09 May 2014

A Single Night at the Opera

If I could see only one performance this season,
I’m grateful this was it.

Ya think ya know somebody. On Tuesday evening, I emerged from my writer’s seclusion for the first time all season to attend a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. I thought I knew what I was getting into: Joyce DiDonato was singing the role of Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). I’ve heard her do this. I’ve seen her do this. I have a CD and a DVD to play any time I want to relive the experience.

What’s more, I’ve heard her sing the tour-de-force double aria, “Nacqui all’affanno … Non più mesta,” several other times, in concert. Really, I knew what to expect. It’s not that Joyce’s interpretation is graven in stone, mind you: she’s always got surprises for me, and she’s always looking for ways to enrich her singing. Each time, she finds something fresh and meaningful. If she’s ever said, “That’s good enough, we can stop now,” I’m unaware of it, and frankly, I can’t even imagine it.

Reader, I’m a fool. When we got to the end of Act II, and Joyce knocked me flat. Nothing — not even the performance she’d given leading up to “Nacqui” — could have prepared me for what she did.

All evening, she’d been locating new colors, new tones. The way she sings her little fairy tale at the start of the opera — so internally, just daydreaming, but we hear her (and so do her Stepsisters). The way she pleads with the Prince’s Valet to persuade her Stepfather (yeah, in this version, the Stepmother is a dude) to let her go to the ball. The way she takes her leave of the Prince at the ball. It was all new, all truthful, all gorgeous.

In this production, when the Prince asks her to marry him, Angelina runs offstage for half a second, changes into a wedding gown, and ascends to join him atop a giant wedding cake. But for “Nacqui,” she descends again, to tell her Stepfather and Stepsisters that she forgives them: she is their “daughter, sister, friend.” And in the coloratura fireworks that follow, Joyce never loses the heart that lies within the notes: the joy she feels and expresses stems directly from her embrace of the people who were cruel to her.

I’d been thinking a lot about the theme of forgiveness that runs through so much of Joyce’s work — remarkable, when you consider that she didn’t write the words and music herself, and has to adapt her talent and her perspectives to those of other artists. Recently in Madison, Wisconsin, Michael Mayes and Susanne Mentzer sang Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, an opera that argues for the necessity of forgiveness, even in the face of the worst evil: we must ask forgiveness, and we must grant forgiveness. Joyce sang the role of Sister Helen Prejean in the opera’s New York premiere, and it’s stayed with her — as it’s stayed with everyone who’s come near it.

What does Cinderella have to do with Sister Helen? Forgiveness. Healing. Strength. Compassion. And Joyce.

Cenerentola is a comedy, and while it’s a truth universal that everybody cries at weddings, I wasn’t expecting the purely emotional reaction I had on Tuesday night. When I went backstage, I could hardly speak, I was so choked up. Though really, it’s okay that I didn’t try to monopolize her any longer than I did.

Joyce belongs to the world now, and since the Madeline Kahn biography is entering a new phase (editing and production!), I’ve got some catching up to do: for example, I haven’t written about the master class that I attended at Juilliard, where Joyce was greeted not merely as a kindred spirit, not merely as an artist, but as a role model and guide. (And in at least one case, she was greeted as a cougar. It was clear that one fellow had devoted a great deal of thought to Joyce before he met her, and not entirely about her musicianship, and seeing her before him, in sexy-sexy boots, he could barely concentrate.) She’s still the same darling woman she’s always been — but I have to share her with more and more people, every day.

You can share her tomorrow afternoon, when the Met simulcasts the final performance of Cenerentola in movie theaters around the world. There will be a repeat, and ultimately the video is liable to wind up on PBS and on DVD. You owe it to yourself to witness Joyce’s magic.


Chanterelle said...

The book is finally in production? Go, Bill!!!

And yes, Joyce is a treasure, one of a kind.


William V. Madison said...

Yes, Susan, we're at least one or two steps closer to seeing the book in print. Expect a "Progress Report" soon.