Thursday, July 15, 2010

Met Live in HD; Transposing Bohème? Thoughts on the Met Encore

Ramón Vargas knows poets Live in HD: he has been Lensky in Eugene Onegin and Rodolfo in La bohème.

In this bohème, when Mimì (Angela Gheorghiu) knocked on his door, Rudolfo charmed but also made attraction seem real. Vargas interacted well with other characters onstage. He demonstrated Vargasian humor with a nimble crawl at [1:44] only seconds before his aria. This drew chuckles from the popcorn faithful. His warm voice projected sincerity and made the juxtaposition between funny and romantic a success.

One of the reasons that Vargas sounded so warm is that the entire aria was transposed down a half-step; from D-flat to C. During the film broadcast I couldn't figure out where it happened--somehow we were in the wrong key. It was as surprising as Mimì's visit.

At [1:26] the clarinets sustain the third [EG]. The transposition happens as soon as the strings move away from that third. They should play [E-flat and A] but play [D and A-flat]; and as simple as that we are on a different track.

Getting back was even easier. There is always applause after Rudolfo's aria. The orchestra simply began Mimì's aria at pitch.

There is a long tradition of transposing to accommodate singers, and Vargas is a vocalist known for warmth and color rather than endless high register. The change makes the high C on "dolce speranza" a high B, and takes the edge off the other ledger line singing in this aria.

Still, it is disorienting--for more than five minutes we are off-key. The entire stretch of music is designed to make us feel something for D-flat as being essential to this moment. In "Donde lieta usci" in Act III, D-flat major returns when Rudolfo and Mimì contemplate separation. We missed the connection.

Is messing with a thoughtful tonal structure worth whatever is gained in transposition?

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