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.]