Monday, January 20, 2014

No Way to Treat a Diva--or a Dame

I'm sorry for the lack of posting lately: I've had that horrible RSV that's going around. After watching the Denver Broncos defeat the New England Patriots, I was in the midst of watching the NFC Playoff game when I realized that Downton Abbey was on. I wasn't able to watch the Dame Nellie Melba/Dame Kiri Te Kanawa episode last week because our local PBS station had sync problems (like watching the proverbial mis-synced Japanese movie), so last night I switched from football to Masterpiece Theatre.

The episode had other developments of course, but was all focused on the performance of Dame Nellie Melba because everyone had gathered to hear her--and the Downton Abbey producers had another Australian (sort of: she is from New Zealand) to portray her: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Well in my opinion, they wasted the opportunity, both historically and operatically.

There is no way that Dame Nellie Melba would have consented to being shuffled off to a room with a tray for dinner. The butler, Carson, certainly did not know how to treat a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (the honor Melba had received in 1918). With all the charity work Melba had done during World War I, the honors and welcome she had received around the world, etc--I think she and Lord Grantham, and Lady Grantham, would have had more to talk about than claret. Melba was a diva: she was not just a professional opera singer from Australia! The Granthams just don't seem to be aware of culture at all: they can't get used to Catholics being full citizens in England and they don't know about the great artist about to perform for them. They also seem to lack common hospitality.

Then, after the faux-pas of her arrival and sequestration in her room, the episode gave her no grand diva entrance. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's performance was underwhelming: I was expecting the lush, lyric quality I'm used to and it just wasn't there--not even the usual precise diction. Of course, she has retired from the operatic stage (she is 69 years old), but the last performances I had heard of her did not prepare me for what I heard last night. Finally, of course, her performance is undercut by the violence occurring downstairs, which was awful.

Finding some real Nellie Melba on youtube, I listened to this 1926 recording from Covent Garden--made while the Dame was on one of her unending farewell tours! And when I searched for that, I found this article from The Telegraph, in which the professional critic Rupert Christiansen confirmed my disappointment and identified the problems technically with Dame Te Kanawa's performance:

Confined to her room with a cup of tea and treated by Carson as though she was a visiting tradesperson during her visit to Downton Abbey? The real Dame Nellie Melba wouldn’t have tolerated such treatment for a nanosecond. In 1922, she had enjoyed 30 years of being received as a social equal by crowned heads and aristocrats throughout Europe, and she would only have sung at a private party as a personal favour to her host. Melba was nobody’s hireling: she called all the shots, and the Granthams and their staff would have quaked at her approach. . . .

But she sounded rather worse - recordings of the Australian soprano dating from that era demonstrate singing far more secure and shapely than Dame Kiri’s. Sharp unsteady intonation, heavy vibrato and tastelessly swooping portamento vitiated what fragments we heard of her performance of two arias by Puccini and a song by Dvorak: the dastardly Green’s reference to the noise of ‘a cat on a bonfire’ was unkind, but Mrs Patmore’s expression of heavenly rapture was scarcely convincing, and no wonder that poor Anna Bates whisperingly complained of a headache.