Leonard Slatkin debacle with Met Traviata shows how, in opera, a quick study can't make up for years of experience
For opera fans, conductor Leonard Slatkin's ignominious exit from the Metropolitan Opera's production of La Traviata last Thursday is old news.
Nonetheless, New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini found a lot of food for thought. He went back to the opera house for Saturday's performance with house conductor Marco Armiliato, then went home and listened to three classic recordings from acknowledged Verdi experts.
His article on the need to absorb and understand performance tradition in today's Times is an excellent read.
In a recent conversation with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, we talked about the traditions in Verdi singing -- something she has spent the first two decades of her career reading, learning, experiencing, absorbing and then adapting into her own performance style.
She told me about how, in Verdi, the singer is allowed to take -- to stretch the timing on a musical phrase for emotional effect -- as long as she gives back later. The result is, as she described it, an ultimate sense of balance.
The conductor is, of course, an integral part of this process of give and take. And only someone with an intimate knowledge of the music and its style can fully participate in this kind of activity.
In an extreme example, here is Maria Callas as Violetta in a live performance at La Scala in January, 1956 -- a year after the performance Tommasini alludes to in his article. I've followed it by a clip of Sumi Jo singing the same aria at the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (In a way it's not a fair comparison, because one is a concert, the other is a full production.)
Where Callas sacrifices beautiful singing for emotional depth, Jo is all about making each note and phrase sound as pretty as possible. As for her poor conductor, he is completely at sea; he might as well have let Jo sing the aria unaccompanied.