|Press photo: Anna Netrebko as Bolena|
These days, as we worry about opera’s future, we have bet our money on its viability as the same kind of drama as the more popular forms of theater, film and television, with the same kinds of narrative rules. But audiences for those forms are largely passive; they don’t have the opera audience’s unpredictable, give-and-take relationship with singers. Opera may, in fact, have more in common with sporting events—a narrative that is stop-and-start yet remains coherent; an intense connection between performer and crowd—than it does with other performing arts.What Mr. Woolfe is referring to in his article - is not the Hollywoodification of opera (although, I'd LOVE to get his take on it ... Woolfe, write me and let's chat) - instead, Mr. Woolfe is discussing the flood of press that La Netrebko (a.k.a. Mrs. Erwin Schrott) received for breaking character and smiling during the end-of-aria ovation.
One night in London in 1734, two opera stars ended up on the same stage. Senesino played the part of an angry tyrant, Farinelli a hero in chains. The two were bitter rivals, but, so the story goes, when Farinelli sang his melting opening aria, “he so softened the obdurate heart of his oppressor that Senesino, quite forgetting his stage character, ran to Farinelli and embraced him, much to the surprise of the audience.”I was conditioned as a young singer, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, not to react to applause from the audience but in fact, to freeze. But, there are occasions in operatic history when it was acceptable for the singer to break character.
Senesino, we would say, broke character.
Such an irredeemably tacky breach of narrative decorum is rare in opera today. That was what was so remarkable about what happened on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera last Monday.
The soprano Anna Netrebko was singing the fiendishly difficult title role in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The final scene began with her achingly beautiful rendition of the aria “Al dolce guidami,” its final note slowly diminishing to nothing.
The audience erupted in cheers that went on far longer than is usual at the Met these days. Ms. Netrebko, who had ended the aria gazing upward, suddenly gave a wide smile, driving the audience to even greater applause.
The critics were not amused.
Ok ... maybe it wasn't "acceptable" but, let's just say it wasn't frowned upon either. Again, Zachary Woolfe:
In a 1976 Met performance of Puccini’s La Bohème, the soprano Montserrat Caballé was sitting on stage during Luciano Pavarotti’s first-act aria. “He sang the aria and she was sitting in her chair,” Mr. Benson recalled, “and when he finished she joined the applause.”[Sigh] Those were the days, right?
For her farewell to the Met in 1985, Leontyne Price sang Aida, one of her signature roles. About five minutes into the epic ovation after her aria “O patria mia,” she dropped to her knees with emotion. The tenor Salvatore Licitra, who recently died of injuries sustained in a motor scooter accident, did a “whew” gesture, brushing his hand over his forehead, after nailing the opening aria in his surprise Met debut in Puccini’s Tosca in 2002. ...
... But breaking character is by no means always about celebration or relief: Mr. Bernheimer, the Financial Times critic, remembered the tenor Jon Vickers shouting at the audience, “Shut up with your damn coughing!” during a 1974 performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Maria Callas, for all her storied focus, broke character on several occasions, including once in Anna Bolena itself.
To be fair, being Callas, she didn’t so much break character as assimilate Anne Boleyn’s drama into her own. Callas had returned to Milan in 1958 after a scandal and was received coolly throughout the first act. At the act’s finale she rushed to the edge of the stage, as the costume designer Piero Tosi once remembered, “spitting her lines directly at the audience”: “Giudici? Ad Anna? Guidici?” (“Judges? For Anna? Judges?”).
“You could not dream what she did,” Mr. Tosi said. “It was a show within a show.”
For more - including video *and* Anna Netrebko's response to the hub-bub - check out Mr. Woolfe's article by heading over to The New York Observer.
You can also follow him on Twitter @zwoolfe. And, while you're following him - don't forget to follow Yours Truly - @JNewmanNYC