I never meant to take so long to write about San Francisco. If my hotel hadn't had the World's Worst Wireless I might have written more while I was there, but it was all I could do just to check my email and the weather. Anyway, here goes.
That should actually read "On Natalie" because you and I know, that's what all this was about. Natalie's Lucia was the single, solitary reason it occured to me to make this trip. Everything else wonderful was just so many cherries on top.
Knowing full well that it might be folly, but quite unable to stop myself, I let my expectations of Natalie build and build. How could they not? For nearly four years — excluding the break I took, which we don't talk about — I have worshipped and adored Natalie in every medium available. In my dying days of file sharing, I downloaded dazzling bits and pieces — "Glitter and be gay", "Tornami a vagheggiar" — and wept with bliss. I have bought CD after CD after CD. If she records it, I want it. I re-christened YouTube NatalieTube because that was (and still is) the best thing about it — it's full of Natalie (thanks in great part to DessayBestSinger). The soprano who won me simply with the sparkle of "Suis-je gentille ainsi" and the limpid sweetness of "Vive amour qui rêve" (I owe Massenet a lot) transpired to be probably the single most captivating all-round performer of my experience; only Judy Garland comes close. Natalie, as far as I am concerned, has everything. I could love her for her voice alone. I could love her for her acting alone. Hell, I could love her for her mad curtain calls alone. The point is that I don't have to love her for one reason alone, or even for several reasons separately. I love her in her total, glorious Natalieness; I love this nutty, hilarious person who is also fiendishly bright, a gifted artist and, I truly believe, among the most significant operatic performers of her time. Perhaps of any time.
So it was with all of this besotted baggage that I arrived at her Lucia. Which is why when I say that she met my expectations, it is not faint praise. I can't claim she exceeded my expectations, because I myself had made that impossible. To use uncharacteristic sporting analogies: I expect Tiger Woods to be the world's greatest golfer. I expect a climber of tall mountains to conquer Everest and K2. And so I expect Natalie to be the Natalie of my dreams. And she was, she was, she was. All that CD, DVD, YouTube and the praise of others had led me to expect, she provided. Though she might just be a little more beautiful in person.
I kept waiting for the experience to feel more surreal than it did. But the truth is, opera at this level — and experiencing my #1 diva in the flesh — is what I've been waiting for. Not an unattainable fantasy, but a possible new reality. Seeing Natalie didn't feel unbelievable, it felt natural and right and true; a logical, normal part of my devotion to her and to the art form. It was magical, but it made sense.
Actually on Lucia
Judging by what I've been reading, I liked this production a bit more than most people. Perhaps it's just my irrational fear of the creaky (I assume) John Copley Lucia we're about to see here, but I liked the bare, craggy desolation of it. It felt cold, grey, alienating, unhospitable; just as life must feel to Lucia.
Natalie proved — not that I doubted it — that she knows more than one way to skin a Lucy Ashton. This was a stiller, less frenetic Lucia than some of what's on YouTube. The more she's bullied, the more she just tunes out, stares into the distance, lets go. She's not downtrodden, she's just not there any more. Going mad allows her to imagine happiness and freedom; she certainly doesn't look like gaining it any other way. I loved that she gave Lucia a sense of humour and mischief in her first scene, and a hint of obstinacy later. I had the feeling that in other circumstances, were her mind not so clouded, she was a girl with spirit and a bit of a temper, as forceful in her way as that awful brother. Best of all, I love the fact that Natalie turns Lucia from standard bel canto heroine into a complex figure whom I can explore and analyse at such length when I could just be raving about how gorgeous she sounded.
Which is what I'm going to do now, futile as writing about a voice is. Recording studios can do a singer favours but Natalie sounded just as ravishing (and in just the same way) as the voice on my iPod. Except better, obviously. Something recordings hadn't prepared for me was her extraordinary soft singing, her ability to fill a theatre with the finest, shimmeringest line of sound. No CD can do this justice. I am biased, to put it mildly; I happily acknowledge the fact — and to me, this was perfection, every moment. Including the blatantly imperfect moments, when she lost her breath, or broke the line, or coughed. It isn't even a matter of forgiveness or indulgence, of saying "she's so fantastic, so we don't mind". Natalie is about the whole work of art; the odd rough brushstroke is irrelevant. And anyway, this is blogging and it's in a sense all about me — her voice totally enchanted me, every fraction of a second of it, every note and every phrase, every fantastical cadenza, every questionable moment and every phenomenal one too.
If you'll allow me to become Oliver Twist (of the Lionel Bart variety) for a moment, I should like to tie Natalie's mad scene cadenza up with a ribbon and put it in a box, so I could keep it with me always and revisit it whenever I needed a fix. It's something she created in conjunction with the verrophonist. It was a little mad scene within a mad scene, a wordless portrait of lunacy. My god, and what a mad scene. I went twice; she played it differently both nights. Her Lucia is a living, breathing, malleable creation. During the post-cadenza applause on the Friday, she fiddled obsessively with the fringe of the rug she'd wrapped herself in; on the Monday, she started laughing, silently and mirthlessly, and then the laugh transformed into convulsions of terror.
Little things, but they're a part of the thoughtful approach which makes Natalie so special. Because even in a world where singers who can act pretty well are the rule rather than the exception, Natalie is still a cut above. Not just a singer who acts, or an actress with a voice; she is both singer and actress to her core, and the two combined make something else, something extraordinary. It helps, of course, that she is not just "a singer" but a singer of rare beauty and brilliance; not just "an actress" but a particularly gifted, moving actress. I can't think of anybody in the movies who shares Natalie's ability to make a person like me cry just by looking sad. Usually that requires context, a situation, a plot — but just a still shot of a crestfallen Natalie is enough.
What's that? There are other people in this opera? Yes, I suppose there are, after a fashion. I expected something magnificent in Giuseppe Filianoti, after all the raves for his Met Edgardo. He was impressive at times, but magnificent? Not for me. Too overwrought, too tightly stretched. I suspect he's had (and will have) better days; the problem is also partly me. I want something else from an Edgardo, a bit more luxury and suavity. Filianoti's brand of Italianate tension evidently works for a lot of people, going by the applause, so that's fine. I didn't swoon, but perhaps thousands did. I liked Enrico better; Gabriele Viviani's voice is more my style. I almost felt sorry for the fabulously named Cybele-Terese Gouverneur as Alisa, such an incredibly thankless role when she's clearly just bursting to sing bigger things, and has been doing so with Opera San José.
A pretty good Lucia made special by Natalie. The only problem now is that Opera Australia's Lucia opens in four weeks and, while I don't wish to be unfair, it just can't help but suffer by comparison. I don't want to be unfair to Emma Matthews — we know I'm not her greatest fan, but she's still a lovely singer with a large following — but come on. Any soprano in the world would struggle to eclipse Natalie in this role. Anna Netrebko would suffer by comparison. Diana Damrau, even. I'll just have to take Emma on her own terms and respond accordingly — think of Natalie as an adorable anomaly rather than a benchmark.
Actually, there's another problem. I've had my first and second tastes of Natalie live and now I need more. This can't be a one-off pleasure; I want it to be a habit, albeit an expensive one. My next trip is already in its planning stages. Meanwhile, memories of her Lucia will sustain me for a while yet.