Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie have made a new opera. Gordon is a composer, Korie a librettist. Both are Americans born in the middle 1950s. In the middle 2000s, they made an opera out of The Grapes of Wrath. Now they have made an opera out of another classic novel—this one Italian, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. They have done a very good job of it, I’m happy to report.
The opera had its premiere at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, at the very bottom of Manhattan, on the shore of New York Harbor. The museum is the home of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, a co-presenter of the opera. The other presenter was New York City Opera—which has now been responsible for thirty-seven world premieres.
Giorgio Bassani published this novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, in 1962.
Giorgio Bassani published this novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, in 1962. Eight years later, it was made into a movie, by Vittorio De Sica. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The story is that of Jews in Ferrara, as the Holocaust approaches. “Finzi” is an old Jewish-Italian name. This is the ancestral background of Gerald Finzi, the British composer who lived in the first half of the twentieth century.
In the story, the Finzi-Continis are upper-crust Jews, utterly fixed in Italian society (or so everyone thinks). Other Jews in the story are middle-crust, you might say. The Finzi-Continis are anti-Fascist Republicans, and other Jews in Ferrara are strongly, proudly Fascist. A boy named Giorgio—a stand-in for the author, Giorgio Bassani—loves the Finzi-Contini girl, Micòl. The Finzi-Contini boy, Alberto, loves his college roommate, Giampi (a Communist in the bargain). Neither love is requited. Some of the characters in the story escape Italy to Switzerland; everyone else perishes in the Holocaust.
“Perishes.” What a weak, prissy word. They were murdered.
Ricky Ian Gordon’s score is lyrical, as you might expect an opera to be. He is a very singer-friendly composer. His score often has the feeling of a wash: fluid, horizontal, shimmering. You could describe the score as “neo-Romantic”—not a putdown, in my book. There are harmonies and disharmonies. When the story turns screwy, so does the music. When the story turns ugly, so does the music. The score reflects the action, visible and invisible (physical and mental). Along the way, there are interpolations: of jazzy dance music; of the Fascist anthem, “Giovinezza”; of Hebrew chants. The score is eclectic while avoiding schizophrenia.
Michael Korie’s libretto is intelligent, musical, and interesting.
Michael Korie’s libretto is intelligent, musical, and interesting. I found it interesting at every turn. The libretto is full of rhymes. I remember, for example, that Korie pairs “volley”—as in the flight of a tennis ball—with “Internazionale.” There are snatches of Italian in the libretto. Which leads me to a complaint: In English, the plural of “Finzi-Contini” is “Finzi-Continis.” In Italian, you say simply “i Finzi-Contini.” (The definite article takes care of the plural.) As the characters sang in English, we saw in our supertitles “the Finzi-Continis.” But the singers were singing—in English, mind you—“the Finzi-Contini.” Why? It makes no sense. It is also of little or no import.
In my notes, I jotted down a peculiar phrase: “grand-ish opera.” Gordon and Korie’s opera aims big. It has grand aspirations (not grandiose ones). It is old-fashioned—a word that, like “neo-Romantic,” is not a putdown in my book. There are full-throated choruses, heart-on-sleeve arias, etc. I think of an expression, recently in vogue: “Go big or go home.” Gordon and Korie have gone big, commendably.
The production was in the hands of Richard Stafford and Michael Capasso, who did a lot with a little: a modicum of scenery and the like. The cast was strong, and in more than one sense: there was a lot of oversinging, bordering on bellowing. Too many effs (as in ff and fff). Portraying Giorgio was the tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro, who sang handsomely and convincingly.
Sitting in the theater, I asked myself a question: “Can you divorce the score and the libretto from the story? The story is, obviously, a very moving one. Can you judge the score and the libretto independently of that?” Yes. The composer and librettist have very good material to work with, no doubt. But they have, again, done very well with it.
As I was leaving the theater—the museum—I happened to glance across the water. There was the Statue of Liberty, all lit up. I could not help thinking how precious a thing liberty is, and how vulnerable.
In my chronicle last month, I reported that a concert of the New York Philharmonic had begun with a new work by Joan Tower, the American composer born in 1938. A subsequent concert of the Philharmonic began with an older work of hers: Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1, which premiered in 1987. It is Tower’s most popular work, by a long shot. Lasting about three minutes, it makes a stirring and jolting concert-opener. Needless to say, this piece was prompted by Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man.
The Philharmonic’s program notes informed us that, “as one of the few prominent women composers in classical music, Tower said she was always bothered by Copland’s title, and she intended to turn it upside down.” Some view the word “man” as referring to one sex only. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” The “rights of man.” I never thought that these things were confined to one sex; I have always understood them to embrace all mankind (whoops). But I have learned, from long experience, that you can’t talk people out of “man” as sex-specific. They are unbudgeable (at least by me).
In any event, Tower’s fanfare is a wonderful little creation, and the New York Philharmonic, led by its music director, Jaap van Zweden, played it with rigor and gusto.
Next on the program came a brand-new work—by Joel Thompson, an Atlanta-based composer born in 1988. This work is The Places We Leave, for countertenor and orchestra. It sets a poem by Tracy K. Smith, who is a professor at Harvard (in the department of English and also the department of African and African-American Studies). From 2017 to 2019, she was the U.S. poet laureate. I remember when we first got poets laureate, in the mid-1980s. The inaugural one was Robert Penn Warren. I had nothing against Warren, heaven knows: but I thought it was odd that the American republic—as opposed to a monarchy, let’s say—should have a poet laureate. The post smacked of an official artist. But that debate (did we ever have one? I can’t remember) has long since passed.
The music has bloom, putting it in a Romantic, or neo-Romantic, category.
Smith’s is a good poem and Thompson’s is a good piece. The music is lush, ruminative, and brooding. Then scherzo-like, you could say. Was that a touch of Broadway I heard? The music has bloom, putting it in a Romantic, or neo-Romantic, category. It is Barberesque—beautiful, actually. The music matches the words, in a natural, unshowy way. What’s more, the music is the right length, not overstaying its welcome. This is unusual, in my experience.
The soloist was Anthony Roth Costanzo, who gave the piece a fine launch—a fine start in life. The voice was small, but the singer never forced it. And the voice penetrated—having no trouble being heard. Costanzo’s singing was sometimes conversational, and his diction was excellent. When he was unaccompanied—as he was, briefly—he was confident, with much to be confident about. He phrased the music beautifully, as did the conductor behind him, Van Zweden.
I give The Places We Leave my highest commendation: I would like to hear it again. Also, a question occurs to me: must the soloist be a countertenor, as opposed to some other kind of singer? I don’t see why.
The first half of the concert closed with a beloved symphony, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, the “Classical.” The music reflected Jaap van Zweden’s personality (as well as the composer’s, one should say). It was jaunty, virile, and disciplined. This music can be conducted with a tad more refinement and sweetness. André Previn would have done it that way (and did). But that was André. Jaap is Jaap, and this served the “Classical” Symphony well. The Finale was fleet and electric.
After intermission came a show: excerpts from a new cabaret show, dubbed Only an Octave Apart. The title comes from a song written by the husband-and-wife team of Ken and Marilyn (or “Mitzie”) Welch. For years, they wrote for Carol Burnett—who in 1976 teamed with Beverly Sills for a memorable television special: Sills and Burnett at the Met. The song went, “We’re only an octave apart./ Eight little steps on the musical line./ Eight little steps between your pipes and mine.” The soprano and the comedienne (who could truly sing, though she mainly sang for laughs) were a terrific team.
The new show consists of songs and arias arranged by Nico Muhly. There is “Autumn Leaves,” for example, and “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Non più mesta.” Instead of Sills and Burnett, we had Costanzo and Justin Vivian Bond, described in our program as a “vocalist.” Bond has had a diverse career, in nightclubs, on Broadway, and elsewhere. On this occasion—I can’t vouch for every occasion—Bond appeared in drag.
With microphones, Costanzo and Bond sang their songs and did their shtick.
With microphones, Costanzo and Bond sang their songs and did their shtick. The banter was to your taste or it wasn’t. Same with the singing. For me, there were too many sex jokes, and, worse, not good ones. (Again, this is subjective.) Also, much of the banter was about the show itself: how it came about, how it was going, and so on. A festival of self-reference. To say “If this is your thing, this was your thing” may be a critical cop-out. But I think I will say it. I enjoyed some moments in the show; both performers have talent, needless to say. But I could not quite sit through it.
Frankly, I felt a little embarrassed for Jaap van Zweden, who was conducting. There he was, waving his arms while accompanying “Walk Like an Egyptian.” (I like this 1980s Bangles hit, always have. In this context, however, I found it tough to endure.) By some, Van Zweden is not considered “progressive” enough to helm a modern American orchestra. But there he was, doin’ back-up for d*** jokes and ditching Brahms for the Bangles. What more do you want?
I tried to imagine Riccardo Muti submitting to this. Or George Szell. Or Furtwängler. I could not imagine James Levine either. But there remains this remarkable historical fact: Levine went to see Elaine Stritch’s one-woman show fourteen times, in two different cities. Really, has there ever been a higher tribute paid to an artist? That James Levine came to her show fourteen times?
Into Carnegie Hall came the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra—not to be confused with one of the other London orchestras: the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the bbc Symphony, the Philharmonia . . . London is crawling with orchestras. The Royal Phil. is the one founded by Sir Thomas Beecham right after the war, in 1946.
Today, the rpo’s music director is Vasily Petrenko, not to be confused with Kirill Petrenko. Vasily was born in St. Petersburg—Leningrad, then—in 1976. Kirill was born in Omsk in 1972 and now leads one of the two or three top orchestras in the world: the Berlin Philharmonic. In a review from the Metropolitan Opera two seasons ago, I wrote, “Kirill is the more celebrated Petrenko, but, judging from this Queen of Spades, Vasily is his equal.”
In Carnegie Hall with the Royal Philharmonic, Vasily Petrenko conducted three of the Greatest Hits in the British repertoire. The concert might as well have come wrapped in a Union Jack. The orchestra played the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (Britten), the Elgar Cello Concerto, and The Planets (Holst). I will touch briefly on all three—plus encores.
Often, the Sea Interludes are gauzy, Impressionistic. From Petrenko and the rpo, they were unusually transparent, cohesive, and precise.
Often, the Sea Interludes are gauzy, Impressionistic. From Petrenko and the rpo, they were unusually transparent, cohesive, and precise. You could have written the score down, from listening to this performance. Certainly the interludes were “sea-like” enough—but they were not lost at sea, if you will. The rpo under Petrenko showed itself a very disciplined machine, and at the same time an amply musical one.
The soloist in the Elgar Cello Concerto was Kian Soltani, “born in Bregenz, Austria, in 1992 to a family of Persian musicians.” (I have quoted from his bio.) What a mature, skillful player he is. He produced a beautiful sound and handled technical challenges with no sweat. This concerto, by both soloist and orchestra, can be played with more emotion—more operatically, even. This performance was restrained (as befits a British hit?). The word I want to use is “neat”—the performance was neatly packaged. And yet it had the undercurrents—the emotional undercurrents—that you want, and these in the right places became “overcurrents.”
It was clear that Soltani would play an encore, and I wondered which sarabande from the Bach cello suites it would be. Instead, Soltani called on some friends in the cello section to play with him an excerpt from a Shostakovich film score—that to The Gadfly—in an arrangement by Soltani himself. This was a refreshing idea, executed by one and all with beauty and grace.
About The Planets, I wish to make a confession: I had forgotten just how good a work it is. Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra reminded me. Mars was martial, Jupiter was jolly, Neptune was mystical. They say of Queen Elizabeth II, “She never puts a foot wrong.” Neither did Petrenko or this orchestra.
As the audience applauded, Petrenko made gestures as if to say, “Would you like an encore or are you ready to go home?” The audience wanted more. Here Petrenko departed from the British theme to go Russian: to play “Dance of the Tumblers” from Tchaikovsky’s Snow Maiden. (Rimsky-Korsakov wrote one of these, too—a “Dance of the Tumblers” and a Snow Maiden.) The dance was compact, gay, and buoyant. A marvelous send-off.
I thought of another Russian conductor who once led the Royal Phil.: Yuri Temirkanov (who since 1988 has been chief in St. Petersburg). He likes to play Elgar at encore time, actually. He loves either the Nimrod Variation, from the Enigma Variations, or Salut d’amour. I met him once, about ten years ago. “A lot of us prize your recording of the Rachmaninoff Second with the rpo,” I said. (This album came out in 1978.) He touched my face appreciatively and said, “I didn’t know what I was doing!” Yes, he did (and I believe he knows it, too).
I have a smidgeon of space left for the Quartetto di Cremona—which deserves more than a smidgeon of space. This string quartet from Italy was formed in 2000. “Cremona” is a proud name for string players—the home of Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri, and other immortal luthiers. The Quartetto di Cremona appeared in Alice Tully Hall under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
They began with a rarely heard work of Prokofiev (known for various genres of music, but not chamber music): the String Quartet No. 1 in B minor. The Cremonese players showed themselves a sensible and adept group. They did nothing false, demonstrating only honest musicianship.
For their next piece, they called on a ringer: David Shifrin, the veteran American clarinetist. He joined them for the quintet of Carl Maria von Weber, that great friend of clarinetists. Shifrin has been wowing audiences for—could it be?—fifty years. He can still do it. As I have argued in these pages for many years, he is one of the outstanding instrumentalists—outstanding musicians—of our time.
On the second half of the concert, the Cremonese played a single work: the Quartet No. 1 in D minor by Schoenberg. It takes a special ensemble to play this long, brainy, and soulful work. Otherwise, ensembles should leave it alone. The Quartetto di Cremona did the work justice.
For their encore, they called back Shifrin to the stage. Their selection: the Larghetto from the Mozart quintet. Shifrin played in impossibly long and beautiful breaths. From him and the four gentlemen of Cremona, it was a first-rate evening, bordering on the transcendent.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 7, on page 56
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com