11 April 2016

In Search of Ana María Martínez

Ana María Martínez as Rusalka in Chicago.
(Where I didn’t get to hear her.)

If I had a nickel for every time a New Yorker has asked, “Why doesn’t the Met hire Ana María Martinez?” I could probably have paid for my airfare to Houston last January to hear her in precisely the sort of role the Met should be begging her to sing: the water nymph Rusalka in Dvořák’s Romantic fairy tale, in which she’d triumphed already at Glyndebourne and in Chicago.

Ana made her Met debut as Micaëla in Carmen in 2005. I was in France and had to miss it. She went on to triumph in Paris, London, Santa Fe, Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Berlin, and Madrid (among others!). Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington became like second homes for her, and Houston really is her home. Meanwhile, New York had to wait. Opera lovers subsisted on recordings, video clips, her rave reviews, and the ecstatic word of mouth from friends who’d been able to hear her almost everywhere except New York.

At last, ten years after her debut, the Met asked her back, this time as Musetta, the seconda donna in La Bohème. The choice of role was curious, since she’s sung Mimì to acclaim all over the world. On the plus side, all her experience means that she’s worked with many Musettas, so she must have some idea of what does and doesn’t work — a head start, even before she rehearsed. To her performances last December, she brought wit, sex appeal, and plush tone.

Welcome back! Ana as Musetta at the Met.

I’ve come to expect the unexpected from her — the penetrating insight that changes my own perceptions — and yet I was almost startled by a seemingly insignificant moment in Act IV, when she brings a muff to warm Mimì’s hands. Mimì asks who’s speaking, and she answers, “Io, Musetta.” Listening to the tender warmth that Ana lavished on those words, I realized that I was hearing Musetta’s true character. This is who Musetta really is. She’s letting down her guard for once. She’s not putting on a show (as she surely is in her aria “Quando m’en vo”). She’s not playing with anybody’s feelings. She just wants to help her friend.

Please note that Ana accomplished this on the words “I, Musetta” — just as Shakespeare would have wanted her to do, in any of his “I am” speeches.

Running backstage after the performance, I greeted Ana with a happy “You’re alive!” — after all, she’s died in every other Bohème she’s ever sung. I had missed Ana: her performances, her winning smile, her kindness and wit. And when we spoke of the upcoming Rusalka in Houston, she added, “I hope you can see it. It’s something really special.” Now, Ana isn’t the sort of soprano to command her admirers to attend her performances, and she wouldn’t say something was special if it weren’t.

So off to Houston I went.

It was at Houston Grand Opera that I first heard Ana — as Mimì (here with Garrett Sorenson and Joshua Hopkins).

Unlike Musetta in Bohème, the title role of Dvořák’s Rusalka vividly displayed a full range of what New York has been missing out on — not least because for most of Act II, she’s mute and must pantomime first her yearning for her Prince (tenor Brian Jagde), then her desperation when he turns to the Foreign Princess (soprano Maida Hundeling). Ana is so complete a performer (a Gesamtkünstlerin, if you will) that, without singing a note, she held the audience’s attention and sympathy at every moment. (I attended the January 31 matinée.)

The extraordinary grace Ana showed in Act I, “swimming” onstage, hoisted aloft, flipping an enormous mermaid tail (even during her Song to the Moon), now turned into the tentative footsteps of a woman who has never walked before and is honestly afraid that she’ll hurt herself if she tries. (We recall that Andersen’s Mermaid feels pain as if she’s walking on broken glass.) Through her physicality, Ana created a poignant awkwardness that reminded me of the effects Gilda Radner so often achieved (to very different ends). You wanted to hug her, to tell her everything would be all right.

But of course it wouldn’t. Not for Rusalka. As Bugs Bunny says, “What did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

Director Melly Still and designer Rae Smith rightly emphasize the darkness of this opera, and Ana revealed all the darker colors of her voice, so that her high notes came to seem like the moon itself shimmering on the surface of deep water. She drew on enormous reserves of power for the marathon Act III, and yet she still had energy for a talkback session with the audience after the show.

Jill Grove as the witch Jezˇibaba (at once comic and terrifying) and Richard Paul Fink as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik (stentorian and tender in an awful costume), were spectacularly good, and conductor Harry Bicket, whose work I had known exclusively from 18th-century music, made a strong case for his abilities in 19th-century repertoire, even while maintaining an almost Mozartean clarity in the lush Romantic orchestration. Donna Stirrup directed this revival of Still’s production.

Like a sophomore attending the senior prom: she’s so sweet and pretty, but you know this isn’t going to turn out well.
Ana as Rusalka, Act II.
(Photo from the Glyndebourne performances.)

Leaving Houston, I congratulated myself. I’d given myself a booster shot of Ana’s magic, enough to hold me until another season rolled around. Little did I know — little did anyone know — that she’d be back in New York within weeks. Called on to replace Hei-kyung Hong in the title role of Madame Butterfly at the Met, Ana flew to New York from Los Angeles, where she was rehearsing the same opera in a different production. I’m not certain of the exact logistics, but there were a couple of back-and-forth trips before she completed the last of four performances — of which I attended two.

This is Ana María Martínez’s repertory, folks. Yes, I’m sure she was a lovely Micaëla, and her Musetta was inarguably wonderful, but dramatic leads are her natural habitat, where she can explore a character’s psychology and exploit the expressive range of her voice.

Butterfly is often portrayed as naïve in the extreme, but Ana understands that the heroine of Puccini’s opera has led a life of hardship before she makes her entrance in Act I. She’s seen plenty, and as she suggests when describing her career as a dancer, a lot of it was ugly and unfair. Thus Ana’s Butterfly isn’t naïve — and in fact she’s extraordinarily intelligent. She realizes that Pinkerton may not be completely honest with her, but she chooses to believe him. She knows how to be tough when she needs to be, as she demonstrates in Act II, dispatching Goro and Yamadori. When she kills herself, it’s not because she’s heartbroken or trying to hurt Pinkerton or upholding a code of honor — but because she believes it’s her son’s only chance for happiness. If Butterfly doesn’t kill herself, she’s in for a terrible time. Rejected by her family and most of Japanese society, she’d easily wind up not a geisha but a prostitute or a beggar. And her son would know that, and be tormented. So through her death, she frees him.

This is what Ana brings to the stage, even in a role you think you know backward and forward. Astonishing. Every word of text conveyed meaning, and Ana’s voice exulted throughout the vast Met, soaring over the orchestra, spinning out high pianissimi, making you listen, no matter how familiar the music may be. This was my first viewing of Anthony Minghella’s celebrated production, and on the whole I admired it — not least because it gave Ana room to do what she does so well. Critics and audiences agreed with me: she received rave reviews and thundering ovations.

Butterfly at the Met: Ana with the indispensable Maria Zifchak as Suzuki.

Having knocked out New York, Ana went back to Los Angeles for the run of the Butterfly production there — almost as if nothing unusual had happened. The Met went on about its business, too, and Ana isn’t on the roster for next season, not even in the new production of Rusalka. Who knows how long New York will have to wait to hear her again?

As for me, I’ve certainly made up for many of the performances I’d missed. And yet … she’s singing Elisabetta in one of my favorite operas, Verdi’s Don Carlo, in San Francisco in June. Ordinarily, I consider Eboli the more interesting woman onstage in that opera. But then again, I’ve never heard Ana’s Elisabetta. In fact, nobody has — this will be a role debut.

Can I justify the expense of flying out there? Can I justify missing out?

Backstage after Bohème.

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