This season, the Metropolitan Opera again turned to Cav and Pag, which is to say, to Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, that stellar double bill. Neither Mascagni nor Leoncavallo ever had another big success, but they each had one more than most people ever have. Any composer (with sense) would be proud to claim either of these works. Together, they should provide a boffo night of verismo.

Such was the case at the Metropolitan. In the pit was Dennis Russell Davies, which may come as news, because he is very closely associated with contemporary music. He is, indeed, a co-founder of the American Composers Orchestra, and he has devoted much of his career to the new. Today his main gigs are in Stuttgart and Linz, and he spends a lot of time with standard fare. He’s good at it, too.

He showed a fine understanding of both Cav and Pag. The opening of the former was beautiful, like the petals of a flower, unfolding. Later, the famous Intermezzo would be much the same. That wonderful orchestral interlude is best simple and unaffected, and this is what Davies allowed it to be. In the course of Cavalleria Rusticana, the orchestra broke down badly a couple of times, but mainly it stayed on track, as it did during I Pagliacci.

These productions come courtesy of Franco Zeffirelli, and they are two of his most enduring. (Frankly, all Zeffirelli productions endure.) Few people create Italy onstage as well as Zeffirelli, and, in Cav, if you sit close enough, you feel that you are actually in a Sicilian village. Colors amaze and gladden you, and you can practically smell the garlic hanging from the vendor’s cart. Pag’s look is open, foreboding, wild—like the opera itself. Audiences tend to like Zeffirelli productions, and critics not. Here, the audiences are right, I believe.

Singing Santuzza in Cav was Violeta Urmana, the great Lithuanian soprano—or should I say mezzo-soprano, or what? We first knew her as a mezzo (as the leading Kundry in the world, for example). But she has become a soprano—although she still sings mezzo roles, perhaps because she contracted for them before she made the switch. For example, during the same period in which she sang Santuzza (a soprano role), she sang Eboli, in Verdi’s Don Carlo, also at the Met. (Eboli is a classic mezzo role.) Perhaps it is enough to say that Urmana is a singer.

Soprano or mezzo, she has a big, stunning voice, and, frankly, she had almost too much voice for Santuzza. And she was more strident, harsher, than I had ever heard her before. Still, she did some impressive singing—she can’t help it—and her high B at the end of the Easter Hymn raised the roof. In the aria “Voi lo sapete,” she could have used more bite—more of a Callas bite (and, oh, how many of us associate this role with Callas, if only via recordings). Affectionate, tender phrases were not quite as affectionate and tender as they might have been. This was a powerhouse Santuzza. But Urmana was more adaptable, and more convincing, by the end.

The tenor—in the role of Turiddu—was Eduardo Villa, a Californian, who initially was effortful and flat. He, too, grew better. He is powerful and bull-like, but he can sing beautifully, as well as forcefully. Lola was Sandra Piques Eddy, who had the spirit of her character—not nice—and a smokingly Italianate sound. That sound could turn velvety, as well. Alfio was Frederick Burchinal, a Kansan, who first sang at the Met in 1974. What he lacked in voice, he made up for in virility, in sheer operatic testosterone. Finally, Jane Bunnell sang Mamma Lucia, formidably, as could have been expected.

Allow me to insert a small note, about the audience: When Turiddu began his great aria—“Mamma, quel vino”—they laughed. This is one of the most poignant, most heartrending moments in all of opera, as the character wishes to speak to his mother one last time, before going to a duel that will probably result in his death. The audience was simply amused at the idea of a man’s calling out for his mom. Similarly, some weeks later, an audience at Carnegie Hall laughed inappropriately during a concert performance of Mignon. The title character, in reference to Philine, her rival, spits, “Je la hais” (“I hate her”). This, too, is a deadly serious moment—and the audience found it funny. On another evening, patrons at Carnegie Hall clapped after each song of Mussorgsky’s Death cycle, as Dmitri Hvorostovsky was singing it.

You may wish to remember these incidents the next time someone insists to you how sophisticated the New York audience is.

In I Pagliacci, Tonio was portrayed by Juan Pons, the veteran Spanish baritone. He is one of the best Tonios we have (as well as one of our best Rigolettos). He gave the kind of performance associated with a wily pro. And one of our best sopranos is Patricia Racette, who was Nedda. The voice was characterful, liquid, sometimes touching; the technique was superb. Racette is essentially lyric, but she can summon surprising power. She dispatched Nedda’s aria—yet another that belonged to Callas—with ease and skill.

In the role of Silvano was Mariusz Kwiecien, a Polish baritone who is a favorite of the music director, James Levine. He was both clean and virile, which is a nice combination. And the tenor Tony Stevenson made a fine Beppe.

How about Canio, the clown who sings that stereotypical verismo aria, “Vesti la giubba”? He was John Mac Master, a Canadian tenor, not young, but making his Met debut. It was an impressive performance. He sang that stereotypical aria with dignity and savvy—without the bitter laughs, for example—making it seem new and moving all over again. He was exceptionally assured, both musically and dramatically. In fact, he portrayed the hell out of the role.

When the singers took their first bow, all in a row, Stevenson patted the tenor on the arm, as if to say, “Yes, nice going—you were an excellent Canio, in your Met debut.” It was true.

Kent Nagano guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic in a program of Bach and Messiaen. This was part of a Philharmonic series called “Visions of the Beyond.” Bach took the first half of the program, represented in three works: two entries from his Art of the Fugue, and, in between them, his Concerto in D minor for Oboe, Violin, and Strings.

The Art of the Fugue entries were orchestrated in 2002 by the Japanese composer Ichiro Nodaira (and premiered by Nagano, in Berlin). Nodaira uses eleven players in Contrapunctus I, and fifteen in the Fugue with Three Subjects (a fragment). The Art of the Fugue has been heard in many guises—the string quartet, for example—and all of them are legitimate, more or less. Nodaira’s orchestration has the effect of making the pieces sound busier than they normally are. And they were sloppily rendered by Nagano and the Philharmonic —unpersuasively rendered, too (sloppiness aside).

Better was the concerto, thanks to the soloists, Sherry Sylar, oboe, and Sheryl Staples, violin. (Both women are members of the Philharmonic.) Sylar is a wonderful player, as she demonstrated at a Philharmonic chamber concert, held at the 92nd Street Y, shortly before this Bach-Messiaen evening. She makes a beautiful sound, has plenty of technique, and carries a fine musical head. In the slow movement of the concerto, she was gratifying in her long-breathed elegance. As for Sheryl Staples, she is solid, workmanlike—but far from a drone. There is an integrity about her music-making.

Unfortunately, the orchestra behind the soloists was not always coordinated, or helpful. Nevertheless, it was a joy—to me—to hear Bach on modern instruments, after so much “authentic” scratching and hooting.

Before moving on from these Bach works, I should say something about how the Fugue with Three Subjects—the fragment—ended. As indicated by the word “fragment,” Bach did not finish this piece, and Nagano left off where he did (without a fabricated ending). He held his hands in the air forever, and made his players stay frozen in place. He was apparently going for something profound, or merely cool. Look, it’s one thing if Toscanini does this, conducting the premiere of Puccini’s Turandot: “And here is where the maestro laid down his pen …” But Kent Nagano, with Bach, during a New York Philharmonic subscription concert in 2005? I don’t think so.

After intermission came one of Messiaen’s most admired works, Eclairs sur l’au-delà … (Illuminations of the Beyond …), an hour-long effort that incorporates what seem all of Messiaen’s interests: religion, brass choirs, percussion, bird song—astronomy. Nagano has long been a proponent of Messiaen, and he conducts with authority. But he was often deliberate and calculated, when more naturalness would have helped. The Philharmonic played well, especially the woodwinds. They have a lot to do in this work, too, for—in music—birds mean woodwinds.

City Opera is the home of Handel, or at least the American home of Handel, and it served up Orlando, not the composer’s best work, but not his least, either. What do you know from Orlando? Perhaps the florid, feisty “Fammi combattere,” or the affecting “Vaghe pupille.” City Opera staged a fun, vivid, slightly wacky production of Orlando, in the spirit of City Opera productions—particularly its Baroque ones. Orlando saw a little redheaded Cupid, wandering all over the place and firing arrows at people.

In the title role was a countertenor, Bejun Mehta (indeed a relation of the conductor, and of Zarin Mehta, Zubin’s brother, the president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic). Mehta’s singing was clear and composed, despite inevitable imperfections. His “Fammi combattere” was the showcase it should be, complete with fancy interpolations, neatly executed. The bass-baritone David Pittsinger, portraying Zoroastro, was suave, lyrical, and reso-nant—a pleasure it is, to hear a non-gruff low male voice (particularly in Handel). The festivities included two sopranos, Jennifer Alymer, as Dorinda, and Amy Burton, as Angelica. The former was pleasant, saucy, accurate, alive—both in her singing and in her acting. The latter was elegant in her bearing, but slightly less elegant in her singing, which could be hard-edged. That was better than any mousiness, however.

Presiding in the pit was Antony Walker, whose tempos were sprightly, and whose orchestra was flawed, but also willing and respectable.

City Opera also launched a relative rarity, or, better said, one of the less frequently performed operas of Puccini: La Fanciulla del West, or The Girl of the Golden West. (When Italians say “West,” they can only mean the American West—cowboys, cacti, and all that.) Many of us love this opera, for its well-known arias—“Laggiù nel Soledad” (soprano), “Ch’ella mi creda” (tenor)—and for its soaring love duet, swiped by Andrew Lloyd-Webber for his Phantom of the Opera (intelligently swiped, too). In fact, every page of this opera holds interest. If you will give in to it, it will reward you. And if you resist it—it will overcome you, anyway.

The company gave a good account of La Fanciulla, both in the pit and on the stage, as the conductor George Manahan afforded the opera its sweep, beauty, and verve. This is Puccini with his hair down—more down than usual—and the City Opera forces had their hair down, too. They combined a certain American roughness with Italian sensuousness. Singers tended to be young—or youthful—and gifted. The soprano role, Minnie, is a notorious voice-wrecker, but Stephanie Friede stayed unwrecked, although she had some worrisome moments: Her soft singing was much easier than her loud; she did some lunging and straining. The tenor role of Dick Johnson was taken by Renzo Zulian, who was eager and appealing. Stephen Kechulius brought a lustrous baritone and a sort of heroic villainy to the part of Jack Rance. Brian Mulligan sang beautifully as Jake Wallace, which was good, because that is his job (Jake is a minstrel). And the men’s chorus—that’s what La Fanciulla has—was gorgeous.

City Opera performed a real service in staging this work, and I stress that all involved seemed to be enjoying themselves, as the story and music unfolded: This enjoyment was communicated to the audience. La Fanciulla del West may be high Broadway, but that’s not very low.

At Carnegie Hall, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under its principal conductor, Donald Runnicles, presented a program it called “Postcard from Prague.” That meant that the orchestra played music of Janáček and Martinů, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, nicknamed the “Prague.” Also included that evening was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503, one of the best of the late Mozart concertos, although that is a ridiculous statement, because when it comes to late Mozart concertos—every man is a king.

The soloist was Ivan Moravec, now in his mid-seventies, and one of the best pianists in the world: one of the most intelligent, and most tasteful, and most capable. He earns the description “a pianist’s pianist,” exemplifying his craft. His account of the C-major concerto revealed his qualities: solidity, modesty, perceptiveness, purity, fidelity, a musical honesty. There is no showiness or artifice in him. He agrees to be a servant of music. His fingers betrayed a little sluggishness—in some turns, for example—but not more than a little.

Most memorable was his rendering of the Andante: It was aristocratic, graceful, perfect. The same cannot be said of the orchestra, which was awful—as clumsy as it was loud. Orchestra and pianist were totally mismatched. Moravec was an aristocrat amid barbarians.

The hall was half empty, which was a pity, for so admirable a pianist. The night before, it had been full—full to overflowing, for patrons occupied part of the stage. The pianist that night was Martha Argerich, in duo recital (with her friend Nelson Freire). The Carnegie Hall audience screamed and screamed for every vulgar display (and for simple mediocrity as well). There was no screaming for Moravec, only polite applause. That was a real test of public taste.

As for Donald Runnicles, he, in these same weeks, conducted Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, and did so honorably. Strange that he was on American soil, however. Last summer, in the middle of the U.S. presidential election, Runnicles—a Scot—told the Austrian press that if the Americans reelected Bush, he would quit the country. (Runnicles holds posts in San Francisco and Atlanta, as well as in New York.) Why? Because one election of Bush could be an accident, but two would mean they really meant it. Well—they meant it. And Runnicles is still here. Evidently, politicians aren’t the only ones who break campaign promises.

On a Friday evening and a late Sunday afternoon, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center did something unusual: It offered two all-Schubert concerts, the first halves of which were song recitals, the second halves of which purveyed a piano trio. In the first concert, the singer and pianist were Nathan and Julie Gunn, husband and wife; in the second concert, the singer and pianist were Heidi Grant Murphy and Kevin Murphy, wife and husband. This was a smile-making arrangement.

Nathan Gunn, a gifted baritone, had a subpar outing, flat in both pitch and feeling. Heidi Grant Murphy, on the other hand—along with her pianistic collaborator—had a superb outing. She is one of the supreme singers in the world, but you would not necessarily peg her as a Schubert singer, as she is a high, light soprano: an excellent Sophie (in Rosenkavalier), for example, and an excellent Constance (The Dialogues of the Carmelites). But her handling of Schubert was exquisite, in every way.

Technically, she is a marvel, with dead-center intonation, and super-clean onsets. She seems to be able to make the note do whatever she wishes. And although she sang her ten Schubert songs with respect and care, there wasn’t a moment of dullness, or ordinariness. She sang, for example, probably the most beautiful and transporting “Du bist die Ruh” I have heard (and one hears a few, believe me). Kevin Murphy supported her ably, but more than that: actually enhanced the experience, which is hard to do, with that soprano.

A concert—or half-concert—to remember.

Last, turn to a famous orchestra and conductor, in a famous hall: Valery Gergiev brought the Kirov to Carnegie for a three-night stand, culminating in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection.” I was not able to attend either of the first two concerts, but a fellow critic had, and he warned me, “Bring your buckets, for the Mahler: He’s milking everything.”

Gergiev is indeed a milker, and sometimes he is a convincing one. His reading of the Second was one of the weirdest you’ll ever hear, which is not entirely wrong, for the Second is a weird symphony—even by Mahlerian standards. He did not write conventionally, this composer. Most successful of all the movements was the first, which Gergiev turned Russian: That sound was raw, and the music growled like a bear. Weird though he was, Gergiev was exciting in this movement, and elemental. That is a word I keep applying to him: elemental. Even if you object to what he is doing, an electricity, or animality, is undeniable. Furthermore, Gergiev is a big-picture man, and demands to be judged that way. A thousand things were wrong with Mahler’s first movement; but that hardly matters, against what Gergiev is accomplishing overall.

The performance took a turn for the less excusable with the second movement, the Andante moderato: It was heavy and cloddish. The third movement was also problematic, mainly in its crudity, and exaggeration. But the mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina was on hand for the fourth movement, the Urlicht, and she sang it sublimely. She is one of the great religious singers, as well as one of the great singers in general: Her forays into Russian church music are some of her most satisfying. I actually had the thought—almost the clichéd thought—that I was lucky to be hearing Borodina sing the Urlicht, as she was singing it.

We were less lucky to hear Gergiev in the final sections of the symphony. For all his wizardry—his mad musicianship—he was oblivious to what Mahler is achieving here. Gergiev is unsurpassed at bringing out the animality in music; he has more trouble bringing out the spirituality. There was nothing transcendent about Mahler’s conclusion—no ecstasy, no wonder, no fulfillment. No resurrection, or triumph over earth, you might say. The music stayed stubbornly temporal—and this is not to mention the most glaring, amateurish mistakes (in matters of execution).

We have said that Gergiev is a big-picture man. But here the picture should have been ineffably bigger.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 9, on page 51
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