New York Dotes on Its Star Singers

The city's concertgoers relish not only the consistently high artistic quality, but also the ephemeral quality of vocalists' talents - here one season, gone the next

IF one judges solely by the pomp and circumstance that attends the opening of the New York musical season, the city shows a marked and unusual predilection for opera and the human voice.

The musical life in other cities centers on the symphony orchestra, or perhaps the local chamber music society - and, in those cities that have viable companies, on the opera as well.

But in New York, for some reason, the Metropolitan Opera and those houses that present opera are the institutions that most consistently boast the glamor factor: Be there or be square.

Musically, the two most compelling opening-night programs offered a telling example of the city's musical instincts.

At the Met on Sept. 23, the two reigning tenors of our time each performed a one-act potboiler: Placido Domingo appeared as Luigi in Puccini's ``Il Tabarro,'' and Luciano Pavarotti sang his first staged performance of Canio in Leoncavallo's ``Pagliacci'' (he has recorded the role).

Three days later and a few blocks south, Carnegie Hall presented the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with guest soloist Cecilia Bartoli, the young Italian mezzo-soprano whose brilliant career has set her at the top of the opera world in only a few years of seemingly effortless climbing.

The contrast in ages at the two events was remarkable. Domingo and Pavarotti are both in their 50s. Bartoli, on the other hand, is just brushing 30.

The two tenors are as remarkable for their vocal longevity as Bartoli is for the precocious maturity of her musicality and the solid development of her ever-growing voice.

Part of the excitement at the Met and Carnegie Hall on these two evenings was directly attributable to the stages in the singers' careers, and their respective positions on the precarious arc of a vocalist's professional life.

Despite her extensive past accomplishments, Bartoli is still a very young singer, and every performance brings some new surprise. On this occasion it was the growing confidence with which she extended her voice past the usual compass of a mezzo into the dizzying heights of a soprano. Indeed, even higher.

On recordings, Bartoli has gone well past the soprano's benchmark high C; at Carnegie she did it again, proving that not only can her voice accomplish the feat, but it can do so under pressure and with grace.

Domingo and Pavarotti are at the other end of the singer's trajectory. And yet it is their continual willingness to countenance the new that impressed on opening night.

Pavarotti, who has long drawn charges of artistic laziness, was performing a difficult verismo role on stage for the first time in his career.

He did not, as he has so often in the past, give a stand-and-sing account; he moved, acted, and sang with more convincing dramatic assurance than he has projected in a long time.

Domingo, who is constantly expanding his repertoire into unlikely areas, was singing a role that he has recorded and performed before; yet he has the greater reputation for being adventurous, given his successful forays into the Wagnerian canon.

AT a time of life when many tenors have retired, both Domingo and Pavarotti can tackle arduous verismo roles convincingly. And, although their voices have shown signs of wear and tear in the past, both have their strong nights.

Such are the present-day life cycles of singers, and therein lies part of the explanation for why they so captivate audiences here. An instrumental soloist - such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose dazzling proficiency graced the Philharmonic's opening program on Sept. 21 - may demand attention as a prodigy or, as is the case with many veteran pianists, as a fading link with the past.

But in between lie decades of slower, steadier musical growth, charted incrementally in programs throughout the world. Except in rare cases, the sense of immediacy - hear them now or miss the latest bulletin as to their artistic ascendancy - is not as strong with instrumentalists as it is with vocalists.

Instrumentalists have staying power and develop lifelong relationships with their repertoire; Vocalists can blossom or fade in the space of a few seasons. This career brevity explains the extraordinary attention paid young singers and the (often inflated) sense of loss over retiring favorites.

It's a stretch to claim that the tribulations of ambition make this city more susceptible to the tiny allegories and epics of the operatic world.

But the vocal world requires continual grist for the mill, and produces more pointed and more frequent dramas of rising and falling fortunes.

In New York it also has the greatest institutional resources behind it: The Met is a formidable piece of cultural infrastructure by any estimation.

None of this explains the phenomenon of opera's popularity here, which might be attributable solely to the high artistic quality of the vocal product offered here on a regular basis.

Those outside the city have the chance to tune in to the opening-night spectacle when ``Il Tabarro'' and ``Pagliacci'' are broadcast on public television Dec. 28.

The Carnegie Hall concert with Bartoli has already appeared as the opening of the 22nd season of ``Great Performances'' on PBS.

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