Auf Wiederhören

Thirty-odd concerts since September between Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Missed a handful of the best offerings: Thomas Adès’s brilliantly programmed Carnegie recital, Muti’s Met conducting debut with Attila (how I heart Ildar Abdrazakov—ever since seeing his 2004 Met debut as Masetto), Lulu at the Met with Marlies Peterson who rules that role. And no time through the wintry blur to justly register some of the best I did see: both nights of Jansons / Royal Concertgebouw, both nights of Chailly / Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Ravel magic of Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

My three penultimate concerts before ending the season with Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre:

May 14, Avery Fisher Hall
Kurt Masur / New York Philharmonic
Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Bruckner Symphony No. 7

It is actually not enough to say that this was the best Bruckner one might ever hear from the NY Philharmonic. This was the NY Phil setting a new personal best, period—exercising more power and precision than have recently seemed within its (Maazel’s, Gilbert’s) grasp. Though Masur’s Seventh couldn’t compete with benchmark renditions like Böhm’s or von Karajan’s—and wouldn’t suffice to restore this orchestra to a place among the true Big Five—it was without a doubt the most satisfying Bruckner New York has gotten all year. (Earlier disappointments here.) Incredibly radiant from the outset, this performance proceeded with care and utter concentration. The strings intently bore the considerable pressure put on them (slight fuzziness in the Finale apart); the brass consistently rose to the occasion with strong sonorities. So much of Bruckner is just about waiting, heart full yet without eagerness. Here, in the brooding, majestic Adagio especially, one did not ever wait for the wait to end.

May 20, Carnegie Hall
Yundi Li, all-Chopin program

The Chopin bicentennial at Carnegie Hall has brought inspired playing from Murray Perahla and Emanuel Ax and less inspired playing by Maurizio Pollini, already half a dozen Chopin-dominated concerts in all. But Chopin played by Yundi Li (or Yundi, his new mono-moniker) still sounded different. There was an inner muscularity here subtending even the most yielding of phrases. It was not just a matter of agilest fingerwork but of having swum deep and feelingly through the material until he flowed into it and it through him.

The crescendo in the Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 came as rich, weighted surge—almost imperceptible as actual volume adjustment. A controlled yet ferocious rendition of the Opus 22 Grand Polonaise lacked no grandeur, yet also took space to experiment with abstraction at the edges. The Second Sonata began with micro-ripples in a stormy sea; its Marche funèbre tolled as slow volley; and its final movement—all wing-craft. As the elegant execution of the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 evinced, Li is no triumphalist even at his most energetic.

So much Chopin gets played in nearly isolated huddles of reverie or bursts of virtuosity, between stretches of vague etude or quietude. Li delivered these pieces gathering through time—long, lyrical lines sinuously weaving through, weaving together, each whole.

Sending an appreciative murmur of recognition through the Chinese audience, the first encore, The Moon Chased by Colorful Clouds, could not have been suppler and more shimmering. (Although critics’ ubiquitous comparisons between the two young Chinese pianists have absurdly little to do with music: this piece made Lang Lang’s version last fall during Carnegie’s Ancient Voices, Modern Paths festival seem mere pretty crispness).

Who in their right mind for a second encore—after hours of pianistic exertion—would fling themselves into the Revolutionary Etude? Who’d have strength left to pull it off with such tempestuous yet decisive passion? Yet for Li this didn’t even seem daring. It felt inevitable.

May 21, Carnegie Hall
Franz Welser-Möst / Cleveland Orchestra
Beethoven Coriolan Overture & Eroica Symphony; Berg Lulu Suite

Lulu was played beautifully and with admirable commitment, yet its gauzy protractedness begged an uncomfortable question: should a piece like this retain a place in the concert-hall repertoire? Certain operatic and dance scores do not need to be staged to command attention: e.g., Stravinsky’s ballets, Wagner’s overtures, one-act tours de force like Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle. But Lulu even in its suite abbreviation suffers from unstaged presentation—can start sounding like atmospheric film music. About halfway through, this Friday night Carnegie crowd began trading sighing looks and thumbing smartphones. The final work on the program, Eroica, was taken at a clipped pace and refreshed after intermission. But one doubts the audience would have erupted in such eager ovation without a soupçon of self-congratulation for its stamina through the Berg. For all its channeling of warmth and adrenaline, the Cleveland Orchestra had something soft-focus at its sonic edges that gave it a classic, gramophone patina—compared to the almost piercing brightness of Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance, during its Le sacre at Carnegie last month. As ever, one is reminded of that obscure alchemy to which an orchestra owes its “sound.”

CARNEGIE HALL | Boulez Bluebeard

Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

RAVEL | Le Tombeau de Couperin
DALBAVIE | Flute Concerto (Mathieu Dufour, flute)
BARTÓK | Bluebeard’s Castle (Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Falk Struckmann, bass-baritone)

To carry Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle to its bloodcurdling pitch without recourse to hysterics is to understand the work as tragedy rather than horror. Or to understand that its horror is the bare tragic truth of human needfulness. At its most quotidian, the Bartók-Balázs take on Perrault’s tale flings into a void two souls in a state of needful unknowing. A man craves unconditional love—“Kiss me, kiss me, ask me nothing”—yet mistrusts every expression of such love and so remains murderously unslaked. A woman loves, but her love is fraught by curiosity—jealousy’s arsenal—and so she self-annihilates precisely by asking and asking.

Why she has agreed to join him is his keynote question—a question that shifts in tone from tremulous insecurity to protective fear for her to blame of her for triggering the inevitable. That she loves him is her uniform justification. Her “I love you”s beam out like a weapon—the way too overt selflessness does—shielding herself by clutching him to her: give me the keys because I love you, she sings, let me into every door because I love you. But it’s folly, for so many reasons, to seek such a trade. When the six doors have been opened onto their bloodstained vistas and Door Seven reveals Bluebeard’s former loves, Judith is dazzled into an utterly paltry state of feeling: her antecedents, she sings, have all been fairer than she. Yet it is just as he finally utters the words she’d been aching to hear—“You are queen of all my women, / My best and fairest!”—that she quiescently enters the Seventh Door, finally knowing and accepting her fate to be the same as everyone else’s.

Bartók’s score for the emotionally stark, seething, precipitous world that happens between these two lone voices completely chills and engrosses. Falk Struckmann’s Bluebeard was just right in its melancholy and solemnity, though occasionally more subdued in volume than so large a hall, so great an accompanying orchestra, could really accommodate. Michelle DeYoung, her mettle now proven through Mahler and Wagner, effectively conveyed Judith’s eager, ample-hearted innocence and gave it the slightest tinge of obsessiveness. But more expressive than either singer was the Chicago Symphony itself—whether in the high violin tremolos behind the First Door and evocation of shivering rivulets of blood, the unrelenting trumpet behind the Second Door escalating to a clang of violence, the hypnotic shimmer and deceptive reverie behind the Third Door, or, at the Sixth, the thunderous drumming of tears.

[Postscript: Couldn’t make it to this series, unfortunately, for further Bluebeard meditations.]

METROPOLITAN OPERA | Rush-Tix Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier
Wednesday, January 6, 2010, 7:30 PM

Conductor: Edo de Waart
Production: Nathaniel Merrill
Stage Director: Robin Guarino
Main Cast: Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Susan Graham (Octavian), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Baron Ochs), Christine Schäfer (Sophie), Eric Cutler (Italian tenor).

The first twenty people or so who make it into line for the Met’s $20 Varis Rush Tickets—a precious pool of 150 $100-value orchestra seats offered the day of most weeknight performances—begin waiting beneath the opera house, against a wall, in a dim pocket of the elegantly named “concourse level.” (After that the line starts snaking past doors and into back lobbies. The tickets start selling two hours before curtain, but those lining up less than three hours before that are often already too late.) For last night’s Der Rosenkavalier I made it to the front-most ten. In this space for the earliest, steeliest of arrivals—a sort of mezzanine above the Lincoln Center subway—the air-flow in winter gets very, very cold, thanks to an open door to the garage that in turn leads to a pedestrian walkway to the outside. This drafty back-end to that most laboriously, opulently contained of Gesamtkunstwerk spaces becomes a small site where opera unexpectedly becomes quite porous to the world, not only a simulation of or sanctuary from it.

The human flow here keeps things interesting: workers in hard-hats going on lunch break, security guards pausing for casual monitoring and friendly chat, dancers with duffels and alert faces rushing to their auditions, Met patrons who’ve just bought their (face-value) tickets from the box office and can already get on with their day, tour groups of adorable school-kids, a few of whom will generously guess at still grander rewards for this scarf-swaddled group hardily slumped along the wall. “No, they’re not here to audition,” the tour-guide brightly answers, summing up the rush-ticket system: “They’re going to be waiting for five hours. These are dedicated opera lovers.” (Quiet wows, curious stares, good-luck waves.)

In line there’s plenty of conversation to join in or eavesdrop on. These early pros bring not only snacks and reading—not one but two books—to pass the five, six hours, but fleece blankets and astonishingly compact folding chairs. (For these latter comforts I had no such foresight.) Before long one finds oneself negotiating coffee runs for place-holding, offering insider ticketing tales of triumph and dejection, policing would-be line-cheaters (this gets to be a real problem by mid-afternoon, when the 75th in line has a sure ticket while the 76th might already be out of luck), and of course trading invective, adulatory, or still receptively undecided thoughts on singers and stagings with the newbies, gossips, and walking Grove dictionaries that populate one’s line-neighborhood. It might be nice to generalize this crowd as composed of a special, honorable demographic—diehard opera fans whose passion exceed their means—but happily in this city it’s hard to tell. Some simply want a better seat than what’s left for sale at the box-office, or can’t pass up a good bargain, or don’t at all mind waiting when friends—or strangers for that matter—are there to keep them company and talk up a marathon storm about opera (such talk being a luxury in itself). A most illustrious-looking elderly lady in the most luxuriously fuchsia of wool coats was reading, of all things, a dog-eared paperback of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row—a curious image only if one forgets the Great Depression, or the elementary and persistent appeal of communal fortitude, or Doc’s love in that novel of Monteverdi.

[Fleming’s Marschallin, Graham’s Octavian]

Der Rosenkavalier ends with a perfect dyad: Octavian and Sophie, young lovers of commensurate age, have eyes now only for each other and a self-fulfilling sense of their union as dreamiest gift, “through all time and forever.” The 17-year-old youth has been relinquished by his 32-year-old mistress the Marschallin; his 15-year-old bride has just wrested free of her arranged marriage to 35-year-old Baron Ochs. Strauss famously stated that the Marschallin, who has done the most giving up, is not a tragic figure, in part as we’re meant to know that Octavian is neither her first lover nor her last. (And during the night with Octavian she even dreamt of her husband, the much-absent Feldmarschall whom we, too, never get to meet.) Presumably we are merely seeing, then, one rich episode from her history of passions. All’s well, surely, that ends so well. Yet this opera is among the saddest I know. If the singing is at all better than competent, as it was last night, one’s bones can be left aching with misery.

I last saw Der Rosenkavalier at the Met in March 2005, starring Angela Denoke and Susan Graham, in this same Nathaniel Merrill production that’s been going for four decades. In a good way, last night’s felt sadder. There was a certain quietness to the Marschallin as played by Renée Fleming, who gave tender, supple voice to the role, her bearing all graceful restraining of self and enlightened relenting to others. Susan Graham as Octavian was a believable boy, chivalrously brash (ready to duel Sophie’s whole household) and domestically bumbling: once disguised as maid Mariandel he’s woefully incompetent at making up a simple bed—pitching pillows at the headboard like a game of ring toss. (Indeed, Octavian might be fit for little more than the socially respectable, servant-propped marriage he gets, with Sophie managing those servants.) Kristinn Sigmundsson played a Baron Ochs who, while looking rather older than the 35-year-old “rustic beau” Strauss imagined, was just obnoxious enough to dominate his scenes, jolly enough to be forgiven long before the end. The character of Sophie did not gain so much by Christine Schäfer’s clear yet slightly fragile voice, but as the Marschallin tells the character with proper condescension: “You don’t need to talk so much; you’re pretty enough.”

Octavian’s incessant, bored work at those pillows may not be without its point. It is precisely for the opening scene of the Marschallin and Octavian draped across and rolling around each other—amid that abundance of pillows in wonderful disarray—that we might soon grow nostalgic. Back then to the misery. No other lover of the Marschallin gets braided into this story, after all, for symmetry or fugal continuity. Having married the Feldmarschall at a tender age herself—presumably having missed out on consorting with her peers—she is quite justified in taking on tender Octavian, if justification is needed, but this cycle of inexorable asymmetry is just what she puts an end to when she delivers Octavian to Sophie. Here, as everywhere, (a kind of) death mars the picture: whatever Strauss’s lighter intent, there is the sense that her own life of desire has come to dusk, that her sacrifice is a too final one, and if what has dawned is a maturity able to offer to and demand from love more than possession: So what? So what if there is an art of losing and she has mastered it—losing farther, losing faster? So what if the role-shift from mistress to benefactress amounts to a moral self-surpassing? So what, even, if her sacrifice empowers her with agency, when such agency knows itself merely to be expediting the inevitable? Her renunciation is still a resignation that gains little comfort from its wisdom—the knowledge that this, too, shall pass; he will tire of her, she sings, “Today or tomorrow or the next day.” For all that wisdom avails of is a second-best way to live. The only way to rescue resignation from becoming passive and terminally inconsolable is by turning it into an act of generous, purposive orchestration—here, the timely chaperoning of Octavian to his age-appropriate fate. She cannot turn back time; this is how she refuses to be its casualty. Through the much-acknowledged tedium of the intervening comic scenes, the Marschallin as if by this sheer temporal protraction of the drama already attenuates, and in effect, true to her own fast-forwarded future-gazing, superannuates.

Given this subdued sacrifice, this adjustment of social cycles, which is also the Marschallin’s willful counteracting of her own earlier approach to time—the adjustment of the clocks in her house to standstill—Der Rosenkavalier feels like an aubade to an entire age. The Marschallin and Baron Ochs present, after all, two ways older, established powers can deploy their privileged role: ensuring the happiness of those with still the most to live, or, draining those young of their youth to maintain one’s own (admittedly undiminished) appetites. (It is fitting that everywhere he looks—Octavian, Mariandel—Ochs sees always the same face; what his all-you-can-score approach to love experiences is not addictive diversity but iterations of the same. But this precisely has kept him going as the perpetually turned-on and, when he, too, relents in Act III, the likably easy-going personality.) Indeed, when Sophie nearly loses heart in the final trio, seeing the final wistful gazes between her superior and her beloved, she wonders whether Octavian, too, had been a benefactor all along, extending nothing more than “friendship and assistance.”

The retro-Mozartian 18th-century setting offers not only a generic template, then, but also a historical alienation-effect that can more visibly recommend a stepping aside of orthodox authorities, or better yet a caring for posterity that becomes possible when those authorities accept their own imminent obsolescence. Had Adorno been more generous toward Strauss in general perhaps he could have entertained this possibility that Der Rosenkavalier, rather than an inflection point for the composer’s decline into bourgeois decadence, may also serve as a historical-generational parable. The 1911 opera was by no means prophetic, but would perhaps resonate nonetheless in a disturbing way, however inconclusively, with the old-feuds-driven, youth-scything war soon to come.

Yet one need not speculatively abstract the tale beyond its human characters to feel the vertigo of its depths. There are darker implications, too, that haunt the Marschallin’s designs. Every passionate love may carry within itself something that propels it toward thunderous and premature termination. That the culture’s most engaging dramas of such termination pose the problem in the form of other persons, be it Karenin or King Mark, and/or in the form of values, be it the sanctity of matrimony or the interdiction of incest, suggests a short-hand surrogation. The dyad in its airless mutuality would be hard-pressed, after all, to suffice as a sole sustaining life-world. And yet the faith in its self-sustenance, in its viable, even inevitable eternity, is also its lifeblood—and that lifeblood, too, must get its chance to pulse. (The Arthurian version might have clinched the problem best: what’s jeopardized is not marital fidelity but Round Table and Grail. On the other hand, of course, Guinevere has no place in that egalitarian economy potentially of holy war.) The Marschallin would rather have the killing awareness of finitude flung across the bright path before the path itself begins to fade. What Luhmann called double contingency produces for her, at her age and stage, less the stimulations of coding and gaming than a recognition of certain despair.

Darker still: rather than the gift of life to this pair, the Marschallin leaves Octavian and Sophie to a shared death. In the simplest biological terms, they will share a commensurate lifespan. Theirs is a young love so pure, so pristinely fused, that it may never be available for knowing other loves. Their very symmetry, then, may be a form of death. And that death may offer the Marschallin the only advantage she can claim. She may die alone, but she will not be bound to die with another. She is one step ahead of Adam Phillips’s ruthless musing: “At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with. At its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.” Clearing up the confusion may not, of course, enable or necessitate a different existence; the terrors of aliveness are real, as are the gratifications of company. For its part, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s extraordinary libretto intimates that this best and this worst are quite interchangeable (and maybe interchangeably bad). Sophie’s love for Octavian has something desperately agoraphobic about it: “I want to hide with you and to know nothing more of this world.” (Phillips again: “We have couples because it is impossible to hide alone.”) Later Octavian gravely intones, “For yourself and for me you must stay—…” “Stay?” asks Sophie. “Stay as you are.” How bitter a mandate this loving wish must strike anyone who’s been paying attention. The opera’s very first words had been Octavian’s exalting of the Marschallin in her past and her present: “Wie Du warst! Wie Du bist!” From this mandate to Sophie, and from his dumbed-down version of the Marschallin’s wisdom when singing in Act III as Mariandel, it is clear that he has yet to learn anything about time. Strauss was attuned to and would musically fine-tune Hoffmannsthal’s nuances. In the opera’s final lines, Octavian declares that “I feel only you, just you, and the fact that we’re together. Everything else flees from my senses like a dream,” while Sophie half-asks, half-insists innocuously whether/that the resolution is a “dream; it can’t be real, that we two are together, for all time and eternity.” But all this declarative security is trailed in the score by descending woodwinds that evoke at once indeed the slipping into a dream and something still more open-ended, hesitant, contingent. One almost feels that in these notes the Marschallin’s presence lingers, as she alone absorbs and alone will endure the consequences (for now) of what time bears out. Auden was right that Hoffmannsthal’s libretto is “too near to real poetry.” Popular “Komödie für Musik” as it is, maybe this opera can also be understood—or at least experienced—as exquisitely near to real tragedy.

LA SCALA Opening Night in HD | Carmen

[Anita Rachvelishvili before her admirers]

If I were to reduce to a single word Anita Rachvelishvili’s La Scala debut yesterday as Carmen (the HD simulcast of which I saw at Symphony Space), it might be “sovereignty.” She reigned supreme. This Carmen was the center around which all else could only hope to hold and the sole circumference of her own self. Men in heat fanned themselves and fell aside. Women melted toward her like heliotropes to the sun. During the Habanera, elevated atop a mere water trough outside her factory, she was a radiant and pungent Venus, rising out of the blander foam of humanity. That is, even if one would want from the Carmencita of one’s dreams more slithery a seduction dance during the “Je vais danser en votre honneur” bit—done here without castanets, freeing her hands for much skirt-play—than Rachvelishvili’s potently self-possessed rendition.

Too many ideas can spoil an opera, and this may have been the case with Emma Dante’s staging, wherein cloth and fiber figured prominently as the materials of inspiration. Act III opened to a shifting formation of trees played by actors completely cloaked in heavily pleated cloth and topped with thickets of fir—definitely not a bad way to spike a Pleats Please runway with a gothic touch, but distracting here as a visual demographic once joined onstage by smugglers and black-veiled, death-messaging wraiths. A translucent white cloth spanning the entire middle of the stage, slowly stretched over Micaela during her first visit to Don José, made a point well-taken—she in her pale cocoon of love and purity, oblivious that Don José is already lost to another—but one felt a bit sorry for Adriana Damato, who had to push her arms about and sing on in that gauze (too like a mosquito net?). Micaela endures another illusionistic gag in Act III when, returning to beg Don José to leave his wicked life, a giant pillow and giant billowing bed-sheet (supplied by “invisible” stage-hands) suddenly render her an apparition of Don José’s dying mother and no less helpless. Her head and upper torso swimming in this sea of white, the effect had the scale-jolting strangeness of Alice in Wonderland—an interesting idea but wasted in this opera. More effective creativity with fiber gave us two long, thick ropes tied to Carmen’s wrists during the Seguidilla, each rope hanging from each upper corner of the set. The rope tenses and slackens as she sways and leans, such that the precise position of her incarcerated body, all extremities stretched, understandably makes Don José lose his wits at just this moment. All these outstretchings of cloth—including also a brilliantly choreographed bit with banderillos spinning in and out of taut swathes of red silk that are by turns banners and cummerbunds—had a way of activating the stage as highly tensile and flexile space.

In addition to some heavy-handed Catholic iconography—e.g., a giant swinging thurible bisecting the upper stage in Act IV, lots of big tilted crosses, and assorted uses of chiaroscuro and vanishing-point symmetries straight out of Dan Brown’s film adaptations (the author was in attendance)—Dante’s staging also offered commentary on the effects of the adult world on children. In the “Avec la garde montante” scene, the children who mimic the soldiers really march about in uniform—a troubling sight. When Don José gets out of prison, Carmen welcomes him with an indoor picnic setup that “Papi” Presidente might call “the big bed.” Around the edge of this blanket several young girls from the gypsy band sit watching as their default role-model dances her “Je vais danser en votre honneur” aria, at once seducing Don José and educating her prepubescent audience.

[Jonas Kaufmann as Don José]

There’s lots to say about the interpretive liberty in the final scene—rape—and the downright bestial band of teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling gypsy women as Dante chose to depict them, but probably not much that hasn’t already been said.

Jonas Kaufmann captured Don José’s earnest ardor as well as desperate infantilism with pathos and a beautiful voice he certainly knows how to sculpt. I’d be especially eager to hear his recording of Schubert Lieder, and to see his Lohengrin, which premiered in Munich this summer, as that seems a great role for him. Erwin Schrott, not only lovely to look at (as Anna Netrebko knows), made for an irresistible Escamillo—his voice rich and commanding, his expressions and gestures full of heartbreaker antics. Frasquita and Mercédès were honey-voiced and acted with care by Michele Losier and Adriana Kučerová.

Among the peculiarities of the HD presentation is a frontal view of the conductor during the overtures. Barenboim, fidgeting with what did seem a precariously diminutive high-chair, produced some endearingly comical expressions. More importantly, of course, the La Scala orchestra under his leadership made the proceedings musically exciting all the way through, too, especially the woodwinds and strings so crucial for this score.

METROPOLITAN OPERA | From the House of the Dead

[the trash collectors]

Leoš Janáček, From the House of the Dead
[Z mrtvého domu]
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 8PM

Production: Patrice Chéreau
Associate Director: Thierry Thieu Niang
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Main Cast: Willard White (Alexandr Gorjančikov), Eric Stoklossa (Aljeja)
Stefan Margita (Filka Morozov)

How to make a narrative of so relentless yet monotonous, time-ravaging and exitless an experience as life in this Siberian prison camp? Janàček’s oneiric, episodic opera—a very selective adaptation of Dostoevsky’s memoir-novel Notes from the House of the Dead [Записки из мертвого дома]—does not err that way. What does happen here: a death, an education, an unredemptive recognition, an evanescent collaboration. Only one of the men has a definite future outside. Other prisoners sing songs that refer invariably to their lives before, what landed them in the hope-shorn present. That one of them falls dead during this lean duration, hardly 100 minutes and sans intermission, gives us but an accidental glimpse into the men’s collectively terminal prospects. (And when Filka/Luka dies while Shishkov insistently, obliviously keeps singing, story-song takes on a Scheherazade effect.) Save the sparse chance encounter, enmity or complicity with one another from the outside—we’re never sure just how long ago—they are joined only by their common condition. Save sympathy for and sublimation through a winged animal they tend back to flight, they seem barely related in feeling. These are men who have wronged and are wronged. Dostoevsky’s stand-in, political prisoner Gorjančikov—whose entrance launches the drama but whose own past stays unknown—is the only character who attempts meaningful action within the prison, but his attempt to give young Aljeja a future (by teaching him to read) occurs only at the very margins.

Patrice Chéreau’s set of minimalist but hulking geometries and gunmetal grays in the prison yard, sparse thin-frame beds in the barracks, lends an industrial air to the premises. Over the course of the overture, materializing one by one from darkness, thirty-some prisoners slowly tread onto stage—lifeless, lumbering figures in search of space. We see the joyless swinging of buckets, hear the cold crackling of ankle shackles. One man in a corner lights a cigarette—retrieving something like personal experience thereby—and in the darkness, by default, the spark and smoke mark him as almost individual. A brawl suddenly erupts between two men for no apparent reason, because in this place there’s every reason, and the way their peers immediately converge at that wrestling knot to break it up reveals at once this group’s self-regulation and, such bare and by now habitual restoration of equilibrium apart, disaggregation as its default. In this meticulous opening scene Chéreau shows two other circumstances under which these men will readily self-assemble: the rough but swift lining up for sop ladled from buckets; the game to be had of kicking around a shoe as a ball.

The eagle, about which there’s been much discussion, soon suggests another, more poignant and more promising coming together. Upon discovering this wounded bird fallen into their midst, one prisoner starts running around with a blanket cape and stew-pot helmet in wishful mimicry. But other prisoners try raising the bird into the air. This image of arms raised aloft, the bird the high vertex of their bodies and their longings, was absolutely unforgettable. Having now seen this in person—from the nearness of the tenth row in orchestra—one can judge as moot the controversy surrounding the intended verisimilitude of this bird. Whatever Janàček’s vision, I’m not sure Chéreau intended this moment to constitute an event any more singular than the characters’ cycling through of twice-told tales. Indeed, when eventually freed into flight—to cries of “The eagle is czar!”—the bird is furtively tucked back, wings folded, into the old man’s coat.

My favorite directorial moment in this staging comes during the transition between the First and Second Acts: an avalanche of paper rubbish crashing in from above onto the vacated stage, leaving the entire set smoking with dust and debris like some aftermath of war. Not manna from heaven but an injunction to useless labor, this mess draws the men back to slowly repopulate the stage with clean-up baskets and a heavy work-song. In an affecting use of real time, the stage by the end of the scene has been entirely cleared.

In the libretto, between personal histories and two pantomimes, some solitary lines cut through. “A prisoner owns nothing.” “My dear children—I’ll never see you again.” “You’re my father!” cries Aljeja when bidding his mentor and friend farewell, while Gorjančikov can only reply, “My child! I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” But of all the heartbreaking truths surely this is the most tragic: “My eyes will never again see the land where I was born.”

There is much to be written on opera’s treatment of prison life. The pertinent scenes in Fidelio and Don Carlo would be richest next to From the House of the Dead, although in both of those works the inevitable individuations of romantic love get in the way of more radically exploring the possibility of populous camaraderie, while here the possibility proves precarious even when no other relation can suffice to surrogate.

On the issue of the supertitles: shifting placement helped them to melt into the set, and these projections could even have implied a quiet acknowledgment of the drama’s textual origins. I’d love to see the Met incorporate this method into other productions.

CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen & Symphony #7

[program for the New York premiere of Mahler’s 7th, from the Carnegie Hall archives]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 8 PM
STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, cond. Daniel Barenboim
Thomas Hampson, Baritone

MAHLER | Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen & Symphony No. 7

I will never know the Seventh well enough, but strongly suspect that Barenboim could know it better, too. At least he took a score with him to the podium this time. His Fifth had seemed to me ‘indefatigable,’ and it was true enough last night as well that the musicians kept going, and going. But rarely did the music, amid all that music-making, much soar, or move, or shape. I almost haven’t the heart to review the memory thereof, and since coming home have had to listen to a few recorded accounts (Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado) just to revive a sense of this work’s revelations.

With his reading of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which opened the program, Hampson proved the more satisfying of the two Thomases this series, if not the most memorable Mahlerian wayfarer one can imagine. His voice settled into the songs with assured familiarity, and issued notes richer and most robust than those we’ve been hearing from Quasthoff. Occasionally, though, perhaps in an interpretive affect of simplicity, he moved from note to note with a strange discreteness that seemed to prioritize note-intoning over line-contouring. This, too, entirely differed from Quastoff’s way of sliding toward a note then skimming upon its surface. The alarming exception to Hampson’s mastery was an alteration to the first verse of ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ that switched a crucial craning note to one several notes lower—an untoward, if helpless, falsification. This bizarre moment aside, he remained a trusty presence, and it was a pleasure to see him perform as capably and comfortably in-role here as I’ve seen him at the Met, whether as Don Giovanni or Amfortas or Onegin.

Mahler Intermission

A compelling essay in the May issue of Opera News by the Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott persuasively addresses the vexing question of Mahler’s vital yet fraught relationship to opera:

[…] Opera-lovers tend to think of song and symphony as the rudiments of opera, as if opera were the natural apotheosis of two lesser forms. But the nineteenth century proved otherwise. Mastering both song and symphony seems almost to have been a hindrance to mastering opera, if one considers the careers of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Perhaps it is more remarkable that Mahler managed to elaborate song into symphonic structures than that he never wrote an opera.

Opera-lovers may not be comfortable with the inevitable conclusion to this query, that for Mahler, writing an opera would have been a step backward. Wagner elaborated musical works over vast arches of time through essentially dramatic means, textual and narrative. Mahler elaborated equally impressive fusions of word and music, but through essentially musical means. Listen to his greatest symphonies. A narrative arc, anything so mundane as a story, would diminish them. For Mahler’s voices to elaborate characters would be ridiculous, because they speak with a distilled power that can’t be limited by the usual parameters of the theater. The lack of a great opera from Mahler wasn’t a failure; it was a sign that he had transcended the form.

CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Symphony #2


Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 8 PM
Westminster Symphonic Choir, dir. Eberhard Friedrich
Soloists: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)

MAHLER | Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’

For me, as for many Mahler devotees I’ve known or known of (and not only the fabled Gilbert Kaplan, for whom it was a veritable idée fixe), the Second Symphony [‘Resurrection’] was the most decisive portal into this composer’s oeuvre. During my high school years, after an English teacher lent me a recording of Abbado’s 1976 recording with the Chicago SO on Deutsche Grammophone—which I listened to probably some twenty times before buying my own copy—I went to the local library and checked out every recording of this work I could get my hands on (Bernstein, Solti, Haitink, Kaplan, Mehta, Maazel, et al., some of which were incredibly forgettable). Gradual listening to the other symphonies, then the Lieder—helped along the way by brief lurk-time on MAHLER-L and a Mahler seminar in college—sealed Mahler as the composer closest to my heart. My two go-to recordings of this symphony are now Klemperer’s with the Philharmonia on EMI and, after all these years, that old Abbado disc; occasionally, in less impatient moods, I turn to Rattle’s attentive 1986 rendition. (Many of these just mentioned are discussed in Tony Duggan’s fine omnibus review of Second Symphony recordings.) None of the others I’ve come across has really managed to bore itself into the soul. Soul-gripping and soul-assailing and soul-transporting—that is the power of this symphony when done right.

Puzzlingly, despairingly, last night’s Staatskapelle Berlin performance, led by Pierre Boulez, felt at times almost procedural, and although the orchestra and chorus lacked no power when it mattered, not until Urlicht and the final movement did the execution begin truly to rise to the score. The opening was, it must be said, extremely promising. I’ve always thought that the cellos in the opening section should have a shade of brutality, of raw and earthy rumble: it is something like the sound of existence’s grappling with earthliness, and this grappling requires a lot of textured traction. The Staatskapelle’s cellists were superb in digging into their strings here, and curiously this effect was even augmented by Boulez’s directions stipulating an unusual slowness, protracting the push and pull of strokes. As the movement went on, however, the sense of musical as well as emotional continuity became tenuous. What did those hearing (or truly listening to) this for the first time last night make, say, of some superficial abruptnesses in the music? Why a seeming biding of time one minute, and a minute later a clashing of cymbals startling everybody who’s nodded off? Mahler’s symphonies are never mere stories, but each amounts to far more than any Eliotian ‘heap of broken images.’ Each Mahlerian fragment bears within it the longing for wholeness, the wishful memory of wholeness; often longing is the story. At best, Mr. Boulez seemed interested in excavating the sonic textures of certain segments rather than in unfolding for us the whole. Indeed, in the second and third movements especially, perhaps wary of too-easy drama, he seemed to hold back a bit too much, resulting in an inscrutable plainness. One ached for a more vigilant treatment of the transitions—a more responsible communication, even, of the ebbs and flows, the whims and the throes, of feeling.

The Staatskapelle players sounded terrific overall, for their part, as did the Westminster Symphonic Choir (which sang this work with the NYPhil directed by Kaplan last December, and will appear again this cycle for Mahler’s Third and Eighth). Moments of vulnerability among the brass were more audible this time, unfortunately, and I found myself wishing—for this symphony at least—for a more glistening, gauzy sound from the violin section. Apart from the ever lovely cellos, the true star of the evening was the lush and capacious voice of Michelle DeYoung. (I saw her last as Venus in a wonderful Tannhäuser at the Met in December 2004, which also starred Deborah Voight, Thomas Hampson, and Peter Seiffert.) Pending her vibrato—which needs just a slight diminution for this music—I dare say she has the potential to become one of the great Mahlerian mezzos of our time.

Theodor Adorno was right to focus on Mahler’s ‘breakthroughs’—when the music exceeds itself, swells up from its own ground, toward new luminosities or into new tumult—a pattern of almost inexplicable mutation and transmutation that is truly at the heart of Mahler’s alchemy. The performance last night enabled the listener to imagine such magic, but not to experience it.

Metropolitan Opera in HD | Madame Butterfly

minghella butterfly

Madame Butterfly in HD [rebroadcast of the live March 7 Met performance]
March 17, 2009, Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center
Metropolitan Opera
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Production: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San), Marcello Giordani (Pinkerton), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki), Dwayne Croft (Sharpless)

The drama was taut, the gorgeousness detailed. The staging: imaginative, often exquisite, though always immodest enough for opera: bright scarlet blossom groves, glowing lanterns constellating unto galaxies aswirl, shimmering petals threaded onto filaments slowly descending like a seeping horizon, and of course measureless swathes of silk set unfurling. At times one almost feared it might verge on anime choreographed for wax-museum figures as directed by Zhang Yimou, but (Minghella’s English?) good taste reined things in.

Patricia Racette: powerhouse Puccinian—voice capacious, mellifluous throughout, the movement of her face and limbs in studious mimicry of girlishness. Nothing really could render her believable as an Asian child bride—the singing and emoting both were ripe too far beyond pubescence (and the ethnic makeover erred toward Morticia Addams, I thought)—but that’s the usual trouble so perhaps had to be forgiven. Marcello Giordani’s Pinkerton presented a solid amalgam of cad, brute, and dolt—nothing very complicated, though sung with soul. The whole supporting cast was surprisingly great, especially those in the roles of Suzuki, Sharpless, and Yamadori (played by an actual Asian singer—to odd yet doubly sympathetic effect somehow). Even Cio-Cio San’s mother, who barely gets any lines, lingers in this heartbreaking way on the hill upon leaving her just-married daughter—a supreme indication of the directorial care taken.

The silent puppet child, center and cipher of all this theatrical artifice, turned out to seem the most human and expressive of all—and even for this uncanny effect alone I’d recommend, and indeed repeat, the experience. Also for the thundering final act. Not one predisposed to Puccini, I left feeling dazzled and stricken. The performance will surely come out on DVD soon enough, so all is not lost to those who missed it this time.

Christmas at the Bayerische Staatsoper


December 25, 2007, Munich

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz at the Nationaltheater: the perfect sweet-treat after the gorgings of Weihnachten. My first time back to this gorgeous opera house since a very white-box Dieter Dorn staging of Le Nozze di Figaro some eight years ago.