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On Carmen, Trovatore, Othello, and recent performances by Daniil Trifonov, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and more.
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When someone wins the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition, you want to hear him. This medal is probably the shiniest, most coveted bauble in the entire realm of musical competition. (No offense to winners of other competitions. As it’s good to be king, it’s good to win, whatever it is.) Daniil Trifonov won the Gold Medal last year. He is a Russian pianist, now twenty-one, as his bio tells us. Bios do that: They give a musician’s age when he is nicely young, and they give it again, often, when he is nicely old. In between, silence, where age is concerned. Trifonov studies with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Babayan is one of the most respected teachers in the world today, in addition to being a very fine pianist, of course, in his own right.
Trifonov appeared with the New York Philharmonic, playing Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3. He has long, straight hair. I couldn’t help smiling as he bowed, before he sat down. He looked so young! The conductor, Alan Gilbert, established one tempo, and the soloist, when he entered, took another—a faster one. Trifonov has a very good pair of hands. But much of what he did with those hands was suspect. You need to be percussive and dry sometimes in this music, but you don’t need to slap at the keyboard, as Trifonov did. Often, the sounds he made were too thin and bony. Yuja Wang, another young pianist with a great pair of hands, has this same problem. Trifonov made some excellent rude sounds in this first movement, true. But he was not much for subtlety, as the music also requires.
He was better in the second movement, the theme and variations. He caught the idiosyncratic rhythms, and he also applied the right piquancy. There was one awkward moment: when the pianist botched his approach to the top of a phrase. It was a case of mistiming. And the pianist could not quite cover it up. In the final movement, he made some beautiful cascading sounds. But he also made a lot of noise, noise that was trying to substitute, I think, for genuine excitement. The music missed some of its menace and mystery. By the time Trifonov got to the end, he was out of juice—he had spent so much beforehand. The final pages ought to be thrilling, but instead they were oddly dull.
But the crowd stood and cheered, and Trifonov bowed charmingly, his hair flopping. He is an endearing personality. He played an encore, Schumann’s song “Widmung,” in the Liszt arrangement. He played beautifully, with superb judgment. The piece was truly song-like. I look forward to hearing him in recital, and in concertos, for years to come.
This was a concert of Russian spectaculars, beginning with Night on Bald Mountain and ending with Scheherazade. Gilbert and the Philharmonic performed the first piece in the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement. Their account was precise, virtuosic, and, to a degree, colorful. It was altogether professional. But it had no suspense, no knife edge, no wizardry. There is a calm section at the end of the piece, and you could use the calming down, given what has gone on before. But on this afternoon, there had been nothing to calm down from. So the final section made little sense. Night on Bald Mountain is a tremendously exciting piece, sometimes a terrifying piece. You could never have known it, though. I would have traded some of the orchestra’s precision and elegance for some abrasion and excitement.
As the audience applauded, I said to the friend next to me, “Do you like that piece?” “Yes,” she said, “it’s pretty.” Exactly—that was the problem.
A Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera started very badly. The overture was rushed—absurdly fast—but, worse, it was barely articulated. Notes were slurred, blurred, fudged. An overture sets the tone of an opera, and of an evening at the opera. If the overture is poor, you, sitting in the audience, can be dispirited. On this night, the rest of Act I did not go much better. Playing and singing were sloppy, almost indifferent. Nothing was crisp, nothing was well-
The mezzo-soprano in the title role was Anita Rachvelishvili, a Georgian, as her name tells you. As you might also guess, she has a big, glowing, smoky voice. The Habanera did not go well. Rachvelishvili just sort of honked it out there, without nuance. And she had a case of the wobbles (and a lesser case of the flats). She improved, though, as Act I continued. The wobbles disappeared. And she did something impressive at the end of the Séguidille. Most singers, when they yelp at the end, do so without regard to the top note—without worrying where they land. Rachvelishvili yelped right into the B, right into the center of it. It was beautiful. Also, Rachvelishvili is to be admired for her willingness to act out this role with gusto. She is not a small woman, may I say. Yet she carries herself as though she were a hot tamale. She got down and wrestled with her rival cigarette girl. And when it came time to dance, she danced up a storm.
The tenor, our Don José, was Yonghoon Lee, a Korean. He has a beautiful voice, and it is a voice with some power. He can also float a pretty little head voice. In Act I, he was very, very tight. His singing was pinched, strained, effortful. He looked extremely uncomfortable on the stage. The night before, I had seen Anna Netrebko in The Elixir of Love, and I thought, “Has anyone ever been more at home onstage than she? She’s more at home on a stage than most people are in their living rooms.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone less at home onstage than Lee in this first act.
Neither Rachvelishvili nor Lee is what you would call an exemplar of the French language. And the two did not look comfortable with each other. (Lee, I’m afraid, would not have been comfortable with anyone. And Rachvelishvili was as game as possible.) It is not like me to mention something like this, for opera is primarily a musical experience, but the amorous play between Carmen and Don José was painful to watch. Once, when I knew it was coming again, I looked away. I wasn’t proud to do so, and I don’t think I had ever done it before.
In Act II, Mariotti had better control of the pit and the stage. The Escamillo was respectable (as the Micaëla had been). The Quintet was more or less together. Lee got through the Flower Song, though barely. The two pizzicatos at the end of the aria were pathetic, absolutely laughable. The players did not even overlap, as they plucked. James Levine, the music director, would have been shocked. A cloud of mediocrity hung over this evening. I went home after the second act—and was told later by a singer in the audience that the final two acts went much, much better. That they were good, actually. I was not surprised: Opera can be like this. As with sports, you just never know.
Carnegie Hall opened its season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by its music director, Riccardo Muti. They played a three-concert stand. The middle concert began with Wagner, his overture to The Flying Dutchman. Muti shaped this in intelligent, dramatic fashion. I was ready to hear the rest of the opera. The overture shows off woodwinds and horns. The CSO’s came through, although there was some imperfect horn playing along the way. The unified brass playing at the end was terrific—and loud.
Then came a new work, by one of the orchestra’s composers-in-residence, Mason Bates. I have praised his music in the past. Carnegie Hall’s program notes informed us that Bates “has spent many nights as a DJ, spinning and mixing at dance clubs in San Francisco, New York City, Berlin, and Rome.” His new work is Alternative Energy, which is in four movements. This is an example of a recently developed kind of piece, namely the environmentalist piece, or, as I sometimes say—wit that I am—the “greenpiece.” Music often follows political fashion. Those in the business would probably prefer to say “social conscience.”
The first movement of Alternative Energy is “Ford’s Farm, 1896.” The second is “Chicago, 2012,” depicting “a present-day particle collider.” Next comes “Xian Jian Province, 2112.” Here we see, or hear, “a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant.” And finally, “Reykjavik, 2222.” We are now in “an Icelandic rain forest on a hotter planet.” Humanity is down to its last few inhabitants. “Distant tribal voices call for the building of a fire—our first energy source.” Friends, a piece like this can get you all the grants and honors you want. The orchestra includes a “laptop” and an “extensive percussion battery.” Perhaps it includes a car battery as well. According to the program notes, “old car parts” are involved.
In any event, the proof is in the pudding. How does the piece sound? For a while, it’s clever, written in a popular vein: jazzy, energetic (appropriately enough). I thought of such composers as Blitzstein, Eisler,
Muti ended the concert with a Romantic symphony that used to be a staple, but is relatively rare, I think, in today’s concert halls: the Franck Symphony in D minor. I have never heard it so transparent and unclotted—“Apollonian,” to use a word often applied to Muti’s conducting. The playing was terribly clean and accurate, doing the music much good. I believe the last movement could have used more suspense and excitement, and also more of its swirling joy—that swirling, giddy joy we also find in the last movement of Franck’s violin sonata. Muti was rather stolid. Still, it was good to see the old warhorse out for a ride.
About a week after that Met Carmen, the company presented a Trovatore. Do you remember what Caruso quipped? All you need to put on this opera is the four greatest singers in the world. Of the four principal singers, only one was familiar to me—Franco Vassallo, the Italian baritone singing the Conte di Luna. The Azucena was supposed to be Dolora Zajick, who comes as close to “owning” this role as anyone comes to owning any role. But she was sick, replaced by Mzia Nioradze, a Georgian mezzo, as you can tell, like our Carmen.
In the title role, Manrico, the Troubadour, was Gwyn Hughes-Jones—yes, another Welsh singer, and, specifically, another Welsh tenor. Wales has almost as many singers as it has sheep. But not many of them sound as Italian as Hughes-Jones does. He was a superb Manrico, in every respect: He could pump out “Di quella pira” and then sound like a tenore di grazia—as when he sang the tender lines, “Madre? Non dormi?” Il trovatore is a combination of bel canto and blood-and-guts grand opera. Hughes-Jones exhibited this combination in his own person. His Leonora was Carmen Giannattasio, a soprano from Italy. She too has a fortunate combination: lyricism and power (adequate power, put it that way). In the first and second acts, she sang with common sense, musical sense, and decent intonation. She was entirely sympathetic. But in the last half of the opera, she was a different animal altogether: totally free, unerring, singing her part to the nth degree. I have heard many a Leonora more famous—but none better.
Vassallo made a solid Conte di Luna. Nioradze may not have been as riveting as Zajick, typically, but who’s comparing? The substitute was riveting enough, a very canny opera singer. I should mention a fifth singer too: Morris Robinson, the bass singing Ferrando. His is a big and handsome voice, and one that can move: one that doesn’t lumber but can move through the notes.
I have not mentioned the most important person in this Trovatore, and the most important person in any Trovatore, and almost any opera: the conductor. He is the straw that stirs the drink. He is the one who determines how the music goes. He’s the one on whom almost everything depends. The program said “Daniele Callegari,” and I thought, “Okay, fine: another Italian journeyman.” Far from it. From the opening measures, Callegari had rare authority. He knew the opera inside and out, and he knew how to get what he wanted. This Trovatore had the right tension, the right rhythms, the right colors (many of those). It was consummately Verdian. The orchestra played splendidly for Callegari, as for Levine. I was reminded that this is, in fact, a top orchestra. The chorus sang splendidly too, in the Anvil Chorus and elsewhere. Callegari demonstrated the trick of being bouncy without being too bouncy—of being bouncy and full at the same time. Really, he scarcely put a foot wrong.
In the parlor game of “What is the best Verdi opera?,” the usual nominees are Otello, Falstaff, La traviata. So good was this performance, I thought, “Why not Il trovatore?” On my way to the opera house, I figured this would be just another Monday night—a ho-hum cast, a ho-hum conductor. You just never know.
The next night’s Otello looked a lot better than the Trovatore on paper. Starring as Otello was Johan Botha, the formidable South African. Also starring was Renée Fleming, the foremost Desdemona of our time. In the pit was Semyon Bychkov, the veteran Russian. He was in very good form. He was alert and commanding, juggling the sprawling forces with ease. Of particular note was his sense of rests—his understanding of their place in the music and drama. One of his best moments was just before the love duet: Those measures, which tingle with anticipation, were wonderfully calibrated. Not so wonderful was “Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro,” the tenor-baritone duet. It was far too fast, unable to express its swagger and nobility.
Iago was Falk Struckmann, the German baritone, or bass-baritone. It occurred to me that I had never before heard him sing in Italian. And he was plenty Italianate. His “o,” to give a small example, was not German, not warm. It was properly Italian. Overall, Struckmann was virile and stylish—cunning, as an Iago, of course, must be.
When Botha sang his opening notes—“Esultate!”—I doubted he could get through the night. As the opera continued, he struggled mightily, not able to get near his high notes, making horrible, strangled sounds. It was hard to sit in one’s seat. I left mine after Act II. A couple days later, I was on foot in Manhattan, waiting at an intersection. A woman was talking to her friend. She and her husband had attended Otello. “And we paid $600!” she said. It pays for critics—who are freeloaders—to remember the paying customer.
A footnote, if I may (or a second footnote). The program told us that James Morris was singing Lodovico. Reasonably or not, I felt a pang. Morris has been an important Iago; Lodovico is a role that men assume toward the end of a career. I recall seeing Robert Lloyd as a guard in The Magic Flute a few years ago. The Robert Lloyd, the famous Sarastro, and Boris, etc.? Yes. One day they’re bestriding the world like colossi, the next day they’re singing “Affitto.” (That’s Benoît in La bohème, demanding the rent.) Or “La spada a me.” (That’s Lodovico, at the end of Otello, demanding the sword from the Moor.) But at least one can perform well, whatever the task. I heard Paul Plishka, for example, sing “Affitto” and “La spada a me” many times, perfectly.
Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic are engaged in the Nielsen Project: “a multi-season survey of the six symphonies and three concertos by Denmark’s beloved composer.” Let’s not slight Niels Gade! The Nielsen Project is a good idea. He is a strange composer, and I mean “strange” in the Harold Bloomian sense—a complimentary sense: individualistic, peculiar, unexpected. Often, Nielsen employs an amalgam of styles, rather than just one. He whiplashes you, pleasantly. In a public interview with me a few years ago, Esa-Pekka Salonen said something interesting about Sibelius: He left no school, no tradition—he was sui generis. I believe the same is true of Nielsen.
On a Thursday night, a concert started with the Nielsen Flute Concerto, in which the soloist was Robert Langevin, the Philharmonic’s principal. It’s good to see the principals step out. Generations ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra had a series of records called First Chair. When Gilbert gave the downbeat, the orchestra did not start together, which was a pity: As it’s dispiriting to hear a bad opera overture, it can be dispiriting to hear a concert begin with error. In the first movement, Langevin was not at his best, though he was certainly adequate. He seemed buried in the score on his stand. Instrumentalists, apart from pianists, routinely use scores in their concerto appearances. A puzzling tradition. In the latter parts of the concerto, Langevin was far more surefooted. He was virtuosic and musical, taking advantage of his instrument’s many colors. He never did any forcing or showing off. He played with taste, almost an aristocratic restraint. At his best, he was hypnotic.
Gilbert did his part competently, as he can be expected to do, although much more can be made of this score. Assisting the soloist were various members of the woodwind and brass sections, in particular the bass trombone (I believe), to whom Nielsen gives some nice slidey licks.
After the Flute Concerto came Nielsen’s most popular and best concerto, the Violin Concerto. Serving as soloist here was Nikolai Znaider, who, name aside, is from Denmark. He is hit or miss, this violinist: On some occasions, he is magnificent, virtually historic (I think of an Elgar Concerto); on other occasions, he is well-nigh amateurish (a Tchaikovsky). On this occasion, he was at or near the top of his game. It was a pleasure not to worry about him. He played with command and beauty. I could quarrel with some interpretive choices, some attitudes, if you will: For instance, I think the last movement benefits from more insouciance and matter-of-factness. But Znaider provided satisfaction. So did Gilbert, on the podium. In certain spots, the Philharmonic was not as warm or lush as an orchestra should be. But that has been a longstanding problem with this band.
The Met Orchestra stepped out of the pit and onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. Conducting them was their Otello conductor, Bychkov. Like the Chicago orchestra before them, they began with a Wagner overture—the one to Tannhäuser. The horn kicked things off with a bad onset. Who would ever want to take up the horn? The rest of us just pick on them all the time. Wagner’s music then unfolded in its great-souled way. There is an abundance of great-souled music by that black-souled man. This is one of the mysteries of art. I could pick a few nits about Bychkov’s reading: In one stretch, the accompanying strings were simply too loud. But this was a fine reading, and the clarinet solo toward the end was first-rate.
Then Michelle DeYoung, the mezzosoprano from Colorado, sang more Wagner: the Wesendonck Lieder. She did this with a signature characteristic of hers: great-hearted warmth. The horn playing at the end was painful to the ear. See how we’re always picking on them?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 November 2012, on page 55
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