The beginning of the 2005–06 season saw many successes, and a few failures. We’ll consider some orchestras and opera companies—starting with the New York Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel. He’s in his fourth season as music director, and it has been a tenure of highs and lows. The same is true of Maazel’s career at large. He is capable of rising to great heights, and of plunging to great depths. Remarkable. Most conductors never get as high or as low: They stay in some middle range of competence. Perhaps it’s better to live life the Maazel way, and it certainly makes for more interesting concert attendance.

His opening program gave us Beethoven on the first half, Strauss on the second. The Beethoven was the Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor,” in which Evgeny Kissin was soloist. This Russian virtuoso—a worldwide favorite—has strengths, no doubt. But he also has weaknesses, and these were on painful display in the “Emperor.” Kissin pounded, banged, assaulted. This music can bear some aggressiveness—or certainly boldness—but not unmusical pugilism. Kissin gave the concerto almost none of the elegance or lyricism it should have. And he indulged in strange rhythmic license, not at all helpful to Beethoven. The most you could say for this pianist was that he exhibited his usual cold command. Even if you dislike what he’s doing, he wants to be doing it.

Maazel happened to be excellent in the Beethoven—to the extent his soloist let him be—and he was excellent in the Strauss works, which were the tone poem Don Juan and the Rosenkavalier Suite. Maazel has always been a Straussian, and some of us consider him half Viennese (for the time he has spent in that city, and for his sympathy with its music). This conductor can fuss a piece to death—overmanage it—but he avoided that in the Strauss. Instead, he was natural, convincing, pleasurable. He luxuriated in the Rosenkavalier music, making you love it—marvel at it—all over again. I happened to be sitting across from a famous opera singer. As we were leaving, I said, “Weren’t the words going through your head the entire time, and didn’t you just about want to bust out with them?” Beaming, she said, “Yes, yes.” Better that she had busted out than that I had.

The Philharmonic’s next program featured another virtuoso pianist: Lang Lang, the Chinese phenom. He played Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E minor—but he played it incomprehensibly. This account was subdued, tepid, weak—even a little sleepy. Shocking, from a pianist known—rightly—as exuberant, athletic, uncontainable. It was almost as though he had decided to play against type: “Oh, you think I’m an exhibitionist, huh? Watch this.” If you want to play this concerto subtly or understatedly, that’s fine. But Lang Lang gave it no shape, no body, leaving it a bunch of Romantic flab. Say this for him, however: The young man has an incredibly fluid technique, and he is a superb colorist. I would rather hear him in Debussy, for example, than in one of the Liszt paraphrases he loves.

And in the second half of that program, Maazel conducted Mahler—the Symphony No. 1, known as the “Titan.” Maazel is a grossly uneven Mahlerian, just as he is an uneven—or inconsistent, let’s say—conductor. Some of the best Mahler performances many of us have ever heard have come from Maazel’s baton; and he has laid some eggs. His First, on this evening—morning, actually, because this was a Friday matinée—was rather in between: It was respectable, but nothing special. The finale, in particular, was a letdown, lacking its pulsing joy, its titanic inevitability. But the next time Maazel conducts the piece, he may launch you into outer space.

And a word about Carnegie Hall: It opened with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, led by its chief conductor, Yuri Temirkanov. This man has a lot in common with Lorin Maazel: considerable musicality, considerable inconsistency. You really never know what you’re going to get with Temirkanov. He can seem to you an all-time great, or just a Russian hack.

His soloist, for the opening concert—the St. Petersburgers did three—was no hack: It was Yefim Bronfman, yet another supervirtuoso (Russian-born, long an American citizen). Bronfman played maybe the most supervirtuosic concerto of them all, Rachmaninoff’s Third, in D minor. But I should not damn Bronfman with that two-edged label “supervirtuoso.” (Frankly, one must never damn the Rachmaninoff Third, either.) Bronfman is one of the best pianists we have, complete, a master of everything: of Mozart, for example. And he applied proper musical values to Rachmaninoff’s concerto. He was not at the top of his game, and he has played the Third better—still, this was Yefim Bronfman.

After intermission, Temirkanov conducted one of the most popular of all symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. This is the standard gala piece—the standard opening-night piece—easy to belittle. But it still has the power to amaze, if you give it half a chance. Temirkanov gave it about half a chance. He did some marvelous things in it—some beautifully musical phrasing, for example—but other parts were routine, pedestrian. As I said about Maazel (in the Mahler Second): next time.

I was unable to hear the subsequent two concerts, but would not have been surprised by anything that occurred in them.

Leave orchestras for a moment to consider a few operas. City Opera has arranged an interesting season, and they’re executing it well. They began with Capriccio, Strauss’s last opera, whose libretto was written both by the composer and by the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss. This is an opera about Strauss’s profession, in a way: It’s an opera about composition, and the theatrical life. A composer and a poet are in love with the same woman, Countess Madeleine—and they ply their respective trades to woo her. They are also forced to collaborate, resulting in the expected tensions. At one point, the poet exclaims, “My lovely poem, smothered in music!” Strauss drops a thousand comments on music and musical traditions throughout the opera. Really, only a veteran and astute composer could have written it.

Capriccio is a chamber opera, Mozartean, and fairly talky—in fact, the opera is subtitled “A Conversation Piece for Music.” Singers have to be clear and precise, and so do instrumentalists. Furthermore, this is an autumnal work, fashioned by a composer nearing eighty. Strauss was famous for writing for women’s voices—no one in history has ever been more in love with the female voice, especially the soprano—and he often slighted men. Think how few truly satisfying roles they have in his oeuvre! But he gives men a lot to do in Capriccio, and City Opera’s handled their roles ably.

Ryan MacPherson, an American tenor, was Flamand—the composer—and he revealed a nice, fresh voice, never more pleasing than when high. The baritone Mel Ulrich, a City Opera standout, was Olivier, the poet, and he was in his usual splendid form. Or at least he was the night I heard him. As La Roche, the bass Eric Halfvarson was all authority and resplendence. He’s one of those singers who make the stage come more alive when they open their mouths. (Wouldn’t you like that said about you?)

Capriccio has many other roles—and they were also well filled—but I might just mention two more: those of the Italian Tenor and the Italian Soprano. My, Strauss enjoyed poking fun at such people! These are juicily comic roles, and Barry Banks and Lisa Saffer absolutely slew them. Strauss knew what he was doing: He wanted to provided some relief, and relieved we were.

Ultimately, of course, the opera belongs to the soprano, because, with Strauss, it can hardly be otherwise. Pamela Armstrong, an American with a busy if not starry career, made a lovely Countess: dignified, regal, mature, self-aware, unfussy. She was better as a package (if you will) than she was in the details, which one could admire. And in her final scene—Strauss’s final scene as well—she was radiant.

City Opera’s orchestra did adequately, under the competent and knowledgeable leadership of George Manahan (the company’s music director). They were sometimes too loud for the singers, however—and this is a house that scandalously amplifies its singers! Perhaps they should amplify them more. And, we musn’t forget, Strauss was a composer famous for drowning out his singers—even in chamber operas, apparently. Stephen Lawless’s production was faultless, gladly serving the piece, not drawing undue attention to itself. The opera becomes a riot, sort of a zoo: “What utter chaos!” say the domestics. (Strauss operates similarly in Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier, and other operas.) Even that was smart and tasteful.

Throughout Capriccio, Strauss borrows from himself a lot: You hear bits of his operas, and his songs. But he was inventive—prolifically inventive—right till the end, and the old devil could put together a show.

Speaking of old devils (or early-middle-aged ones, for Rossini essentially stopped composing at thirty-seven, though he lived on till seventy-six): City Opera staged Il Viaggio a Reims, the last of Rossini’s Italian operas. (He went on to write some French ones.) The opera was written for the coronation of Charles X in France (1825). We would later see, or hear, much of this music in Rossini’s Comte Ory. Il Viaggio is a full-out romp, involving a cast of thousands, or—to be precise—eighteen. A motley group of travelers are stuck at the Golden Lily, a hotel in the spa town of Plombières; they’re trying to make their way to Charles’s coronation; they never get there. But they do a lot of singing, individually and in varying combinations. This opera is known for a quattordicimino—a piece for fourteen singers. Rossini undeniably knew craft.

City Opera performed Il Viaggio gaily and zestfully, with that large cast. I won’t bother to name or review many of the singers, or any of them—but I can say that, collectively, they were capable and appealing. They seemed to revel in what Rossini had given them to do. I happen to think that a little of this goes a long way, but Rossini-heads could listen to the music all night. They could have had the opera repeated, as soon as the curtain came down. James Robinson’s production was typical of City Opera productions: knowing, a little wacky, and fun.

And then what did the company do? They gave us Ariane et Barbe-bleue, by Dukas. Yes, Paul Dukas, the composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (along with several other skillful works, most of them forgotten). Ariane is the only opera Dukas ever completed; it employs a libretto by Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande. (Did anyone ever try to make an opera of that? I can’t remember.) Ariane may be a rarity today, but plenty of Dukas’s contemporaries thought highly of it, including his fellow composers: Berg was one; Fauré was another. You can see their point: Ariane et Barbe-bleue is the kind of opera you’d expect from the composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, being aware, tingling, and evocative. It may not be on the level of the Debussy opera—Pelléas et Mélisande—but it is worthy, and this is one of the things in which City Opera specializes: proffering the worthy but ignored.

In the key role of Ariane was an Austrian mezzo, Renate Behle, who was dark, severe, formidable. I thought something sweeter and more luminous might have been more appropriate, but Behle was at least in command of herself. And Dukas’s heroine is not a violet: She is almost a feminist warrior, and one of her best lines comes when her awful husband, Bluebeard, asks, “You too?” (meaning, “Are you yet another wife who disobeys my orders?”). Ariane answers, “I especially.”

The conductor was Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, president of Bard College, and all-around intellectual. He’s an explorer of the new, or, you might say, an unearther of the buried (much like City Opera). His cultural contributions to New York and the broader world continue to be somewhat undervalued. And City Opera’s production was another winner. Director Paul-Emile Fourny, a Belgian, was imaginative without getting in the way of the work itself. He keeps that up, they’ll boot him from the Directors Guild.

Return to orchestras—I have in mind, specifically, the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Sir Colin Davis. Sir Colin is dean of British conductors, a successor to Beecham, Barbirolli, and Boult (the Three Bs of British Conducting). He led the LSO in three concerts at Avery Fisher Hall, under the auspices of Great Performers at Lincoln Center. Indeed, this series kicked off the Great Performers season. Sir Colin—who merits the designation “great performer”—had just marked his seventy-eighth birthday.

He first conducted the Verdi Requiem, and this was a rather peculiar Requiem: Berliozian, I thought; highly Romantic; expansive and loose and indulgent. The quartet of vocal soloists was uneven, with Anne Schwanewilms a particularly odd choice for the soprano. This German lady is a lovely singer, for example, in such Strauss roles as the Countess. But she seemed unsuited to the Verdi Requiem—underpowered for it—and this was especially true in the great closer, the Libera me.

Much more impressive was the next concert, which was all-Sibelius. Sir Colin is a top exponent of Sibelius, just as he is a top exponent of Berlioz (and Mozart, and Handel, and … ). He helped put Sibelius on today’s map, really. Sir Colin recorded the complete symphonies twice, which couldn’t have hurt. For Great Performers, he conducted a program of Pohjola’s Daughter and Kullervo. The former is a tone poem; the latter has been described as a “vocal symphony”—a massive work for orchestra, men’s chorus, mezzo-soprano, and baritone. Both works derive from the ancient Finnish epic known as the Kalevala.

The LSO played splendidly on this evening, alert to Sir Colin’s commands, making beautiful sounds. Pohjola’s Daughter was a sonic thrill. It also put forward the myth, in a subtle, wise, unhistrionic way. So it was with Kullervo too: a sonic thrill, and a myth come to life (though not histrionically). Sibelius penned Kullervo when he was twenty-six, and he later withdrew it, thinking it unrepresentative of him: too nationalistic, too rough, too undisciplined. Maybe it is. But it is still Sibelius, and it reflects great creative power. Sir Colin has always loved the piece, and this was apparent in Avery Fisher Hall. The two Finnish soloists—Monica Groop and Raimo Laukka—were up to their jobs.

In the third of the LSO concerts, Sir Colin offered two British symphonies, and thank goodness for that. The British repertory—so rich and wonderful—gets very little hearing in New York, and throughout the world (apart from the Auld Sod). I know of one French music critic, very knowledgeable, who avowed recently that he had never heard a note of Vaughan Williams. How could that be? Not even The Lark Ascending? Not even.

Sir Colin programed Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 6, very different from his preceding symphonies, including the immediate predecessor, the great No. 5, with its last-movement passacaglia. The Symphony No. 6, in E minor, was started during the war—in 1944—and completed in 1947. It resembles the work of another “war” composer, Shostakovich: Much of the Sixth is bleak, tense, a little crazy. It gives the impression of being far-seeing, and of seeing things it would rather not. Sir Colin was in his element here, conveying everything this music has to say. As usual, he was as emotional or as passionate as necessary, but not without restraint. The LSO played sensationally for him: In each concert—starting with that loose Verdi Requiem—they got better.

And on the second half of the program, we heard Walton’s Symphony No. 1. What do we know of Walton? His Viola Concerto (and how grateful violists are!). His music for the movie Henry V, the one that Churchill asked Laurence Olivier to make. Maybe the dramatic cantata Belshazzar’s Feast. Otherwise, Walton makes shamefully few appearances. The Symphony No. 1 does not show him at his best, but it is an interesting, ingenious piece, and—as with the Vaughan Williams—Sir Colin and the LSO played it to the hilt. Much of this account was positively electric. Frankly, I had worried—when hearing the Verdi Requiem—that Sir Colin had become a little tired. Too autumnal for a conductor’s good. But, particularly in the all-English concert, that worry was smashed.

The audience screamed and screamed, as well they should have. But Sir Colin gave them no encore. I would have voted for Walton’s Orb and Sceptre march, written for the queen’s coronation. Gosh, I adore that thing! And you never hear it.

End with the Metropolitan Opera, whose season began with a gala composed of three acts: the first from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; the second from Puccini’s Tosca; and the third from Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah. Bryn Terfel was an explosive though Mozartean Figaro, and he was a killer Scarpia. Angela Gheorghiu did not deliver her best Tosca, but she did some effective singing (and of course looked amazing). The Samson was the Samson of our time, Plácido Domingo, all but undiminished in his mid-sixties. The common ingredient in all this was the conductor, James Levine, having an ultra-musical and energetic night. Absent was any hint of the sluggishness that has dogged him in recent seasons.

Also in the early going, the Met put on an Ariadne auf Naxos, featuring Violeta Urmana, the Lithuanian mezzo-turned-soprano, and Susan Graham, one of the world’s favorite mezzos (and rightly so). Each was first-rate. But the show was just about stolen by the soprano singing Zerbinetta, the German coloratura Diana Damrau, who caused such a stir with her recital in Salzburg last summer. The ovation following Zerbinetta’s main fireworks lasted about a minute and a half. That may not seem much on paper, but it feels like a lot in the opera house, especially while the opera is in progress—while the conductor is waiting to continue. The enthusiasm was deserved, too.

But the crown of the early season—and what may prove the crown in the season at large—was Levine’s Falstaff. I say Levine’s, despite the already-legendary Falstaff of Bryn Terfel and the excellence of the cast as a whole. Levine’s understanding of Verdi’s last opera is total, and his performance of it was overwhelming. He made you realize— if you had been unable to before—why so many musicians and musical authorities regard Falstaff as a supreme masterpiece. Critics are supposed to crab, but sometimes you’re just grateful to be in the house or hall. This was true for Levine’s Falstaff, and for Lorin Maazel’s Strauss, and for Colin Davis’s British symphonies. Life can be good.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 3, on page 46
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