Things have been peppy in the operatic field. The Met offered a new production of The Barber of Seville, fashioned by Bartlett Sher, a theater director. He is perhaps best known for The Light in the Piazza, a musical that stayed a long time at Lincoln Center. And how’s his Barber? A little quirky, a little annoying, but not without nice touches.

The main innovation concerns the stage: It wraps around the orchestra. You have the impression of looking at singers on runways, as in a Christian Dior show. The idea is that these singers are in closer touch with the audience. Maurizio Benini, conductor of these performances, wrote in a program note that Sher’s production puts singers “in direct contact with the public.”

Yes, but what good opera performers have ever been out of direct contact with the public? And what poor ones have ever been able to make it? A real opera performer can achieve direct contact from the parking lot behind the theater; a mediocre one has trouble when he’s sitting in your lap.

Recurring in Sher’s production are oranges—they are growing on trees, being fondled by various characters, and so on. We know what oranges mean in The Godfather: death. But what about here? Your guess is as good as mine. Modern directors like their own private devices and gimmicks. I might mention, too, that Sher takes care to include a little girl-on-girl action—you know, just so you can be certain that this is not your father’s Met, that (allegedly) stuffy old house. The Europeanization of the Met may well be underway. Thus will the dream of many critics and administrators be fulfilled.

Most troubling about Sher’s Barber is that it is rather small-scale, itty-bitty. People onstage actually move a series of doors around, as you might in a college production. Readers have already heard me complain that Anthony Minghella told The New York Times, “I don’t want to produce ‘grand opera,’ but the opposite.” This was before the “New Met” staged his production of Madama Butterfly, on opening night of this season. Elsewhere, general manager Peter Gelb has said that Minghella’s designers “created an organic set that was simpler and more effective than some Met productions in which every inch of the proscenium has been filled with scenery.”

That may be true: but the “New Met” must not lightly squander its franchise. “The opposite of grand opera” can be produced in any of the eight million houses around the globe. Let the small-minded directors play in them. Shouldn’t there be one house—one left standing—for grand opera?

You may ask whether there was any singing in The Barber, Rossini’s masterpiece. There was indeed—and it was led by Diana Damrau (Rosina) and Juan Diego Flórez (Almaviva). Damrau is a soprano, and some people prefer their Rosina to be a mezzo. But it would be hard to object to the delicious and dazzling Diana. She was hammy in the role, but the role can stand a lot of ham, and Damrau is never vulgar. As for Flórez, he’s known as the king of Rossini tenors, for good reason. He ate his part up, not just vocally, but theatrically, too.

Other singers were satisfying: Peter Mattei as Figaro, John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo, Samuel Ramey as Don Basilio. But I would like to spend a moment on a non-singer, Rob Besserer. He was the actor who played Ambrogio, Bartolo’s gaga valet. Besserer did not utter a word. But he was riveting. And, though riveting, he did not upstage the characters around him (as he easily could have). He was a scene-enhancer rather than -stealer—very deft, and shrewd.

Don Carlo, too, returned to the Met, but in an old production: John Dexter’s from 1979. By the way, I’ve been wondering: Such productions are said to “hold up,” or not. But what does it mean for a production to “hold up”? Do we mean that it’s good? And if a production is good, does it really expire—go sour, like milk?

Onstage for Verdi’s opera was an excellent cast, one that some spoke of as a “dream cast.” It had Olga Borodina as Eboli; Johan Botha as Carlo; Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo; René Pape as Philip; and Sam Ramey as the Grand Inquisitor. Yes, the gang was all there. But you never know with these “dream casts”: Sometimes they fizzle, and you’re better off with a humbler-seeming crew. On the night I attended Don Carlo, however, the entire, starry cast delivered—and so did the most important performer of all: the conductor. James Levine led the opera with keenness, tautness, and maximum drama.

I have not yet mentioned the Elisabetta in this cast, and that is for a particular reason. You would have expected Borodina to be awe-inspiring as Eboli, and Pape to be the same as Philip. Also, Hvorostovsky is surely the smoothest Rodrigo around. But our Elisabetta, Patricia Racette, came amazingly close to stealing the show. Her soprano is the right weight for the role—lyrical yet substantial and cutting—and her technique is reliable. “Tu che le vanità” was a Verdian tour de force.

From one and all, there was a ton of good singing on that stage. And is that not what opera is primarily for? Good singing? Another great night of this current season was the first night of La Gioconda, Ponchielli’s grand opera. The production was very unlike what had been seen the night before: namely, that Anthony Minghella Butterfly. The production was “traditional”—dread word—conceived by Margherita Wallman in 1966. I’ll tell you how backward this production is: La Gioconda is set in seventeenth-century Venice; and so is the production. Can you imagine the nerve? At intermission, I asked a fellow critic whether he was enjoying himself. He rolled his eyes and said, “It’s a lot different from last night.” It certainly was.

The main difference was the singing: Butterfly’s stank, and Gioconda’s was fantastic. The cast was stocked with superb singers, especially the women: Violeta Urmana, Borodina, and Irina Mishura. They put on a clinic of operatic and vocal art. Sure, they and others did a lot of standing and singing—and that is one of the most damning phrases in our vocabulary: “stand and sing.” It is what the “New Met” has announced it exists to oppose. And I’ll quote another critic, the great Martin Bernheimer. After the opening Gioconda, he wrote, “During much of the evening, soloists and chorus lined up for a fancy concert in quaint costumes. To express excitement, they raised one arm. To express passion, they raised two.”

Very funny, as Martin always is (and perceptive). But I say, “Big deal.” This is opera we’re at, not the theater. And if ever singing takes a backseat to theater, we might as well turn off the opera-house lights. Madama Butterfly featured a wonderful little actress from South America, who flitted and pranced about. Unfortunately, Cio-Cio San is a singing role. Give me a big mama who will plant her feet and sing, well. And let Mia Farrow do her own, delicate, gamine thing.

One final word, while I’m picking on the “New Met”: They have taken to stringing banners across the façade of the opera house. The banners advertise current productions—ones that management considers “hot,” I gather. The Met’s is one of the most beautiful façades in New York, and it is certainly the most attractive element of Lincoln Center. One sees those Chagalls, hanging on either side. Or at least one did—now they’re obscured by the banners. I regard this as almost an act of civic vandalism. Of course, the Chagalls, like the Gioconda production, are from the mid-1960s. How “Old Met” can you get?

Escape the realm of opera, now, for some chamber music. The Miró Quartet came to Alice Tully Hall, to play under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. They were formed in 1995, at a little citadel of music education: Oberlin College. And they were named, as you might guess, after the artist. Why, I can’t say.

What I can say, with perfect assurance, is that they played a splendid concert at Alice Tully. Three composers were on the program: Arriaga, Shostakovich, and Dvořák. Never heard of that first composer? Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga had a pathetically brief life, from 1806 to 1826. He was shy of his twentieth birthday when he died. Born in Spain, he studied in Paris, eventually becoming known as “the Spanish Mozart.” His String Quartet No. 3 is an excellent work, full of musicality and poise. One can imagine what he might have done with more time. Think how we weep over Mozart’s thirty-five years! (And, maybe worse, Schubert’s thirty-one.)

The Miró played the Arriaga neatly and convincingly. They were equally good in the two other works: Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 14 in F sharp, and Dvořák’s String Quartet in A flat, Op. 105. The players showed many virtues, but I would single out their unity: They attacked together, they breathed together, they did everything together. You know the cliché “They played as one”? The Miró unquestionably did. All in all, you can go a long time without hearing string-quartet playing so accomplished.

As it happens, I said that in last month’s New Criterion: about another young quartet appearing with the Chamber Music Society—the Daedalus. This brings up the point that we are swimming in high-caliber string quartets, and that chamber music in general is booming. But don’t tell the Death of Classical Music crowd. Such knowledge wounds them grievously.

One did not have to wait long to hear the Miró Quartet play again: for they played two nights after their Alice Tully appearance, in the Met Museum. Same program? No. And not quite the same ensemble, either. They were joined by Eliot Fisk, an American guitarist. It was he who began the program, all by himself, with a group of Spanish pieces. Every guitarist, of course, is a Spaniard, no matter where he’s from. It’s in the nature of the repertoire. In fact, Fisk was awarded the Cruz de Isabel la Católica by the Spanish king.

Allow me to tell you a quick story. Several years ago, I was interviewing Christopher Parkening, another American guitarist. He said, “I love all the great composers, of course, but for me, there’s one who towers above all the others. And that composer is, of course …” And I broke in, saying, “Rodrigo.” Parkening laughed and laughed. He was going to say Bach. (Rodrigo, I should remind you, is the composer of the world’s favorite guitar concerto, the Concierto de Aranjuez.) I’m sorry to be the quipping hero of my own story, but I thought it worth telling anyway.

Eliot Fisk played his Spanish pieces with nimbleness, subtlety, and command. He was admirably modest, eschewing flash for its own sake. Guitar players often sound like they’re playing to themselves rather than to others—and that was Fisk.

The Miró Quartet joined him onstage for a piece by Leonardo Balada, born in 1933 in Spain. He came to the United States as a young man and has long taught at Carnegie Mellon. This piece is called Caprichos No. 1, “An Homage to Federico García Lorca.” Yeah, what isn’t? (Readers may remember my comments on a ghastly opera about García Lorca.) Balada’s work is in seven sections, or movements, and treats Spanish folk melodies with modern compositional techniques. It would be hard for any listener to embrace all the movements, and one endures some heavy modernist sledding. But the work, on the whole, is interesting. And the Miró plus Fisk played it with finesse and gusto.

They then finished their program with something completely different: a quintet by Boccherini, in D major. What a weird transition! You had the feeling of being ushered into a cool, classical garden, with perfectly trimmed hedges. Add to that the fact that the first movement is marked Pastorale. The last movement is a fandango, in which our five players really let loose. It was fun to hear the cellist tap his instrument, in imitation of castanets (or something). And you got the impression that Boccherini very much enjoyed popular music, and a good time.

Return to the vocal world, for a concert at the Morgan Library. It has a new performance hall—bright, steeply banked, and handsome. In truth, this was a concert preceded by a reception and a kind of press conference. What was the big occasion? The Salzburg Festival was performing an American rollout of its program for 2007.

And, as artistic director Jürgen Flimm explained, this program has a theme: “The Nocturnal Side of Reason.” Operas to be staged next summer include Haydn’s Armida, Weber’s Freischütz, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. As you know, music administrators have to have themes and notions, so as to feel all musicological, if not intellectual. A good assortment of music for its own sake is just too plebe. I rather like the lineup of operas that Flimm & Co. have in store for us. If they want to say it represents “the nocturnal side of reason,” fine with me. Whatever floats their boat.

The concert presented five singers, all associated with the Salzburg Festival, and with next season. First to appear was Dorothea Röschmann, first lady of Mozart sopranos. And she did, indeed, sing Mozart: “Abendempfindung,” sometimes called “the first lied.” (The first lady in the first lied?) Röschmann was not in her best shape, either vocal or mental. Her singing was somewhat labored, and her intonation was off. Also, she indulged in more freedom than is good for this song. But Röschmann could never utterly fail.

Next out of the wings was Markus Werba, the Austrian baritone who makes a winning Papageno. Any relation to Erik Werba? you ask. (He was the famed accompanist to the mid-century lieder stars.) Sure: Markus is his great-nephew. And the young man did, indeed, sing Papageno’s aria—“Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”—but first he sang two songs of Schubert: “Liebesbotschaft” and “Taubenpost,” both from Schwanengesang. He gave the first song an easy flow, and he was just as natural in the second. His diction is outstanding. And he is an exceptionally personable guy, whether covered in Papageno’s feathers or not.

Following him was another exceptional personality: the aforementioned Diana Damrau. She is perhaps the leading coloratura soprano in the world right now (with apologies to Natalie Dessay and a few others). She has established herself as Zerbinetta, the Queen of the Night, Rosina. But she sang two songs quite far from that rep, both by Strauss. (Now you can start humming the Gershwins’ “By Strauss.”) They were “Die Nacht” and “Zueignung.” In the first, Damrau did not convey the sublimity that we might desire. And in the second, she sounded thin—thin of tone. Plus, she got a little cute with the music, which might more or less sing itself. But it was interesting to note that her high A sounded smack in the middle of her voice! D. D. has many, many notes above that one.

Peter Mattei appeared, doing what Diana Damrau was doing: taking a night off from the Met’s Barber. His is a big, confident voice, and he didn’t really scale it down in this recital atmosphere. Good for him. Big voices ought to be unapologetic in recital halls, which is to say, they ought to be themselves. I once heard Violeta Urmana peel the gold paint off the Mozarteum—and she was perfectly musical. Mattei was musical, too, in a group of songs from his native Sweden. He sort of warmed you up—filled you up—with that big, glowing sound.

Ever heard of Anna Samuil? If you have not so far, chances are you will in the future. (Then again, you just have.) She is a Russian soprano—another of them—and she sang three songs of Tchaikovsky. Her sound is a little steely, a little dark, a little cold, but not unpleasantly. In short, her sound is Russian. Don’t ask me to explain why there are national characteristics in voices; I simply report the incontestable fact that it’s so. Best about Samuil is that she showed a fierce musical concentration. And she was not afraid to be unpretty; she was more interested in communicating the song than in showing off a voice. Even in a brief set, you could tell she is a gutsy singer.

Toward the end of the evening, Damrau returned for “Giunse alfin il momento” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The music suffered from a certain lack of purity, but this soprano is impossible to dislike. She is one of those whom you smile along with, and cheer, regardless. Then Damrau and Röschmann closed the concert with a duet, also from The Marriage of Figaro. Not often do you hear two soprano voices entwine in the air; and when they are good—as these were, and are—the effect is wonderful.

Honoring an old tradition, I will mention the accompanist in the last sentence, saying that he was Bradley Moore, and that he acquitted himself notably well across a range of repertoire, and a range of soloists.

End, now, in the orchestra hall—at Carnegie Hall, where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra came in, led by Pierre Boulez. The octogenarian French maestro is conductor emeritus of the CSO, and Bernard Haitink, the nearly octogenarian Dutchman, is its “principal conductor.” The orchestra has no music director at the moment; it is making do with this eminent pair.

The first of Boulez’s two concerts consisted of a single work: Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, nostalgia-soaked and immortal. Boulez has a reputation as a great Mahlerian, and it is not unearned. With the Chicagoans, he was insightful and moving, while drawing little attention to himself. He had no desire to place an egotistical stamp on the symphony. In fact, you could pretty much forget the performance and commune with Mahler—remember along with him. All was well until the last movement, that celebratory thing in C major. It was a serious letdown. Boulez allowed it to be stiff and uninspired, without exuberance or exhilaration. But, in the main, this was a happy experience of the Seventh Symphony.

As we were leaving, a fellow critic said that the CSO should forget searching for a music director and just keep those two senior conductors for as long as possible. I thought of a bumper sticker that appeared in the 1996 presidential campaign: HELMS-THURMOND: DON’T LET 200 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE GO TO WASTE. Somehow, I’m not sure any of the other critics thought of that.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 5, on page 59
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