal force, responsive as well to the phrasing ideas of his singers. Conducting on this level is a legacy any conductor could be proud of.
High art is a glorious thing, of course, but there’s a lot to be said for expertly crafted frivolity. The New York City Opera’s revival of Rameau’s “Platée” (October 2) opens in a louche 1940s bar, the sort of place postwar Gothamites might have popped into during the intermission of a “girls and gags” Broadway musical. And that’s just what “Platée” reminded me of—a farcical feast of hummable tunes and brightly colored eye candy.
Among the multitude collaborating on this performance, two artists should be singled out for highest praise. Mark Morris directed and choreographed, wittily melding singers and dancers into a seamless swirl of non-stop movement. It’s a pleasure to encounter so important an artist who is not afraid to be silly, who in fact revels in sheer campy fun.
Deserving equal credit is Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who sported Isaac Mizrahi’s intentionally dumpy drag as the title character. His voice is a wispy light tenor, far better suited for putting over text than bel canto. But Platée is essentially an acting part, and Fouchécourt put over the comedy without cruelty by playing the mythically unattractive nymph as simultaneously vain and eager to please, like Paris Hilton in a Godzilla suit.
James Jorden is the editor of parterre box, the queer opera zine (parterre.com).