Monday, April 03, 2006

True Love Knows No Fear

And neither did Erika Sunnegårdh in her first appearance as Leonore (Fidelio) this past Saturday, under what can only be termed extraordinarily high-pressure circumstances:
  • It was her Met and U.S. debut

  • The performance was a broadcast

  • She was substituting for Karita Mattila, perhaps the greatest soprano now singing
Yes, I was there, up in Family Circle standing room, lured in by the circumstances. I'm exaggerating a bit, but only a bit. Ms. Sunnegårdh did show some nerves, but who can blame her? She was intermittently out of tune in the first act; a couple of first-act high notes didn't come into focus and sounded harsh; she inexplicably dropped one of the tougher passages in "Abscheulicher!" A friend listening on the radio thought she had gotten lost, and that seems probable. Personally, I'd be nervous too, and I'd miss a lot more than one difficult passage.

Beyond those issues - all of which I expect will be fixed in her scheduled performance later this week, given that the second act had no vocal problems - I have nothing but praise for her. She looked adorably boyish; she executed all of the stage business accurately and believably, fitting in well with a cast that had been working together; she blended into the ensembles and sounded good in them.

She has a big voice, indeed. Her high notes are very big, and easily produced. I had no sense she was at the limit of her potential volume. There's mass and weight without thickness, and more weight and size at the top than the bottom. She's due to sing some Turandots next year, and it's easy to hear why; the voice is built more like that of Nilsson or Turner than like Flagstad or my last Leonore, Christine Brewer. She'll have no problems as the Chinese princess.

I was happy as can be about the performance as a whole. True, I winced at Ben Heppner's entrance, when he slid up to his attack on "Gott!" at the beginning of Act II. (Is Florestan the Turandot of tenor roles, or what??) He warmed up and settled down and most of the act was very good indeed. He's a good actor and he and Sunnegårdh put on a fine show of marital love. I liked Gregory Turay and Jennifer Welch-Babidge; I loved the bit of stage business near the end that at least makes a run at resolving the Fidelio/Marzelline situation. I thought Kristinn Sigmundsson excellent and James Morris in much better vocal shape than the last couple of times I heard him, though his voice will never have the beauty of 20 or so years ago. Alan Held has become quite a singer and actor, but why did he bark and shout so much when he obviously would have been just as effective if he'd just sung?

Paul Nadler led a grand performance, well-proportioned and full of tension; the chorus sounded fabulous. I loved every minute, found it all gripping, and cried during Act II. I'm still troubled by the bizarre proportions of the piece (Act I is too long, Act II too short) and the implausibility of the Leonore/Pizarro confrontation. Did she have him in a hammerlock in this production, or what?? I couldn't quite tell from the rafters, as I left my binoculars in California.

Still, these are minor quibbles. The occasion itself was operatic, and the opera itself splendidly performed. What more could I ask?

Spelling corrections made some hours later, and read what Steve Smith and Anthony Tommasini have to say. (I agree with Tommasini that there was some tentativeness in her performance.) Also, read Daniel J. Wakin's original article about her and his post-performance follow-up.

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