Not often does the Metropolitan Opera stage a new work, and Nico Muhly has had two of his staged in the last five years—which must make him one of the most important composers in the world (seriously). Muhly is an American, born in 1981. In 2013, the Met staged his Two Boys, which is about deceit and trouble online. The company has now staged his Marnie.
If the name sounds familiar, you may have seen the 1964 movie by Alfred Hitchcock (starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery). That movie was based on a 1961 novel by Winston Graham, and so is the opera. Marnie is a young woman who had a horrible upbringing. She is now plagued by psychological problems, causing her to lie, and steal, and change her identity. It all comes to a head. Muhly has composed his music to a neat libretto by Nicholas Wright, a South African–born Brit.
In general terms, I will describe the score, as I heard it. It is a bit psychedelic or New Agey. It has that sheen, a watery sheen. It is minimalistic, in a way: always moving (or almost always, as pauses are allowed). There is a nice palette of colors in the orchestra. The music follows the story in being anxious, off-kilter, not quite right. It has a touch of Britten in it, although it is not imitative. I thought I heard a Coplandesque strain as well. There is substantial work for a chorus. There are no arias, as I would think of an aria. The singing is sometimes unaccompanied, and the orchestra is sometimes scaled down to chamber size. Muhly writes a fox hunt, which is not especially easy. The final pages are quite beautiful, incorporating, briefly, a great old hymn, “Lauda Anima.”
The score is intended to be hypnotic, I think. Is it? It sometimes is, I think, and is now and then tedious. It is helped by the story, which is ever interesting: you want to know what will happen next. How about after you’ve seen it once? Still riveted by the story? That is a different question.
Here’s another one: Would you want to hear the score on a recording, without seeing the opera, especially in so smart a production as the Met’s, which is by Michael Mayer? I wouldn’t think so. A second question, impertinent: Will this opera last? Will it be seen, and appreciated, by future generations? I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’m not a betting man. I can say that the opera held my attention, that I respected it, and that I’m glad I saw it. If that sounds like faint praise, believe me, it isn’t.
The principal roles were taken by Isabel Leonard, the American mezzo, and Christopher Maltman, the British baritone. Each of them was utterly apt in his role. So was the conductor, Robert Spano, who led the opera with intelligence, commitment, and musicality. In singing, playing, conducting, and stage-directing, Nico Muhly’s Marnie could not have had a better lift.
Now to Carnegie Hall—where the Czech Philharmonic came for a two-concert stand. The orchestra, like the Czech Republic at large, was celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Czech independence. On the podium was its new music director, Semyon Bychkov, who was born in the Soviet Union. It seems like just yesterday that he took over the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan—that was in 1980. He has risen in the world (which may pain me to say, as a Michigander).
The first concert had two works on it, and one composer: the Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák. The first work was the Cello Concerto, in which the soloist was Alisa Weilerstein, the starry American (and, yes, cellists can be starry, at least after Yo-Yo Ma). Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic were interesting in the opening pages. The texture of the orchestra was unusually light—not too light, but unusually not-heavy, if you will. This was pleasant. And the score had unusual clarity. Bychkov conducted the entire concerto with understanding and skill. He caught the grace of the music, as well as the nobility, or majesty. He never put a foot wrong.
I will give you one detail, concerning the opening of the Finale: those beats had a rare martial growl. Also, Bychkov was obeying the tempo marking, Allegro moderato. When the soloist, Weilerstein, came in, she was more interested in the Allegro than in the moderato—but all forces held together.
This concerto poses a challenge for cellists. How so? Well, they play it all the time, it is their anthem—so can they retain their enthusiasm for it? Or do they get bored, or experimental (interpreting the music unconventionally, so as to keep themselves interested)? I once put this question to Steven Isserlis, the British cellist, who seemed taken aback by it. In any case, Weilerstein played the concerto with zest and appreciation. In the first movement, she did not have her best technique or her best sound—but she was good enough. In the middle movement she was really good, singing on her instrument. And she handled the Finale with character.
After intermission came a symphony, the Dvořák Seventh. Our program notes said, “Dvořák’s Seventh is generally ranked as the greatest of the composer’s nine symphonies.” Really? That’s news to me (though I don’t doubt it). Personally, I don’t share in the consensus: I would rank both 8 and 9 above 7—I think the last movement of the Seventh is the symphony’s Achilles’ heel, being a bit on the dull and academic side—but I also think that ranking is unnecessary. Who would do without any of them?
As in the Cello Concerto, the orchestra’s texture in the Seventh was unusually light. The music was not weighed down, which benefited it. Bychkov was neat but amply Romantic. The slow movement was a model of lyricism. The Scherzo—that dance—was a hoot (a classy hoot). And out of the Finale, Bychkov & Co. got as much as they could.
I now have a question for you—a big one, probably not answerable here: If Bychkov had conducted the New York Philharmonic in this symphony, rather than the Czech Philharmonic, would it have come out essentially the same way? What if he had conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the London Philharmonic, or the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra? Do the Czechs in the Czech Philharmonic make a difference? How much does blood tell? Not very much, is my guess.
In any case, Bychkov and the orchestra presented two encores, two of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, and presented them deliciously. (Neatly and excitingly, too.)
The next afternoon—for their second concert—they played just one work: Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (a work of works, you might say). I reviewed this performance for the magazine’s website—but would like to tell you a story here: Years ago, a musician friend of mine gave an interview on Czech radio. He mentioned the Big Three among Czech composers, namely Dvořák, Smetana, and Janáček. The interviewer, puzzled, said, “But there are four.” Now it was my friend’s turn to be puzzled. “Who?” he asked. “Why, Mahler,” said his interviewer, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Notions of national or ethnic identity—and questions of national or ethnic pride—are fascinating. (Mahler was born and raised in Bohemia, true. But his family belonged to the Jewish, German-speaking minority, and, by the time he was fifteen, Mahler was in Vienna, where he would bestride the world like a colossus.)
I told you one story—I have another: Many years ago, I attended a performance of the Bach B Minor Mass. A co-worker of mine was singing in the chorus. Afterward, in conversation with her, I praised the performance, making various remarks about the vocal soloists and the chorus. I added, “I thought the musicians were excellent, too.” I meant the players in the orchestra. But I had excluded the singers from the category of “musicians,” and you should have seen the look my co-worker gave me. I have never made that mistake again.
I thought of this when looking at Maxim Vengerov’s bio: “Universally hailed as one of the world’s finest musicians, Grammy Award winner Maxim Vengerov also enjoys international acclaim as a conductor.” Are you telling conductors they’re not musicians? Anyway, I should not make too much of this.
Vengerov is a violinist who shone in his twenties and early thirties. Today, he is in his mid-forties. “Shone” is an understatement. He was indeed one of the finest musicians in the world, with only a handful equal to him. Then he took some time off. Then he injured himself, and got interested in conducting—and maybe got a little uninterested in violin playing? At any rate, he has now given a recital in Carnegie Hall, along with Roustem Saïtkoulov, a Russian pianist with a beautiful name. Forgive me if I don’t say much, or anything, about Saïtkoulov, as I wish to concentrate on Vengerov.
The recital began with a Brahms sonata (the one in D minor). My heart sank, on listening to Vengerov, whom I esteem, to put it mildly. The playing was mediocre at best, poor at worst. I could hardly hear Maxim Vengerov in it. Next on the program came an Enescu sonata (the one in F minor). In the first two movements, Vengerov was okay—but you heard little of the old charisma and assurance, and little of the old sound, that marvelous sound. But in the third and final movement? I could hear Vengerov coming back. There were glimmers of the true Vengerov.
At intermission, I thought of leaving. I did not want to hear Vengerov in a reduced condition. I also wondered, “How should I judge him? How should I think about him, and write about him, today? I remember him as superhuman. Is that fair?” I decided to stay, for two reasons: First, I had a friend with me, who was enjoying the recital. Second, things happen in music.
And they happened. The first piece after intermission was the Ravel Sonata, which Vengerov played normally—I mean, like himself. It had the intelligence, the sound (or sounds), the confidence, the freedom, the charisma, and the fingers. Speaking of fingers: Vengerov next played two insanely difficult pieces, Heinrich Ernst’s variations on “The Last Rose of Summer” and Paganini’s variations on “I palpiti.” Was he superhuman? No, but he was awfully good, displaying some of the old, casual facility, and exhibiting bravery too, as he tore through these exposed, daunting pieces on an important stage (America’s foremost).
The crowd went wild, rightfully so. Vengerov treated us to three encores, three “bon-bons,” as Sir Thomas Beecham would say. First came a Fritz Kreisler number, the Caprice viennois, which Vengerov rendered with due sweetness and nostalgia. Then we had the Rachmaninoff Vocalise, in the arrangement by Heifetz. Vengerov was superbly tasteful and affecting here. He bade goodbye with a Brahms Hungarian Dance, arranged by Joachim, which he obviously enjoyed, and which I enjoyed too, leaving me looking forward to the next Vengerov performance, for, conductor or not, he’s not done yet, as a violinist.
When David McVicar’s production of Puccini’s Tosca premiered at the Metropolitan Opera last season, Sonya Yoncheva was Tosca and Vittorio Grigolo was Cavaradossi. This time around it’s Sandra Radvanovsky and Joseph Calleja. The Met is lucky to have such singers in its stable, and so is opera. Radvanovsky, as you know, is the veteran American soprano; Calleja is a Maltese tenor, or rather, The Maltese Tenor, as PR styles him. They sang together in another new McVicar production last season: that of Norma, the Bellini opera.
In the pit for Tosca recently was Carlo Rizzi, the Italian conductor who for years led the Welsh National Opera—and who, by golly, learned to speak Welsh. (What’s Welsh for “by golly”?) He conducted Tosca in exemplary fashion. In my chronicle last month, I said that, if you’re going to conduct La bohème (another Puccini opera), you’d better love it. Otherwise, don’t bother picking up the baton. If you are tired of La bohème, or condescending toward it, don’t even try. The same goes for Tosca. Rizzi acted like it was a privilege to conduct the piece, and he conducted it to the nth degree. The opera was alive with all it has: comedy, love, horror, and tragedy. Rizzi was responsive to singers and he also led them, depending on what was right at the moment. The orchestra played its heart out for him (and Puccini).
Tosca can sometimes resemble a clarinet concerto, and the soloist, Inn-hyuck Cho, rose to the occasion.
Years ago, when I was reviewing Radvanovsky regularly, I often said, “The story of Sandra is simple: When she’s ‘hooked up’—in tune—she’s world-beating. When she’s not, she’s not.” On this particular night, she was. Her top was free and powerful, and her bottom was mezzo-like and throbbing (à la Callas). At the beginning of the show, she was coquettish and goofy. Then things took a turn, as they do in Tosca. Radvanovsky’s “Vissi d’arte” was huge—bigger than ever—and exciting as hell. This was not so much a prayer as a show-stopper.
In Act I, Calleja sang a nice “Recondita armonia,” but his ultimate B flat was poor. He held the subsequent F—which ends the aria—forever, as if in compensation, and it was a sweet note, too. In Act II, his high notes were ringing and right. And his Act III aria, “E lucevan le stelle,” was appropriately sweet and heroic, both.
Scarpia was an Italian baritone making his Met debut: Claudio Sgura. Tall and slender, he made a smooth and elegant Scarpia—less snarling and menacing than many, and certainly less brutish, but effective all the same.
Last month, I wrote, “I wondered whether I could go again to La bohème, that hackneyed thing. No problem. Puccini wins you, time after time, especially if the performance—especially if the conducting—is good.” Yes. Tosca too.
“Why do people sneer at Tchaikovsky?” I sometimes pose this question, and I posed it to Valery Gergiev in an interview many years ago. He said, “Too often, Tchaikovsky is performed in an insipid way.” This Russian conductor actually used that fairly sophisticated English word, “insipid.” At Carnegie Hall recently, he conducted the complete Nutcracker. He led his Mariinsky Orchestra, from Saint Petersburg. Not often do you hear The Nutcracker complete, in concert. (You’re apt to get a suite.) Indeed, Carnegie Hall had never had such a performance until 1998, when Gergiev conducted one with this same orchestra.
Last month, I was complaining that a Stravinsky ballet, Petrushka, does not really work as a concert piece. You need the visual, you need the dance. Does The Nutcracker work as a concert piece? I think so, yes. A few pages could really stand dancing. Otherwise, the music dances on its own, so to speak.
In the early 1970s, I believe—at the height of modernism—the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin was asked, “What music are you prepared to listen to right this second?” He answered, “The Nutcracker. I am always prepared to listen to it, because each and every section is a masterpiece.” In an interview last summer, Mariss Jansons, the Latvian conductor, told me a story about Stravinsky. Asked in 1962 to name his favorite composers, he said, “Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Debussy.”
Conducting The Nutcracker, Gergiev was very tough-minded—rigorous. He was as rigorous as he would have been with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or a study by Elliott Carter. There was very little sugar on the sugar plums—just a dusting. I love this approach, but even I would have appreciated a little more warmth now and then. Still, Tchaikovsky was very well served, and The Nutcracker was utterly satisfying, often thrilling. The Arabian Dance was blessedly brisk. The Chinese Dance, by contrast, was more deliberate than it usually is, and that was right too: you lose the charm and character of this dance by going too fast.
The Nutcracker is a woodwind-fest, as many Tchaikovsky pieces are, and the Mariinsky’s woodwinds were first-rate. There is work for other players, too—such as the trumpet. He, too, was first-rate, and he would be the first player asked to stand by Gergiev, when it came time for bows. Balances in the orchestra were unerring. Entrances, too, were unerring—eerily exact. Overall, this was The Nutcracker to the nth degree.
At the end, a cute little girl was in her father’s arms, clapping like crazy. Very Nutcracker, don’t you think?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 59
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