19 May 2008

Prova d’Orchestra

The Bastille Opera, Paris

It is not enough to enjoy the beauty of a thing: to understand its beauty, one must take it apart. This was true for Leonardo da Vinci, whose perfectly modeled figures are the direct result of his anatomical studies. And this is true for me, too.

Which is why it was such a treat to sneak into an orchestra rehearsal today for Bellini’s opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a Romeo-and-Juliet story based not on Shakespeare but on an earlier, Italian telling. Journalistic ethics prohibit me from revealing who, precisely, snuck me in, and in order to prevent her apprehension by the authorities, I wore dark clothing, made few movements, and generally went unnoticed in the auditorium of the Bastille Opera House. For me, this was a rare opportunity to see a work in progress, almost but not quite the finished product.

Dude looks like a lady: Joyce DiDonato sings Romeo

I’m spoiled, in a sense, because most of my experiences in opera have been with top-rank artists and thoroughly professional companies. This is exceptional good luck, but the trade-off is that I sometimes forget how incredibly difficult opera is, how much hard work and coordination go into an evening’s worth of: acting, singing, instrumental playing by a small army of musicians, plus costuming, makeup, lighting, set changes, choreography, stage management. Et cetera. Because opera is the coming together of all the arts at once, any one of them can go wrong, and bring down the whole enterprise. Easier to land a jumbo jet on the picnic table in your back yard. And yet I seldom see a performance that’s sloppy.

Fortunately, I’ve also been lucky enough to see some of the nuts and bolts, the coachings and stage rehearsals, and quite a number of final dress rehearsals, that last step before opening night — to remind me of what’s required to put on a show. You cannot take a song for granted if you’ve watched a singer repeat a single phrase 100 times to get it right.

Today was my first orchestra rehearsal, an intermediate step, in which the opera is enacted onstage and sung, but wigs and costumes aren’t worn, and the conductor may stop at any time to repeat a passage or to work out a problem with the singers or orchestra. Cap/Mont ran on-time and smoothly under expert conductor Evelino Pidò, with hardly an interruption, while an easy camaraderie prevailed. Everybody was still learning the finishing touches, still exploring the music and the stage. There was still time to make a few mistakes — and to pull a face after making a mistake. It’s pretty funny to see the glamorous Anna Netrebko (pictured here, she’s now a very pregnant Giulietta) stick out her tongue when she hits a note she doesn’t like.

This is the longest role I’ve heard Netrebko perform live, and all the hype aside, she’s the real deal. Her soprano is surprisingly big and plangent, and her dark timbre melded beautifully with the golden mezzo of Joyce DiDonato’s heroic Romeo. I’ve never witnessed anyone managing to sing and fence so adroitly as Joyce does; she’s having a helluva time with that sword. In Robert Carsen’s clear-cut staging, I never wondered why tenor Matthew Polanzani, as Tebaldo (a cross between Tybalt and Paris), had made his latest entrance: in other productions, with other Tebaldos, the best excuse I ever came up with was, “I guess he’s here to sing something...?”

I came away as I’d hoped I would: with a greater appreciation of the effort that everybody puts into a performance.

The trouble with dissection is that the frog you took apart in biology class will not hop home from school afterward. Yet music is different. The spark it requires to live does not snuff out under the knife; it only kindles brighter — perhaps because more people are involved, perhaps because it’s not a question of life so much as a question of magic. For all the lack of costumes and opening-night polish, this was the best Cap/Mont I’ve heard, and arguably the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen. And thus, the more I learn about opera, the more I understand, and the more I want to hear.

Go figure.