Elektra, the stunning 1909 work by Richard Strauss, was revived by the Metropolitan Opera. A friend of mine, who is a singer and critic, attended the first night. He began his report to me, “Debbie’s back.” What did he mean? He meant that Deborah Voigt, the famed American soprano who portrayed Chrysothemis, had an excellent, heartening night. Voigt has been suffering some serious vocal difficulties in recent years. My friend reported that she was pretty much her old self, and that she knew it, relishing the evening. I wondered whether she would be in similarly good shape when I attended Elektra, some nights later. She was, I’m happy to say. She sounded almost like the Voigt of old, delivering her lines with that powerful, lush voice and a solid technique. Did you hear Voigt’s Chrysothemis in the 1990s? If so, you have probably never heard better. And her Chrysothemis at the end of 2009 was more than respectable.
The key player in Elektra, of course, is the conductor, and James Levine, the Met’s music director, was not on hand to do the conducting. He is one of the most successful Elektra conductors ever. But he cannot be in the pit every night. Doing the honors was Fabio Luisi, a fine conductor, as he has proven many times, including at the Met. But he had an odd, perplexing night when I was in attendance. Elektra is a tense, bristling, throttling, exhausting opera (while it includes many moments of tenderness). When it is over, you should feel you have been through some horrific battle. In Luisi’s hands, however, the opera was strangely tame: slow, lulling, flat. It did not feel like Elektra at all. It had something in common with, oh, Le Rossignol. If I may borrow from Mark Twain, the real Elektra is lightning; this was more like a lightning bug.
There was too little energy in the executive. There was too little sense of the arc of the work. Climaxes seemed hardly climaxes at all. Think of the moment when Aegisth returns to the palace, to be butchered by the avenging Orest. Strauss writes some comical, bumbling music to relieve the horrible tension. (What a genius, Strauss.) But this music had no effect, because there had been no tension.
The British soprano Susan Bullock was Elektra, and she has made something of a specialty of this role. Before the curtain rose, an announcement was made for her: She was suffering from a cold. It showed, but she gained her freedom by the time the opera finished. She was a creditable Elektra, but it would be better to judge her when the pit has a better night. Felicity Palmer, the British mezzo, was Klytämnestra. She has been first-rate—sometimes overwhelming—in several roles at the Met. I think in particular of her First Prioress (The Dialogues of the Carmelites): staggering. She did well by Klytämnestra too. By the way, it may be of some interest that I have never seen or heard a bad Klytämnestra—ever. I believe that no one wants to do this part unless she is really eager for it, and suited to it.
I will remind you what Strauss said when U.S. soldiers arrived at his door at the end of the war: “I am Doktor Richard Strauss, composer of Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.” Great as those works are, I am quite sure I would have mentioned Elektra.
Can you stand a little Christmas, right this very minute? I realize we are in the month of Groundhog Day, and Valentine’s Day, and Presidents Day, and twenty-eight days. (Sometimes twenty-nine days, for leap year. Do you know what composer was born on February 29? Rossini.) But Handel’s Messiah is not just for Christmas, or Easter. It is for every season, every day, if you like. The New York Philharmonic offered its annual Messiah, this time under the baton of Helmuth Rilling, the veteran German maestro who has made a specialty of Baroque music. The Philharmonic was itty-bitty for Messiah. And it played in something like “period” style, eschewing such temptations as vibrato. The chorus was an import, the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, founded by Rilling in 1954. In general, the conductor kept things speedy, brisk, and clean. That did not mean that the orchestra played unerringly, however: At the beginning of “Ev’ry valley,” it was a mess, indeed amateur. But some parts of the oratorio were quite satisfying, from orchestra, chorus, and others. “And he shall purify” was light, bouncy, and affecting. “His yoke is easy” was lovely.
Rilling is a learned, obviously experienced, and commendable musician. But, in this performance, he was too careful, too contained. Some bloom in the music would have been nice, now and then. Who decreed that strings in Handel cannot be beautiful? There is a middle ground between a bloated, “Victorian” Messiah and wheat germ and straw. What the Rilling/Philharmonic Messiah needed, above all, was more spirituality, more joy—a greater sense of the good news. When this crowd did “For unto us a child is born,” the feeling was, “So what?” A good performance of Messiah takes much, much more than musical correctness, or musicological correctness, which is a far different thing.
I will mention the solo singers in the order of their appearance. Our tenor was James Taylor, whom I have long called “Sweet Baby James,” for he sings sweetly indeed. (Sweet Baby James was an album by the singer-songwriter James Taylor, not to be confused with this tenor.) On this particular night with the Philharmonic, Taylor sang sweetly, of course, but he had trouble with pitch, which is rare for him. And his big ol’ interpolation in “Comfort ye” was not entirely musical. The bass was Shenyang, who is practically a baby singer: age twenty-five. Three years ago, he won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, which is a pretty big deal. In Messiah, he gave us a rich, sometimes ringing sound. It was a little bit covered, however, and might have benefited from some opening. Also, his passagework was not especially deft—but he performed his duties honorably. Singing the mezzo or contralto parts was not a mezzo or contralto at all, but a countertenor: Daniel Taylor. Only a few years ago, the Philharmonic had Stephanie Blythe in this slot, and her mezzo is one of the biggest (and best) voices extant. Our countertenor provided an amazing contrast. He was sometimes anemic, but he knew what he was doing, and he fit into Maestro Rilling’s overall approach. The soprano? That was Annette Dasch, a young German who is fairly well-known in Europe—including at the Salzburg Festival—but a newcomer to American shores. Her voice is attractive, and she sang her Handel alertly and stylishly. It was interesting to hear an accent—just a slight one, and a charming one—in this English oratorio. And I might record that, like the bass’s, the soprano’s passagework was not a model.
Care for two quick notes on pronunciation? James Taylor sang “Comfert ye,” just as we speak that first word: not fort but fert. This was new to me, and welcome. (Some people think that you should sing English words just the way you speak them.) Also, there has long been a “rejoice” debate—“rejoice” as in the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly.” Is it rih or ree? Rih-joice or ree-joice? I’m a rih man myself, but Dasch opted for ree, which is, of course, fine.
On a Sunday afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra climbed out of the pit and onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. It was conducted by Levine. And the program consisted of an Elgar song cycle and a Mahler symphony. The song cycle was Sea Pictures, very rarely heard, though Janet Baker made a famous recording of this work in 1965 with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra. Or are the Pictures rarely heard because Baker made such a canonical recording? We all have her in our ear and head, when it comes to this piece. The aforementioned Stephanie Blythe has been known to sing the Sea Pictures in recital (accompanied on the piano). And it was she who sang them with Levine and the Met Orchestra. Blythe has proven herself one of our most versatile singers. Consider that she is an Orfeo (Gluck). An Isabella (Rossini). An Ulrica (one of the dramatic Verdi mezzo roles). And so on. She is availing herself of a range of music, in opera and song.
She sang her Elgar hugely, sweepingly, and sometimes thrillingly. If it was a little short on nuance, it had other, compensatory qualities. Levine did some gorgeous conducting, particularly in the second song, “In Haven”: That bouncy little staccato accompaniment was just right. These songs include great comfort and consolation and soulfulness. Both singer and conductor caught a good deal of that. But sometimes Levine was simply too loud and too fast, racing through the music, bulling through. That contributed to some lack of nuance. And some climaxes were cheated. The final song, “The Swimmer,” needed far more savoring. Still, this was a winning performance, overall, and it was good to hear this cycle, which must not be for Baker and Barbirolli alone (just as the Elgar Cello Concerto must not be for du Pré and Barbirolli alone).
That Mahler symphony? It was No. 5, and, from Levine and his opera orchestra—he also heads the Boston Symphony Orchestra—it was uneven. Levine always injects a Beethoven feeling in his Mahler, which is nice: His Mahler is disciplined, clear, robust, sort of Classical. But in the first and second movements, he did some bulling through, and the orchestra was unusually rough and spotty. I would never ask Levine for namby-pamby or effete Mahler (or anything else). But some of his conducting on this occasion was strangely heedless and blunt. The third movement of the symphony, the Scherzo, was on track—Levine-like, and Met Orchestra-like. The fourth movement, you may agree, is the pièce de résistance of the symphony. That is the Adagietto, and Levine handled it superbly. This movement was beautifully breathed, paced, shaped. As for the Finale—actually, Rondo-Finale—it was rollicking, impatient, sometimes bruising, sometimes rough. Did the final pages have their glorious, coursing D-major nobility? Some of it, yes.
The orchestra was back in the pit for Bizet’s Carmen, which Tchaikovsky predicted would be the most popular opera in the world—and which may well be. The Met had hired three Carmens for the run of the show, and all are top-notch singers: Elina Garanca, the Latvian mezzo-soprano; Olga Borodina, the Russian mezzo-soprano; and Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian soprano. Each is a true individual as a singer and stage presence, and each has much to give this role. I caught Garanca, and she is another of those admirably versatile singers, like Stephanie Blythe. When I first started reporting on her, she was doing Mozart roles in Salzburg, and she was exceptionally pure, intelligent, tasteful. She later showed us coloratura virtuosity here in New York, blazing, tripping, and twirling through Rossini roles. A few years ago, she made an album called Aria Cantilena—this is one of those “songs from all over” albums, involving umpteen languages and styles. Garanca is obviously a singer who loves and gobbles up music.
Her Carmen? Well, the voice is smoky anyway, as you might expect from a Slavic, or a Baltic, mezzo—and you want your Carmen fairly smoky. Garanca applied her usual excellent technique and musical smarts. And she seemed to exult in playing the hussy. Hers is a smaller voice than you often hear in this role—but, on the night of my attendance, she resisted any temptation to strain. Be that as it may, I found myself hoping that Garanca would not take on roles too large for her as she enjoys the heights of international stardom. There is no shame in being a Mozartean mezzo— a sterling, exemplary Mozartean mezzo. Other women can vamp through Carmen.
Garanca was partnered by Roberto Alagna, the French-Italian tenor, who is probably the Don José of our time. He gave an example of what you might call “French heroic lyricism.” He gets no worse as he ages—he apparently has plenty of singing in him left. Leading the opera in the pit was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the hotshot young French Canadian. He conducted the overture too fast for the music to be itself—it sounded computer-generated, unreal—but he was far more sensible thereafter (as it would not have been hard to be).
The Met is now in the business of ditching its Zeffirelli productions, and the Zeffirelli Carmen is the latest domino to fall. In its place is a production by Richard Eyre, the well-known British director. He sets his Carmen in the Spanish Civil War. And he is a thoughtful, able, and experienced guy. But let me utter a couple of objections. When Carmen opens, Eyre has the soldiers in their barracks, commenting on the passing scene in the square (“Sur la place chacun passe, chacun vient, chacun va”). How can they comment from their barracks? And there is no passing scene—that would be too Zeffirelli-like, apparently: “too much like right,” as they say in the (American) South. Also, directors should take care not to oversexualize their productions of Carmen. The opera, in its score and libretto, is plenty smoky-sexy. The frisson and allure should not be effaced or spoiled by vulgarity, or by an overkill of vulgarity. Can’t we get that Micaëla is the object of the soldiers’ sexual interest without their pawing, grabbing, and mauling her every second? Can’t the audience get that? Must they be beaten over the head?
In a program note, Eyre—Sir Richard—said, “The story is, of course, about love, but more truly about sex, underscored by violence.” Even so, a lighter touch can sometimes pack a greater punch.
The principal clarinet of the Met Orchestra is Anthony McGill—and he was at the center of a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A young man, thirty, McGill had a huge audience when he played in an ensemble at President Obama’s inauguration. (His partners were Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero, this last a Venezuelan-American pianist.) McGill’s audience at the Met Museum was rather smaller, but appreciative. He first played Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, a trio of pieces at the heart of the clarinet repertory. He handled the composer’s long, long phrases well, and often played like a singer—in singerly fashion. He was dreamy, sensitive, and accurate. He also played with some daring softness. But, at times, it would have been wise to play out more, and to play more straightforwardly, too. You don’t want to get too cute or dreamy with these pieces. In addition, the third piece could have been played with far more rhapsody, or at least robustness. A little passion or razzle-dazzle is no offense here.
And here is an interesting side note: A terrible, piercing noise—from a piece of electronic equipment, probably—intruded itself during the Fantasy Pieces. This must have lasted thirty seconds. McGill never broke stride, never even looked up or around, in an impressive feat of concentration.
Later in the evening, he took part in Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock, that winsome piece for soprano, clarinet, and piano. McGill clearly loves this music: and played it with love and appreciation—also a notable musical graciousness. The soprano, by the way, was Monica Yunus, a young lady who is the daughter of Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi “microbanker” who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Monica Yunus’s bio says “she is the only singer born in Bangladesh to have sung at the Metropolitan Opera.” Well, there’s a distinction. She does not have what you would call a traditional Schubert voice: It is bright and forward, with a quick vibrato. But Yunus sang her part appealingly and freshly, sometimes meltingly. A sincerity and friendliness came through. Incidentally, she sang at her father’s Nobel concert: Puccini’s aria “O mio babbino caro,” or, “Oh, daddy dearest.”
In the Met Orchestra, McGill succeeded Ricardo Morales, who is now principal clarinet in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Morales was a star player of the Met Orchestra, and James Levine featured him a lot—every chance he could, really—in the Met chamber series over which he presides. I have marveled at Morales in these pages many times. And I will tell you something interesting: I know a professional clarinetist, about fifty, who has a great reverence for the past: for the line of clarinetists from the very beginning. And he believes that Morales is the best clarinetist … ever. I would not contradict that.
McGill’s Met Museum concert started at 7:00, giving him time to hop in a cab and cross Central Park to the Metropolitan Opera—in order to play in Puccini’s Turandot, starting at 8:30. I followed him.
I was most interested in hearing the soprano in the title role, Lise Lindstrom. I had heard a lot about her: that this relatively unknown American was a genuine Turandot, a once-in-a-generation Turandot. They are very hard to find, Turandots. It is a voice-wrecker of a role, sort of like another Puccini role, Minnie (in La fanciulla del West). Not many sopranos want to take on Turandot, or can. What you hope for is that the soprano can get through it, without too much ugliness or wreckage. Lindstrom took on the role and absolutely slew it. She was no less secure in it than a soubrette would be as Zerlina. Lindstrom’s is not what you would call a pretty voice, but it grows on you. And it has huge penetration and bite. It is not so much a “big” voice as a penetrating one. It would pierce Fort Knox, I believe. As you sat in the darkened house, she was hurtling steely bolts at you, and they were accurate, too. Moreover, she was musical in everything she did, and she acted with much skill. We are talking about a total package. She did not show much of a lower register, truth to tell, but she sang the easiest high C you ever saw, or heard. Honestly, Lindstrom’s was a stunning performance, and I turned to the opera-lover sitting next to me as if to say, “Can you believe this is happening?”
Another find that night was the conductor in the pit, Andris Nelsons, a Latvian. He was sharp, incisive, alert, stylish—just what the doctor ordered. There was serious energy in the executive, and musical judgment, too. I have mentioned the Latvian Elina Garnaca, and now Maestro Nelsons, and I will add the Liù in this Turandot: Maija Kovalevska, a Latvian soprano. As (the famed Latvian conductor) Mariss Jansons and I once agreed, in a public interview, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought manifold blessings.
Speaking of blessings, Zeffirelli’s Turandot at the Met is a Zeffirelli domino yet to fall. It will. And no production should go on forever, I suppose. But this one will never be improved on, where Turandots are concerned, and probably never matched. Video cannot do it justice. See it, and memorize it, while you can.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 6, on page 52
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