The Garanca Paradox

elina garanca4 The Garanca Paradox Anita, the protagonist of Massenet’s La Navarraise, is given to emotions that are a little, well, over the top. In this, she’s not unique among operatic characters.

From her first lines, awaiting the arrival of her lover, Araquil, Anita is basically hysterical; the libretto tells us she trembles while praying “with fervor and agitation.” When Araquil finally enters, she holds his face in her hands “and kisses him wildly.” After an entertaining 45 minutes in which Anita murders a general to secure money for her dowry, and Araquil dies bloodily, the opera ends with her falling to her knees, “laughing and crying in her madness.”

To learn that the mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca sang the role of Anita in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 25 is to know immediately that there was no trembling, no fervor, no agitation. There was no wildness. There was not, it goes without saying, a hint of crazed laughter.

It also goes without saying that Ms. Garanca sang lusciously; she always does. In the warm Carnegie acoustic, her voice was rich and smooth, shining and perfectly consistent through its range. As I left the performance, I ran into someone I knew. “I could listen to her sing the phone book,” he said, and I had to agree.

The Garanca paradox–golden voice; utter blandness–is familiar to anyone who’s heard her, and lots of people have. Slender and beautiful, the 34-year-old singer has quickly become one of the biggest stars of opera’s high-definition era; just since January, the Metropolitan Opera has released two of her performances on DVD. There have been other lush-voiced singers accused of lacking dramatic urgency, Kiri te Kanawa and Renée Fleming among them. But I can’t think of another who matches Ms. Garanca’s mystifyingly huge gap between technical ability and temperament.

Lots of opera singers are bad actors. But even the bad ones know that they should be good, and they try–sometimes really, really hard. Indeed, our sense that their performances are lacking often comes from our perception of their effort.

Ms. Garanca, though, never seems to be straining; she’s uncannily placid. She is currently starring at the Met in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen, a revival of the Richard Eyre production she brought to New York last year, and even in a fully staged performance, she is vocally stunning and remarkably affectless.

Carmen, a passionate, headstrong gypsy and one of the best-known characters in opera, is famously enigmatic, but Ms. Garanca takes that quality almost to the point of anonymity. It can often seem not that she’s a bad actress but that she’s not quite sure what acting is. From time to time, she sings really loudly for emphasis, and she will occasionally lurch suddenly to indicate decisive emotion. But she mostly seems detached. Several scenes end with her standing at the edge of the stage, staring wanly into the middle distance. In the final scene, when her desperate ex-lover threatens her and finally stabs her to death, her prevailing emotion seems to be mild annoyance.

The small gestures she has chosen to telegraph “character” are arbitrary to the point of absurdity. Would the earthy Carmen inspect, fancy-restaurant-style, the label on a wine bottle twice before drinking it? In a smugglers’ camp in the middle of the mountains, no less? Or wouldn’t she? Maybe she would. Who is Carmen? What do I know about her, when it comes down to it? What do I know about anything? Thinking too much about Ms. Garanca can lead quickly from aesthetic questions to phenomenological and existential ones, the stuff of late-night anxiety attacks: What is a voice, really? What is personality? What wine goes best with smuggling?

I began to wonder if Ms. Garanca is perhaps a sly genius, subverting theatrical convention and channeling Peter Brook in a covert critique of naturalism. In the end, I do not think this is the case. But it is nevertheless perversely fascinating to watch and listen to her–to hear how good a voice can be without letting in emotion, to see how far the beautiful can be from the interesting.

I thought of Elina Garanca the other day as I read a remembrance of the great singer Shirley Verrett, who died Friday. “She was never a singer one looked to for soothing, comfort or distraction,” the piece, on the website Parterre.com, went. “She was there to distress, to disturb, to shock.”

But we do not live in a culture in which most people like to go to the opera to experience those difficult feelings. They want to be comfortable, and Ms. Garanca obliges with a voice of perfect richness and smoothness and a performance devoid of anything but the broadest, most generic indicators of vividness or passion. Her beauty holds the eye in high-def close-ups, but missing are the things that make an opera work in an opera house. Even her own description of her method speaks to our impoverished sense of what is possible with the art form at a moment when people desire from it only caution and safety.

“I’m analytical, not wild,” she told The Times last year. “When I’m onstage my brain is running like a computer. There are different programs, for voice, for acting, for my body, for the conductor, my colleagues, the staging. And in a pinch I just open a file, or many.”

The artist as PC: She’s the singer of our time.

zwoolfe@observer.com