Highlights

The lockdown is thankfully over, at least in Austria, so I am getting out more.  But since there is still no live music out there for the foreseeable future, I continue to keep an eye out for worthwhile things to see online.

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro (Metropolitan Opera)

I have to admit: I have never quite taken to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  I’ve sat down to listen to it more than a few times, and usually give up after the first act.  I don’t turn it off, I simply leave it in the background.  While the music is beautiful, I never felt that it went anywhere, at least not to merit my further attention.  I’ve never been tempted to go see it.  I own one recording – bought early in my CD collection (a 1953 Salzburg Festival performance with a tremendous cast) since at that time I thought I still needed a recording of this opera – and then I basically never listen to that complete in a single sitting.

This remained the case, at least, until the Met streamed a 1998 performance, in a delightful staging by Jonathan Miller with an unbelievably perfect cast.  Perhaps if I had started with this production, I might have appreciated this opera more.  Miller left room for the singers to act out their roles to the fullest, which they did, creating pure comedy while still maintaining full musicality.  The cast could act.  The cast could sing.  The farce was every bit as hilarious as Rossini’s Barber of Seville (same characters set earlier, but which Rossini wrote later), just in a Mozartian style.  Renée Fleming (Countess), Cecilia Bartoli (Susanna), Susanne Mentzer (Cherubino), Dwayne Croft (Almaviva), and Bryn Terfel (Figaro) all captured such humor.  James Levine, still at the pinnacle of his career, conducted.

Strauss: Capriccio (Metropolitan Opera)

Renée Fleming has in recent years owned the role of the Countess in Capriccio by Richard Strauss (she has owned so many roles, actually).  She sang the part when I first saw this opera in Vienna in 2008, and in this 2011 performance from the Met here she was again.  The cast around her was idiomatic as well (Morten Frank Larsen as the Count, Joseph Kaiser as Flamand, Russell Braun as Olivier, Peter Rose as La Roche, and Sarah Connolly as Clairon).  The staging was not the timeless one of the Staatsoper, but updated into the twentieth century (exactly when is hard to tell – the lavish set suggested an over-the-top traditional country estate, the costumes could have been out of the 1980s – my father might have felt comfortable dressing that way in the 80s, although he would never have worn shoes inside the house, and this was certainly not our house since we neither had an inherited estate nor would we have decorated it that way if we had had).  Still, this opera does not require any particular time period, so the staging (by John Cox) worked.  What did not work in the end, or at least less well, was the music.  That’s not Strauss’ fault, so it must have been the Met orchestra under Andrew Davis, who did not capture the lush score.  The Met orchestra will never be the Vienna Philharmonic, but there had been a time when it was a top-rate opera orchestra – by the season when this was recorded, the first season when James Levine, who had done so much to build up that orchestra decades before, publicly had to admit he was no longer fit for the job as the Met’s music director, the orchestra had suffered noticeable decline.  Fabio Luisi took over many of Levine’s duties starting in 2010-11, and the orchestra began to improve again, but that season may have been its nadir.

Borodin: Prince Igor (Metropolitan Opera)

Because of the unusually-difficult provenance of Borodin’s Prince Igor, the director can basically decide how to assemble the opera – which music to use or omit, and in what order to perform it.

And because there is no fixed version of Prince Igor, I am fine giving great leeway to the construction of the opera.  Choosing which pieces to assemble and in what order to put them may indeed result in a not fully-logical result (and it would not be the first opera to have an illogical plot).  But whatever the choice, there must be some dramatic conception for how the director assembles it.  So while musically this performance from the Metropolitan Opera was objectively fine, the lack of clarity in the concept sapped its drama.  Gianandrea Noseda, conducting, did not do a bad job, but he could not overcome the direction by Dmitri Tcherniakov.  Likewise, a cast headed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Igor, supported ably by solid performances across the board (especially Oksana Dyka as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna), simply failed to inject life into this fundamentally dull production.  And that’s on Tcherniakov’s head.

It probably did not help that Tcherniakov could not figure out a timeframe for his concept (moving around in time, sometimes different characters in different centuries on stage simultaneously, and none of them in the 12th century, when the action takes place).  But that probably was not fatal.

After the usual prologue, Tcherniakov moved the first act (which in this case is essentially the first of the Polovtsian acts) into a field of flowers with characters wandering in and out speaking to or around Igor (even when they aren’t supposed to be in front of him – such as Vladimir and Konchakovna, or not supposed to be there at all, such as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna) and Igor speaking in front of them.  The result came across as a disjointed set of arias with no inherent logic (I suppose if Borodin left a jumble, Tcherniakov just kept it as a jumble, but there’s no reason to believe Borodin wanted a jumble).  When the Polovtsian chorus sings at various times (they remain offstage except at the end of the act when they dance among the flowers) a film is shown on the scrim depicting the aftermath of the battle in which their armies defeated Igor’s.

Another disconnect of putting this act immediately after the prologue: it contains the plot line that Igor’s son and the Khan’s daughter are already a couple, to the extent that Konchakovna has already raised this potential marriage with her father (and they speak of it, oddly in this production, in front of but not to Igor).  Yet much later in the opera Yaroslavna is informed for the first time that Igor was captured, which would imply that she somehow did not know this for a very long time.  While there was no internet or 24-hour news back then, this is still a bit odd.

At the end of that later act, when the Polovtsians attacked Putivl (presumably: they did not actually appear), somehow in the confusion the only one who wound up dead was Galitsky (he is supposed to die in the attack, but in this staging there was no actual attack yet he ended up dead on the floor of the stage for no clear reason).  More confusion came in the final act, here the act set in the destroyed city of Putivl, which had now turned into a late 20th-century impoverished ‘hood (think: Bronx, but with no black people).  Igor returned (as he is supposed to), but was greeted by his son Vladimir, followed by Konchakovna, who then sang music from an act (omitted in this version) in the Polovtsian camp before Igor’s escape.  Igor then sat there in the middle of the stage oblivious while the rest of the plot moved on around him.

So while there may be no correct order of the bits of this opera – assembly indeed required – there are incorrect orders.  What did Tcherniakov’s one for the Met do?  It removed the drama, and the musicians simply could not recover.  I don’t think this was quite as bad a jumble as I once saw at the Mariinsky – which felt like they threw the entire score up in the air and performed it in whatever order it fell to the ground – but actually in that Mariinsky performance each scene individually was wonderfully dramatic even while the full concept made no sense.

  • [Recording tips:  In selecting “complete” recordings, I have made my decisions based on the music rather than on the assembly of the opera itself.  On top of that I have a pretty decent amount if excerpts.  So I suppose when listening to the opera I am in general less concerned about whether it makes any sense.  But if I watch it, I want it to make sense.  My two “complete” recordings (since, after all, there is no such thing as a “complete” recording given what Borodin left behind when he died, and that much of it may actually have been composed by Aleksandr Glazunov anyway) are: one from the Bolshoi Opera in 1951 conducted by Aleksandr Melik-Pashaev, and one from the Staatsoper in 1969 conducted by Lovro von Matačić, both live performances with first class casts.]

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta (Mariinsky Theater)

I chose to stream a 2009 production of Tschaikowsky’s Iolanta from the Mariinsky Theater, with Anna Netrebko in the title role and Valery Gergiev in the pit in order to hear this seldom-performed opera done right.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think highly of it, but the music is rather gorgeous (and was appreciated by none other than Gustav Mahler, who knew a thing or two about opera and actively championed it outside Russia).  It’s basically a fairy tale, and taken as such it works.  Mariusz Treliński’s basic modern (definitely not fairy tale) staging, mixing in filmed images with real ones, was pretty silly, but did play up the psychological aspects of the main character (just as long as I did not try to think too hard about the stupidity of the mismatched costumes, sets, blocking, or pretty much anything – thankfully, this was a case of it being so silly that I indeed did not have to think much about it and did just focus on the psychological aspects).  The camera work on the filming followed the same path, often switching intentionally to soft focus to underscore the key plot element that Iolanta herself is blind.  Sergei Aleksashkin was particularly excellent as King René (I’ve seen him before at the Mariinsky as Khan Konchak in Prince Igor and Ivan Khovansky in Khovanshchina), with Sergei Skorokhodov as Count Vaudemont and Alexei Markov as Duke Robert.

Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra concluded its six weeks of curated selections by providing a great chance to hear a seldom-performed opera: Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz.  This performance was fully staged at the Tanglewood Festival in 1984, but the BSO only released the audio recording.  Still, the performance, led by Seiji Ozawa with Frederica von Stade and Jon Garrison in the title roles, was exciting, and a rare chance to have comic relief provided by Berlioz, most of whose works were rather more serious.  From the sound of it, the audience also had a good time!

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Rossini, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Beethoven

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra still has several concerts streamable from its website, and so I continue to pull out ones by the late Mariss Jansons.  I was particularly taken by this particular concert, even if the program itself was a bit of a mish-mash, as Jansons often seems to have intended to do later in his life.  But since it will never again be possible to hear Jansons conduct live, I am thankful for the recordings made available online that truly show why he was the greatest conductor of the last couple of decades, and this concert displayed some of his range.  It opened by a spirited overture to William Tell by RossiniProkofiev’s violin concerto #1 followed with soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who also played an encore by Rachmaninov.  A tense but also joyous Beethoven Symphony #3 concluded the concert – worth calling up from their website while it remains posted.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Schubert, Strauss, Dvořák, Berlioz
Philadelphia Orchestra: Mahler

Among the offerings they made available during the closure period, the Philadelphia Orchestra posted two transitional concerts from 1993 and 2011, which were quite enlightening, showing the orchestra in two different time periods under conductors who had actually not yet taken up their posts as music director yet and so were conducting an orchestra they had not yet had the chance to mold – Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1993 and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in 2011 both had the title “Music Director Designate.”

The 1993 concert itself was rather ironic given the current global crisis caused by the Chinese Communist Party penchant for trading in endangered species, operating unhygienic wet markets as breeding ground for new diseases, and orchestrated cover-ups (not to mention trying to gain propaganda value from exporting healthcare materials which turn out to be mostly defective and useless).  The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American orchestra to be invited to Communist China in 1973, and this concert was performed twenty years later as a commemoration in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People (a misnomer, as the Communist Party of China cares not a jot for its people and has been the most murderous regime in history on raw numbers, dare I also mention Tibet and East Turkestan).  Sawallisch, who would take over as Music Director of the Orchestra a few months later, conducted this one, for a quite standard program: the unfinished Eighth Symphony of Franz Schubert, Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, and the Ninth Symphony by Antonín Dvořák, with the Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz for an encore.

What made this concert interesting was actually hearing how different the orchestra sounded then than it does now.  Of course this was a recording using old technology (1993, but it was produced by Chinese television back then), in an absolutely enormous venue.  But I am getting a lot of streamed recorded music right now (plus there is my CD collection), so in the absence of live music (thanks to the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Xi) this is the new standard.

I was probably too young to appreciate the “Philadelphia Sound” when Eugene Ormandy was Music Director – but I caught him towards the end of his 44-year tenure, and what was clear even to me as a child was that things had become blurry.  No one should stay in charge of anything for 44 years.  Riccardo Muti succeeded Ormandy, which was initially a good thing as it brought back some discipline.  But my assessment of Muti remains pretty  much the same today: he is a fantastic and intelligent guest conductor whose concerts are to be anticipated, and as a music director he will certainly discipline an orchestra’s sound, but he’s not actually a very good music director because he knows only one thing for his orchestras: a Muti sound.  Now, a Muti sound is certainly a good one, but it sacrifices the identity of an orchestra.  So, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra today sounds pretty much like the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1980s.  Close my eyes listening to the Chicagoans now and I think I am in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music back then (except for maybe the poor acoustics of the old Academy of Music – of course, Philadelphia’s new venue also has poor acoustics of a different sort).  So Muti may have been exactly what this orchestra needed to clean itself up in 1980, but he sacrificed the orchestra’s character.

In this concert, Sawallisch brought a program of standard works that could as easily have been conducted by either Muti or Sawallisch.  And the orchestra was not yet Sawallisch’s as he would not take over until later that year.  So it is a good concert by what was indeed one of the top three or four orchestras in the United States, but it’s neither the orchestra of my childhood nor certainly not the orchestra of today.

Sawallisch was a terrific match for this orchestra, as he maintained its quality but gave it back its distinctive character through the 1990s.  Sawallisch arrived on the back end of his career, never intending to stay long, but stayed long enough to do this orchestra right.  Rather than lining up whatever would come next knowing Sawallisch’s tenure would be short, the Orchestra managed to completely botch appointing a successor and initially ended up with no one.  Sawallisch, by then widowed, depressed, and ill, agreed to extend his contract to give the Orchestra more time.  They ended up with the seriously uninteresting Christoph Eschenbach, who was essentially chased out of town – and still the Orchestra failed to have anyone lined up.  This forced them to go without a Music Director for several years, using Charles Dutoit as “chief conductor” – and if Eschenbach was dull, Dutoit was ten times worse (he had apparently wanted to be music director for decades and there clearly was a good reason they had never appointed him, after all).  The Orchestra literally went bankrupt in 2011.  That was its nadir (although it had so many remarkable musicians – many still there today – it sounded so mediocre in those years).

On to the concert the Orchestra posted from 2011, or at least part of one including Mahler’s First Symphony.  The conductor of that concert was the current Music Director, Nézet-Séguin, at the time when he was still the Music Director Designate.  And while his concert was an improvement, he had not yet had time to fix the Orchestra.  The team was mostly already in place, but this reading of Mahler lacked the intensity and exquisite virtuosity the Orchestra produces as its baseline today.  But fix the Orchestra he did, to get where it is today, in my humble opinion far and away the best orchestra in the United States and among the top five in the world.

I do have recordings of the Philadelphians with Muti in the 1980s and Sawallisch in the 1990s, and they are good recordings indeed, but it is still fascinating to hear the evolution of the Orchestra’s sound.  It is hard to quantify – and if there is a “Philadelphia Sound” I am actually not sure that under Nézet-Séguin he has quite brought it back to Sawallisch or to Ormandy (or Stokowski) but has probably given it a new identity.  And in a sense that’s what Muti did too, so I suppose my only objection to Muti is not the sound (Muti is a fantastic musician and exacting conductor) but that it had no identity under Muti other than Muti (as Chicago today).  So sounds do evolve (although maybe not the Vienna Philharmonic’s), but the distinctiveness is key.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus: Prokofiev
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitch

The Mariinsky streamed a good amount of not-unexpected music on Soviet Victory Day.  Sergei Eisenstein was one of the greatest film directors of all time from in terms of artistic value.  Among his product were films about Aleksandr Nyevsky and Ivan the Terrible (the first generally a Russian hero, the second a favorite of Stalin), to which Prokofiev provided the film scores.  Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony is also a traditional work performed on that day.  Valery Gergiev conducted both concerts.

The Prokofiev concert took place in 2016 at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, with excerpts from both films: the separate Aleksandr Nyevsky Cantata which Prokofiev himself arranged, and a arrangement of music from Ivan the Terrible (not sure if Prokofiev or Gergiev or someone else assembled it in this condition).  For both, Gergiev took a somewhat softer, smoother approach than normal – not the usual bitter Russian orchestral sound (which I happen to like).  Only Prokofiev’s dissonances created tension.  Ivan the Terrible had a narrator in this version, which turned out annoying, as he interrupted the flow.  It would have been better either go with the complete film with the music serving as backdrop, or to go with the complete cantata without narration.  Or maybe narration between sets (as opposed to talking over the music).  This did not work at all – I just wanted the narrator to shut up so I could enjoy the music.  It was not that the narrator was bad, just the concept of a narrator was.

I suppose a performance of Schostakowtisch’s Seventh Symphony has become obligatory for the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra on Soviet Victory Day (I heard them perform it live that day in 2010).  It’s actually not clear when this performance was filmed – the Mariinsky’s webpage itself said it was done on the day, but there was clearly an audience in the Mariinsky’s new second hall, which would not be possible under Russia’s covid-19 restrictions, so clearly they had filmed it beforehand.  The symphony, called the “Leningrad,” was long used as a propaganda piece, but it is still good music (and of course had a subtext that did not follow the party line, starting with the “invasion” theme of the first movement, which Schostakowitsch did not write to portray the invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 as the Communist Party announced, but rather had already written two years earlier to portray the invasion of Poland by Russia with its German allies in 1939).  For this symphony, Gergiev did let the orchestra’s more traditional Russian sound emerge.

  • [Recording tips: Gergiev has an excellent version of the Nyevsky Cantata with the same Mariinsky forces (confusingly, the CD jacket calls the Mariinsky by its Soviet-era name, the “Kirov,” despite the 2002 release date).  The 1984 version with Riccardo Chailly leading the Cleveland Orchestra was my introduction to this work and has held up well.  For Ivan the Terrible, the complete film score (without narration) appears in a 2000 version by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Radio Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, a performance that truly allows the music itself to shine.  For the Schostakowitsch Seventh, I remain partial to a 1980 release by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic.]

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