Coda

Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget

by CATHERINE MALFITANO

Coda Performance lg 614
Febrile and fragile: Fracci in costume for Act I of Giselle
© Bettmann/CORBIS 2014

Perhaps my greatest regret, operatically speaking, is not having witnessed Maria Callas live. While I can forgive my parents for not insisting I see her in Lucia and Norma at the Met in 1956, when I was just eight years old, I cannot fathom why I did not run to see her last Met performances in 1965 as Tosca. The closest I ever got to the live Callas was through wearing her Tosca costumes when my turn came to play this Puccini heroine twenty-eight years later at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 

Fortunately, my mother made sure that I did not miss the electrifying performance of Carla Fracci in Giselle with American Ballet Theatre in July 1968. It might seem whimsical to mention these two theatrical giants, "La Divina" and the "Eleonora Duse of ballet," in the same breath. For me, however, they shared an artistic spirit, at once mysterious, magical and masterful. They were sacred monsters of the stage, dedicated to subordinating their technique to the service of expression, their characters and the music. 

Carla Fracci's identification with this nineteenth-century Romantic role was so complete that she was Giselle. Everything about her performance was epiphanic, so much so that I could feel this was the turning point in my own artistic realizations. Having been brought up under the creative wings of my violinist father and dancer/actress mother, my artistic journey had already been developing for years. But Fracci's performance crystallized everything that I wanted to be on the stage. 

Adolphe Adam's Giselle is much like an opera. It was first performed in 1841, six years after Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor had its premiere. Typical for this period of  Romanticism and Gothic horror, both stories feature innocence in love, betrayal, madness and the supernatural. Fracci embodied each one of these elements in such a way that she appeared bigger than life yet at the same time modest, humble and truthful. She drew us into her mind and heart, and we understood her every thought and feeling through that incredibly beautiful and expressive face and her eloquent gestures. Here is something she said in an interview for Il Corriere della Sera (May 2003), translated from the Italian: "Dance is poetry, because its ultimate mission is to express feelings, even if by means of an exacting technique. Our job is to make words appear through gesture." To me, she seemed to be singing with her body, her face — and all that lived inside her. 

That night, Fracci cracked my heart open, and I became aware of how one could be much more than a dancer — or a singer. Her transformative power over the audience was mesmerizing. My connection to a performer onstage had never felt so complete. I felt my heart burst with a combination of pain and joy, compassion and love, and, finally, an ecstatic transcendence of forgiveness that I had never felt on the opera stage before — and seldom have since. I suddenly recognized in myself the burning desire to live on the edge, as I had witnessed her doing. I also acknowledged a wish to reflect the truths of humanity as she so poetically revealed them. 

I remember Fracci's Giselle as a febrile, fragile creature from the very beginning. She was by turns shy, vulnerable, questioning, joyful and ardent as she gave freely of her love to the strange and mysterious newcomer (played gorgeously by Erik Bruhn). When she discovered his deception in playing a lover of her peasant class when he was really a prince betrothed to another, her look of betrayal was heartbreaking. 

Her despair and rapid descent into madness were  terrifyingly unhinged. I remember sobbing uncontrollably as she reenacted scenes of sheer happiness so recently enjoyed. Fracci was equally at home on the stage as an actress, but I did not feel that she was "acting." She was revealing the truth of betrayal, of lies and deception and madness. Her sudden death at the end of Act I was completely raw. I felt I could not breathe, and my tears would not stop.

As amazing as the first act was, I was not prepared for what Fracci was to reveal in Act II. She was now lighter than air, arms seemingly elongated, her body moving this way and that without appearing to touch the ground; every gesture stretched to infinity. The more dramatic the scene, the more eloquent her technique became. 

I did not realize it fully at the time, but what I witnessed in Fracci's art was exactly the same as the most exquisitely ethereal singing of Callas. All one has to do is listen to Callas in Bellini's Sonnambula or Puritani. There was something otherworldly about their incarnations. 

As much as I admired so many singers from recordings and videos, I learned so much more from live performances.  But it was Fracci who opened up my world to acting, movement and emotion. As I took a little bit of Fracci with me wherever I went, she inspired me to be more truthful, risk-taking and fearless with my entire instrument — both body and voice. To me, her acting and dancing were indivisible, a true symbiosis of intent and impulse, and it will continue to nurture me until the day I die. spacer 

CATHERINE MALFITANO, an opera singer for four decades, now dedicates herself to stage direction and teaching voice and acting. She is on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music. She continues to give master classes worldwide and is currently preparing her first book on role preparation. 

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Current Issue: March 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 9