At the Metropolitan Opera, they revived Les Troyens, in the 2003 production by Francesca Zambello. Les Troyens is Berlioz’s magnum opus. Some regard it as a masterpiece of masterpieces, a peak of art. Others find it a bit of a snoozeroo. I remember something Ben Heppner, the tenor, said about another French opera, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande: “four hours of French Novocain.” Les Troyens is longer. It is also a masterpiece, just as its admirers say. It needs a conductor, however, to bring out its greatness. It won’t quite play itself. The conductor must have a heightened sense of pacing, nuance, beauty, and so on. He must understand gentle grandeur. There are many singers in this opera, but it all rides on the man in the pit, I believe.

On this occasion, it was Fabio Luisi, and he had a rough beginning. His forces were not together. In fact, playing and singing throughout Part I (“La Prise de Troie”) were a little sloppy. The conducting was cold and perfunctory—managerial at best. The music did not have its glow or allure. (Certainly not its gentle grandeur.) In talking about an opera such as Parsifal, we sometimes say that an audience member should enter “Wagner time”—in which normal time and space disappear. There is something like “Pelléas et Mélisande time” too. And so it is with Les Troyens.

We were able to enter this time, I think, in Part II (“Les Troyens à Carthage”). Luisi hit his stride—just as I remember his doing in a Götterdämmerung, actually. He had started out ordinary, but then found his groove, or Wagner’s. In Les Troyens, it was lovely to float away on a Berliozian cloud (though the action can be very stormy).

Back to Part I, however—Cassandra’s part of the show. As in 2003, when the production premiered, this part was taken by Deborah Voigt, the great soprano. The voice is different now: different in both quality and quantity, or volume. But Voigt remains an exceptionally intelligent singer, and, on this night, she sang in tune, which is critical. Someone once said you go to war with the army you have. Similarly, you go into an opera with the voice you have. In the role of Coroebus, Cassandra’s betrothed, was Dwayne Croft, the veteran baritone. He sang smoothly, as usual—smoothly and regally. But he was also a little contained. By that I mean, some of his sound seemed trapped within him—but, oh, what a beautiful sound.

At the beginning of the run, Aeneas was Marcello Giordani, the Italian tenor. He withdrew after a few performances, however. In fact, he announced that he was retiring the role. (That bad, huh?) He was replaced by a youngish American, Bryan Hymel, making his Met debut. This was a golden opportunity, obviously. And Hymel took due advantage. He sang freshly and accurately. He is not a heroic tenor, and Aeneas is maybe a size or two too big for him. But that mattered little. Hymel sang with great ease, as though he were falling out of bed, and enjoying it.

Our Dido was supposed to have been Susan Graham, the American mezzo, who is a leading “French” singer, and, in particular, a leading Berlioz singer. But she was indisposed and in her place was Elizabeth Bishop, another American. She proved seasoned and assured, if now and then a little tremulous. The higher she sang, the better she sounded. And let me stress her assurance. Like Hymel, Bishop sang with notable ease. She was comfortable. The love duet between the two, “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie,” was extraordinarily relaxed. It was odd not to hear the tenor strain in this duet. Tenors always strain here! At the end of the opera, when Dido goes nuts, Bishop showed power both vocal and theatrical.

Les Troyens is filled with minor roles in which singers can make major impressions. Have you ever heard of Karen Cargill, a Scottish mezzo? I hadn’t either. She was Anna, Dido’s sister, and made a huge impression. She has a big, juicy, Met-sized voice—a little contralto-ish. And she knows what to do with that magnificent instrument. Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, is a pants role, and it was taken by Julie Boulianne, another mezzo—a mezzo with a much smaller voice than Cargill’s, as almost everyone has. Like others on the stage, she sang beautifully, confidently, and accurately. There are at least two tenors besides Aeneas. One of them is Iopas, the poet, and Eric Cutler made a veritable star turn out of the role.

I look forward to the return of Les Troyens to the Met, maybe before another ten years has passed. It is a difficult opera to produce, cast, and conduct—but it is well worth it, if for “Nuit d’ivresse” alone.

Last summer, I was in Michigan, driving a rental car back to the Detroit airport. I was listening to the CBC—Canadian radio. I had tuned into a Chopin recital, and a distinguished one at that. I hoped I could learn who the pianist was before I reached my destination. I did. And I was astonished to learn that the pianist was just a teenager: Jan Lisiecki, a Canadian of Polish parentage. He is now seventeen. And he recently played a concerto with the New York Philharmonic, under David Zinman. He did not play one of the Chopin concertos, but the Schumann. This concerto has always been something of a young person’s piece. Also, people used to think of it as a girl’s piece—a concerto for girls and young women to study and perform. Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just relating a fact.

The opening of the Schumann Concerto is tricky, in its timing and structure. Lisiecki handled it well. He was dry, precise, and arresting. The entire first movement—and, indeed, the whole concerto—was very lightly pedaled. On the dry side. The music was at times Mozartean, but Lisiecki also did some beautifully Romantic playing. He knows how to bring a bass line out. I heard things in the left hand I had never quite noticed before—in the cadenza and elsewhere. In certain spots, the young man could have used more suavity, but I liked his straightforward, no-nonsense style.

After the first movement, things were not so successful. Lisiecki played a bad accent at the beginning of the Intermezzo. And that entire movement was a little measure for measure (as Shakespeare might say). Lisiecki did not quite have the overall sweep in mind. The last movement was quite unfortunate—very, very dry, with too little rhapsody. Dull, plodding, workaday. But Lisiecki is obviously a serious talent, who will be a pleasure to hear for decades to come.

Before and after the concerto, Zinman conducted Sibelius symphonies, both in C major: No. 3 and No. 7. He is a very intelligent conductor, and a sound musician. I always thought we’d make more of him if he were not American, and had an exotic name and personality. Who knows? If he carried himself like a grand and arrogant Continental maestro . . . The music world, like the rest of the world, is not immune to image.

Back to the Metropolitan Opera (already). They staged Maria Stuarda, one of the “Three Queens” operas of Donizetti. They staged Anna Bolena last season. Roberto Devereux is coming. Never before have these operas been done at the Met. The Met’s Stuarda production opens with a party, complete with a juggler juggling torches. It looked to me New Year’s Evey. And that was appropriate, because this production opened on New Year’s Eve. I saw a subsequent performance, however. And there is nothing festive about Mary’s guillotining at the end (unless you are passionately anti-Mary, which this opera is not—quite the contrary).

Maria Stuarda has not one queen but two: the title character (Mary Stuart) and Elizabeth. The title character is the bigger part, as is fitting—but Elizabeth has plenty to do and sing. The role was taken on this occasion by Elza van den Heever, a South African soprano. She made a point that deserves to be made: Bel canto need not mean dainty. She was commanding, biting, scalding—sometimes shrill. That was okay. The tenor, portraying Robert Dudley, was to have been Matthew Polenzani, but he was indisposed. In his place was an Italian tenor making his Met debut: Salvatore Cordella. He had a miserable night. Nothing was going right. Much of his singing was strangled. To listen to him was painful. He can do much, much better, no doubt. The tenor’s troubles put a damper on the evening at large.

The other men were up to snuff. These were Matthew Rose, singing George Talbot, and Joshua Hopkins, singing William Cecil. Each was virile, understanding, and effective. Another man, Maurizio Benini, was in the pit. He was unobjectionable, but a little tepid and limp. More energy in the executive—certainly more strength—was desirable.

As for the production, it was made by Sir David McVicar, the Scottish director, and a very good production it is: compelling in every way. It is pleasurable and interesting to look at, and it matches the story and score. The costumes, by John Macfarlane, are superb. I might mention that the scene change in Act I is swift and seamless. I was amazed at how quickly and naturally it took place. Hell, I didn’t have time to check my e-mail.

Maria Stuarda, the heroine, was sung by Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo from Kansas. I have nearly run out of words about her. A few weeks ago, I wrote, “Singers aren’t ranked like tennis players, but if they were, you’d be hard-pressed to keep Joyce DiDonato out of the No. 1 spot.” I frequently say that she “put on a clinic.” On this night, she put on a clinic of bel canto. She was a paragon of sound, technique, style. Fidelity to the words. She can do virtually whatever she wants with her voice, and she has a musical mind to command it. Also, she showed herself to be a moving actress. “Anyone can move as the doomed queen!” you might say. Not necessarily true, and DiDonato, without any overemoting, was perfectly poignant.

Back to the New York Philharmonic (already). They had another piano soloist, this one a famous veteran, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. And like Jan Lisiecki, he played a concerto in A minor—the Grieg. And like the Schumann, this concerto has a tricky opening. Like Lisiecki, Thibaudet handled it very well—with brisk, compact virtuosity. The first movement in general was brisk and compact. Thibaudet employed some interesting dynamics (though not too interesting—not eccentric). He played with panache but not flamboyance. In the second movement, Adagio, he did some choppy phrasing—shocking from him. An aberration. But the movement was admirably strong, not airy-fairy, as some make it.

The final movement (multi-sectioned as it is)? It was a bit of a letdown: Thibaudet can be far crisper. But I have very high standards for this pianist, as one should. He gave a very good performance of the Grieg Concerto. He could not quite tame what bombast exists, but who can? Thibaudet excels in unwieldy Romantic concertos (and other repertoire, of course). I doubt anyone plays the Saint-Saëns concertos better, for example.

On the podium was Manfred Honeck, the Austrian who directs the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. His symphony after intermission was the Beethoven Seventh. Like the Schumann and Grieg concertos, it has an opening very hard to get right—and Honeck got it exactly right. He proceeded to conduct this first movement with wonderful solidity and gravity. He did not go in for “period” speed and superficiality. Is he available to conduct Mozart operas at the Met? Don’t get the idea that this movement was heavy: It had plenty of lightness and grace. I’m simply saying that it was Beethoven-like, in every respect. The music was fresh as a daisy.

The second movement, that beloved and mysterious Allegretto, was laudable, but a tiny bit rushed and cold. The third movement, Presto, was a joy. It bounced along, though not in a “period” way—there I go again, bashing the periodistas. I thought, “Honeck is a real musician, not a timekeeper or fraud.” He stretched out the trio in a surprising, invigorating way.

So here I was, enjoying a first-rate performance of the Beethoven Seventh—thrilling to it—when along came the last movement. Honeck, for some reason, did what too many others do: He made it absurdly fast, and mechanical, and airless, and dull. Very modern, I regret to say. There was hardly any enjoyment in this last movement. Wagner described the symphony at large as “the apotheosis of the dance.” On this night, the only dance the last movement resembled was techno—computerized. As I do for Thibaudet, I have very high standards for Honeck. He has the same for himself, and for music.

There was an Emerson String Quartet concert in Carnegie Hall, and it was very promising—all-Brahms. First would come the A-minor string quartet; then would come the G-major string sextet; then would come the piano quintet (F minor). Joining the Emersons for the quintet would be Yefim Bronfman, one of our leading pianists, and definitely one of our leading Brahms pianists. The Emersons, as you know, have long been a leading chamber ensemble. What happened at the concert was so startling, so bizarre, I hesitate to report it. But that’s what I’ve signed up for.

The A-minor quartet was appalling. It was barely recognizable as itself—as the work Brahms wrote. The playing was below a professional level. And this was Carnegie Hall, with hundreds or thousands of paying customers in the seats. The Emersons’ sound was miserable, their intonation was miserable. They were not together, they did not make musical sense. I’m at a loss to explain this occurrence. Often, when a performance is bad, you can just concentrate on the music, even envisioning the score. But this playing was so bad, I could not concentrate on the music. I could only cringe and wonder.

With the sextet came reinforcements, of course, and the reinforcements seemed to help. Brahms’s piece was recognizable as itself. The group was playing at a professional level. Lawrence Dutton, the Emersons’ violist, made particularly fine contributions. Yet the performance, overall, was mediocre: flaccid, gray, good enough for government work. The Adagio was nowhere near Brahms-
ian. As for the last movement, it should quiver with excitement. A person should barely be able to sit still as he listens to it. From this group, it was okay, not better.

Authority came with Bronfman, who, in addition to playing magnificently himself, raised the game of his partners. Rhythm, structure, energy, thought, execution—it was all there, thanks to this extraordinary musician, I believe. Bronfman is made for Brahms, and Brahms for him. He makes a Brahmsian sound even when he’s playing other composers. I said the same things about Alisa Weilerstein, the young cellist, not long ago. Maybe the two of them should record the sonatas.

Not entirely successful, I’m afraid, was the Andante of the quintet. Its full marking is Andante, un poco adagio. I think of it as sort of a lullaby for adults. It should transport a listener. In this case, it fell short of that, being a little fast and blunt. Yet Dutton once more contributed impressively. And, after the first half of the concert, you could be grateful for the quintet, whatever its faults. The group could not end together, but Bronfman had certainly done his best, and the Emersons were far more themselves.

The concert world is funny, as the sports world is funny. Once in a blue moon, Tiger will shoot 80.

Back to the Philharmonic, where the soloist was not a pianist but a violinist: Pinchas Zukerman. His concerto was the Bruch, and when we say “the Bruch,” we always mean his Concerto No. 1 in G minor, not either of the other two, which are ignored. In the first two movements, Zukerman made a big, beautiful, fat sound. It was also impure at times, and Zukerman specializes in purity of sound. Intonation was not always pure either, as Zukerman flatted on some high notes, just as a soprano might. But his playing of the first two movements (joined as they are) was reasonable. He was a little sober, but reasonable, and respectful.

The last movement was hard to take—hard for Zukerman, probably, as well as his audience. This music is joyous and delightsome. Zukerman scratched his way through it grimly. It was a trip to the dentist, not a picnic. The violinist was just trying to get through it. He was nowhere near ready to play this piece—this movement—and I can only think he was dismayed. The last movement was an ordeal, not a performance. Zukerman owes the public better (as, to say it again, he must know).

On the podium was Christoph Eschenbach, the veteran German, now directing the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. His symphony with the Philharmonic was the Bruckner Sixth—probably the least played of the Bruckner symphonies, along with the First and Second. There were some questions, before the performance began: Would the Philharmonic summon something like a Brucknerian sound? And would Eschenbach make the piece cohere?

The answers, essentially, proved yes and yes. The New Yorkers could not be mistaken for the Vienna or Berlin orchestra, but they made a perfectly respectable, quasi-Brucknerian sound—not brittle and bright, but full and basically warm. The orchestra did some very fine playing in this symphony. Even the horns cooperated. Eschenbach did not exactly transcend in the work—but he was a good manager, entirely professional, with good ideas. And he should be commended for conducting this semi-neglected child among the Bruckner offspring.

Let’s end at the Metropolitan Opera—where they did The Barber of Seville, sort of. They did a cut version, two hours, including intermission. And they did it in English—so this truly was The Barber of Seville, not Il barbiere di Siviglia. The Met was putting on a “holiday” presentation, meant to attract children in particular, I believe. Many were in attendance on the night I too attended. Curtain was at 8:30, so more than a few were up past their bedtimes, no doubt.

A Met team cut the opera deftly, though you could have wept for what was missing: “La calunnia,” for example, one of the most ingenious arias Rossini ever wrote. But there are always tears where editing is involved. When you take away Italian from Rossini and give him English, you change the character of his music. He does not sound like himself—he sounds like an English cousin of his, maybe. And his patter is especially strange in a foreign tongue. Moreover, I’m not sure an audience can understand what people are singing regardless. So what do you gain, really? In any event, if you want an English version of The Barber, you would do well to turn to J. D. McClatchy, the poet, librettist, editor, musical authority, and all-around man of arts and letters. That is just what the Met did.

Outstanding in the cast was the Rosina, Isabel Leonard. This young American mezzo put on a clinic, à la DiDonato: a clinic in sound, technique, and style. Also in acting. She did not ham, but put Rosina across in sly, understated ways. Alek Shrader, the young American tenor, sang nicely as Almaviva. Rodion Pogossov made a fun Figaro, in his Russian English. John Del Carlo is a veteran and first-rate Bartolo. I couldn’t help wondering how long it took him to adjust to the English. He has sung those notes, those many notes, in Italian for many years. The original must have wanted to creep back into his lips.

This was a flat Barber of Seville—and the problem lay substantially in the pit. The conductor had a poor night. The first chord was lousy. The second chord was lousy. Playing in general was a mess—ragged, indifferent, clock-punching. The opera had too little sparkle, too little mischief, too little élan, too little esprit. Why am I using French words when talking about Rossini?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 6, on page 50
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