or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, February 12, 2011


This is me sitting at home writing and not at the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast. What gives?

Fortunately or un, I listened to the broadcast of the Met's February 2nd premiere of the opera, "Nixon in China", which was first performed in October of 1987 with James Maddalena as Nixon: I remember watching the original Brooklyn Academy of Music telecast on PBS in I guess 1988. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Maddalena is singing the role at the Met, and it gives me no pleasure to say that his voice is worn to tatters. In his very first aria in the first act, his voice cracks and crumbles: you can hear him clearing his throat in what sounds like a desperate attempt to force it back into some kind of shape, but it is to no avail. Throughout the first act, his voice is in pieces, the lower notes often rubble and the occasional high note just a squeak. I couldn't tell you which emotion was dominant in me: embarrassment for him, anger that he and the Met thought this was what paying audiences deserved to hear, or horror that a voice could be so ruined.

Maybe he improved during the opera, or after his premiere, unlikely though that seems. What I heard was bad, though. Some critics tried to be kind to Maddalena: Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times said that

Over the years Mr. Maddalena’s voice has lost some body and richness. Making your Met debut in your mid-50s must be both gratifying and high-pressured,

which is either the kindest imaginable way of saying "His voice has aged dreadfully and he can no longer control it," or delusional. Others were more to the point, such as the Opera Tattler:

James Maddalena's performance was that of a singer whose best days are clearly behind him. He had evident vocal problems, especially in his first scene, and sang with overly darkened diction and a hooty, wobbly vocal quality. The principals in most of the opera were heavily amplified, and the amplification did not serve Mr. Maddalena well, with his audible cracking and throat-clearing. Although he acted the part well, capturing some of Nixon's physical stiffness, his dramatic achievement could not compensate for his inadequate vocalism.

Some of the problems in the production can apparently be traced to composer/conductor John Adams' requirement that all the performers wear wireless microphones (often used in stage musicals but rarely in opera), as this Financial Times review points out:

...Adams' insistence on (over)amplifying the voices creates grotesque distortion....The cast looked terrific, acted with ardour and, thanks to the microphones, sounded pretty awful.

After listening to the first act, I knew I couldn't possibly sit through the entire production in the theatre, and pay for the privilege as well. Instead, I'm staying home and watching the 1990 Met "Götterdämmerung", in the first act of which Christa Ludwig makes some ravishing sounds--and her in her sixties!


If you think about the surname "Maddalena" for a little bit, probably not more than a few seconds, it will occur to you that it is almost certain to be the Italian version of "Magdalene", and if you think a little further, it will also occur to you that the French given name "Madeleine" must also be a version of this. Both these things are true. (The wee butter cake known as the madeleine was named after a pastry chef, Madeleine Paulmier.)

It may also amuse you to know that the English word "maudlin", "tearful, often sentimentally so," is a corruption of "Magdalene", because Mary Magdalene was often shown in art weeping in repentance after being forgiven by Jesus.


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