The Metropolitan Opera has a way of hogging the news in this town—the news about music. All honor to the Met PR department! And the big news at the beginning of this season was the company’s new production of The Ring: more specifically, of Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner’s immortal four-parter. Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung will follow in due course. For more than twenty years—since 1987—the Met had a Ring production by Otto Schenk. Some critics scorned this as “traditional,” “literal,” and—unkindest cut of all—“conservative.” Others, including me, thought that it was a peak operatic-theatrical achievement. I put it this way: “Say you knew the score and libretto of The Ring and wondered, ‘What if a person could see it? What would it look like?’” In my view, it would look like the Schenk Ring: magical, marvel-filled, Wagnerian.

In any case, it’s gone now: Out with the old, in with the new, yadda yadda yadda. The new production is by Robert Lepage, a Quebecker associated with Cirque du Soleil, among other enterprises. He had had one production at the Met before: of Berlioz’s not-quite opera The Damnation of Faust. That was a spectacular, a bells-and-whistles job, awfully busy (and sometimes distracting, and detracting). I thought The Ring—or let’s stick with Das Rheingold, only—would be much the same. Furthermore, I thought I would have a very strong reaction to it: favorable or unfavorable. I did not expect the reaction I in fact had: which was more or less a shrug. “Yeah, it’s okay. Not so great, not so bad. That was what all the fuss was about?” And there had been fuss.

I do not object to this Rheingold on grounds of outrageousness—or on grounds of excess, directorial self-indulgence, or modernness. I object, to the extent I object, on grounds of . . . okayness. In my visit to the Met, I did not find this production very imaginative or engaging, much less transporting. Take Nibelheim: It ought to be, or it can be, eye-popping and horrifying (as it was in the Schenk production). Here, it is basically a nothingburger. They said that, when Babe Ruth struck out, he struck out gloriously. He looked great doing it. That’s the kind of thing I’m for: If you’re going to strike out, do it with a bang. A bang will beat a whimper most any day.

I will mention some features of the new Rheingold. As in The Damnation of Faust, people hang from a wall. I could see the wires clearly, which “let in daylight upon magic,” I’m afraid. I could also hear machinery squeak and groan: more “daylight.” The production is in some respects high-tech, but there are also hokey touches. The Rhine gold, glowing, looks like a Halloween decoration. The big old serpent and the toad—they’re fine, but they look like scenery out of a high-school show. When Fafner kills Fasolt, the sky turns red, for blood. Again, fine—respectable and certainly time-honored. But, in my eyes, it came off as one of those hokey touches.

Loge, the fire god, is interestingly costumed, and so are some other characters. Alberich is covered in dreadlocks; Wotan wears them too. Wotan’s hair covers half his face, obviously taking the place of an eyepatch, which we often see on this chief god. I kept wanting to bat that hair away from his eyes, or eye.

Here is one moment that really ought to be rethought: When Fafner kills Fasolt—back to this again—the latter’s body slides down a kind of ramp, into a pit below the stage (not the orchestra pit!). It’s like garbage going down the chute. On the night I attended, the audience laughed. And laughter is no good there—you really don’t want it. This ought to be a horrifying moment: when the evil power of the ring is demonstrated. Two seconds after the gigantic brothers get the ring, one is clubbing the other to death. It is not a time for laughter.

According to reports, the Met spent a fortune on this production—a fortune in troubled economic times—which raises the question, “Money well spent?” I don’t believe we have traded up—up from Schenk—or even sideways. But there are three more productions, three more Wagner installments, to come. Moreover, a production can grow on you, with repeated viewings. I will report—I have reported before—that I thought better of Lepage’s Damnation of Faust the second time I saw it. So let me stop picking on the Rheingold production and pick on some singers instead.

Bryn Terfel, the Welsh star, was Wotan, and he sang beautifully: He can hardly do otherwise. Also, he resisted the temptation, if any, to oversing: He is essentially lyric, and he stayed within limits. But he did not sound all that much like a Wotan. He lacked some godly authority. This had a curious benefit, however: In Terfel’s portrayal, Wotan seemed more like a selfish jerk than ever. And that he is, at least some of the time. Such singers as James Morris and Willard White are just too damned dignified, noble, and godly to be genuinely jerk-like. At the end of Das Rheingold—as at the end of Die Walküre, come to think of it—Wagner gives Wotan some magnificent music to sing. Sublime, grand, and uplifting music. Terfel did not quite bring this off (on the night I attended, I should say once more). He seemed somewhat out of juice. But he did something charming and cheering when he appeared for his bow: With a look that mixed exasperation and disdain—or so I imagined—he batted that hair out of the way.

Eric Owens made some handsome sounds as Alberich, but he was nothing like an Alberich: had almost none of that character’s signature qualities. Missing were crispness, gnarliness, twistedness. Richard Croft is one of my favorite singers, as longtime readers of this journal know: He is one of the creamiest lyric tenors of our time. I will never forget a “Where’er you walk” he sang (in a Washington, D.C., production of Semele, the Handel opera). As Loge, he sang as he usually does: beautifully, smoothly, seamlessly. But he was underpowered, and nothing like a Loge. For one thing, he lacked the “cunning,” as a friend of mine pointed out.

Stephanie Blythe was Fricka, the soul of reasonableness and censoriousness, in equal parts. Blythe does not quite have a Wagnerian glow, the Wagnerian warmth. But that’s a small complaint, as she has so many other things. Patricia Bardon, who sang Erda, was nothing like an Erda: She was almost completely without glow, and primordial power. But she sang earnestly and ably, using what she had. Wendy Bryn Harmer was first-rate as Freia. (In a way, there were two Bryns in this cast: Terfel and our Freia.) She showed a beautiful voice that cuts—cuts without being strident. A young singer, she may well make an excellent Brünnhilde one day (and we need them). Gerhard Siegel, our Mime, was the most impressive cast member of all: someone who truly understood, and embodied, his character.

A few days before the performance, someone said to me, “Are you looking forward to Rheingold?” She meant the production. I said, “I know what you mean, but I’m mainly looking forward to hearing Levine”—because the Met’s music director is a Wagnerian for the ages (and other things for the ages). On the night in question, he was not at his best. His conducting was totally solid: also rather boxy, square. It did not have the expected sweep, dynamism, or transcendence. But it always had intelligence: intelligence on every page. And we will take James Levine on a so-so night over other conductors on their very best. Besides, it was extra-heartening to see him: because he has been sidelined in recent times with back trouble. A significant chunk of musical life rides on that back, I’m afraid. Levine looked feeble and uncertain when he took the stage for his bows. Feebleness and uncertainty are alien to his conducting, however.

The star of the evening, of course, was Wagner, that old devil. Amazing how his music—in The Ring not least—never stales. I was not entirely approving of the production or singing, as you know. But when the final notes of Das Rheingold sounded, I was ready to move straight to Die Walküre, and from there to the other two, unto the Immolation Scene. I would have wanted the normal intermissions, of course. Though I write fliply, there’s a serious point here: The Ring is one work, not four. Wagner referred to Rheingold as a Vorabend, a fore-evening: a prelude.

The New York Philharmonic opened its season with a new work: by Wynton Marsalis, our national jazzman. Designated “Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3),” it is for a jazz orchestra and an orchestra orchestra, combined. And it is essentially a jazz piece: a jazz piece with some classical window dressing. And it is long, pleasant, harmless, tedious, unmemorable—a little dull. Marsalis is a masterly musician, but this is not a masterly creation. Moreover, it was not an appropriate work, in my opinion, to begin the New York Philharmonic season. The Philharmonic is a classical-music institution, and jazz has any number of venues. I’m a great respecter of the bottom line—of the need to put fannies in the seats. (Fannies? Bottom line?) I am also a great lover of jazz—always have been, from the cradle. But there is an art, classical music, to preserve, cultivate, and transmit. A critic friend remarked to me, “If the Phil. wants to make money, why don’t they turn Avery Fisher Hall into a mall and sell crap to tourists?” In related news, Carnegie Hall announced a new composer-in-residence: Brad Mehldau, a jazzman. Are our leading institutions casting votes of no confidence in classical music? Are they aching to be cool? I don’t mean to make too much of two bits of news. But are we waving the white flag, just a little?

I remind myself, I’m afraid, of a joke associated with Woody Allen. Two women are getting up from dinner out. “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” says one. The other says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.” I am forever complaining about the quality of the classical music composed today: and here I am complaining that jazz composers are taking over. This, I can say: If new pieces in Avery Fisher or Carnegie Hall are to stink, let them at least be classical stinkeroos.

After intermission on Opening Night, Alan Gilbert conducted the Philharmonic in two orchestral staples: Strauss’s Don Juan and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. Gilbert is entering his second year in this prestigious post, the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic. In the Strauss, he was perfectly adequate. He knows the score, and he did nothing outright wrong (although I think some tempos were unjustly slow). But the music was short on lilt, charm, rhapsody—all those things that make Don JuanDon Juan. Strauss writes in these thrilling little jolts; they were absent on this evening. And the Symphonic Metamorphosis is surefire: It can’t help firing up a crowd. But, on this occasion, the audience’s response was the definition of “tepid.” And I could not blame them. The Hindemith was correct, balanced, poised—and bland. It’s strange how an exciting piece can come off without excitement.

In both the Strauss and the Hindemith, Gilbert conducted like an A student at the conservatory. Such a smart fellow, he is. That is beyond doubt. He is careful, prepared, and competent. In addition, he seems a friendly, likable fellow. Sometimes, he bounds around the stage like a golden retriever. I keep saying that he is a hard musician to criticize. How often can you say, “It was all right, but it simply lacked élan”? “It was perfectly fine, but it did not plumb depths or scale heights”? Conducting, like music-making in general, is full of intangibles. Most of New York seems crazy about Gilbert, and the Philharmonic’s PR apparatus works at least as hard as the Met’s: You may get the impression that Alan Gilbert is the reincarnation of Nikisch, Mengelberg, and Reiner, all blended together. It’s natural to wish your hometown conductor well, and to want to think the best of him: For one thing, you have to hear him so often, if you’re going to attend orchestra concerts. I wish him well too. And I have heard him conduct superbly—I think, in particular, of a Beethoven Fourth. I also think of a phrase from politics: May he grow in office.

Carnegie Hall kicked off its season with four concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic—conducted by two different conductors, at different stages of their careers: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a veteran, and Gustavo Dudamel, a newcomer. Dudamel, not yet thirty, is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And, one night, he conducted the vpo—as we refer to the Vienna Phil. in English—in a most interesting concert: There was no soloist, and the pieces were short, or shortish—also light or lightish (and I don’t mean this denigratorily, at all). What we had was almost a pops concert. And pops concerts, really, are a vanishing species.

The evening began with Rossini’s Gazza ladra overture, and, man, did that snare drum begin with authority: You really sat up. As the overture got going, Dudamel and the vpo were nimble, quick, and flitting; impertinent, sly, and saucy. In other words, they were Rossini-like. And imagine an Italianate orchestra with a Vienna Phil. sound: That was the effect. Also, these guys were extremely accurate, which was another blessing: Imprecision kills Rossini, or at least does him injury. Dudamel’s main contribution was exuberance, his signature quality. When the overture was finished, I was ready to hear the entire opera (briefer than The Ring).

But the players presented a rarity: a work by Julián Orbón, a Spanish-born Cuban composer who lived from 1925 to 1991. Dudamel, in his short but busy and globetrotting career, has been an ambassador for Latin American music. (He himself is Venezuelan.) In Carnegie Hall, with the vpo, he conducted Orbón’s Tres versiones sinfónicas, from 1954. It is a skillful and enjoyable work, especially in its outer movements: The middle movement, unfortunately, is not quite kissed by inspiration. In all three, the orchestra played with commitment and style, giving no impression of slumming. In the last movement, Xylophone: Congo, the percussion section seemed right out of a Havana nightclub, circa 1948. It was a kick to see the vpo men jam. And how often does the xylophone come to the fore? Shostakovich makes merry, wacky use of it in The Age of Gold. Generally, however, the instrument is kept under wraps.

Next came a piece that Leonard Bernstein wrote for the centennial of his hometown orchestra, the Boston Symphony. That was in 1980. The piece is called Divertimento for Orchestra, and it is well named: There are eight short movements, including Sennets and Tuckets, Samba, and Turkey Trot, and they are all diverting. Bernstein simply has fun with music, as when he puts the oboe solo from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth in his Mazurka. The Vienna players had no problem catching and expressing the spirit of the thing. In the Blues movement, the trumpeter—probably from Graz or something—could not have been more American, wailing away. (Then again, the governor of California is from Graz.) The final movement, a march titled “The bso Forever,” taking off from The Stars and Stripes Forever, was an all-American joy.

The program closed with two eternal hits by Ravel, the Pavane for a Dead Princess and Boléro. Here, Dudamel fell down on the job. The Pavane began with a clunker from the horn, which did not set the right tone—and was of course not the conductor’s fault. But he was responsible for other things: such as tempo. Dudamel’s was far too slow, and, worse, the music did not move, even within the misjudged tempo. It was dead in the water. Do you know this quip? Ravel said, “Remember: It’s a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.” Dudamel had the orchestra playing preciously. At the same time, he had it playing too obviously: The piece was deprived of its mystery. The ending was slow to the point of maddening absurdity. And Boléro? Well, the snare drum returned—it is he who keeps the beat throughout the piece. But Dudamel imposed a strange interpretation. First, the music started so softly that it was inaudible: and if music is inaudible, it might as well not be there. Second, Dudamel made the piece loose, flaccid, wayward. The pulse does not have to be metronomic, but it should be firm. Dudamel was intent on caressing the phrases, and over-caressing them. This did Boléro no favors. But the individual players played beautifully. The flute, in particular, was a sinuous, shimmering treat.

There was an encore—a final short piece in an evening of shorties. This was the Pizzicato Polka, by two Strausses for the price of one: Johann Jr. and his brother Josef. From the Vienna strings (Vienna pluckers?) it was a slice of pizzicato heaven.

To end this chronicle, move uptown to the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. There, a ballet called Maa was presented. Its score was composed by Kaija Saariaho, a Finn almost sixty. She is one of the leading composers in the world: one of the most honored, one of the most commissioned. She composed her ballet—whose title means “Land” or “Earth”—in 1991. It had its premiere back then, and had not been performed since. In my view, the dancers on the Miller stage were wonderful. But I will leave that sort of criticism in more capable hands.

Saariaho’s score is for small ensemble and taped sounds. All of this is enhanced, if that’s the word, by “electronics,” as the composer says. It is one of those scores always described as “evocative and dreamlike.” Indeed, Miller Theatre PR used exactly those words. And when you hear them, watch out: They can be code for minimalist, numbing, and monotonous. Maa starts out with taped footsteps, or clip-clops, through the rain. And it continues that way, and continues that way. How much more of the same thing does one need to hear? Where is the composer’s sense of proportion? To my ears, Maa is thoroughly numbing and monotonous, and not truly musical, as I understand musicality. There are gradations as the work unfolds, to be sure: “subtle gradations.” But these are too subtle to dent the monotony, in my opinion.

Often, the music sounds like a soundtrack to a mystery, or to a horror movie. It expresses great unease. Occasionally it is New Agey, occasionally jungle-like—you know those spooky, startling sounds? Saariaho is following a logic, no doubt. And she is obviously making some big statement about the land or earth: true to the work’s title. She is going for something timeless, primordial. (Maybe she should call on Erda?) Our program notes said, “What Saariaho hears in the electronic studio is what people millennia ago heard in the wind.” That’s wonderful: How does she know?

Frankly—too frankly—I don’t see how a person can get away with foisting such monotony and stupefaction on an audience for something like an hour and a half. The dancing was something to look at, but could not compensate for music so stubbornly repetitive and, to me, uninteresting. And yet the audience seemed rapt: not merely asleep or stupefied but rapt. And they exploded in applause at the end. Did they mean it? Or did they just think they should have liked it? I often find myself in the position of seeing an emperor buck naked. Others see him arrayed in the finest robes. I don’t scorn these people so much as envy them. And I am willing to allow that it is my vision that needs to be checked.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 3, on page 51
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