The Metropolitan Opera staged Prince Igor, Borodin’s opera from—what year did he complete it? He never did. Borodin, a part-time composer, and full-time chemist, worked on the opera for eighteen years and then died. It was finished and cleaned up by Rimsky-Korsakov and other hands. Rimsky-Korsakov and others also did some finishing and cleaning up for Mussorgsky. Sometimes, these people are decried as adulterators. They ought to be thanked as selfless colleagues and servants of music.
We know Prince Igor primarily for the “Polovtsian Dances,” which have long functioned as stand-alone pieces. We also know Kismet, the Broadway musical from the 1950s—melodies borrowed from Borodin. During an intermission at the Met, I heard a man singing a song from Kismet to his wife. He had just heard the melody in Prince Igor. The Met had staged this opera only once before, in the 1910s, and in the Italian language. In 2007, Valery Gergiev led his Mariinsky forces—or Kirov forces, as they were still being called—in Act II at Carnegie Hall. It was good to have a fuller meal of Igor.
For the production, the Met hired Dmitri Tcherniakov, a Russian director and set designer. His Igor is intelligent and commendable, making particularly interesting use of video. But the production has little exoticism, mystery, or Romanticism. Prince Igor is a work of Russian Romanticism; the production ought to match. There is a surfeit of ugliness, or monotony, onstage. The Polovtsian dancers are not exactly seductresses. They are weird, ghostly figures, dancing with weird, ghostly male partners. Well and good (I guess). But one sees Prince Igor so seldom. Can’t one see it with a “traditional” production?
Where the singers are concerned, Igor is a bass-fest, as you might expect or want a Russian opera to be. I will first address a couple of non-basses, though. Oksana Dyka, a Ukrainian soprano, was Yaroslavna. She was powerful, dynamic, and, at times, none too pretty. That was okay: Yaroslavna does not have to sing prettily. Anita Rachvelishvili, a Georgian mezzo, was Konchakovna. Met audiences know Rachvelishvili for Carmen; she was sultry in the Borodin role, too. Like many a Russian opera, Igor calls for a prominent chorus, in particular a men’s chorus. The Met’s came through.
Chief of the four basses onstage was Ildar Abdrazakov, singing the title role. His voice was beautiful, as always. He sang intelligently, as always. But the voice sounded small on this occasion—too small for the role. Having no such trouble was Štefan Kocán, the Slovakian bass who was Khan Konchak.
The score can sometimes sound like a clarinet concerto, so prominent is that instrument’s part. The Met’s “soloist,” Boris Allakhverdyan, had an outstanding night. Leading him and everyone else was Gianandrea Noseda, the Italian conductor. You could hardly fault him. He was sensible, measured, never letting the music be too heavy or overwrought. He was professional in virtually every respect. But he was also on the bland side, without electricity. There is much more life and color in this score than was brought out. Frankly, the evening was a bit dull. At the curtain, the audience demonstrated a “golf clap.” I think that was right.
For many years, the classical-music business has been convulsed with a question: What do audiences want? You often hear some combination of the following: new music, young musicians, trendy venues, casual dress, and lots of talking from the stage. (“Outreach,” you know.) Well, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center arranged a concert dominated by two canonical works of Beethoven and Schubert. The one other piece on the program was a short, lesser-known work of Schubert. There was no talking from the stage. The musicians simply came out and played, letting the music do the talking. The concert was “old-fashioned”—and it was sold out. Why wouldn’t it have been?
The afternoon or evening—it was 5 o’clock, hard to tell—began with Schubert’s Notturno. This is the name given posthumously to a stray slow movement by the composer. To me, it sounds more like a barcarolle. In any case, the piece was played by Gilbert Kalish, Ani Kavafian, and Paul Watkins—piano, violin, and cello, respectively. Their playing was a bit rough and rugged. But it was also sincere and bold, not drawing-room Schubert.
When the piano trio left the stage, the Miró Quartet came on, for a late string quartet of Beethoven—but the one in F major, Op. 135. This is a late Beethoven string quartet that does not have a late-Beethoven-string-quartet nature. It is sunny and gay, rather than darkly profound. It is also a masterpiece, and one of the most lovable creations in all of Beethoven. From the Miró, the first movement had freshness and balance—balance between the instruments, yes, but also balance of mind. The second movement ought to burble infectiously. It was a little scratchy and rough for that. The third movement, the slow movement, is a heart-stopping beauty, having something in common with the Missa solemnis, written a few years before. It ought to hold an audience rapt. On this occasion, it was not so enrapturing. But the closing movement was very good—energetic and affirmative.
During intermission, I learned something remarkable from my seatmate: She is the great-niece of Emanuel Feuermann (the magnificent cellist who died in 1942 at thirty-nine). I was still digesting the news when the Miró Quartet returned, along with Paul Watkins. They were going to play Schubert’s Quintet in C major, one of the greatest works ever written, by anyone. You almost don’t want to hear it, because who can do it justice? Amazingly, these five did. They played with confidence, understanding, and commitment. They did not approach the work with trembling awe—they simply approached it as music, and it came out awesome. (I don’t mean this in the surfer sense, as you know.)
Let me mention two of the players, specifically. Daniel Ching, the first violin, was strong, sweet, and sure, throughout. He displayed a kind of leadership, as well as musicianship—and musicianship sometimes includes leadership, true. Watkins enjoyed himself hugely, taking obvious pleasure in everything he did—even in relatively innocuous accompanying notes. Little plucks and the like. He seemed to count it a privilege to be participating.
So, this was a banner afternoon, or evening. Feuermann’s great-niece and a first-rate performance of Schubert’s C-major Quintet—it was almost too much to take.
The following night, the Met staged Werther, the Massenet opera. The company has a new production, overseen by Sir Richard Eyre. The hard-bitten modernist would gag on this production. Then again, the hard-bitten modernist gags on Werther. The production is beautiful, imaginative, and above all fitting—a match with the score and story. Frank Lloyd Wright said that a building ought to be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace to it. So it is with opera productions. This Werther is a breath of fresh Eyre.
Presiding in the pit was Alain Altinoglu, the French conductor with the Turkish-sounding name. He conducted the work with great care—but not cautiousness. He was natural and musical. He let the tender passages be tender, and he made the volatile passages volatile. The Met orchestra played superbly for him, as though for Levine. David Chan was the excellent concertmaster. Anthony McGill was the smooth, ear-catching clarinet. Patricia Rogers was the puckish bassoon. The cellists demonstrated some remarkable unison playing at the beginning of Act III, and the horns, all through, were coordinated. Even nimble. On those instruments, this is almost a miraculous fact.
Jonas Kaufmann, the German star, was supposed to sing Werther (a character so narcissistic and selfish, he makes Onegin look noble), but he was ill. Taking his place was a French tenor making his Met debut: Jean-François Borras. He started tentatively, though showing a beautiful voice. He soon hit his stride, singing his part with power and passion, as well as the requisite tenderness. This was a significant debut. His Charlotte was Sophie Koch, the French mezzo with the German name. She was especially good in her dramatic, turbulent music. Elsewhere, she suffered some hardness of sound.
The major supporting roles were very, very well filled by Lisette Oropesa and David Bizic. The former is an American soprano who sang Charlotte’s younger sister. She was a model of girlish gaiety and charm (and she demonstrated that special quiver in her voice). Bizic is a Serbian baritone who sang Charlotte’s husband. He owns a beautiful instrument, one that gleams. He can also sing a true piano, and handle a variety of nuances.
Everything about this evening was well done. Years ago, my colleague Fred Kirshnit reviewed a Carmen, and hated everything in it—even the children! In this Werther, even the children were good. I will pay the conductor, the singers, the orchestra, the stage director, and everyone else the highest tribute I can: They made me think better of the work, Massenet’s opera, than I ever have before.
The next night, Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace completed their cycle in Zankel Hall—a cycle by Beethoven, rather. The two men performed the composer’s violin-and-piano sonatas over three nights. Or are they piano-and-violin sonatas? That is how Beethoven designated them. In addition to playing these sonatas many times, Kavakos and Pace have recorded them, under the name “Violin Sonatas.” Whatever they are, they are ten gems.
Kavakos and Pace were signing their Beethoven CDs after their concert. In times past, people worried that, if you recorded music, no one would come to hear it live. In most cases, probably, recordings whet the appetite for live; and they are valued as souvenirs of the live experience.
Kavakos is well-known to readers of these pages, both as violinist and as conductor. He was once in charge of the Camerata Salzburg. For the past few years, I think, his hair has been shoulder length—Paganini length. That works well on a violinist. When Kavakos plays his best, he is nearly world-beating. And when he plays less than his best, he is still worthwhile. As for Pace, he strikes me as a clean, orderly pianist. I’m not sure I would go to him for limpid beauty.
In the sonatas I heard, the men were sometimes excellent and always competent, or reasonable. You could always quarrel with them on matters of style. For example, they might like something punchy that you prefer linear and elegant. They might have different ideas about tempo, accentuation, or even mood. Furthermore, they went in for some hesitations—little pauses—that I found off-putting. But, again, they were always reasonable, they always had a case. They are serious musicians.
Here is a question, not very important, more like an aside: Do they really need the sheet music, and to be so tied to it?
Unquestionably, it was a pleasure to spend time with Beethoven. It always is. He is the ever companionable. Listening to Kavakos and Pace, I couldn’t help taking a little walk down Memory Lane: The first time I ever heard the complete sonatas, live, it was Szeryng and Sándor. That duo was alliterative, among other things.
Back to the Met, which revived The Enchanted Island. This is the “Baroque fantasy in two acts” put together by Jeremy Sams, the English director, writer, and jack-of-all-trades. The show had its premiere on New Year’s Eve 2011. On the most recent New Year’s Eve, the Met premiered Sams’s production of Die Fledermaus. This man is apparently the Guy Lombardo of the Metropolitan Opera. The Enchanted Island is a pastiche of music by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and “a host of others,” as they say in golf commentary. The story is a blend of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.The Enchanted Island is goofy, skillful, and enjoyable. According to a program note by Sams, the idea was that of Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. The show is a feather in the cap of Gelb’s tenure.
The cast is one of thousands, or, to be precise, fifteen. We heard both established singers and newcomers. I will mention those in the former camp—starting with David Daniels. When the countertenor craze was at its peak, ten or fifteen years ago, Daniels was really hot: the King of Countertenors. He is still king, probably. But the voice is necessarily different—smaller, for one thing. And the Metropolitan Opera House was not built for countertenors. Regardless, Daniels retains his musicality and dash. It seems like yesterday that Susan Graham was the “new” American mezzo, taking over from the likes of Frederica von Stade. She is now a veteran singer. She reliably sings with understanding and assurance, making the most of her talent (which is considerable). An aspect of that talent is to be funny, which she is in The Enchanted Island.
Luca Pisaroni, the Italian bass-baritone, seems to be in his prime. He has a sizable, handsome voice, both sleek and plush, which is a rare combination. I have noticed something over the years: He adds class, vocal and musical, to whatever opera he is in. Danielle de Niese was game and adorable, as befits the character she sang, Ariel. Her voice is on the small side, for this house, at least—but it has adequate carrying power. Frankly, one of the best voices of the night belonged to the trumpet, Billy Hunter.
Then there was Plácido Domingo—an old tenor, but a relatively new baritone. As I have written a hundred times, the “ageless Spaniard” sounded “fresh as a daisy.” When he sang a high G, you thought, “He still has miles above this.” In terms of longevity and other things, he must be one of the most unusual singers in history.
The Enchanted Island is in English, and Sams’s libretto includes a range of words, high and low, including “duh.” Perhaps one day he will add Homer Simpson’s trademark, “D’oh!” He may not know The Simpsons, however, for he is an Englishman—as you can tell when one or two of his characters declare that the names Miranda and Lysander rhyme. Domingo’s English, by the way, sounds fresh off the boat, despite his decades of experience in America (and Britain, for that matter). It is part of the charm of his Neptune, the god he plays in this show.
Into Alice Tully Hall came a college choir—the choir of Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, an institution named after the Philadelphia hatmaker who created the hat associated with Texas. The audience was small but lively—even raucous. It seemed to be composed of fellow students, parents, alumni, and assorted well-wishers. The program offered a great mix of music, most of it sacred. Apparently, Stetson is still the kind of place where this sort of thing is permitted.
There were famous pieces by famous composers—“If Ye Love Me” (Tallis) and “Va, pensiero” (Verdi). There were little-known pieces by famous composers—something by Stanford, something by Vaughan Williams, the Psalm 90 by Ives. The Ives was probably the highlight of the evening, a magnificent setting, well and movingly sung (under the Stetson choirmaster, Timothy Peter). There was a hymn by a late South African, Roelof Temmingh. And a wonderful, jazzy Christmas piece by a Haitian composer, Emile Desamours.
There was brand-new music too, including an Ave Maria by Kevin Isaacs. It is a stirring piece, with a touch of perpetual motion about it. How interesting to think that people are still composing Ave Marias! They will probably never stop. They are still composing Psalm settings, too. Mark Zobel has done a Psalm 23. It is balanced, poised, worthy. Dan Forrest has done a Psalm 8—arching, yearning, reaching (and also a bit schmaltzy, though this does no serious harm). A Stetson professor, Janis Kindred, contributed folksong settings, including one of “Aiken Drum,” the Scottish ditty.
Suddenly, there was a star turn on the Alice Tully stage: Donovan Singletary came out to sing an opera aria. This was the cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, an aria that most of us learned, I suppose, from a Chaliapin recording. Singletary is a bass-baritone who is just beginning his career. He is a Stetson alum. And he owns a big, easy, beautiful voice. At the end of the night, people stood to sing the alma mater—which uses the loved old hymn known as “Integer Vitae.”
Not often do you have the chance to hear the music performed on this program. At least in New York you don’t. In DeLand, it is possibly normal.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 8, on page 71
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