The New York City Opera has been much discussed lately, and the discussion has centered on: Where should it be, and why should it be? City Opera has been thinking about cutting loose from Lincoln Center, its home for all these decades. Money is always a war there, and the place is sort of crumbling, physically. City Opera doesn’t get along too well with its neighbors, including its (not always loving) big brother, the Metropolitan Opera. So, City Opera is thinking about a place all its own, perhaps downtown.
Whether it stays or bolts, the company has every reason to continue. Its virtues and benefits are many. First, a town like New York needs—could use—more than one major opera company. It could use about six. Second, tickets to the Met cost an arm and a leg, and tickets to City Opera cost only an arm and a foot or so. Third, the junior institution has always been known for showcasing younger singers—up ’n’ comers—usually American. “See the stars of tomorrow today”—that sort of thing. And fourth, City Opera has always done us the favor of presenting out-of-the-way operas: not just new ones, but old ones. The company famously revived Handel’s Julius Caesar, now one of the most beloved operas in the world (and produced at the Met, among other places). Last season, it offered Handel’s Acis and Galatea. The season before that, it had put on Platée, by the French Baroque master Rameau. For that alone, all who care about music should wish for the good health and long life of City Opera.
In April, the company gave us Handel’s Agrippina, one of that master’s earliest efforts. When you’ve made Julius Caesar mainstream, you can dig even deeper into the vault. Who was this Agrippina? Nero’s mother, a charmer who was rumored to have murdered her husband, the emperor Claudius, in order to put her son—by a different marriage, or liaison—on the throne. The opera is based very, very loosely on history, and it has an improbably happy ending, with all tied up in a bow. It does not contain many of Handel’s “greatest hits”: of the forty-five arias famously collected by Sergius Kagen and published by the International Music Company, only one is from Agrippina—the cheerful “Bel piacere.” But the opera is Handel’s after all, filled with invention and melody and the unhindered force of a historic talent.
The standout in City Opera’s Agrippina was, perhaps appropriately, the soprano in the title role, Brenda Harris (an Illinoisian). She boasts both power and agility, which is a fearsome combination, in Handel not least. She executed neat, quick recitatives, and her singing was almost invariably accurate and assured. Her big scena in Act II—“Pensieri, voi mi tormentate”—was positively gripping. The other soprano in this show was Nancy Allen Lundy (a Minnesotan), in the role of Poppea. Her singing was usually pretty and apt, if not always characterful. When she tries to take on authority, she’s liable to chirp—but she was perfectly adequate, or better than that, and she acted with charm.
On the stage were two countertenors, David Walker as Ottone and Ryland Angel as Narciso. It so happens that, at the same time, across the plaza at the Met, the King of the Countertenors—David Daniels—was starring as Lysander in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Of course, City Opera had much to do with the making of Daniels’s career.) What is the world coming to, all these countertenors? Not so long ago, we had none, seemingly; now they’re as common as water. In Agrippina, Walker had the more prominent role. He has rather little power, even for a countertenor, but he sang some lovely passages. He suffered, however, as the night wore on.
A singer with no shortage of power whatsoever is Gregory Reinhart, whose bass is almost startlingly huge—a little diffuse, but commanding. His enactment of Claudio (Claudius) contributed to the overall success of this production.
In the pit was the conductor Jane Glover, who, in addition to her baton duties, handled the harpsichord parts. Her conducting was always earnest and competent, but sometimes without a sparkle. There were stretches when the orchestra could have shown more life, could have been a little more insinuating, more imaginative, could have taken more evident pleasure in the proceedings. But, again, this was a solid effort.
Onstage, no participant took this production—wild and farcical—too seriously. Everything was done with a wink, and camp. Outright slapstick abounded. The sets were bizarre—nicely bizarre—combining the traditional with the modern, Roman grandeur and neon slickness and garishness: a little bit Mussolini, a little bit Studio 54. In all, this was a cracking show, from the king of the Baroque operatic theater, in a house that has served him well.
Serving the New York Philharmonic quite well is its principal guest conductor, Sir Colin Davis. At the end of this season, the Philharmonic’s music director, Kurt Masur, will move on, but Davis is staying—and the orchestra could probably use the continuity.
This spring, Davis spent several weeks in New York, directing the orchestra in an all-Sibelius series and in a concert version of Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. Davis is a Sibelius specialist, of course, and a Mozart specialist—also a Berlioz specialist and a Handel specialist. (If I may intrude a recordings opinion, I believe that Davis’s account of Messiah, from 1966, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and four sterling British soloists, is the finest—the most balanced, the most ceaselessly listenable—available.) But it’s wrong to call Davis a “specialist,” in anything: he is a complete conductor, at home in music at large, as all top-flight maestros must be.
He began his Sibelius concert with a little-known tone poem, Pohjola’s Daughter, a work that tells a story, and that is unmistakably Sibelius-like: we hear the ice, the bleakness, the mystery, the romance. How can this be? It’s a matter of color, phrasing, temperament, and everything else in the musician’s bag of tricks. Davis led this work with elegance and understanding. The dynamic range was exceptionally wide, with softer-than-soft softs—but that could be heard—and very loud louds, that did not blare or push. An astounding legato settled over the orchestra, broken only by the folkish beauty of some of the solo parts. There was also terrific drama in Davis’s conducting: this is no cool, decorous Englishman (unless, naturally, that is required of him).
Afterward came Sibelius’s Humoresques for violin, all six of them. The soloist was the Philharmonic’s concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, a clear local favorite, from the ovation he always receives. The Humoresques are sprightly, gay, and, indeed, humorous. We normally don’t think of Sibelius as a lot of laughs, but these violinistic ditties prove otherwise. Each piece has a character; we find a touch of Vienna, a touch of Prague. The Humoresques are somewhat light for a symphonic concert, but they deserve to be heard. Whether they should be heard all together —in a group of six—is another matter. They were written separately, as occasional pieces, it seems, and Sibelius himself might regard the presentation of all six of them as a bit much—like an overload of meringue.
Dicterow did his work competently, if not with overwhelming lyricism and charm.
The Big Symphony on the program was the Fifth, which is something of—to violate my own rule—a Davis specialty (as proven by his recordings of the work). He did not try to do too much with the piece too soon; he allowed it to idle, before really revving up, when he needed the speed. The way he built the first movement to its elegantly thunderous, timpani-fueled ending was thrilling. The third and final movement tingled, and yearned, and delighted. There was a technical breakdown in the violin section, but it was of little importance. Also, Davis—unusually for him, because he is not an interpretive eccentric—took tremendously odd, super-long, and weirdly spaced pauses among the several final chords. And yet nothing could have spoiled this performance, one of the most satisfying of the Philharmonic’s season.
Speaking of satisfying, we must discuss Krystian Zimerman, the Polish pianist: he is known as one of the great Romantics, a player of unabashed passion, someone who lets it all hang out, regardless. In some respects, he is a kindred spirit of Leonard Bernstein, and it’s not surprising that they got along so well. They did several recordings together, including a famous and controversial one of Brahms’s Second Concerto, so lush and ardent and purple as to be almost unbelievable, almost offensive: but fascinating all the same.
Zimerman visited Carnegie Hall for an all-Brahms recital. The program was interestingly organized: the group of small pieces constituting op. 118—miniature masterpieces, composed by the fully mature Brahms—and the second and third sonatas, youthful, sprawling, and untamed. The smaller pieces, Zimerman played with memorable distinction. He did just about everything right. His pedaling was exemplary—very important in these works. Also (and relatedly), you could always hear the melodic line, amid the general lushness. Zimerman’s prodigious technique serves him even in these miniatures: for example, he doesn’t have to struggle in the reaches, preserving the ease and arc of the music.
The pianist has a reputation—not undeserved, of course—for exaggeration, and yet he showed the most beautiful taste and restraint in Op. 118. The Intermezzo in A major was a little Brahms song, full of longing, and simple. The rhapsodic Ballade in G minor was big, edging toward the bombastic—but it stayed within bounds, properly exciting. The Romance in F major had great nobility, without undue pathos—and Zimerman sighed his way through the D-major section exquisitely. The Intermezzo in E-flat minor, which closes the set, is very hard to judge. It is kind of a fantasia, mapped in its own world. But Zimerman found his way to—may I say—perfection.
Honestly, this was some of the most refined Brahms playing I can remember hearing; that it was unexpected—by me—made it all the more gratifying. If the pianist can be faulted on anything, it is that sometimes the notes he struck were not sustained, as they should have been: he would strike, and yet the sound would die, not singing on. But there we enter the realm of cavil.
The composer’s Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor is, sad to say, not great Brahms, or even good Brahms: but he did not burn it (as he did many of his other creations). Zimerman, whatever the case, is the man to play it: he is—to pick two publicist’s and reviewer’s clichés—both a “poet of the piano” and a “blazing virtuoso,” a combination not falling off trees. One quality that marks Zimerman’s playing is freedom. He is obviously an erudite man, but he never smothers anything in intellection. The last movement of the sonata, he infused with a stirring peasant vitality.
In the Third—and superior—Sonata, the F minor, Zimerman was duly heaven-storming, but unfailingly elegant. These were thunderbolts wrapped in velvet. His treatment was symphonic, and yet he did no banging. The famous Andante espressivo was clear and tender; the Finale was magisterial. One may question whether it’s desirable to hear this much Brahms in a single recital, rather than a more balanced feast—but if Zimerman plays the composer this way, who can blame him? In both affinity and ability, he’s beyond question.
As if that recital weren’t good enough: Christine Schäfer, the German soprano, appeared in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, for some lieder and a distinguished American work. She was fresh from starring as Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera (in the Berg opera of the same name). This might be said to be her signature role, in opera. She is most prized, however, for her recitals, to which lieder aficionados in particular flock. Schäfer studied with Arleen Auger and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, among others. That is a pedigree to heighten expectations.
The soprano began the afternoon with some lesser-known songs of Schubert, including the three “Ellen” songs, set to Sir Walter Scott (The Lady of the Lake). Beauty of sound is not the point of Schäfer, although she has a perfectly serviceable voice: it is precise and focused. She is a pure and unaffected singer, much like the late Auger. She favors direct, intimate communication, not going in for any preciousness. And she always holds your attention. This may seem a silly thing to say: who doesn’t, and isn’t that the responsibility of the listener? Not really. A lieder singer who can hold the listener’s attention, all through, is a rare breed of artist.
There is one Ellen song, I should have said, that is hardly unfamiliar: “Ave Maria!” (exclamation point in the original). It is, in fact, almost grotesquely familiar, and it was somewhat daring of Schäfer to do it. It is well she did, however, because she gave that chestnut authority, simplicity, and newness, all at once. Not for a measure was it monotonous or tired. Schäfer worked subtle rallentandos and other tempo variations, and she altered her dynamics shrewdly—all without any distortions. It was amazing to discover that “Ave Maria!” could be so effective—and affecting—at this late date. This did not seem the song sung at your niece’s wedding.
Schäfer’s American work was George Crumb’s shimmering, exotic, impressionistic Apparition (to texts of Walt Whitman). On this music, Schäfer can bring all her formidable skills to bear: delicacy, deftness, sensuousness, slinkiness, superb technical control. She executed bird sounds that were much like vocalizing (singing practice): we heard owls and whippoorwills, and a smidgeon of coloratura. Unusual intervals posed no problem for Schäfer, for anyone who can sing Lulu accurately can sing Crumb. Her pianissimos were spell-binding, and her singing generally had the entire hall in a trance. Apparition and Schäfer were made for each other, and she should get this work on CD, soon.
After intermission, we had the Schumann song-cycle Dichterliebe (which the American soprano Barbara Bonney had sung in Carnegie Hall some weeks before). At this point, Schäfer was sounding a bit ragged, a bit worn, but her ability to think her way through the cycle was untouched. She exhibited fragility, fear, sorrow, rage, doubt, defiance, and everything else that the composer—and the poet, Heine—require. Her accompanist, Ted Taylor, is far from a polished pianist, but he is an astute “collaborative artist” (to use the modern jargon), which is what is demanded. In the song “Hör ich das Liedchen klingen,” Schäfer did an amazing thing: she demonstrated sustained fragility, a fragility that is well and truly fragile but that does not break down, vocally. Tricky, and rare.
Many people think that Christine Schäfer—still young and fresh—has already established herself as a great singer. They are not wrong.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 10, on page 66
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