I've had a lot of homework this week, and in my spare time (that is, the time I ought to be doing homework), I've been watching opera videos on YouTube. Hey, at least I'm learning something! Can't explain why I've been bitten by the opera bug just now, but I'm letting it take its course.
I took voice lessons during high school (and am kind of regretting giving them up) but still don't know enough about the nuances of opera singing to play favorites based on vocal quality. These are world-class singers--they all sound pretty great to me! So, especially when I can watch videorecordings of singers, I find myself preferring the ones with the best acting skills. Here are some of my discoveries.
The great Maria Callas's fame derives in large part from her acting. It's generally agreed that she may not have had the most perfect voice, but in performance she was a wholly captivating actress. I couldn't find too many Callas videos on YouTube, but this, her version of "Una voce poco fa" from The Barber of Seville, shows how she got her reputation. She makes a great Rosina: feisty but warm, with great comic timing.
One of my housemates is learning the beautiful "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Rusalka for her voice lessons. This is Renée Fleming's signature aria and this video shows why: when she performs it, every note and gesture is filled with the palpable yearning that the song requires.
But my favorite discovery, so far, has been the French soprano Natalie Dessay, who just opened the Metropolitan Opera season as Lucia di Lammermoor. Dessay (or her press agent) has made a niche for herself as "the coloratura who acts." The roles she plays have traditionally required nothing more than an agile and pure high soprano voice, but she adds psychological complexity that justifies every note she sings. Originally trained as an actress, she is known for her humor and her highly physical interpretations. And she has a truly gorgeous coloratura voice--I am in awe of her ability to sing high notes pianissimo!
To get a sense of her acting ability, compare these two performances in the role of Olympia, the mechanical singing doll from The Tales of Hoffmann. In the first, she is cute and funny and seems about 8 years old, moving just as you'd expect a little-girl doll to move. She even takes her bows in character! As well as coping with a blustery night and gigantic puppets:
In the second version, Dessay hits even more impressive notes and cadenzas, despite the tempo being a whole lot slower (and thus more difficult). Moreover, she portrays Olympia as a much more tragic, human figure--a fragile and nearly catatonic young woman, not a wind-up doll.
I don't even know of many stage actors who, playing the same role in two separate productions, would give two such different but equally committed and honest interpretations. Natalie Dessay is a truly modern and fearless performer--a rare thing in opera! If these videos have piqued your interest, there are plenty more where they came from--you won't be disappointed!