Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 10)

Highlights

Still no live music.   Here is a selection of what I’ve been streaming online.

Strauß: Die Fledermaus (Vienna Philharmonic)

The “Fidelio” streaming service gave me a choice of performances of Johann Strauß II’s Fledermaus, so it seemed worth having some fun with a 1972 film version I had not seen before.  Directed by Otto Schenk with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm, it included a cast of Viennese regulars.  This opera is always best left in the hands of the Viennese, and here it was no different, with maximum fun.  The staging and acting were completely over-the-top, but no one can really try to make this farce believable, so why not push everything too far?  They also clearly lip-synched over the singing, which was a little disconcerting at times, but on the other hand meant that the cast did not have to worry too much about singing while they acted out (or over-acted out) their parts.  Gundula Janowitz (Rosalinde), Eberhard Wächter (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Renate Holm (Adele), Waldemar Kmentt (Alfred), Erich Kunz (Frank), Heinz  Holacek (Dr. Falke), and Sylvia Lukan (Ida), not to mention Schenk himself (as to be expected) in the non-singing role of Frosch, all contributed to the romp.  The main failing was actually Prince Orlofsky, which in this version instead of a mezzo dressed as a man was transposed for the Wagnerian Heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen, who was totally unsuited for this role (recasting this for a male voice seems to fail every time it is attempted) – and since part of the comedy is giving the prince an outrageous Russian accent, Windgassen also failed on that as well (he tried, but he just could not master the accent).  That was a shame as it did interfere with the otherwise non-stop humorous flow of this production.

  • [Recording tips: Although the leading members of the cast are not Viennese, my favorite recording of Die Fledermaus is the 1972 one conducted by Willi Boskovsky, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1936-1979 – no one captured Strauß better than he did, which is why he led the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert from 1955 until his retirement.  In this recording, he conducted Vienna’s second orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (if not the Philharmonic, then excellent in its own right – one wonders though why they did not engage the Philharmonic).  The cast includes Nicolai Gedda, Anneliese Rothenberger, Renate Holm – as in the film – Brigitte Fassbänder, Adolf Dallapozza, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Walter Berry, Senta Wengraf, and of course Otto Schenk in his obligatory appearance as Frosch.]

Weber: Der Freischütz (Staatsoper)

I have not seen Carl Maria von Weber’s Freischütz in years, and indeed do not remember when I last listened to it complete either (although I have two perfectly good complete recordings).  So I was long overdue, and checked the Staatsoper’s options to see which available cast I preferred (both of the options the Staatsoper steamed this month were from 2018).  In my excitement, I neglected to check who directed.  The curtain opened and I instantly knew the director had to be yet another awful German poseur (for the record, some dolt named Christian Räth).  Given the nonsense these German opera directors produce, one advantage of streaming at home is that I actually don’t have to watch – maybe I could try to figure it out, but I’ve seen enough German schlock to realize it’s all about the Regisseur and never about the opera.  So I guess I still have not seen Der Freischütz in years.  Yet from the Staatsoper orchestra and chorus – under Tomáš Netopil – all sounded well.  There was a lot of excess stage noise, which I assume had to do with the staging itself (I’d say it was distracting, but in a good staging some appropriate noise can augment the experience; what was happening on the stage here would have been distracting enough, so I suppose more noise might not make any impact for people trapped in the theater forced to watch whatever this Räth dumped on stage).  I also noted that they added to the dialogue – what seemed to be a German attempt at humor (yet another thing the Piefkes are apparently incapable of).  It’s hard to be critical of the cast, since they were forced to “act” out this thing and probably wished they were anywhere else except on this stage.  In fact, they all sounded agitated.  But somehow out of the wreckage I managed to appreciate Alan Held as Kaspar and Camilla Nylund as Agathe.

  • [Recording tips: I have two complete recordings.  Is either of them the best available?  I don’t know, but they are both good.  One is a 1960 Bavarian Radio production with Eberhard Wächter, Albrecht Peter, Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Kurt Böhme, and Richard Hold, conducted by Eugen Jochum.  The other is from the German Opera Berlin in 1967, with Claudio Nicolai, Fritz Ollendorf, Claire Watson, Lotte Schädle, Gottlob Frick, and Rudolf Schock.]

Wagner: Lohengrin (Metropolitan Opera)

I remember the Metropolitan Opera sounding its best on a consistent basis during the early/mid-1980s, when I rarely missed a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast.  This made me especially pleased to see that the Met has streamed some older recordings from its archives, and not just the recent productions from the last decade.  I wavered on whether to watch Wagner’s Lohengrin, mostly because the singer in the title role – Peter Hofmann – was not very good (I never understood why he had such a following back then; he was – quite literally – a rock star who crossed into opera, but although he could be loud and dynamic, he couldn’t really sing very well).  But then I have not listened to any recordings of Hofmann in decades for that reason (he retired from the opera stage in the late 1980s, although he continued to sing rock an pop music for another decade), and hearing him again now, although my opinion remains, I realize I have heard many far worse nominal Heldentenors since Hofmann.  So he may not have been very good, but it seems he may have been better than average.  Eva Marton, then at the height of her powers, sang Elsa.  Leonie Rysanek approached the end of her career singing a darker role but no less strident and with a tremendous stage presence as Ortrud.

Leif Roar (Telramund), was a little rough but full of character, while John Macurdy (who died earlier this month) was an expressive King Heinrich.  James Levine, in his heyday, marshalled the Met Orchestra, from the mystical overture through to the larger martial passages.  The staging was sensible – not lavish, but enough to frame the action – by August Everding, a German left over from the days when German directors still understood opera.  That said, he did not really add understanding to the opera and there were some odd decisions.  For example, he could have used a swan – in the first act, the cast looked stage-front singing about a swan, but then Lohengrin emerged without one from behind them, which was weird; the swan also did not appear in the third act (nor is it clear how Lohengrin departed – maybe he walked back to Spain).  The blocking was also a bit static in general, maybe most notably so during the duel between Lohengrin and Telramund, where they mostly just looked at each other.  But I will still take this no-frills direction any day over the stuff German Regisseurs spew out these days.

  • [Recording tips: I naturally have more excerpts from Lohengrin than I can count, and I probably don’t know how many of “In fernem Land” specifically (nor do I have a favorite). For complete recordings, I go to one of two, depending on my mood.  Probably the best in terms of overall cast composition, orchestral coloring, and sound, would be the version recorded in 1985-86 by George Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Plácido Domingo in the title role, and with Jessye Norman, Eva Randová, Siegmund Nimsgern, and Hans Sotin.  A 1941 live performance from the Met in New York has its reasons to savor as well, though: Lauritz Melchior sang the title role, with Astrid Varnay, Kerstin Thorborg, Alexander Sved, and Norman Cordon; Erich Leinsdorf conducted.]

Puccini: Turandot (Metropolitan Opera)

The spectacular staging by Franco Zeffirelli (who died last year at 96) of Puccini’s Turandot portrays timeless Peking as a living, thriving city (albeit suffering under a cruel regime), with its teaming masses represented by an oversized chorus, dancers, and extras.  The Met streamed a version from last Fall (a 2019 revival of a 1987 production) with an adequate if not especially noteworthy cast (they could all act, which was welcome at least): Christine Goerke (Turandot), Eleonora Buratto (Liù), Yusif Eyvazov (Calàf), and James Morris (Timur).  On the podium, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a rich score.

  • [Recording tip: I go back repeatedly to the 1959 recording by Erich Leinsdorf and the Rome Opera, with Birgit Nilsson in the title role, Jussi Björling as Calàf, Renate Tebaldi as Liù, and Giorgio Tozzi as Timur.]

Gounod: Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

Des McAnuff created a modern staging of Gounod’s Faust for the Met, with Faust as a lab scientist.  McAnuff, a Canadian, is apparently also a trendy director from Broadway, as is Michael Mayer, who created that horrible staging of Rigoletto for the Met that I watched last week, and while McAnuff did not warp the plot here the way Mayer appeared to in Rigoletto (which made me stop watching and just listen last week), he did throw in some silliness (far too much prancing about), as well as a confused ending: Mephistopheles and Faust sank into Hell, Margarethe climbed a stairway to Heaven (presumably), and then Faust reappeared out of Hell having reverted to his old-man self, only to pass away on the floor of his lab.  All very unnecessary.  But McAnuff generally stuck to simplicity and letting the characters act, and that they did.  Marina Poplavskaya gave a resounding portrayal of Margarethe, evolving from a coquettish girl into a tormented woman over the course of the opera.  Jonas Kaufmann as Faust seemed in his element, making this opera (where Faust may have the title role but is not the central character) into his own.  René Pape’s voice lacked some of the fierceness he has shown portraying other villains, but his self-assured stage presence remained.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted this 2011 performance.

  • [Recording tip: Long before I had ever been to Russia and got to know Russian performers, I was tipped off about a recording of Gounod’s Faust that supposedly put all others to shame: a 1948 performance from the Bolshoi Opera.  I found a recording back then at a reasonable price and ordered it.  To this day, it remains my go-to recording of this opera.  At the center of this performance stands the unmatchable Mark Reizen as Mephistopheles, with Ivan Kozlovsky as Faust and Yelizaveta Shumskaya as Margarethe.  Kozlovsky takes some getting used to – a master (perhaps the master) in a very typical Russian style of tenor singing, which comes across to Western ears as weak (it’s not – it is only a special stylistic convention), but it works here, as Faust really is not the central character in this opera despite the title (there is a reason it has often been performed under the name Margerethe rather than Faust, as it does represent her struggle with evil and Faust is merely the catalyst).  Vasily Nyebolsin conducted a driven performance – albeit abridged, including to remove the church scene in Act IV as well as the ballet: the ballet is not missed (it added nothing to the opera but was only inserted due to a silly French custom in which opera patrons insisted on seeing ballet whether it made any sense or not, so it can just as easily be staged separately); the church scene is (but was probably removed by the Soviet censors) and some of the shorter cuts would be nice to have back as well.  But the performance as a whole stands.]

Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery (Mariinsky Theater)

I had never heard Prokofiev’s rarely-performed opera Betrothal in a Monastery before, so took this opportunity to explore a version streamed by the Mariinsky Theater under Valery Gergiev.  Despite intending it to be a farce, Porkofiev’s setting failed by being too static – though lively here and there, the music mostly went on at a pace too slow to generate the comedy.  The staging itself (by Vladislav Pazi) was not static – suggestive of Spain in a mystery timeframe – and the characters moved around as would have been appropriate.  The cast was uniformly excellent: Larisa Diadkova (the Duenna), Yevgeny Akimov (Don Jerome), Roman Burdenko (Don Ferdinand), Sergei Aleksashkin (Mendoza), Yulia Matochkina (Clara), Yevgeny Akhmedov (Antonio), Violetta Lukyanenko (Louisa), and Yuri Laptev (Don Carlos).  I suppose the opera never caught on because the music, though fine on its own, simply does not convey the farce it is intended to depict.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

The Mariinsky also streamed a varied concert of less-often performed music by Prokofiev, by the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Valery Gergiev in the Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2016.  The concert opened with the Piano Concerto #4, for the left hand, one of many written on commission from the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who needed works to play after losing his right hand in the First World War.  Wittgenstein apparently never understood this piece, so did not end up performing it.  It is indeed strange, although no stranger than some of the composer’s other works from the 1930s.  This was confirmed by the next works, the often delicate but still jarring Spanish-inspired Violin Concerto #2, and the Piano Concerto #5.  Sergei Redkin did the solo honors for the Piano Concerto #4, Kristóf Baráti for the Violin Concerto #2, and Vadim Kholodenko for the Piano Concerto #5 – looking at their relative youth, they may have been selected based on a performance competition, and indeed they were all sufficiently good (particularly Baráti, although Redkin seemed to have a larger personal following in the sparsely-populated hall.  Skipping ahead to the 1950s, the Seventh Symphony, which concluded this concert, was in many ways more traditional in its sweep as well as restraint.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Sibelius, Copland, “Hannibal”

The Philadelphia Orchestra and its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin presented two warhorses and one world premiere in a concert they streamed.  An unusual rendition of SibeliusFinlandia opened the concert, with drawn out lines gave a sense of longing.  Copland’s Appalachian Spring followed, in which the Orchestra’s virtuosity pulled out lines (many quite modern in their tonalities) that may not generally feature, and magnified their feeling, for a full and complex performance.  “Hannibal” is the professional artistic name of jazz/soul trumpeter and composer Marvin Peterson.  One Land, One River, One People was a bit of a cross-over work for orchestra, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and given its world premiere at this 2015 concert.  I am not sure I am in a position to judge it – it was certainly pleasant enough as music, but as “classical” music I am not sure it needed this particular orchestra, or indeed any serious orchestra.  I will say that it did have substance and will likely withstand the test of time (even if it will not enter the classical repertory), with performances by regional orchestras, musical theaters, or bands, something I would not say about Tod Makover’s Philadelphia Voices, another Philadelphia Orchestra commission (in 2018) for which the Orchestra also posted the world premiere on its website this week (having heard that back in 2018 – as reviewed in this blog – I had zero desire to listen to it again now).  The Orchestra was joined by a bunch of soloists and choirs – all fine, but again hard to judge against more normal repertory, so I do not wish to give them undeserved short shrift.  I guess I’ll just recommend readers go have a listen for themselves.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Wagner, Mascagni, Puccini, Respighi

Last week, the Philadelphia Orchestra streamed the first concert program conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its Music Director, a triumphant emergence of that orchestra from a prolonged slumber.  This week came the turn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which streamed Andris Nelsons’ first concert as Music Director in 2014, reawakening this orchestra from its own slumber.  The concert opened with what can only be called a “triumphant” overture to Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser.  Yes, it ends in major key, but that is not normally so triumphant and usually comes with a darker subtext.  Except here.  Jonas Kaufmann has a nice voice and good inflection, but does not quite make a Heldentenor – just too much strain to fill the Wagnerian role, even for the slightly lighter role of Lohengrin and a single aria, “In fernem Land,” at that (so not needing to last an entire opera).  Kristīne Opolais gave a somewhat subdued rendition of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.  I don’t believe the role is in her repertory, so it is just a one-aria introduction.  Whether her voice grows into it will be seen, but the expression was there.  Kaufmann was better suited for the Italian repertory: from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.  Opolais, too.  Bizarrely, though, where the program (and website) indicated she was supposed to sing an aria from La Wally by Catalani, she instead sang an aria from Madama Butterfly by Puccini.  Not that it makes much of a difference, but especially given this concert is six years old one would think they could get the program right.  A passionate duet from Manon Lescaut saw a rather romantic kiss between the two, with Opolais’ then-husband (Nelsons) looking on. And another duet from La Boheme (without the passionate kiss, but with plenty of flirtation – so much so that Opolais winked at Nelsons partway through).  The concert concluded by leaving the operatic repertory, with an evocative Pines of Rome by Respighi.  Like the Tannhäuser overture at the opening of the concert, this one ended with even more triumph than usual, with extra brass scattered around the Symphony Hall balcony.

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 8)

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.]

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 6)

Highlights

Although Austria is coming back to life, the return to live music looks to remain months away.  Even then, it is not clear what musical events may look like.  Will we be able to cram into our seats in the audience, or will only a small number of seats go on sale?  Given scarcity, will they be affordable (and if not, is this sustainable?)?  Will the musicians themselves be able to survive this period?  Will the venues?  Even a committed concert-goer like me has not renewed any of my subscriptions for 2020-21.  Even if I were sure the shows will go on, I don’t know my schedule, which has been heavily disrupted, so do not know if I can plan around the subscription dates.  I also have taken a cut in income giving me even less disposable income to spend on concerts (I was using most of my disposable income on live music since I moved to Salzburg), so I may start to be more selective – subscriptions give me more music for the price, but if I won’t make certain concerts then it becomes less cost-effective.  I don’t really know, so I wait.  But I also recognize that people like me (I am sure I am not the only one waiting) makes it harder for the music to return.

So I am thankful for the online offerings people are making available.  It does not replace the live music, but it keeps me current.  Once again, I will stick to the format of operas first and concerts second in these highlight summaries.  I do not repeat recording tips if I have made them in connection with the same opera in a previous weekly blog during this lockdown.

Strauss: Capriccio (Staatsoper)

This week included three operas by Richard Strauss, opening with a simple and elegant staging at the Staatsoper by Marco Arturo Marelli, which I saw live in 2008.  The streamed version had a similar cast as the performance I saw back then (Michael Schade as Flamand, Adrian Eröd as Olivier, Wolfgang Bankl as La Roche, and Angelika Kirchschlager as Clairon) with only the Countess and Count different (here Camilla Nylund and Markus Eiche, instead of Renée Fleming and Bo Skovhus), and Michael Boder conducting (instead of Philippe Jordan in 2008).  This is a peculiar opera – wonderful in so many ways, but does not get performed often for reasons of its length and eccentricity.  When I saw this production at the Staatsoper in 2008, which may also have been the first time I ever heard it, it impressed me – a combination of Strauss’ lush score and undivided attention on the words (I would say “action” but there is no action, only words), and I rated it the best opera performance I had attended that year (in which I had spent quite a lot of time in Vienna).  On the small screen it did not enrapture me as much.  Was this Nyland and Eiche and Boder not having the same twinkle as Fleming and Skovhus and Jordan?  Hard to say, since it has been so long.

  • [Recording tip: After seeing this opera for the first time in 2008, I went out and got a recording (Karl Böhm’s 1972 recording with the Bavarian Radio and a stellar cast).  I am not going to claim it is the definitive one, since I have not made comparisons.  I have other excerpts, too.  But I will say that I return over and over again to Renée Fleming’s luscious final scene with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christoph Eschenbach released on a CD with other “Strauss heroines” in 1999).]

Strauss, Rosenkavalier (Metropolitan Opera)

I did not understand the interpretation from the Metropolitan Opera by Canadian director Robert Carsen.  I tried to understand.  I think he tried to think this one through.  But it’s not just that I was not convinced, rather more that I didn’t see any logic at all.  The concept (costumes, décor, and mood) was more 1920s Berlin than 1740s Vienna (even the fictionalized and romanticized 1740s Vienna created by Strauss and Hofmannsthal).

The first act, set in the Marschallin’s bedroom, looked more like a state room in the Hofburg.  For an opera set in Maria Theresia’s Vienna, somehow there were numerous portraits of Franz Joseph prominently displayed on the wall, as well as of other descendants of the Empress (at least in the Hofburg Maria Theresia is on the wall in what is now the President’s formal reception room).  As a nice touch, Carsen had Octavian return with (actual) roses for the Marschallin in the later part of the act, after he his snuck off and changed back into himself.  Act two had neo-Greek décor, armaments, and oddly waltzing servants (what?  Yes, the music is full of waltzes, but the servants don’t just start spontaneously waltzing with each other).  In the plot, Faninal was ennobled for supplying Austria’s armies in the Netherlands, but that would not mean he keeps the guns and cannons in his home – or maybe this was simply an attempt by Carsen at comedy.  Act three took place a brothel, but I suppose if it is being updated to the 1920s, then why not.  The “Innkeeper” was a transvestite madame, and the musicians also looked like transvestites.  Yes, the opera features a female lead playing a male role in which the character dresses as a woman, so it is part of the farce, but I am not sure what having actual transvestites in a brothel added.  Octavian as Mariandl dressed like one of the whores (skimpy lingerie is not necessarily a good way to hide certain body parts, though!).  It also meant she was not playing the simple country girl.

There are different ways to place the stress in this plot.  In Carsen’s interpretation, Octavian (an exciting and excited Elīna Garanča) became the driving force.  Günther Groissböck, a despicable Ochs, intended to be a bit of a dashing playboy in his military uniform.  This made him more physically active than the usual portrayal – not bad, just different, since he cannot be a complete bumpkin in the plot, but must demonstrate he is presentable in polite aristocratic society even if he is at heart an oaf.  The opera ended with Octavian and Sophie (Erin Morley) in the brothel bed together, and during the final measures (when the Marschallin’s young blackmoor Mohammed is supposed to be fetching her handkerchief), I have no explanation for what happened: the servant Mohammed (not a blackmoor here) showed up drunk, an army appeared in the background (presumably led by the Feldmarschall), the servant shook his bottle of alcohol, and the army collapsed dead – or something like that.  But we did get Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.  Sebastian Weigle led a perfectly fine performance from the pit.

Strauss: Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

As I noted earlier during this lockdown, Strauss’ Elektra is an opera I have never really paid much attention to, for reasons I cannot explain.  The Staatsoper’s woeful staging by a Prussian nincompoop in its recent streaming did not help me to understand it, so I just listened then.  I was pleased to have another chance this week from the Met.  But it turns out the director of the Met’s version is Patrice Chéreau, who made a lasting traumatic impression on my childhood with a miserable production of Wagner’s Ring he did at Bayreuth along with his airheaded countryman Pierre Boulez conducting, that seemed designed to take the most deconstructionist French approach possible to the Ring (as a child I certainly did not know about French deconstructionism – and as an adult I am sorry I do).  That Chéreau-Boulez Ring from Bayreuth was televised, a big deal for back then, and my father and I sat down to watch with great anticipation, only to be terribly let down.  So I just listened again this time to Elektra.  (Is that entirely fair?  Should I have given Chéreau another chance, especially considering the number of lousy opera stagings I have seen over the years since then?  Probably, but his collaboration on that Bayreuth Ring really left my younger self disgusted and disgruntled.)  Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the moody music.  Nina Stemme was a wonderful Elektra, with Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis and Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra.  It really is luxurious.  One of these days I will get to see a production of this opera by a competent director.

Puccini: Tosca (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met gave us a nice staging of Puccini’s Tosca (this was apparently the premiere performance of this staging from 2018) by David McVicar, where he provided a stage on which the singers could act.  Great little touches included Cavaradossi washing his face with holy water before Tosca comes in, and the mannerisms of Scarpia’s henchmen towards Cavaradossi (and knowing winks and nods to Scarpia).  Željko Lučić was a forceful Scarpia and dominated his scenes.  Sonya Yoncheva was a tad too melodramatic as Tosca (ever the diva, I suppose).  Vittorio Grigòlo may not have been the strongest Cavaradossi in voice or pitch (indeed, his voice was easily the poorest aspect of this entire performance), but could act the role.  Emmanuel Villaume conducted.

Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann (Metropolitan Opera)

There is no definitive performing version of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (not worth explaining here why not).  So this is an opera which enables the director to decide how to assemble it.  All I ask is that the version makes sense.  A 2009 production at the Met by Bartlett Sher was set as a series of fantasies, which does make sense, but the settings themselves did not.  Not that they were crazy, just that they seemed to add nothing to understanding the work.  An excellent Niklaus (Kate Linsley) was equal parts dashing and mysterious, often as much co-conspirator against Hoffmann as muse to Hoffmann, so in this concept it made sense to insert the pre-prologue scene (with muse and the devil) and the post-epilogue scene (with the characters from the entire opera returning to the stage for a grand final morality chorus), both usually omitted.  Sher flipped the acts with Giulietta (here coming third) and Antonia (here coming second), putting them into the order that Offenbach himself wanted and which does make the most sense, although not the order they usually appear in.  The rest of the cast was fine, although the entire evening seemed uninspired other than Linsley (Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann, Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Anna Netrebko as Stella and Antonia, Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta, Alan Held as all of the villains).  James Levine conducted.

  • [Recording tips: …or lack thereof.  I like this opera and have seen it many times since my childhood, but maybe because there is no definitive version, I have never come across a recording I would especially recommend although I own two complete ones, depending on how one defines “complete.”]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s Otto Schenk-directed production of Beethoven’s Fidelio resolved for me the problem of having watched the Theater an der Wien’s production earlier in the lockdown.  First of all, they used the third version, which works dramatically much better than the two earlier versions (the Theater an der Wien did the second).  Second, Schenk’s intelligent staging augmented the drama even in the first act, which still in Beethoven’s third try was never quite up to the level.  I had a choice of recent casts, and picked one from 2017 (the cast available next week from a 2016 performance included the same Leonore – Anja Kampe – and Marzelline – Valentina Naforniƫă – that I saw in this production in 2013; they were excellent, but I opted for something else this time, although maybe I am tempted to listen back in next week).  Camilla Nylund as Leonore and Günther Groissböck as Rocco led the cast.  Chen Reiss fully developed the character of Marzelline, both in acting and in singing, and was a delight in her brief scenes.  The orchestra was warm and full, and carried the Vienna tradition started by Mahler of performing the Leonore Overture #3 in the scene change of the second act.  Drama indeed.  Cornelius Meister led a spirited performance.

Benatzky: Axel an der Himmelstür (Volksoper)

The Volksoper (of which I am a fan – and where I indeed attended my first live opera when I was five) kindly offered a trial of the “Fidelio” streaming service.  It does not offer a huge selection (or maybe it just does not have a very good search function), but I think I will be finding some things to recommend on there.  I thought I might start the trial with something from the Volksoper itself, and went back to the 2016 new production of Ralph Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür, a parody of 1930s Hollywood done up as a Viennese operetta.  This production was one of my musical highlights in 2016.  And on this streaming, it was a great show once again, with a partly different cast than the one I saw in 2016 – I assume they filmed their “A” cast and I saw some “B” cast, but that itself may not mean anything in particular.  I am not sure that the two female leads here (Bettina Mönch as Gloria Mills and Johanna Arrouas as Jessie) convinced me as much as the ones I saw (Julia Koci and Juliette Khalil, respectively), although hard to make a direct comparison over the years.  But Andreas Bieber repeated as Axel and Kurt Schreibmayer as Cecil McScott, and Boris Eder replaced Peter Lesiak as Theodore, and they were all in fine form.  Lorenz Aichner conducted this clever staging by Peter Lund (my original review is on this blog for 14 October 2016).  I must say, however, that I was still bothered by the microphones.  There is no need to ever mike an opera opera performed indoors – although possibly if the staging requires the singers to move around a lot and not always face front, but here it was clear from the film that they still faced front, so I cannot excuse this decision.  It makes an even bigger difference in the theater for a live performance: what is the point of hearing music “live” if it comes over a speaker and sounds the same as on a recording?

  • [Recording tip: the 2016 Volksoper production inspired me to go out and get a recording.  There are not too many choices.  I now have a 1958 Vienna Radio recording with Heinz Sandauer conducting.  Zarah Leander, who created the roll of Gloria Mills, reprises it on this recording.  The CD set includes some original tracks from the 1936 team that created the opera.]

Vienna Philharmonic: Schumann, Berlioz

The trial with “Fidelio” allowed me to find Mariss Jansons’ last concert in the Musikverein leading the Vienna Philharmonic last June, broadcast on Austrian television after Jansons passed away late last year.  Jansons looked exhausted and frail, yet the sound he coaxed was revelatory despite the works being standard and theoretically with nothing new (for lesser conductors) to say: the “Spring” Symphony by Schumann and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz.  Indeed, this was perhaps the most powerful and expansive performance I have ever heard of Schumann’s first symphony.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Berlioz, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns

Jansons was of course the greatest conductor of his generation, and will be sorely missed.  He was the sort of conductor I would see was conducting, and not even look to see what he was performing: I was guaranteed to hear something good.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he remained Music Director at the time of his death, has posted several concerts for streaming on their website.  I zeroed in on one all-French concert.  The French, as I often remark, seem not to understand music (Berlioz excepted, and the French never understood him).  Some French composers had talent, but did not do much with it beyond some works that deserve to remain in the repertory but make me scratch my head as to why they couldn’t produce more like that.  But with Jansons and the Bavarians, suddenly real drama appears.  This was not French drama, but the way it could sound.  Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna joined forces here – I’ve heard her perform in the Mozarteum, but this she took to the next level.  The concert opened with Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival.  Then came Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto G minor (this is the work I heard Apkalna perform before – this time it convinced me, since last time she had a real disconnect with the orchestra, which I blamed back then squarely on an inadequate conductor).  Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 C minor (with the organ) completed the concert, its own first movement setting an amazingly delicate mood.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Bruckner

Jansons drew more lush sounds from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a January 2019 performance of Bruckner’s Mass #3.  Bruckner wrote this mass right before he moved to Vienna and so it marks the transition point in his life.  This performance itself was other-worldly.  At “et resurexit,” they could have raised the dead.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

For Prokofiev’s birthday on 23 April, the Mariinsky streamed a concert the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra performed on his birthday in 2016 in Moscow’s Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall (I hated that hall, but it has extra prestige in Russia because Stalin had it built).  Maestro Valery Gergiev was joined by Denis Kozhukin for the piano concerto #1 to lead off the concert, and by Leonidas Kavakos for the violin concerto #1 to end it.  In between came Prokofiev’s first and second symphonies.  Gergiev kept the first symphony, called “classical” because of its size and style, within those classical bounds, but added a spirited and even exciting approach.  The violin concerto marked another highlight, with an interpretation highlighting the work’s great contrasts (and making it look easy).  For those subscribing to the Mariinsky’s streaming who can get them, go look for those two works in particular.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven

I opened the music this week with a compilation posted on the Philadephia Orchestra’s website: three Beethoven concerti from three different concerts combined into one program.  The Beethoven 250 celebration having been interrupted by the lockdown, they’ve moved it online.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the two piano concerti, with Yefim Bronfman (concerto #4) and Daniil Trifonov (concerto #5) on the keyboard, and their performances were suitably pensive for a Sunday afternoon, the orchestra in full sound enveloping but never overwhelming the ears.  The violin concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Susanna Mälkki, should have been the same, but was less so – I find Mälkki far too blockish a conductor, putting everything in place and leaving no room for expression.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 5)

Highlights

The cultural news hit on Friday that while musicians may begin to rehearse together in the coming days, and museums will reopen in July, large cultural events such as concerts will not resume until September.  The Salzburg Festival indicated it is in discussion with the government to see what might go ahead in a reduced form, but right now nothing fits the roadmap.  This was not unexpected – not just from the standpoint of the gradual reopening of Austrian society, but also from the fact that the roadmap for reopening still does not include any plan to reopen our international borders at any time in the foreseeable future.  Austria shut down the corona virus, but we may have been too successful and have developed no herd immunity, meaning that as soon as the borders open, more people will die.  So here we sit watching music streamed online.

Strauss: Rosenkavalier (Staatsoper)

Otto Schenk is one of the best opera directors of all time, and his staging of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier for the Staatsoper (originally in 1968) may be his best production.  I saw this wonderful production live in 2010.  Schenk pays so much attention to detail without being busy, and this production is just a delight to see over and over to catch new things.  The Staatsoper streamed it this week with two different casts, and frankly it was worth seeing both even if only to take in Schenk’s brilliance.  For the first streaming, the Staatsoper went deeper into their archives than they generally have been doing for these free lockdown streamings: a 1994 performance under the elegant Carlos Kleiber, with a fine cast including Felicity Lott as the Marschallin, Kurt Moll as Ochs, Anne Sofie von Otter as Octavian, and Barbara Bonney as Sophie.

The second take of this, from a 2017 performance, was not nearly at the same level.  It was worth watching for the staging, but Krassimira Stoyanova was a far less glamorous Marschallin than Lott, Peter Rose could not remotely master Ochs’ Viennese dialect (actually not even close), and Stephanie Houtzeel, though playful as Octavian, did not quite have the chemistry (at least not with the other cast members) that von Otter showed.  When I saw Houtzeel in this role in the same production in 2010, she carried it out better, but it may have been that a more convincing cast surrounded her then too (mostly from the Staatsoper’s own ensemble or regular guests, rather than tourists like Stoyanova and Rose).  Especially with this Schenk production, which relies on the details, that chemistry among the cast becomes even more important.  Ádám Fischer, if not quite as enigmatic a figure as Kleiber, is possibly as cerebral and knew how to shape the music from the pit.

  • [Recording tip: I think everyone has a different favorite recording of Rosenkavalier.  I’ll put mine forward.  In March 1945, an American bomb destroyed the Staatsoper.  When the reconstructed building reopened in November 1955, it put on a whole row of legendary new productions.  Its new Rosenkavalier (in the staging that Schenk’s ultimately replaced in 1968) debuted with an all-star cast under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch.  This was a production in which Ochs dominated (Strauss and Hofmannsthal had originally intended to call the opera “Ochs von Lerchenau”), even if there are other interpretations such as Schenk’s in which the Marschallin pulls all the strings.  In purposefully selecting Kurt Böhme, Knappertsbusch got the Ochs he needed.  Maria Reining (the Marschallin), Sena Jurinac (Octavian), and Hilde Güden (Sophie) produced some luxurious music together.  I do listen to other recordings, but I always return to this one.]

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri (Staatsoper)

I saw this Staatsoper production of Rossini’s Italian in Algiers in person in 2017, but the performance streamed here from 2015 was a much better cast.  I remember the staging, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, to have been simple but tasteful, however when I saw it live I wondered then if Ponnelle had even understood the opera at all since he made it so static.  This 2015 cast more than made up for Ponnelle’s deficiency – they had so much fun on the stage it was hard not to have fun watching them.  Ildar Abrazakov (Mustafà), Aida Garifullina (Elvira), Rachel Frenkel (Zulma), and Alessio Arduini (Haly) stood out in particular with their strong voices and characterizations, but Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro), Anna Bonitatibus (Isabella), and Paolo Rumetz (Taddeo) also joined in the farce.  Jesús López-Cobos conducted and the orchestra, as when I heard this in 2017, absolutely nailed Rossini’s idiom.  If this music does not already emerge dancing out of the pit, then even a good cast cannot make it.  What fun!

  • [Recording tip: I first got to appreciate this opera through a recording that remains my most-listened-to recording of a Rossini opera: a charming and lively version by conductor Claudio Scimone and his orchestra, I Solisti Veneti, with a cast headed by Samuel Ramey s Mustafà and Kathleen Battle as Elvira, and with luxuries such as Nicola Zaccaria as Haly and Marilyn Horne as Isabella.]

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper)

If the Staatsoper provided me the two highlights of the week with Rosenkavalier and Italiana in Algeri, it also provided me the biggest lowlight of the week.  I am sorry I thought I wanted to see Wagner’s Parsifal again in a new production (after three Parsifals last week).  The Staatsoper seems to have replaced the miserable staging by Christine Mielitz (which I saw live in 2006 and a different performance streamed last week) with yet another miserable staging, this time by Alvis Hermanis.  Hermanis is Latvian, not German, and although his CV includes productions staged in Germany, I did not expect he would be just as bad as a German opera director (seriously, who is as bad as the Germans at staging operas – such a common theme on this blog, but I feel I do have to keep pilloring them until they literally find the plot).  But he was (I should have googled him before making this decision: when I looked him up I realized he was responsible for a staging of Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival a few years ago, right after I moved to Salzburg, reset nonsensically in an art museum and which I remember was panned as vapid).  The staging here was set in the Otto Wagner Hospital (or an interpretation thereof), a psychiatric clinic designed by, and later named after, the famous Viennese Sezession architect in 1907.  Most of the knights (and Kundry, kept in a special caged bed) were patients, with Gurnemanz being the chief doctor.  (Act 2 was in an operating room, with Klingsor as a brain surgeon.)  Why?  I tried to watch a bit to figure out why, but even in the midst of an indefinite lockdown I have better things to do with my time.

Doing other things was also less distracting that watching this stupidity.  So I did get to appreciate René Pape’s luxurious Gurnemanz.  The rest of the cast seemed a bit off – probably not a bad cast under normal circumstances (although the shrill and almost nasal Parsifal lacked much of a voice, it sounded like it had aged badly even though the singer is not yet 50), but truly uninspired singing across the board.  I won’t list the cast because it’s not fair: it must be extremely difficult to sing seriously while traipsing around this travesty of a stage.  Valery Gergiev did not have that problem in the pit, but really what could he do?

Lortzing: Undine (Staatsoper)

Kudos for the Staatsoper for the last opera I watched this week.  I had never seen Albert Lortzing’s Undine before (and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it performed either other than excerpts).  I still haven’t, but that’s not a bad thing.  The opera was listed as being streamed and I tuned in to discover it was actually an abridged version for children.  The opera was shortened to fit within one hour, and although the main roles were sung by members of the Staatsoper’s Ensemble, the supporting roles, chorus, and dancers all came from the Staatsoper’s children’s academy.  I am not quite clear where this was performed – a small theater space, presumably in the bowels of the Staatsoper.  But it made me discover that the Staatsoper does offer an entire array of abridged operas performed this way in front of an audience of children.

One thing I have to say in Austria is that opera is not just for old people, and audiences are full of people of all ages, but to ensure the future requires making the art form accessible to the youngest generation.  This does not have to come in the form in which my father exposed me, through his constant listening to operas, setting me in front of the television every time an opera was broadcast (whatever the opera), and frequent one-on-one lectures from him to me about Wagner’s Ring when I was still a toddler.  He took me to my first live opera, Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor at the Volksoper, when I was five years old, and that hooked me for good.  So I give the Staatsoper full points for this little presentation.  Not only do they do these “Operas for Children,” but they are including them in their corona lockdown streamings.

Dvořák: Rusalka (Metropolitan Opera)

Although a fairy tale, Dvořák’s Rusalka is a heavy one.  While it is dark, the music has its shimmers of light.  For this 2014 performance from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a lush orchestral color.  Renée Fleming headed an excellent cast with Piotr Beczala as the Prince, John Relyea as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick as the Witch Ježibaba.

  • [Recording tips: Fleming has owned the role of Rusalka for years.  She recorded it in 1998 with Charles Mackerras conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with Ben Heppner as the Prince, Franz Hawlata as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick – again – as the Witch.  I also have a sentimental connection to a 1987 live recording from the Staatsoper, for which I myself saw the same cast later that year, with Eva Beňačková as Rusalka, Peter Dvorský as the Prince, Yevgyeny Nyestyernyenko as the Water Goblin, and Eva Randová doubling as the Witch and the Foreign Princess, with Václav Neumann conducting.  Apparently that was the first time that opera had ever been performed at the Staatsoper.  To be a little different, just because of Gottlob Frick, there is a 1948 German-language recording available out there from Dresden conducted by Joseph Keilberth.  I’ve not heard the whole thing, but own extended highlights on a CD set featuring some of Frick’s best recordings, and it is worth hearing him sing the Water Goblin.]

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Metropolitan Opera)

I have a ticket for Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Salzburg Festival on my birthday this year.  But first we tragically lost Mariss Jansons, who was supposed to conduct but passed away late last year.  Now it looks like we’ll lose the Festival this Summer thanks to the Chinese Communist Party deciding to destroy global health, welfare, and livelihoods.  They’ve murdered more of their own citizens than they’ve killed with their virus, but the virus has caused more worldwide devastation (yes, it’s a natural virus, but the pandemic is still entirely the Chinese Communist Party’s fault).

The plot of Boris is set during the “Time of Troubles” in Russia.  The title character was vilified by the repressive Romanov Dynasty, which ruled after that period until it, in turn, was deposed by the Russian Revolution leading to the again-repressive Soviet Communist regime.  The real-life Boris was probably more sympathetic, at least in the context of his time (is anyone in Russia truly sympathetic?  Boris created Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, so he was no saint, but apparently was relatively competent technocrat if overtaken by events out of his control and a bunch of schemers who resented him as the outsider he was – he came from a Tatar family that had converted to Christianity – and he had somewhat of a conscience, unlike most of the Russian ruling classes).  But I digress…

American director Stephen Wadsworth did not manage to capture the nuances, mostly because he was too busy with everything else.  In this production (filmed in a performance from 2010), he decided to augment the portrayals of the minor characters.  While this could be seen to be in the tradition of greats such as Otto Schenk to pay attention to intricate details, Schenk’s details are usually grounded in the opera and are merely fine incidental details that complete the plot.  Wadsworth’s strayed into distraction, especially given a non-traditional (but not modern) staging, with suggestive rather than accurate sets and extra elements added, such as a map and the book chronicling Russia’s history (both of which do appear in important places in the opera, but do not remain on stage – and the book in this case is enormously over-sized).  So, as an example, we got the Simpleton already taking a visible role in the prologue, which demonstrated clearly who he was, but did not give us any more of his story to make it useful or add to the scenes where he did play a role.  At the end of the scene in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (the Cathedral itself missing here), he rolled himself into the pages of the chronicle.  All of this combined make Wadsworth’s staging additive, and it may have been too much while missing the realism, particularly as the additions did not necessarily accord with the plot – having Shuisky appear in the Polish court is one intrigue too many, even for that infamous historical villain.  But I guess I should be thankful that Wadsworth clearly put some thought into this staging (he’s not a German Regisseur), so there was some intelligence even if he failed to convince me.  So, for example, Varlaam and Missail much to their astonishment recognized Grigory when he returned in the final scene, adding a bit of comedy to the revolution: the brutality of guards towards the Russian people in the prologue was exceeded by the Russian people towards everyone viewed as an authority in the Kromy Forest epilogue, a clear reversal of fortune.  (Wadsworth set both the St. Basil’s scene and the Kromy Forest scene, as parentheses to the final act, as is one common and perfectly acceptable convention).

René Pape sang a strong Boris.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, knew this opera upside down (and used Mussorgsky’s own scoring).  They combined to produce a particularly effective death scene musically.  But it did not work on stage, where the dying Boris did too much running around.  The rest of the cast was adequate (even Aleksandrs Antonenko, whom I heard sing an inadequate Radamès last week, but who seemed more comfortable singing in Russian as Grigory).  I may highlight two minor figures: they decided to use appropriately-aged singers for Boris’ children Ksenya (sung by Jennifer Zetlan) and Fyëdor (sung by Jonathan Makepeace), and they actually had a stage presence.  I googled them to see if their careers have taken them anywhere since 2010: the older Zetlan seems to not quite have launched herself yet in any major roles beyond inconsequential provincial US opera companies – her appearances with major US companies or orchestras have been in minor roles or as an understudy (I find no European credits at all on her website bio); and Makepeace is still an undergraduate at Princeton – but nice that they get a little bit of fame here.

  • [Recording tip: For an opera that actually has been recorded many times, I have never found an ideal version.  This is only partly the result of the problematic history of this opera, which exists in several versions.  The most-used performing version is an arrangement made by Rimsky-Korsakov that managed to miss Mussorgsky’s point entirely.  Most recordings are of this orchestration, and it fails – so this rules out the recordings with Mark Reizen perhaps the greatest Boris of all time (I do own one complete version with him as Boris, and numerous excerpts).  Overshooting in the other direction, in recent years a trend has been to perform the original version of the opera, which the composer himself rejected and which is lacking drama.  I am looking for a recording of Schostakowitsch’s arrangement – which I did get to hear at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow once – since Schostakowitsch did understand Mussorgsky and while cleaning up some of the loose odds and ends nevertheless kept Mussorgsky’s raw colorings.  But in the absence of a recording of the Schostakowitsch version, if I insist on Mussorgsky’s own scoring rather than the more-common Rimsky-Korsakov rewrite, but also insist on not using Mussorgsky’s rejected first version but some construction coming out of his more mature later version with the scenes in some semblance of order, and on top of all of that insist on a cast that can give character development and drama, then I end up with one very peculiar recording.  And that is a rather Wagnerian production broadcast live by the Bavarian Radio in 1957, under the baton of Eugen Jochum, with Hans Hotter as Boris.  Hotter, more known for his portrayals of Wagner baritone lead roles, regarded Boris as his favorite part.  The cast includes Martha Mödl, Hans Hopf, Kim Borg, Paul Kuen, Lorenz Fehenberger, Benno Kusche, Kurt Böhme, Hermann Uhde, and others, all singing in German.  Not ideal, but it’s what I go back to until I find something I am entirely satisfied with, which hasn’t happened yet.]

Tschaikowsky: Queen of Spades (Mariinsky Theater)

A simple staging by Aleksey Styepanyuk of Tschaikowsky’s Queen of Spades on the Second Stage of the Mariinsky Theater allowed the cast to act out their respective emotional and psychological psychoses.  The sets were not quite minimalist – there were props and furniture and important details – but the framing (colonnade to represent St. Petersburg, dark lighting highlighted by a giant moon…) was more suggestive of the mood.  Interestingly, Styepanyuk did not actually show either of the opera’s two suicides, those of Liza and Gyerman, but rather only suggested their deaths.  Whether they died physically or only mentally was left up to the audience.  A thrilling Maksim Aksyënov as Gyerman was obsessive, tormented, and mentally unbalanced right from the start, making it easier to see his descent into madness.  He gave a tremendous performance (I had thought of giving this streaming amiss, but his performance alone made me glad I did tune in).  Irina Churilova was a dreamy and distracted Liza who falls into his spell.  Of the smaller roles, a coquettish Yekaterina Sergeyeva as Polina thought she was being playful in the first act, but helped deliver the push.  The ubiquitous Gergiev conducted.

  • [Recording tip: I am going to go out on a ledge here and recommend a recording that has never been available but which I am certain must exist in an archive somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.  I have heard extended excerpts on two separate Russian disks: one on a recording released from the private archive of Galina Vishnyevskaya for patrons of her Moscow singing academy (I went when I lived in Moscow), the other on a Bolshoi Opera archival release for Melodiya in memory of Zurab Anjaparidze (which I found on Amazon, since I am always searching for recordings of Anjaparidze).  From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, the Bolshoi – then at its peak – had the world’s greatest dramatic soprano (Vishnyevskaya, a Russian dissident) and the world’s greatest dramatic tenor (Anjaparidze, a Georgian) both in the house’s ensemble, and they did sometimes perform together.  In May 1967, under Boris Khaikin, they did Tschaikowksy’s Queen of Spades.  The extended excerpts I have heard are so far beyond anything else available on recordings that there’s not really any point looking for another recording, although I do own other recordings.  I keep hoping someone finds the complete version of this, or at least some other complete performance including both of them in that period.  There is a complete film made around that time with Anjaparidze as Gyerman, but the sound quality is very poor.]

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Mariinsky Theater)

Last week the Mariinsky gave us Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely-performed fantasy opera The Golden Cockerel.  This week came another, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, suitable for children (and adults!), in a charming fairytale staging by Aleksandr Pyetrov which did not try to do too much.  It is after all a fairy tale.  A nice touch was that during the preludes to each of the acts, they projected a cartoon summary of the coming act’s plot.  This would make it even more accessible for children, but the cartoons were lovingly drawn and had so much personality on their own.   The 2015 performance streamed here marked the Mariinsky debut of Mikhail Vekua, singing Prince Guidon, whom I heard in the same role at the Stanislavsky in Moscow back in 2010.  Eduard Tsanga sang Tsar Saltan and Irina Churilova sang Empress Militrisa; Gergiev conducted.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

Either the Mariinsky orchestra performs a lot in the new Zaryadye Hall in Moscow, or they simply make more recordings there.  Gergiev is a Putin loyalist, and despite his jetsetting – or indeed because of it – he is always ready to perform his service to Mother Russia.  In this streamed concert, they opened with Schostakowitsch’s fifth symphony.  The orchestra displayed wonderful almost delicate phrasing (while also being robust), the sort of understanding of drama that comes from primarily being an opera orchestra rather than a concert orchestra.  The mood of the symphony did come across as uplifting and triumphant, rather than dark and mock-triumphant: Schostakowitsch intentionally wrote a piece with two meanings, one for Stalin’s consumption and one private (Yevgeny Mravinsky, who gave the premiere along Stalinist lines, was famously described by the composer as too stupid to understand the secret meaning, but of course the triumphant version is what saved Schostakowitsch from arrest and murder by the Soviet Russian regime).  Given Gergiev’s attention to detail (and his orchestra’s ability to follow through), I am sure Gergiev understood the symphony’s meaning, but at the same time the triumphant sound produced would have pleased that other famous Ossetian.  The concert continued with Prokofiev’s wonderfully crazy Piano Concerto #2 with Denis Matsuyev pounding out the solos idiomatically, wave after wave washing over the audience (or in this case spilling out of my speaker system and through my home office).

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Hindemith, Martinů, Copland

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is still not posting full concerts online, but it is adding individual works each day to the selection available.  This week, several performances highlighted what this orchestra once used to be: an elegant ensemble, maybe smaller in size that its peers near the top of the US rankings, but able to provide just that little extra intimacy and character – an American counterpart to the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester (as it happens, both now share a music director, Andris Nelsons).  I will flag four pieces they posted this week, which exemplify its old sound: Dmitri Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #1 conducted by the BSO’s then-music director Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 took the composer’s conservatory graduation work and made it into a mature and groundbreaking next step beyond Mahler; Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, conducted by guest conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in 1974 was expansive and stately; Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani guest conducted by Rafael Kubelik with Charles Wilson joining the orchestra on the piano in 1967, and Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Copland himself conducting and Harold Wright playing the clarinet in 1980, also explored new combinations of sounds.  Together they made a nice set this week, which I listened to in one sitting.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 4)

Highlights

With the world still on indefinite lockdown, I spent a fourth week perusing archival performances streamed online.  I am nocturnal, so am normally awake through the night and usually spend the hours reading.  The lockdown has changed my patterns, so that I now do a lot less reading and a lot more opera-gazing.

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera, and Berlin Philharmonic)

This being the Holy Week in the Western Church, my week’s selections were dominated by three versions of Wagner’s Parsifal (and I will add a fourth new version next week).  Two were staged (the previous production at the Staatsoper and the current one at the Metropolitan Opera) and one was a concert version (Berlin Philharmonic).  I will move on to the Staatsoper’s current staging next week.  This is such a wonderful transformative opera, and when I get fully immersed into it I really do get into it.

I saw that previous Staatsoper staging live in 2006 – yet another abomination by a German director, in this case Christine Mielitz.  So I had absolutely no desire to see her nonsense again.  But I did want to listen to this cast, from a 2015 performance, and the sumptuous sounds of the Staatsoper orchestra crafted by Ádám Fischer.  Danish baritone Stephen Milling, as Gurnemanz, was the real revelation here with his warm and all-encompassing voice.

That said, I did look into the streaming a few times on this production, including the final scene.  Mielitz’s travesty was every bit as imbecilic as I remembered, but she does seem to have made some adjustments between 2006 (when I saw it live) and 2015 (this video).  So now Parsifal, with help of the spear, embraces Amfortas and Kundry in a big bear hug towards the end, which both healed Amfortas’ wound (the key event of the entire opera, which had been completely missing in her original) and in the same process clearly blessed Kundry (another key plot point Mielitz completely left out before) who instead of walking off the back of the stage into what looked like a backstage construction site (when I was there in 2006) now got onto a lift and was transported up to (presumably) heaven.  It wasn’t satisfying, but it least showed that Mielitz may actually have decided to read the plot sometime after she had done the staging, and attempted to make the staging more closely approximate the plot by reintroducing some key actions.  (Reminder to trashy German Regisseurs: please read the plot before staging an opera; is that really too much to ask?).  I still saw no Grail.  But maybe if I rewatched the whole thing I might have found other corrections – but I am not watching the whole thing (and the snippets I did see did not make me hopeful; even if she did make corrections in the final scene, that scene still failed miserably).

From there it was over to the Met for their 2013 new production by Canadian director François Girard.  The Met Orchestra is not the Vienna Philharmonic, and the dull Daniele Gatti on the podium lacked the intellectual stature of Ádám Fischer, so the Met forces were not as lush nor able to provide the same driving coloration.  Girard’s concept probably required more from the pit, since his staging was oddly modern but timeless, minimal but semi-realist, focusing on the psychological elements of the opera rather than the action (such as it is – this is indeed a very long opera with very little action).  I do not think it really worked.  It was all blood and darkness and ominous cloud formations (and in one case something that looked like a huge Mars gone into eclipse).  Klingsor’s magic garden was transformed into a blood-soaked hewn cave, for example (Klingsor himself was a bloody mess).  The chorus generally stood around, sometimes contorting itself (often with arms outstretched to mimic the crucifixion – but in Parsifal Wagner actually used the story of the grail knights as a myth, and while the final act takes place on Good Friday the symbolism is generally not Christian and Jesus never gets a mention at all).  Girard’s blocking was questionable, but partly balanced by camerawork which allowed those of us watching from home to focus in ways it would have been harder to do in person.

The third act took place in a post-apocalyptic setting, opening with the knights, visibly unhealthy and in tattered clothing, burying their dead from a plague – obviously not a reference to the corona virus (this was filmed in 2013), but a bit disturbing in the current context.  The dark foreboding lighting (even at noon – enter Mars under eclipse at that point) did not so much make this production transformative and mystical, but rather gloomy and depressing.

Jonas Kaufmann, the Met’s Parsifal, was more convincing than the Staatsoper’s Johan Botha.  Botha may have had the bigger voice, but Kaufmann was more lyrical and sympathetic (it also did not help that Botha forgot the words at times).  If Kaufmann was undermatched for the Heldentenor role of Siegmund in Walküre, Parsifal falls more within his vocal strengths.  René Pape, the Met’s Gurnemanz, was in his usual fine form (especially warm in the third act), but on hearing these two performances back-to-back when juxtaposed next to Milling was simply outperformed (I am not sure I had heard Milling before, but I definitely intend to again).

Since it’s hard to get too much Parsifal once I start immersing myself, I migrated over to the Berlin Philharmonic archive they’ve opened up this month, and found a 2018 concert performance under Simon Rattle.  Since it was not staged, the entire focus could go onto the music.  A good staging (particularly of a mystical opera such as this) augments that message, but bad stagings detract.  So in this case, particularly since this was being performed in Germany, where incompetent opera direction reigns, a concert version made for a really good idea.  Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic captured that mystical level.  Stuart Skelton sang an excellent Parsifal (he who recently sounded so good as the Met’s Tristan, there felicitously placed opposite Nina Stemme as Isolde, who sang Kundry here for Berlin).  Franz-Josef Selig was in absolute top form as Gurnemanz, who is really the key character in this opera.

  • [Recording tips:  When it comes to selecting a “best” recording of Parsifal, I think the biggest discussion is not which conductor but rather conceding that some of the best are by Hans Knappertsbusch, then which version conducted by Knappertsbusch deserves that distinction.  I favor the live 1951 Bayreuth Festival performance by virtue of the best overall cast balance.  Wolfgang Windgassen sings the title role, with Ludwig Weber as the critical Gurnemanz.  George London (Amfortas), Arnold van Mill (Titurel), Hermann Uhde (Klingsor), and Martha Modl (Kundry) round out the lead ensemble.  For excerpts, there are several exciting recordings of the second act duet with Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, of which the best may be the one recorded in Philadelphia in 1940 with the Victor Symphony Orchestra under Edwin McArthur.  A recording of the “Good Friday Spell” from Act Three, with Alexander Kipnis as Gurnemanz and Fritz Wolff as Siegfried, recorded at the 1927 Bayreuth Festival with Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s son, on the podium, has never been equaled.]

Strauß II, Zigeunerbaron (Volksoper)

I actually started the week on a much lighter note, with Johann Strauß II’s Zigeunerbaron.  This was unfortunately a confused and humorless new production – the last premiere at the Volksoper before the coronavirus lockdown – by German director Peter Lund.  Despite the nationality of the director, I had better expectations, since Lund had managed to successfully capture Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür in this house a few years ago, which I assume got him invited back for this.  But now he demonstrated no understanding for the Straußian Austro-Hungarian idiom, and his clumsy sets left no room for charm (so, indeed, the cast, orchestra, and conductor – all of whom will remain nameless here so as not to drag them down for something not their fault – could provide none).

  • [Recording tip: A lot of Viennese operetta is best experienced live.  I have happy memories of a performance of Zigeunerbaron at the Volksoper in December 1987.  I did not grow up speaking German, but had begun to study it as my fifth language only in September 1986.  Of course, I had heard Viennese German regularly growing up, since my father spoke to his parents in Viennese (but they all, for some reason, spoke to me in English), so that influenced my dialect, but clearly this was not my native language and my father liked to laugh at my pronunciation as a beginning German-speaker (at that time only a year into when I started speaking the language), which sounded to him like I came from one of the Monarchy’s Kronländer – maybe Slavic or even Hungarian.  After listening to the thick Hungarian accents in the Volksoper’s Zigeunerbaron, my father smiled at me….  Recordings do not quite capture the spontaneity of live performances, so critical for this genre.  But I lean towards one in particular, on the basis that it is sufficiently Viennese to capture the humor, even if it is a tad too “grand.”  But its mostly Viennese performers all would have performed this in a less serious manner, and understood the Fach: a 1961 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under Heinrich Hollreiser, with a cast including Staatsoper (and Volksoper) ensemble stalwarts Hilde Güden, Karl Terkal, Walter Berry, Erich Kunz, Anneliese Rothenberger, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, and Kurt Equiluz.]

Strauss, Elektra (Staatsoper)

From a purely musical perspective, this performance of Elektra by Richard Strauss was electric.  Waltraud Meier and Christine Goerke were in full voice, and Semyon Bychkov provided the perfect amount of sound and powerful framing from the Staatsoper pit.  Yet Uwe Eric Laufenberg, another worthless German director, staged something other than Elektra, and the only advantage of not being in the opera house live (where the music sounds so much better) is that I really don’t have to watch this Prussian nonsense.  I thought initially maybe I would watch, and see what Laufenberg offered, but life really is too short.  I listened happily while doing other things.

What is strange about this opera is that, for no apparent reason, I have never really gotten into it.  I own one recording – a classic 1953 West German Radio recording conducted by Richard Kraus with Astrid Varnay in the title role – which is fine but I will make no claim that it is necessarily the best available – which I may have listened to only 2-3 times since I bought it 20 years ago.  And I am not sure I have listened to the opera otherwise in that period (maybe a Met radio broadcast at some point – assuming it has even been in the Met’s repertory – but if so then certainly never paying much attention).  So it was great to hear it properly like this and scratch my head as to why I haven’t listened to it more often.  I do have a ticket for Elektra should the Salzburg Festival go ahead this Summer (which looks unlikely – although Austria is opening up gradually starting next week, the government has clearly indicated it wants to keep the borders closed until there is a vaccine, which won’t be until mid-2021 at the earliest, so travel in and out would remain blocked; under those circumstances, I could envision a shrunken Austrian-only Festival, but not the normal one).

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Verdi’s Aida is monumental, but this cast was not.  The blocking was poor and the cast in general could not act (I wonder if these facts were related: did they give up on blocking to accommodate a cast that couldn’t act, or was the cast unable to act because the director thought monumental sets alone would substitute for stage direction?).  Within those constraints, the two female leads, Anna Netrebko (as Aida) and Anita Rachvelishvili (as Amneris), could at least sing really well.  Netrebko has been doing this for a while.  But as a rising talent, Rachvelishvili has a unbelievably powerful round and dark lower register (which I heard live in Salzburg last summer) but still handled the high notes with dexterity – hers is quite a remarkable voice in every respect.  As Radamès, Aleksandrs Antonenko was awful – his voice screeched even on those rare occasions when he was not trying to locate his pitch.  Nicola Luisotti did what he needed to in the pit.

  • [Recording tips: My preferred recording of Aida does not seem to rank on most people’s lists, but I’ll stick with it anyway.  Erich Leinsdorf’s 1971 set with the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring Leontyne Price (Aida), Grace Bumbry (Amneris), Plácido Domingo (Radamès), Sherrill Milnes (Amonasro), Ruggero Raimondi (Ramfis), and Hans Sotin (Pharaoh) simply captured this drama better than most.  For something different, if I may, there is a 1955 live Staatsoper recording led by Rafael Kubelik floating around on the market and worth searching out, sung in German with Leonie Rysanek (Aida), Jean Madera (Amneris), Hans Hopf (Radamès), George London (Amonasro), and Gottlob Frick (Ramfis).]

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Staatsoper)

I had never seen Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen before.  I am not sure I had even heard it – if I had, it was on in the background at some point and I was not paying attention.  While it may not be performed too often, it does appear regularly, and I meant to see it at the Staatoper before but never got around to it.  It is a strange little opera: a fantasy, it has a dose of hard realism; almost a children’s tale (most of the characters are animals), it has adult themes; and although a comedy, it is sad.  I like Janáček’s music, although unlike the bolder music in his other dramas or his orchestral works, here he stayed restrained, moody music shimmering in the forest.  Tomáš Netopil conducted with feeling.  Chen Reiss sang a playful Vixen.  Roman Trekal pulled together the arc of the story as the Forester.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel (Mariinsky Theater)

Another seldom-performed work, which I also had never seen before (although I do own a recording), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel was on offer from the Mariinsky Theater.  Rimsky-Korsakov did not originally mean this as a children’s story but it is easily accessible as one, in its world of fantasy, here in a fairy tale staging by the young Russian opera director Anna MatisonAida Garifullina was in great voice as the Queen of Shemakha.  Valery Gergiev conducted in the Mariinsky Second Stage, a modern state-of-the-art theater behind the original Mariinsky.  The house opened in 2013 and for which the visionary Gergiev himself was the mastermind (I actually visited the construction site with him late one night in 2010, when it was still a hole in the ground).

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Mariinsky Theater)

The best opera performance I attended in 2010 (the night Maestro Gergiev showed me that hole in the ground) was Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (in the performing version by Schostakowitsch) at the Mariinsky main stage (a performance I already reviewed on this blog back then for 2 June 2010).  They have now streamed a 2012 performance on their website with a similar cast (so this performance let me see Sergey Alekshashkin as Khovansky, Nikolay Putilin as Shaklovity, Vladimir Vaneyev as Dosifei, Olga Borodina as Marfa, and Vladimir Galuzin as Andrei again; Yevgeny Akimov as Golitsin was the only major character with a different singer this time) with Gergiev in the pit.  It was as thrilling this time through as well (although it is always better to see opera live).  One thing that was obvious during my time living in Russia was that Russian opera singers are taught to act, which produces much more dynamic portrayals across the board.  This stood out here in contrast to some of the poor acting I have seen in other non-Russian productions these last few weeks.

  • [Recording tip: Surprisngly for such a tremendous opera there are not exactly a ton of recordings.  And even then, most use the standard performing version by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Mussorgsky died with the opera unorchestrated and not tidied up, so there are options.  Rimsky-Korsakov did the first clean-up, but his result is actually not very satisfying even though it became the standard.  Stravinsky and Ravel later did another version together (each taking different parts rather than jointly working on the same parts).  By all accounts, the parts orchestrated by the incompetent Ravel were terrible (he had an undeserved reputation as a good orchestrator based on his quite excellent version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but otherwise never produced much of value, whether orchestrating his own work or the work of others), although Stravinsky’s contributions are still sometimes heard.  Schostakowitsch did a new orchestration, which had its premiere at the Mariinsky in 1960 with the same staging they use today, and it is probably the most fulfilling and respectful of Mussorgsky’s wishes.  So if I narrow down to recordings of the Schostakowitsch version, there aren’t a lot to choose from.  But there is an especially good one by Claudio Abbado (who substituted Stravinsky’s version of Act Five instead of Schostakowitsch, for intelligent reasons he explains in the liner notes), with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast including Aage Haugland, Paata Burchuladze, Vladimir Popov, Anatoly Kotchega, Marjana Lipovšek, and Vladimir Atlantov.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky

Since the Mariinsky is putting up concerts, not just operas, during its corona streamings, it is nice to hear the rarely-performed full score of Stravinsky’s Firebird and not just the oft-performed suite.  Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theater Orchestra carried it off with drama and suspense, with even the normally-omitted bits bringing their intrigue.  This is raw music, which usually gets sanitized when cut into the suite (not that the suite isn’t good, just that this is even more exciting).  They prefaced the Firebird with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, in this case presenting the opposite problem: made me wish for the full length opera (itself almost never performed).  A late Rimsky work, it crosses the composers rich tone-painting with more experimental chromatics.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s student Stravinsky followed on this musical language with the Funeral Song #5, written upon the older composer’s death.  That piece was performed once at the memorial service in 1909 and then the score was lost until being rediscovered in 2015 and given its first public performance at this 2016 concert.  In that it formed the missing link in the musical progression from Kitezh to the Firebird.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 3)

Highlights

When this pandemic is all over, I will either need to rush out to hear live music, or I may never want to see another opera again for the rest of my life.  But in the meantime, I continue to take advantage of the opera (and symphonic) archives being opened up on line during the lockdown.

Wagner: Tannhäuser (Metropolitan Opera)

This week began much as last week ended: with Wagner from the Metropolitan Opera.  A classic Otto Schenk production of Tannhäuser was undermined by Johan Botha in the title role, who basically could not act so stood there while other characters bounced off him, trying to get him to move.  This production has been around for decades, and with better casts.  James Levine has probably been in the pit for many of those as well.

  • [Recording tip:  Of the recordings I own, my go-to version remains the one by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with René Kollo as Heinrich von Tannhäuser and Victor Braun as Wolfram von Eschenbach.  No other version quite captures the drama and elevates the authenticity of the characters the way this one does.]

Poulenc: Dialogues of the Carmelites (Metropolitan Opera)

This mystical opera – about nuns who are martyred by barbaric French revolutionaries – is one of those exceptions that prove the rule that the French do not understand music or drama.  Several French composers (beyond Berlioz, who was pretty consistently good and whose countrymen never properly understood him) could sometimes manage to churn out one decent opera per composer (and maybe one additional work that has withstood the test of time).  Gounod had Faust, Bizet had Carmen, Massenet had La Navarraise (my obscure choice for Massenet may surprise people, but have another listen: it really is his best opera by far), Saint-Saëns had Samson and Dalilah, and Poulenc had Dialogues of the Carmelites.  A suggestive minimal staging by John Dexter was in general sufficient to convey the meaning of this opera (except the final scene, which was supposed to depict the nuns getting guillotined, did not work at all – even without showing them all being executed, Dexter’s timing of the action did not go with the music, which undermined the drama).  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted in full idiom.  I do not own a recording of this opera, having only heard it periodically on radio broadcasts (possibly all of them over the years from the Met), and this may be the first time I have seen the opera.

Rossini: Barber of Seville (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Rossini’s Barber of Seville seemed a bit odd at first but it grew on me.  I was not sure if it was trying to be realistic or fantastical.  But the concept was to accentuate the farce within this opera, and it ultimately succeeded in doing that.  The extremely tall Peter Mattei as the factotum Figaro hammed it up sufficiently.  Maurizio Benini let the performance from the pit – but with the stage built out around the front of the pit as well, he and the orchestra ended up right in the middle of it all.

  • [Recording tips: I am going to agree with conventional wisdom that the best recording of this opera is the 1958 one with Tito Gobbi as Figaro, Maria Callas as Rosina, and Luigi Alva as Count Almaviva, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.  But for sake of being different, I may use this space to point out two unusual recordings worth looking for – not because they are better (they are not), but only because they have excellent acting casts that have a certain charm of their own.  One is a Moscow Radio recording from 1953 conducted by Samuil Samosud, sung in Russian.  I think I originally bought it (when I lived in Russia) solely because I was trying to collect recordings of Mark Reizen (who sang Basilio here), but I ended up enjoying the whole thing.  Another is a 1966 live recording from Vienna, sung in German, which gives the opportunity to hear Fritz Wunderlich as Almaviva just a few months before his untimely death.  The remaining roles are filled out by stalwarts of the Staatsoper ensemble under the baton of Karl Böhm.  Rossini doesn’t really work in Russian or German per se, but these recordings in local vernacular do provide a chance to hear the opera differently and have some additional fun with it.]

Verdi: Don Carlo (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s confused staging (by Nicholas Hynter) of Verdi’s Don Carlos could not decide if it wanted to be traditional or modern and failed miserably at both.  Roberto Alagna was nowhere near in his best voice as Carlos, sounding strained and often off-pitch.  The Met likely has many versions of this opera in its archives, with better casts and better stagings, so it is a mystery why they chose to put this one up.  Nézet-Séguin did his best to be dramatic in the pit, but he can’t do everything.

  • [Recording tip: This is another one of those operas where one recording far exceeds everything else.  In this case, it is the comprehensive concept thoroughly thought through by Carlo Maria Giulini for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with Plácido Domingo as Carlos, along with a truly dramatic cast including Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Ruggiero Raimondi, and Sherrill Milnes.]

Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Mariinsky Theater)

I realized that the Mariinsky, by far Russia’s best opera house, is putting up a cross-section of performances (not just operas – in fact, actually not many operas) during the lockdown.  So over it was electronically to St. Petersburg for Saint-Saëns’s Samson.  As I said above (and often enough before), with the exception of Berlioz, the French generally seem to lack any understanding of music or drama, but Saint-Saëns showed some talent (not that he used it much) and wrote one complete opera that passes muster.  I had seen a staging by the French-trained Greek director Yannis Kokkos before (at the Staatsoper: a production of the original – rejected for good reason by the composer – version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov), which was dark, static, and totally missing drama.  That must be his way of doing things (presumably his French training), because this production of Samson was also dark, static, and totally missing any drama whatsoever.  Ekaterina Semenchuk as Dalilah held up her end of the bargain as much as she could in this staging, but Gregory Kunde as Samson did not, with a voice that lacked sufficient dramatic heft, particularly in the lower register.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, is usually a better judge of casting in his house.

  • [Recording tip: since I don’t think I have ever heard a recording by a French opera house that passes muster either musically or dramatically, I default to a non-French recording of this opera.  In this case, I revert to a 1948 Bavarian Radio recording conducted by Hans Altman, with Lorenz Fehenberger and Res Fischer in the title roles and Fred Destal as the High Priest.  I’d recommend people have a listen to this dramatic version even if they do somehow find French productions satisfying in ways I never seem to.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Mariinsky Theater)

I suppose I could not resist hanging around on the Mariinsky’s site to see what other operas were available.  Tschaikowsky’s Onyegin should not have been unexpected.  But this production, conducted by Gergiev, did not match up to the Met’s production, also conducted by Gergiev, that was streamed last week.  Andrei Bondarenko did not make as dashing an Onyegin as Hvorostovsky.

Schreker: Der Ferne Klang (Royal Swedish Opera)

I decided to finish the week with an unusual choice: Franz Schreker’s The Distant Sound, an opera rarely performed.  I have actually owned a recording of it for many years (a 1990 Berlin Radio recording with Gerd Albrecht conducting a cast headed by Thomas Moser and Gabriele Schnaut), but do not remember when I last listened to it, so thought this was as good a time as any to see if I could remind myself what was up here.  Schreker’s polychromatic musical palette – somewhere between Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold – is on full display in this opera, composed over several years in Vienna during the first decade of the 20thcentury.  There is no particular reason this opera could not be performed more often (it apparently was performed frequently enough in Germany until the Nazis banned it because Schreker’s father was Jewish), but it is probably destined to remain a curiosity.  The Royal Swedish Opera has dusted it off, with a simple but straightforward staging that did not try to do too much.  Daniel Johansson was good as the main male lead, the composer Fritz.  As part of the simple concept by Christof Loy (a German opera director who seemed to have a concept and tried to set the actual plot of an opera!), the chorus morphed among different roles in each scene, much like a Greek chorus, but that worked here.  What may not have worked was that many of the singers doubled up in roles as named characters – so not the Greek chorus – and since they stayed in costume this was often confusing.  Was it cost-saving that made the Royal Swedish Opera double cast members up, or was this part of the director’s concept to portray different characters as alter-egos of the same persona (and if so, why?)?  In the pit, Stefan Blunier maintained a good sense of the drama.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Bolshoi Opera)

I should have known better.  One night this week I tried to watch the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov streamed from Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera.  I decided to do this purely on the strength of the opera itself, which is rarely performed but really should appear more often.  I saw it four times when I lived in Moscow, with four different opera companies, including this same staging at the Bolshoi (the other performances I saw were by the Novaya Opera, the Gelikon Opera, and a visiting opera company from Rostov-on-Don performing in the Stanislavsky Theater).  But the Bolshoi is an absurd place, which lives entirely off its reputation.  It has not been a good opera house for 40 years, ever since the Communist Party fired longtime general director Boris Pokrovsky (apparently – the story I have heard – because, during one of the all-too-regular waves of official Russian antisemitism, he refused to reduce the number of Jews playing the Bolshoi orchestra), and when I lived in Moscow it was the worst of the seven different opera companies I attended (yet due to prestige – all-important in Russia – it was nevertheless the most expensive).  This performance was, as I should have expected, mediocre.  But not only that.  The Bolshoi fails at almost everything, so it probably should not have surprised me that they could not even succeed in streaming this properly: the stream cut out shortly into the third act (suddenly went off-line to “private” setting).  Since I couldn’t exactly walk away at that point, I threw on a much better recording from the Bolshoi in 1973.  I won’t be going back to the Bolshoi’s streamings again during this crisis – or probably not ever, they’re just a mess.

  • [Recording tip: That 1973 Bolshoi recording may be the best available, with Galina Vishnyevskaya in one of her final performances before she was expelled from the Soviet Union along with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich for their opposition to the regime and support of other dissidents (I suppose that was a better penalty than being sent to the gulags, or being executed).  The cast is from the Bolshoi’s ensemble of singers under the baton of Fuat Mansurov.  I am willing to guess, however, that there may be an even better unpublished version somewhere in the Bolshoi’s archives.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

In addition to Onyegin, the Mariinsky posted a fair amount of Tschaikowsky.  My objection to Tschaikowsky is that much of his music tries too hard to be western, when western Europeans wrote much better material.  His music is pretty enough, but so over-performed – particularly his 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies – as to have become tiresome.  Where he most succeeded in saying something lasting were in his psychodramas (particularly Yevgeny Onyegin and the Queen of Spades) and in his truly Russian-inspired masterpieces such as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd symphonies, which are sadly underperformed.  In taking advantage of the archive made available on the Mariinsky website, a performance of the Second Symphony stood out, with Gergiev again conducting.  This may be my favorite work by Tschaikowsky, and Gergiev did it justice with his orchestra.  The performance was recorded on tour in Moscow in the Zaryadye Concert Hall, a hall I do not actually know since it was constructed sometime after I lived in Moscow.  The hall stands in a large lot near the Kremlin which, when I lived there, contained a handful of partly-restored historic buildings which had decayed during the Soviet period and a bunch of tractors whose only reason for being there seemed to be to move dirt from one place to another.  Apparently they subsequently decided what to move the dirt for.

Berlin Philharmonic: Sibelius, Weber, Bartók

I continue to search through the archival materials that the Berlin Philharmonic has made available for a month on its website.  The late Mariss Jansons, who died last November, periodically guest-conducted this orchestra over the years, and a number of his concerts appear.  I would highlight this concert in particular, featuring the First Symphony of Janne Sibelius, the Clarinet Concerto #1 by Carl Maria von Weber (with the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer as soloist), and the suite from the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  It never really mattered what Jansons conducted – there was always some new way to listen.  My own go-to recording of the Sibelius first is also by Jansons, when he was music director in Oslo earlier in his career.  Although he was responsible for raising the standard of the Oslo Philharmonic, it still did not reach the level of the Berlin Philharmonic, and here we have his tremendous interpretation taken to the highest level.

Berlin Philharmonic: Bach, Stravinsky, Mahler

The Berlin archive only has one concert led by Vladimir Jurowski, and this from back in 2011.  Jurowski has always been one of the most exciting conductors of his generation (he’s now 48), and his concerts often provide intelligent combinations of music designed to make listeners think.  The concert available here was no exception.  It opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale “Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” as arranged by Igor Stravinsky – starting with a brass chorale and moving through the text with Bach’s mathematics and 20th century harmonics.  Jurowski followed this with an altogether stranger work by Stravinsky, his Requiem Canticles – parts of the mediaeval requiem mass reset in a very modern structure – scientific, perhaps, but not necessary with musicality in the forefront.  It’s not that it had to have a tune, per se, but maybe a little less formula and a little more music would have helped.  Still, as an intellectual exercise it worked as a bridge to the main work in the program, Gustav Mahler’s giant student work Das Klagende Lied, in which the young composer, still at conservatory, imagined new musical ways forward (partly under the influence of his neurotic apartmentmate Hans Rott, when they were both studying with Anton Bruckner).  Like with Stravinsky, there is a reverence for the past, the history and building blocks of music, but also a desire to strike out in a new direction.  I own one recording of Das Klagende Lied: a 1997 performance by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Jurowski’s interpretation with Berlin is rather more angular and strident than Tilson-Thomas, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing more robust than San Francisco’s.  The San Francisco Symphony in that recording (indeed in that period generally) did not sound as muddy as it does now (Tilson-Thomas has been there too long), but the superior virtuosity of the Berliners simply allows for more fine tuning.

Berlin Philharmonic: Wagner, Liszt

Riccardo Chailly brought two Faust-inspired works to Berlin for his guest stint.  The logical pairing (since the composers themselves encouraged each other) of Wagner’s Faust Overture and Ferenc Liszt’s Faust Symphony graced Chailly’s contribution.  Chailly grasped the strengths of this orchestra, which can sound clinical but can also have its technical precision unleashed in nuanced ways for a fulness of sound and excitement.  While every recording I am familiar with of Liszt’s Faust Symphony is missing a little something here or there (my favorite is the one with Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), this performance with Chailly and the Berliners may be close to definitive.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, historically one of the best in the United States (and I believe also the best-endowed orchestra in the world), suffered a long, slow, painful decline.  Seiji Ozawa, who may have been an inspired choice to lead the orchestra in 1973, stayed far too long in that post, leading to stagnation by the time he finally departed in 2002.  The orchestra replaced him with James Levine, who had done so much to improve the pit orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera and was looking for a top symphony orchestra to lead alongside his duties as music director at the Met.  Unfortunately, Levine did not have the health and vitality at this point in his career to handle both roles, leaving the BSO rudderless.  By the time he resigned in 2011 (they never bothered to terminate him early, which was another huge mistake), no one could speak of the BSO as a top-flight orchestra.  In that climate, the choice of Andris Nelsons to take over as music director in 2014 was inspired – a young dynamic conductor at the top of his game.  During the lockdown, the BSO is putting up one selection per day from its archives (which then remain on their website – not clear how long they will stay there beyond the end of the lockdown).  As I listened to the selection they provided this week, I found one of the first performances Nelson conducted as music director featured the Second Symphony of Sibelius: here it is possible to listen to the relief the orchestra must have felt, that finally they would be restored to their rightful place.  It’s a moody symphony, but performed here with so much hope.  The excitement is palpable.

  • [Recording tip: I own several recordings of the Sibelius 2nd, but for sheer other-worldliness nothing comes close to the one with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  It is the most recent one I have purchased, and since I added it to my collection I have pretty much stopped listening to the other versions.]

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 2)

Highlights

Another week of lockdown, another week of online streaming.

Puccini: Tosca (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s offers this week included a classic staging (by the Austrian Margarethe Wallmann) of Puccini’s Tosca with a selection of recent casts.  I chose a 2019 performance with Piotr Beczala as Cavardossi and Thomas Hampson as an elegant Scarpia.  Hampson’s voice has clearly tired with age, but he remains a tremendous stage presence.  Baron Scarpia is the bad guy in this opera, but to pull off the part requires a certain grace rather than just performing the role as a one dimensional villain.  And it was precisely that level of intelligence that Hampson provided.  Sondra Radvanovska, as Floria Tosca, was the least impressive of the three lead characters – adequate but not in Beczala’s or Hampson’s league.  The always-reliable Marco Armiliato conducted.

  • [Recording tips:  I think purists generally agree – and I don’t argue – that the standard recording against which every other should be compared is the 1953 La Scala version with Maria Callas in the title role, Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi, Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, and Victor de Sabata conducting.  However, I might also propose another recording which I often default to instead: a 1967 Russian-language studio recording with Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra.  My attention will always be drawn to recordings of great Georgian dramatic tenor Zurab Anjaparidze, indeed the greatest dramatic tenor I have ever heard (sadly only on recordings as he was before my time), who sang Mario Cavaradossi in this version.  Anjaparidze became the leading dramatic tenor at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater (often paired with the unmatched soprano Galina Vishnyevskaya) in its heyday in the late 1950s and through the 1960s until the authorities allowed him to return to Tbilisi in the 1970s.  In this recording, Oleg Klenov’s Scarpia is a force to reckon with, and Tamara Milashkina’s Floria Tosca, if not always entirely up to Callas’ level, displays an intensity consistent with this production under Svetlanov’s full-on interpretation.]

Donizetti: L’Elisir d’Amore (Staatsoper)

Armiliato also conducted another classic Vienna production, L’Elisir d’Amore by Donizetti, in a staging by Otto Schenk.  Schenk, also Austrian, is one of the greatest operatic stage directors – an actor by training, his stagings fundamentally focus on maximizing understanding of the plot, including refined interpretations, and I have seen this production myself live in the Staatsoper (albeit a different cast).  The Staatsoper’s streaming lineup gave me a choice of casts, so I picked the one with Dmitry Korchak as Nemorino and Adam Plachetka as Dr. Dulcamara, both excellent singing actors who personified their roles.  Olga Peretyatko may have been a notch down as Adina, but she still performed with a twinkle and the Schenk production made it easy.

  • [Recording tips: oddly, although I am long familiar with this opera since childhood and enjoy it very much, I realized that I somehow don’t own a complete recording of it, nor am I aware of a version I would recommend.  Indeed, I now want to do some research and get myself a complete recording to rectify the situation, but until then I suppose I will just have to keep going to see it in person.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera launched the week with its 2007 production of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, and with the dashing Dmitri Hvorostovksy in the title role ably matched by Renée Fleming as Tatyana and Ramón Vargas as Lensky.  The staging is minimal, allowing the characters to fully act out the emotional psychodrama.  I actually own a DVD of this performance, but it was still worth re-watching.

  • [Recording tips: I don’t have a go-to recording of Onyegin.  Unlike Elisir d’Amore, I do own several recordings, each with its plusses and minuses.  I tend to mix and match scenes, whether from complete recordings or excerpts recorded separately.  There is a Swedish-language version of Lensky’s aria sung by Jussi Björing which is – and deserves to be – widely available.  Galina Vishnyevskaya’s letter scene recorded at the Bolshoi with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich conducting is an excellent extended highlight.  Mark Reizen’s take on Prince Gremin’s aria – which he recorded multiple times over his remarkably long career – is definitive in many of those recordings.  A final scene from a 1961 Vienna Staatsoper performance (sung in German) with Sena Jurinac as Tatyana and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Yevgeny under the baton of Lovro von Matačić is worth looking for to give a different lyrical perspective.  But, in the end, perhaps Hvorostovsky was indeed the most dashing Yevgeny there exists on record.]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Metropolitan Opera)

After that Onyegin, the Met shifted into Wagnerian gear for a few days.  They led off with a vocally-impressive version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a modern setting that was impossible to watch, so I stopped watching.  Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme excelled as the title characters, with Simon Rattle keeping the pace from the pit.  To be honest, this is the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that has never spoken to me – I admit I just don’t understand Tristan.  So I guess I also was not bothered by finding the staging shambolic, allowing me to multi-task while listening.

  • [Recording tips: Since Tristan is not an opera I especially care for, I have not really done a complete comparison of commercially-available recordings.  I own one complete recording, that has some poor sound quality but otherwise excellent pacing: a 1943 live broadcast recording from the Met with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel in the title roles.]

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera)

Of course the highlights of the week came in the form of a complete Ring Cycle from New York and the second half of the one from Vienna.

Vienna’s Ring, as noted last week, featured Thomas Konieczny as Wotan.  And while I could appreciate his edgy voice last week in Rheingold and Walküre, I was less convinced by it this week in Siegfried.  He contrasted with the Met’s Wotan, Bryn Terfel, who was altogether a more elegant chief god, still able to show the complexity of circumstances but with a much more rounded instrument.  Konieczny doubled up in Vienna as Gunther in Götterdämmerung, a role for which his voice was simply not at all suited – far too angry and unsubtle.  The Met countered with Iain Paterson as Gunther, who provided a much better characterization.  Gunther is often portrayed as a one-dimensional character, but he is rather more complex, which Paterson readily understood and transmitted.

Vienna’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung switched out the Brünnhilde in last week’s streamed version (Evelyn Herlitzius) to provide instead the Swede Iréne Theorin, an altogether stronger solution.  The Met streamings had Deborah Voigt, who was in excellent voice for Die Walküre and Siegfried but tended to strain during Götterdämmerung (the streamings came from shows spread out over a year and a half, so provided no indication if in the real world she had to sing on three successive nights, which might have explained the voice losing its shine and becoming more forced by Götterdämmerung).

On the Heldentenor front, the Met tried out Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund – he has a wonderful voice and stage presence, but this role seemed a bit much for him.  He may be a dramatic tenor, but it’s not so clear he is a Wagnerian Heldentenor.  Of course, Heldentenors are very hard to find, as demonstrated by the Met’s unfortunate choice to sing Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris, who was reduced to screaming his role rather than singing it.  He had his quieter moments, and indeed might possibly have a nice voice in an appropriate role, but this role was far more than he could handle.  Vienna’s Siegfried, Stephen Gould, sounded dry-voiced and not quite fresh enough to sing this particular role, although he might have managed Siegmund (of the Wagnerian roles, I might peg his voice as best-suited for Tannhäuser).

The most impressive singer in either cycle was Hans-Peter König at the Met, who performed not only Fafner in Rheingold and Siegfried, but also Hunding in Walküre and Hagen in Götterdämmerung.  This was not a one-size-fits-all feat, but rather different portrayals to fit different roles.  (Contrast with Konieczny, for example, whose Gunther sounded exactly like his Wotan, and whose voice would have been temperamentally better for Alberich.)

It is actually worth underscoring König’s performance as Hagen especially.  If Götterdämmerung is my favorite opera, then Hagen is easily my favorite character in all of opera.  It is a strange role – Hagen actually has very few lines compared to his stage presence, but every one of those lines pushes the plot forward and the entire opera (possibly even the entire cycle) is dependent on this character.  Hagen is, of course, the son of Alberich, who wants a son to help him get the Ring back.  But it is often overlooked that in Act 2 of Die Walküre, Wotan anoints Alberich’s then not-yet-born son as his successor (pointedly NOT anointing his own offspring) for the purposes of bringing about the end of the world.  In the myths Wagner read and upon which he based his plot, Hagen was also sometimes portrayed as one-eyed, with the clear allusion to the one-eyed Wotan.  And as Wotan rules the world with his spear, defender of treaties, which is shattered by Siegfried in Act 3 of Siegfried, Hagen’s spear becomes the critical weapon of honor in Götterdämmerung.  While ultimately Hagen fails to win the Ring back for Alberich, he does succeed in setting in motion the final conspiracy that destroys the world (carried out, of course, by Wotan’s estranged daughter, Brünnhilde).

In this absolutely critical role, König dominated.  Vienna’s Hagen, Falk Struckmann, though a fine singer, simply did not rise to the role.  His Hagen was a tired old man – but Hagen is only a few months older than Siegfried (Kriemhild is pregnant with Hagen before the plot of Walküre begins – when Siegfried is conceived during the intermission between Acts 1 and 2), and probably (although not entirely clear) the younger brother of Gunther and Gutrune.  Assuming Siegfried is still a teenager during the opera Siegfried, and perhaps ten years or so pass during the first Act of Götterdämmerung before Siegfried arrives in Worms (the plot does not say explicitly how much time passes, but there are a number of clues in the text), this would make Siegfried and Hagen around 30 years old.  Hagen admits he is grey before his years thanks to being the son of the dwarf Alberich, but this does not need to mean he is an old man (Alberich himself is ageless and remains active, and wanted a half-human son to be his own vibrant hero to counter Wotan’s half-human race of descendants).

And if Struckmann did not have the voice or stage presence for Hagen, his task was made more difficult by the staging itself.  Last week I already mentioned the utterly useless production by the clueless German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, and watching the last two operas in the cycle did not let me see any concept grow even taking the entire four-opera set into account.  If it was not offensive (which is already an improvement on the garbage self-important German poseur opera directors normally churn out), it added nothing.  Indeed, a minimalist staging would have been better to allow the singers to act, but this was not minimalist just a mix of I-am-not-sure-what (some mock-realism, some abstraction, some stuff seemingly unrelated to anything else).  Some of it was just plain silly (for example, Wotan left the stage in Act 1 of Siegfried having forgotten his spear, so he returns to fetch it, hitting himself on the head to demonstrate his forgetfulness… and then Siegfried does exactly the same thing with his sword later in the opera).  It really is not worth going into the weeds to analyze Bechtolf’s staging, as that would be giving him too much credit for intelligent thought.  So I dealt with it.  But really: why?  Why give this idiot a contract?  Why give any German stage directors contracts?  What the hell have German stage directors been smoking these last several decades that has made them incapable of providing any sensible opera productions?  (OK, I admit there are a small handful of exceptions to prove the rule, but Germany has become a operatic wasteland, ruined by its Regisseurs.)

My verdict on the Met’s staging is still out.  I actually do not know who the director was (I could not find a credit on their website).  But the concept was that the stage for the duration of all four operas was actually a huge mechanical contraption consisting of a series of long planks.  These planks adjusted their angles individually or together, to form everything from the Rhein River to various buildings to landscapes, assisted by projections – sometimes realistic film and sometimes abstract lighting.  The characters moved in and out of the contraption.  The use of projections meant that some things often omitted could easily be included (Wotan’s ravens, for example) but this was not done consistently.  Without having to do an elaborate set (although I imagine the contraption on stage was actually elaborate) it could still be traditional if it wanted to be, and minimalist if it preferred that approach (or somehow both at once).  Many of the singers could act (although the contraption was often at steep angles and they looked distinctly uncomfortable moving about on it).  Was I convinced?  No, but watching it on a laptop may not be ideal for this concept – maybe I would need to be in the audience at the Met to appreciate the entirety.

From an overall musical perspective, the Staatsoper exceeded the Met – no surprise there (although, in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried’s entries were accompanied by consistently disastrous horn playing – and not because they got Gould to play his own horn, so someone in the orchestra must have gotten fired).  James Levine conducted the first two operas in the Met’s cycle – a once dynamic opera conductor, he was already in poor health by the time these performances were recorded in 2010-11 and so he simply could not keep the orchestra charged.  Fabio Luisi took over for Levine during Levine’s illness, and so had Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – Luisi can always be counted on for perfectly adequate performances (and I also find that any orchestra he is music director of improves its quality during his tenure, so he must be a good rehearsal conductor – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, our city’s second great orchestra, sounded at its best at the end of his tenure and may have moved to among the top ten in the world at that time), but Luisi rarely comes up with anything special.  In contrast, Adam Fischer led the Staatsoper for Rheingold, Simon Rattle for Walküre, and Axel Kober for the final two operas, and all of them coaxed exciting color from the pit.  It is only a shame that the musicians in Vienna’s pit driving the Ring forward could not overcome Bechtolf’s complete lack of talent or purpose in his staging.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has ever exceeded John Culshaw’s brilliant ahead-of-his-time audio engineering for the classic London Decca Ring cycle.  But whereas the Rheingold lacks something particularly due to a sub-standard performance by George London as Wotan, and the Walküre in that set is poorly-cast, with an over-the-hill Hans Hotter falling short as Wotan at the end of his illustrious career – Culshaw recorded Walküre last, several years after the other operas – being one of several vocal inadequacies, especially Siegmund and Sieglinda in James King and Régine Crespin, neither of whom had anything near the voice for those roles).  But Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in that set have never been surpassed.  And if I said above that the key to any Ring is Hagen, well Culshaw cast Gottlob Frick, whom Wilhelm Furwängler once described as “the blackest bass” in all of Germany.  Possibly no one has ever been better suited for that role, and his Hagen dominates the entire recording (and may indeed be the reason I became such a fan of Götterdämmerung and the character Hagen in the first place).  But Hotter was in full voice for Wotan in Siegfried, Birgit Nilsson was at the top of her career as Brünnhilde, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was an inspired choice to portray the complexities of Gunther, Wolfgang Windgassen may not have been Culshaw’s first choice Siegfried but what we would not give to have a Heldentenor of his caliber today, Gustav Neidlinger and Gerhard Stolze provided idiomatic character portrayals of Alberich and Mime… and then there was the Vienna Philharmonic with Georg Solti, of course.]

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera)

Before writing this blog post up, I concluded the week’s offerings with Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg in a classic staging by Otto Schenk (that name again).  Schenk really is one of the best stage directors to work in the opera world.  It’s not just that the staging is sensible, but there is an attention to details, blocking, nuance, meaning… in short, a delight to watch.  And although I have seen the production before (with several casts, including in person – it was my father’s favorite, after all!) it has held up and remains a treat. Michael Volle portrayed a humorful Hans Sachs, someone who could enjoy life and all of its eccentricities, while still providing substance (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy after all – a Wagnerian comedy, but a comedy nonetheless).  Sachs is of course the hero of this opera – it is a love story, but Sachs is the odd man out, the old bachelor who has an interest in Eva but has moved beyond that, and the internal conflicts of Sachs are apparent in Schenk’s intelligent concept.  At the end of this staging, Schenk has Eva crown Sachs with the victor’s laurel wreath.

But if I had not already mentioned Hans-Peter König in connection with the Met’s Ring above, I would focus on him now: the role of Veit Pogner is obviously quite different from Fafner, Hunding, or Hagen.  But as he successfully differentiated among those roles in the Ring, so did König’s performance here as Pogner display yet another personality.

  • [Recording tips: Although many people did not realize it (many assumed it was Rheingold), Meistersinger was my father’s favorite opera (he also admired the real life Hans Sachs as a freethinker ahead of his time).  He had several recordings, but there was one he kept returning to, which I might agree may still be the best, although it is a surprising choice.  Herbert von Karajan’s operatic interpretations were cerebral but usually underwhelming.  Yet he recorded a version of this opera in 1971 with the Dresden Semperoper (and therefore the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra), with Theo Adam as Sachs.  Adam has a higher-register baritone voice, so may not be the deeper Sachs most people are accustomed to, but he was a very lyrical baritone who could carry Wagnerian roles, so providing an excellent understanding.  The rest of the cast is also up to the same level – one of Karajan’s strengths, if not commanding performances, was his ability to identify vocal talent and match it to the right roles, even unexpectedly.]

Berlin Philharmonic: Bruckner

On the concert front, I have started to take advantage of the Berlin Philharmonic’s archive that they have opened up for 30 days (to anyone who registers – for free – by 31 March, so unless that is extended I suggest people sign up now!).  Of the several concerts from Berlin I selected this week (and I will certainly listen to more in the coming weeks), I will make two recommendations in particular, both under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt.

The different available versions of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies each have a story rooted in Bruckner’s personal insecurity and well-meaning friends who sometimes never fully comprehended his music and gave him bad advice, which he usually took. So sometimes his revisions are good things, representing him refining his music; but other times they reflect his insecurities and he deconstructed what he had built and not in a good way.  So it is inconsistent which version to use of any of his symphonies, but there is a general reason that convention has settled on one particular edition of any symphony as preferred and most reflective of Bruckner’s thoughts and talents.  For Bruckner’s Third Symphony, this is usually his third version.  Blomstedt here prefers Bruckner’s original version, a much more rambling work with extra passages quoting from various Wagner operas that he edited out later.  And in this performance, Blomstedt manages to make a convincing case for this version – if not as a substitute for the third version commonly performed, then at least as an additional part of the performing repertory (and not just as a curiosity either, but having rightful place in the repertory).  Fundamentally, Blomstedt remains an architect of music, and takes great care to construct Bruckner’s soaring edifice.

  • [Recording tips: I own one recording of this original version, also convincing under the baton of Bruckner-specialist Georg Tintner.  But the Berlin Philharmonic far surpasses the orchestra Tintner had available (the Royal Scottish National Orchestra acquits itself well enough in the recording, but Berlin is among the top ten orchestras in the world and is just that much better).  As I do not believe the Blomstedt / Berlin performance is commercially available, then I recommend interested listeners to seek out the Tintner / RSNO recording.  (My go-to recording of the symphony in its normal performing version is with the Concertgebouworkest and Mariss Jansons, recorded live in Amsterdam a few days before I heard these forces repeat the concert in Vienna.)]

Berlin Philharmonic: Berwald, Dvořák

The other concert from Berlin that especially appealed to me this week of the ones I listened to, featured Blomstedt conducting Franz Berwald’s Symphony #3 and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony #7.  Berwald is an unjustly-neglected Swedish composer, and this symphony written 1845 was not performed for 60 years after he wrote it.  It is full of complex mood swings, which it accomplishes without losing its train of thought or musical lines.  Dvořák’s symphony, written on commission for the London Philharmonic in 1865, is in many ways similar, and represented the Czech composer’s first huge international popular success.

  • [Recording tips: For those who would like an introduction to Berwald, there is an excellent complete cycle of Berwald’s symphonies and other orchestral works released as a set by Sixten Ehrling and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.  For commercial versions of the Dvořák seventh, I’m partial to one with Wolgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra (maybe more driven that Blomstedt’s interpretion with Berlin, whereas Blomstedt focuses on the intricate building blocks themselves, as is his wont).]

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

I rushed up from Washington to Philadelphia in time to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in three very different symphonies by Russian composers. What Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Schostakowitsch’s 9th, and Prokofiev’s 5th had in common was intriguing rhythmic combinations, which make them fun, if difficult, to play.  The Philadelphians proved themselves up for the challenge.

The Stravinsky might be the oddest of the lot.  Written over a period of a couple of years, it is not quite clear that the composer ever had a clear vision or plan for this work.  The creativity came in the rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions across the instruments.  A medium-sized orchestration never became too overpowering, and the Philadelphians played the work with dexterous delicacy: tender moments prevailing through jarring jabs of sound.

In some respects, the orchestra sounded as though it had started the concert by going mostly through motions, taking a while to warm up during the piece.  The playing was fine, but some sparkle lacked at the outset.  Part of that may have been Stravinsky’s lack of clarity in this work.  Certainly, by the time the Schostakowitsch came, the Orchestra was now ready.

Schostakowitsch’s work marks a triumph of his own spirit at a time of triumph for his country.  The communists expected a major work to crown their victory in the Second World War, and Schostakowitsch gave them a sarcastic one.  The work dances – maybe not with as much syncopation as Stravinsky’s or with the balletic sweeps of the Prokofiev that followed, but nevertheless it showed a certain celebration alternating with dark brooding.  Although Soviet Russia had defeated Nazi Germany, it remained Soviet Russia, its peoples enslaved.  The irony did not escape notice that the Orchestra took its cues from Gergiev, a close friend of (and apologist for) current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.  But politics aside (and sticking to music-making), Gergiev successfully shaped this symphony with his clawing fingers, giving it a fuller and more meaningful reading than the Stravinsky.

The Prokofiev symphony after the intermission provided something more in line with what the communist regime would have wanted.  Written shortly before the end of the European war, as the Red Army advanced to liberate (and re-enslave) Eastern Europe, Prokofiev could use dramatic language and large forces to portray both the uplifting triumph and sad laments of the battlefield, while still maintaining a modern musical language characterized by its own dancing rhythms.  The Orchestra’s sound came across full when it had to, but the solo lines throughout emerged with sensitivity and virtuosity.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus (St. Petersburg), Tschaikowsky Hall (Moscow)

Kruglikov, Verdi

Tonight’s special concert of Verdi’Requiem with the Mariinsky under Valery Gergiev was for the benefit of victims of the disaster in Japan.

This was an extremely dramatic operatic reading of the Requiem.  This piece is already rather operatic, but tonight it was so expressive that the Mariinsky almost acted it out.  The Tschaikowsky Hall was absolutely packed, standing room only, but the orchestra’s sound managed to fill the hall.  I suppose that since they are used to playing in an orchestra pit, they know how to project up and out.  What I liked about this performance, however, was the way in which Gergiev drew out the woodwinds, who have some fascinating and dramatic parts that often get obscured by the strings and brass.  Tonight, I could clearly hear these interior lines.

The soloists all came from the Mariinsky roster.  Of them, only Olga Borodina (alto) is internationally known.  The other three were the sort of relatively young singers that Gergiev likes to showcase.  In terms of drama, stage presence, and beauty of voice, they all matched up to Borodina, particularly Viktoriya Yastrebova (soprano) and Ildar Abdrazakov (bass).  The fourth soloist, Sergey Semishkur (tenor) had a very beautiful voice, but came from the Russian school of dramatic tenors that I don’t personally like.  In Russia, dramatic tenors tend to have lighter (although not weaker) voices that tend towards the counter-tenor range rather than with supportive lower registers like European dramatic tenors.  This is purely a stylistic issue, and he certainly sang beautifully and dramatically.  All four easily projected over the orchestra and chorus.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Mourning Music by Feliks Kruglikov, a Russian who defected to the US in 1979 and became Zubin Mehta’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic.  The piece was sort of post-Schostakowitschian, although it did not really say anything.  Not unpleasant, just uninteresting: had Schostakowitsch lived longer, he would have had something to say.

Mariinsky Theater (St. Petersburg), Bolshoi New Stage (Moscow)

Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

The Mariinsky Theater performed Bartók’s dark psychodrama Duke Bluebeard’s Castle on the Bolshoi New Stage, with Willard White as Duke Bluebeard, Yelena Zhidkova as Judith, and Valery Gergiev on the podium.

It is obviously hard for me to judge proficiency in Hungarian language, but the two non-native speakers (White is Jamaican, Zhidkova is Russian) gave a fluent and chilling reading. The staging was nonsense – the opera was originally rejected in 1911 as a submission by Bartók to a theater competition because the judges did not consider this opera to contain any theater. Staging should be minimal, and the ability of the two singers to portray the psychological drama determines a successful performance. Although not over-staged, the director was trying to do something on stage, but that something was unclear. White and Zhidkova essentially ignored the stage and got on with their jobs, fully supported by Gergiev and his orchestra in the pit.

I decided to keep my cashmere scarf on when I checked my coat (and my wool scarf). This was a good thing – although the theater was not cold, the performance gave me chills and having the scarf proved useful. The audience stood for a moment of silence before the performance in memory of the victims from today’s terrorist attack on Domodedovo Airport – something which certainly added to the chill.

Mariinsky Theater

Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina

For Mussorgsky’Khovanshchina at the Mariinsky, conductor Valery Gergiev used the Schostakowitsch arrangement, which is probably the best available option (Mussorgsky never completed the opera, leaving it unorchestrated, so there is no “original” Mussorgsky version – the version traditionally used was Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but he butchered the music; then there was a Stravinsky/Ravel collaboration which flopped badly and is never performed; then came the Schostakowitsch version in 1960 which respected Mussorgsky’s music, albeit orchestrated like Schostakowitsch; and finally there is a hybrid version which mostly uses the Schostakowitsch version with some portions following Stravinsky, particularly in Act 5).

The Schostakowitsch version had its premiere on this stage in 1960, and the Mariinsky is still using the same production. The sets and costumes are very traditional. The stage direction, however, is a bit static. The director also appears to have taken some liberties with the plot, simplifying elements and leaving some odds and ends out completely (notably Peter the Great’s soldiers never do show up at the end to massacre the Old Believers – which does not affect the plot, since the Old Believers have already set their church on fire with themselves on the inside burning to death – but just seemed odd).

However, the cast was tremendous. Not only could they sing, but they could also act. So it did not matter that the blocking was static, given a sensible set the singers took over and interpreted their roles. It makes me wonder why more emphasis is not put on acting for opera singers in conservatories, because being able to act makes a huge difference.

As Prince Ivan Khovansky, Sergey Aleksashkin made a striking characterization. He carried out the role traditionally in the first two acts, portraying Khovansky as arrogant and tough. But when the scheming Fyodor Shaklovity (cunningly portrayed by Nikolay Putilin) storms on stage at the end of Act 2 and announces that the Tsar has uncovered the plot (without saying that he – Shaklovity – is the one who both invented the plot and informed the Tsar), I could almost see the heart drop out of Aleksashkin’s Khovansky. When Khovansky returned in Act 3, he was a broken man. And, in Act 4, when the plot usually calls for him to continue his arrogance, Aleksashkin portrayed him as someone who was still resigned to his fate – arrogant, yes, and hopeful that he might prevail, but also clearly aware that he was likely a doomed man.

But Aleksashkin did not dominate the opera, since he shared the stage with other first-rank performers. This was most clear in the second act, when Prince Vasily Golitsin (performed by Aleksey Steblyanko) sits alone in his study being sarcastic. Then Khovansky storms in without knocking, and the two of them try to outdo one another in their sarcasm. Then Dosifei (Vladimir Vaneyev), leader of the Old Believers (traditional Orthodox Christians persecuted by Peter the Great) joins them, also without knocking. The three of them are, of course, alleged to be co-conspirators, but they don’t like each other and the scene actually is quite amusing, particularly with these three performing the roles.

The main female role, Marfa, was performed by Olga Borodina. All I have to say is, why aren’t there any female singers in Moscow like her? Moscow is awash in good male singers, but I have not heard any women approach her level. In an opera full of dominant men in dominant roles, she asserted herself and could not be ignored when she was on stage.

The supporting cast was excellent. So was the orchestra (a lot better than when I heard them at the Dom Muziki in Moscow – but as I suspected, that hall has famously dreadful acoustics and Maestro Gergiev told me over dinner that there was no way to get his orchestra to be heard properly in that building, since they could not play with subtlety and be come across in the dry room). I heard the orchestra as Gergiev did, since my seat (costing only about 35 US Dollars) was first row center aisle and I sat behind his left shoulder.

The sensible audience clearly appreciated the performance. Indeed, the applause continued even after the fire curtain descended, and they had to re-open the fire curtain for an additional round of bows.

This was my first live performance of Khovanshchina. I’ve heard it on the radio live from the Met many times, and various recordings on the radio, and I myself own two recordings, but finally I got to hear it live in person. This was the way to do it.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra (St. Petersburg), Dom Musiki (Moscow)

Schostakowitsch

I found the antidote for Thursday’s dull performance of Schostakowitsch’s 7th: tonight’s performance of Schostakowitsch’s 7th. The Mariinsky Theater Orchestra may not have played the notes as perfectly as the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (or maybe they did – more on the acoustics in a moment), but Valery Gergiev got far more emotion out of it than Gorenstein did on Thursday.

Unfortunately, the acoustics in the Dom Muziki are dull. The hall itself is basically a big slotted wooden cylinder. Looks tasteful enough for a modern hall, but I think designed more for pizzazz than for sound quality. Still, dull acoustics obviously beat a dull interpretation.

The building itself (around the hall) is also reasonably pleasant looking, until you realize it is a fire disaster waiting to happen. They have essentially made clusters of seats directly accessible only from specific doors. There is almost no room on the narrow landings outside each of the doors, so everything turns into a huge crowd. Then the stairs and escalators – of which there are too few – all converge on themselves, piling more and more people into less and less space (and the silly design means this is somehow true both going up to take the seats and going down to leave after the concert). Even the lobby is not really the lobby, but is itself only accessible by a single set of narrow escalators wrapped around on themselves from a foyer two levels further down, which itself doubles as the main entrance of another chamber concert hall. I don’t really know how they managed to build this place, unless someone as a practical joke substituted an Escher print instead of the correct architectural sketches.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Sibelius, Stravinsky

The Philharmoniker, under Valery Gergiev, accentuated the Brucknerian and Schubertian influences in Sibelius‘ 1st Symphony.  Sibelius had conceived this symphony when he studied in Vienna (although he wrote it later).  Bruckner was Sibelius’ favorite living composer, and Schubert was of course Bruckner’s model, so the concept worked.

The concert concluded with the suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird.