Ana Durlovski as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
At the Metropolitan Opera last week, a fellow critic asked me, “Have you seen The Magic Flute here yet this season?” I said I had not, but soon would. “It’s great,” he said, “just great.” My experience turned out to be the same as his: great, just great.
I saw this show on Saturday night. In the pit was Adam Fischer, the Hungarian conductor (not to be confused with another conductor, Ivan Fischer, his younger brother). He set the tone of the evening with the overture: which was intelligent and musical. Blessedly, it was not too fast. Magic Flute overtures have gotten faster and faster—they are raced through, heedlessly.
Fischer conducted the rest of the opera with the same intelligence and musicality. I will single something out: the beginning of Act II, which was a simple F-major hymn, unforced and pure.
Have I mentioned that this opera is by Mozart? I should. It is.
Tamino was portrayed by Toby Spence (what a Shakespearean name, I’ve always said). He was a surprise to me. I had long thought of him as a sweet-voiced English tenor. He may be that, but he sang strongly, too. In every respect, he was a superb Tamino. His Pamina was Pretty Yende, the South African soprano. She was not immaculate in technique, but her expression made up for everything: sincere, virtuous, and winning.
(Two nights later, this singer gave a recital, which I reviewed here.)
Papageno was Markus Werba, the Austrian baritone. Years ago, I heard him sing this role at the Salzburg Festival, more than once, I think. A friend of mine said, “Why doesn’t he sing at the Met?” I wondered whether the voice was big enough for our cavernous house. It is, I believe.
Werba was charming, as usual, and wonderfully idiomatic. He is both a native German-speaker and, in a sense, a native Mozartean. He has the knack. At one point, he introduced himself as “Geno—Papageno,” just like Sean Connery or one of the others saying, “Bond—James Bond.”
Incidentally, Werba is the great-nephew of the famed accompanist—or “collaborative pianist,” we would say now—Erik Werba.
The Queen of the Night was a discovery for me—the Macedonian soprano Ana Durlovski. Of many Queens of the Night—including famous ones—I have never heard better. Durlovski was pointed and formidable. She has a smallish voice, but it has a lot of “scald” in it. The higher she got—way above the staff—the more beautiful the voice became. And she was uncannily accurate.
Oh, what a boffo Queen of the Night.
Sarastro was the Sarastro of our time, René Pape. I have described his singing for so long, let me describe his talking: There is a lot of talking in this opera, a singspiel, and Pape talks about as richly and authoritatively as he sings.
The production is Julie Taymor’s from 2004. When it premiered, I hailed it as imaginative and delightsome, something that Mozart and his librettist, Schikaneder, would get a kick out of. I have seen it many times since. And maybe I took it for granted, or grew a little grumpy about it. On Saturday night, I was reminded how wonderful it is. The production is whimsical, enchanting, and flat-out funny. It has its serious side, of course, but it does not take itself too seriously—and neither does The Magic Flute. That is, the opera is both amusing and profound. (Frankly, that’s not a bad description of Mozart in general.)
For years, many of us complained about what we regarded as an error in this production: Sarastro—often Pape—sang the holy aria “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” in front of the curtain, and, as he did, scenery was moved behind the curtain. This made a fair amount of noise, spoiling the aria.
Unless I’m mistaken, the Met has modified this part of the production. The disruption is not as great. Still, there is some, and it’s too bad.
But look: Nothing could spoil the fun on Saturday night. It seemed the cast was having a ball, as much fun as anyone in the audience. There was esprit de corps, and joie de vivre. The opera ends with that inimitable scampering music in E flat. Fischer handled it marvelously. I found myself thinking, “I wish Mozart and Schikaneder could have been here tonight. They’d have been pleased.”
I want to give you three footnotes, if I may:
1) When the goddess Isis was first mentioned, I heard a few murmurs, I think—Isis/ISIS.
2) Wikipedia says the following, about Adam and Ivan Fischer: “The two belonged to the children’s choir of Budapest National Opera house, and sang as two of the three boys in” The Magic Flute.
3) About two weeks ago, I had a review of a Marriage of Figaro at the Met. At the end, I said,
There is no “best opera,” obviously. Julius Caesar? Fidelio? Parsifal? La traviata? Elektra? But if someone held a gun to your head and threatened to splatter your brains on the sidewalk unless you named the best opera, you could do worse—a lot worse—than to blurt out, “The Marriage of Figaro.” The more you know it, the more you are in awe.
Same with The Magic Flute. I once had the temerity to ask the venerable music critic and scholar Andrew Porter, “Do you have a favorite opera?” Almost before the words were out of my mouth, he said, “The Magic Flute.” So there.
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Two nights ago, Pretty Yende gave a recital in Weill Recital Hall. And what better place for a recital than a recital hall? Weill is the fetching upstairs annex in the Carnegie building.
Yende is a South African soprano, not yet thirty. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut during the 2012-13 season in Rossini’s Comte Ory. Right now, she is singing Pamina in the Met’s Magic Flute (a Mozart opera, as you know).
This singer is true to her name—her first name, Pretty. When she appeared for the second half of her recital, in a different gown from the first half’s, a man called out, “Gorgeous.” She smiled. And she has a million-dollar smile, and an utterly winning stage presence.
Her recital was a nicely mixed one, showing off the singer’s versatility, and also her spirit of adventure. There were several styles and languages. The program included bel canto songs and arias. A group of Debussy songs. Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets. Zarzuela numbers. And more.
There were a hundred things wrong with Yende’s singing, a hundred impurities. Poor intonation. Frayed top notes. Etc., etc. But oddly, none of this mattered much. And that is because of what is apparently Yende’s nature.
She has the priceless ingredients of sincerity, poignancy, radiance, joy, and lovability. The whole is greater—much greater—than the sum of the parts. What are some bad notes when you, sitting in the audience, have all this other? Yende has a basic musicality.
And she is obviously a gracious woman—as when she applauded, repeatedly, her accompanist, Kamal Khan (who was ebullient throughout the recital).
Among Yende’s “ingredients” is a sense of fun and whimsy. Before singing her zarzuela numbers, she struck a Carmen pose. One of those numbers was a Vickie D. song, “La tarántula.” (A “Vickie D. song” is one associated with the late Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles.) In this song, Yende said “oy” instead of “ay.” Perhaps this was a Sephardic song? (Vickie D. sang those too.)
For the adoring crowd, Yende sang three encores, beginning with “O mio babbino caro.” Then she sang, unaccompanied, a South African song—lovely, pure, unfussy, natural. She closed with an operetta favorite, “Art Is Calling for Me,” a.k.a. “The Prima Donna Song,” by Victor Herbert. Sills scored with this number, and so did Kiri. So did Pretty Yende.
By the way, isn’t a song from West Side Story the obvious encore? “I Feel Pretty”?
More seriously: I heard Yende in The Magic Flute last week, and as we were leaving the house, I said to a friend, “You know, I bet Pretty Yende is religious.” He said, “Why’s that?” I said, “There is an inner radiancy, a light. I just have a feeling.” He agreed.
Anyway, Pretty Yende could be a better singer—and she probably will be—but she could hardly be more appealing or touching.
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This week: A love letter to Ireland, an evening of lieder, and art from a different perspective.
Fiction: Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner): Set in Ireland, Tóibín’s latest is about a fiercely compelling young widow and mother of four navigating grief and fear, and struggling for hope. Played out against the backdrop of 1960s political turmoil, the author produces both a powerful character study and a love letter to his home country. —CE
Nonfiction: The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered, by Laura Auricchio (Knopf): A hero in the United States for his role in the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette’s legacy in France is not quite as warm. Starting from when he was a young, orphaned boy in the provinces, through his roles in the two important revolutions of the 18th century, this biography discusses why Lafayette is remembered so differently in each of the two countries in which he divided his life. —RH
Poetry: Openwork: Poetry and Prose, by André du Bouchet; trans. Paul Auster and Hoyt Rogers (Yale University Press) André du Bouchet, a great innovator of twentieth-century letters, has yet to be fully recognized by a wide circle of international readers. Openwork showcases pieces from the author’s entire trajectory, beginning with little-known pieces from the 1950s, followed by major poems from the 1960s, and concluding with works written or rewritten in the poet’s later decades. —CE
Art: "Goya: Order and Disorder" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (October 12 –January 19), and “Doppler Shift” at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (September 28—January 18): The largest Goya retrospective to take place in America within 25 years, Order and Disorder offers the opportunity to examine the artist’s powers of observation and invention across the full range of his work. Meanwhile, Doppler Shift examines the relationship of the viewer to the work of art by investigating how shifting perspectives alter the visual experience. As various factors change—the viewing distance, angle of vision, lighting conditions, duration of looking—forms and objects seem to shift between two and three dimensions, creating spatial ambiguities and visual disorientation. —JP
Music: Carnegie Hall Presents: Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger (Thursday, October 16): Accompanied by Wolfram Reiger, the celebrated bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni presents an evening of lieder at one of Carnegie Hall's recital venues, Zankel Hall. Included is Schubert's "Der Erlkönig,"the composer's first published work, widely considered to be among the most important songs ever written. Also on the program are works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. —ECS
Other: Have you ever heard of Ysenda Maxtone Graham? I hadn’t. But providence smiled, and I chanced upon a splendidly printed edition of her charming book Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (2011) in Slightly Foxed, the equally charming London bookshop on the Gloucester Road. The book is part of a series of small, elegant paperbacks published by Slightly Foxed. It tells the story of St. Philips, a small Catholic boys' school in South Kensington. Started by Richard Tibbits, an obese, inadvertently comical figure and Catholic convert, in 1934 with 4 students, the school has had an on-again, off-again association with the Brompton Oratory, a church founded by and in some respects for converts. Graham, the mother of boys who attended the school, is CE (“Church Hesitant”) herself, but she captured the curious metabolism and mores of the school, which catered mostly not to “lace curtains Irish” but middle- and upper-middle class families. Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, is but one celebrated alumnus. A.N. Wilson, who provides a lovely Preface, is right that Graham’s is “an entirely original, imaginative intelligence.” “I am perpetually amazed,” he writes, “that she is not as famous as Stevie Smith, Jane Austen or Dorothy Parker, for she is one of the great humorists, with an entirely distinctive ‘take’ on the world.” High praise, but justified. —RK
From the archive: Saëns and sensibilité, by R. J. Stove: On The Correspondence of Camille Saint-Saëns & Gabriel Fauré, edited by Jean-Michel Nectoux.
From our latest issue: Not a leg to stand on, by Anthony Daniels: On the one-legged poets W. E. Henley and W. H. Davies.
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James Levine leads Maurizio Pollini and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played Mozart on Friday night (The Marriage of Figaro). They played Mozart on Saturday night (The Magic Flute). And they played Mozart again on Sunday afternoon. Playing Mozart—that’s not a bad way to live.
On Sunday afternoon, the orchestra was in concert in Carnegie Hall. Conducting them was their music director, James Levine. The concert began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major—a typically perfect Mozart creation.
From the downbeat, the orchestra produced Levine-like Mozart. You could also say “Mozart-like Mozart.” I have described Levine in Mozart a thousand times, and will spare the reader on this occasion. I will make a few points, however.
Levine has the ability to give Mozart heft without heaviness. He also has the ability to find, or sense, the right tempo—an inarguable tempo. Such a tempo was the one he took in the Andante. The music moved. It did not hurry, however. It breathed beautifully, unsappily, perfectly. The opening of the final movement was just a little sloppy—a smidgeon disunited—but that was noticeable only because everything else had been textbook.
A piano concerto has a pianist, of course—and he was the great Maurizio Pollini. I’m afraid he was not great on Sunday afternoon. In the piano’s opening measures, nothing was clear or smooth. Sound was dreadful. It soon became obvious that beauty of sound or phrasing was impossible. Passagework was clumsy. Accents were often misjudged.
Okay, but what was the payoff? What was the compensation? The famous Pollini exactitude or straightforwardness? I’m afraid there was no payoff or compensation. Music-making from the pianist rarely rose above the workaday. I found myself waiting for the tuttis (the all-orchestral sections).
Pollini played cadenzas that caught the ear—unfamiliar ones (unfamiliar to me, I should say). The first cadenza sent me searching through my program: Ah, Salvatore Sciarrino (Pollini’s fellow Italian, a composer born in 1947). His cadenzas are skillful and refreshing.
To Mozart’s final movement—Allegro vivace assai—Pollini applied forcefulness, but little mirth. No mirth, actually. There was a bit of root canal in his playing. Pollini was aggressive, which is fine, but also rather effortful and grim.
By the way, I had never heard him sing so much—not with his hands, but with his mouth or throat. Gould could get away with it, of course. Him aside, I sometimes think that a pianist fears he has something to cover up.
The audience applauded Pollini rapturously, calling him back time after time. There is a Cult of Pollini. Similarly, there was a Cult of Brendel (Alfred Brendel, the Austrian pianist, now retired). I think it has to do with Pollini’s aristocratic bearing and his air of intellectuality. It also has to do with the past—what we remember of him, over the years.
“The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.” I thought of that lyric, when thinking about careers and reputations. I could say more, but you probably know what I mean, and I have already been insulting enough. It can be a lousy business, criticism.
After intermission, there was one work: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The composer completed one movement of a Tenth, but the Ninth is really his last will and testament. It is a death-soaked masterpiece.
Speaking of Ninths, I had a funny worry before Levine gave the downbeat: Would the opening measures be too clear? Too literal? Too clinical? Toscanini was criticized for beginning Beethoven’s Ninth this way. In his Mahler, Levine was not Toscanini-like. He was more Szell-like. And he is indeed a son of Szell (the great conductor in Cleveland, to whom Levine was apprenticed).
What was Szell’s Mahler like? Besides perfect, it was strict, but it had air—it had space and bloom and deep musicality. There are not many Szell recordings of Mahler, but the few we have are sovereign.
In the first movement of the Ninth, Levine was muscular and unsoupy. He conducted the music much as he would Beethoven. For at least twenty-five years, I have described Levine’s Wagner as “Beethoven-like.” This serves Wagner well, almost always. It can also serve Mahler well. The second movement of the Ninth was stirring and rousing.
Let me pause to praise the orchestra’s horn section: All through the symphony, they were wonderful. In recent days, the Berlin Philharmonic has been occupying Carnegie Hall. It’s hard to beat, or match, the BPO’s horn section, but the Met’s did themselves proud.
I’m now going to say some negative things about Levine’s Mahler performance—so cover your ears, if you like. It was sometimes too blunt. There was sometimes not enough sweetness or savoring or warmth. You even need some schmaltz (just a touch). There was sometimes not enough “give.”
And go back to the first movement for a moment: The orchestra did not seem quite comfortable to me. They were considerably less comfortable than in the Mozart concerto. They played the music a bit like foreigners.
Critics like to present their opinions as objective fact (and sometimes mine are, thank you very much). But I promise that the following is subjective. To me, the closing movement on Sunday afternoon was overly matter-of-fact. It was this-worldly, with its feet on the ground. A head-in-the-clouds feeling is not bad here. Was the music shattering, devastating? To me, no. To others, I’m sure it was. In fact, I know it was. I found it somewhat dry-eyed.
But listen: This was an excellent performance, and I’m grateful to have been there. I’m also grateful to see Levine in such fine shape. And that he has given me, and everyone else, a bit of Szell—a lot of Szell—in the last forty or so years. The late conductor was not liberal with praise. But I can’t believe he would not stand up and applaud the great James Levine.
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Links of interest from the past week:
Confessions of an Aesthete: “To be an aesthete in an idea-driven age is to run the risk of being dismissed as irrelevant by those who prefer ideas to beauty.”
Building Imaginary Cities: Fictional cities and fantastical architecture somehow seep into the real-life places we inhabit.
Hymn Book of Less-Than-Common Prayer: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is a masterpiece, as we all (should) know. But what makes it so?
Creative writing courses are killing western literature, claims Nobel judge: The professionalization of the job of writing cuts authors off from society; their work no longer represents real life.
That said, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano: “For the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”
From our pages:
The ambiguous witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The complicated legacy of the anti-Nazi theologian.
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Johann Friederich Wilhelm Herbst (German, 1743-1807). Illustration of Cancer reticulatus from Versuch einer Naturgeschichte der Krabben und Krebse… (Attempt at a natural history of crabs and crayfish…)
Sometimes the human eye, a good aesthetic sense, and a steady hand are the best scientific tools. During the late 1700s, the German churchman-turned-naturalist Johann Herbst demonstrated this when he produced a three-volume encyclopedia of crabs and crayfish. A skilled artist, he engraved and hand-tinted meticulous drawings of each species he identified, most notably of Cancer reticulatus and Cancer cedonulli. Later scientists, dismissing as overzealous Herbst's careful differentiation of the crabs' coloring, concluded that the two species were really one. They were wrong. DNA testing eventually vindicated Herbst's powers of observation; his classification had been correct all along.
Reproductions of Herbst’s engravings are currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History as part of an exhibit entitled “Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library.” The exhibit’s name isn’t exactly riveting, and its unassuming location in a rear hallway hasn’t helped it compete with dinosaur fossils for museum-goers’ attention over the past year. But the sheer beauty, technical mastery, and backstories of the fifty illustrations testify to a very human side of natural history, making the exhibit well worth seeing before it closes on October 12.
The value of the editorial eye is seen in a display of Giacommi Saverio Poli’s work. The father of malacology, the study of mollusks, Poli was the first person to classify mollusks by their interiors instead of their shells. Dissecting the mollusks, he drew intricate illustrations of delicate shells with the shell’s resident outside, sometimes coiled around its home. The drawings are graceful and ethereal, a far cry from the scene Poli probably encountered while extracting the mollusks. In this sense, his drawings are inaccurate. Yet they are also true; Poli knew enough of the mollusks’ interiors to see past the messiness of a damaging extraction and articulate the beauty of the hidden creatures.
Guiseppe Saverio Poli (Italian, 1746-1825). Illustration of female paper nautilus (Argonauta argo) from Testacea utriusque Siciliae…
Although it often resulted in beauty, the process of scientific illustration between 1500 and 1900 had some inherent flaws. The creation of a scientific illustration was complex; usually a naturalist would suggest the subject, an artist would sketch it, an engraver and a printer would produce prints, and a colorist would hand tint each copy. By the time an illustration made it into a book, it would be four or five steps removed from its subject. The colors of fish might vary, or the shape of a leaf might be altered because of misinterpretation during the production process. These errors were understandable but could also result in miscategorization.
There were also less excusable inaccuracies; occasionally illustrators used dead specimens as models or drew without any models at all, producing drawings bearing little resemblance to reality. Some mistakes, such as those found in Albert Seba’s otherwise accurate Thesaurus, are laughable; Seba had never seen a live sloth, so he drew an anatomically correct depiction of a sloth in an impossible upright position. Durer’s famous depiction of a rhinoceros in a suit of armor was based on a secondhand description. And Louis Renard’s colorful tropical fish sported shockingly human expressions, perhaps because Renard felt pressure to make his drawings sensational.
Louis Renard (French, 1678-1746). Illustration from Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires…
Despite their errors, illustrators were essential to the work of scientists classifying the natural world. Seba’s work, flawed as it was, illustrated the classifications of Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, and his illustrations today clarify ambiguities in Linnaeus’s work. Other artists were less helpful to the classification process; Lorenz Oken, whose exquisite drawing of bird eggs is one of the finest pieces in the exhibit, classified his subjects by how many of the five human senses they possessed. Despite his flawed taxonomy, his drawings still recorded valuable detail.
The stories behind the other pieces in the exhibit range from the charming to the bizarre. Freidrich Heinrich Wilhelm Martini quixotically attempted to document all 100,000 mollusk species but died before completing his project. John James Audobon’s sons married the daughters of his co-illustrator. Robert Hooke’s drawings of magnified crystals of frozen urine grace the wall next to delightful line drawings of jellyfish drawn by Ernst Haeckel, whose fraudulent depictions of embryonic recapitulation of evolution were conveniently omitted from the exhibit.
Lorenz Oken (German, 1779-1851). Illustration from Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände (A general natural history for everyone).
Unfortunately, the exhibit has two notable flaws, the first relatively minor. While the enlarged reproductions of the drawings highlight their fine detail, it’s disappointing not to see the original artwork, or at least original editions of the books from which the illustrations were taken. Displaying even one or two of the old tomes would have lent a sense of scale and antiquity to the exhibit.
More concerning is the museum’s decision to include illustrations of indigenous peoples in the display. Drawings of Native Americans are mixed in with drawings of insects and Australian marsupials, leaving the viewer with the distinct sense that the artists thought their subjects were a little behind in their evolution. This is perhaps unsurprising, since social Darwinism was prevalent during several of the illustrators’ lifetimes, but a curatorial note explaining the origins of this hint of racism would have been helpful.
However, even this last flaw points to the beauty of “Natural Histories”—along with pleasing the eye and stimulating the brain, the exhibit reminds viewers that even today science is conducted by people who have points of view, use hands and eyes, and make choices about what is important. This human element sometimes results in error, but it also results in a beauty and accuracy obtainable no other way.
"Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library" opened at the American Museum of Natural History on October 19, 2013, and remains on view through October 12, 2014.
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This week: A return to Gilead, Matisse’s cut-outs, and the Berlin Philharmonic in New York.
Fiction: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Revisiting the characters and setting of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead and Home, a National Book Award finalist, Robinson returns to the town of Gilead with the story of Lila, the young bride of the elderly Reverend Ames. Having been neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by a rough but kind drifter named Doll, and brought up in a hardscrabble childhood. After she arrives in Gilead Lila struggles to reconcile the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband, which paradoxically judges those she loves. —CE
Nonfiction: Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, by James Essinger (Melville House): Behind every great man, there’s a great woman; no other adage more aptly describes the relationship between Charles Babbage, the man credited with thinking up the concept of the programmable computer, and mathematician Ada Lovelace, whose contributions proved indispensable to Babbage’s invention. Lovelace, the only legitimate child of English poet Lord Byron, wrote extensive notes about the Analytical Engine, including an algorithm to compute a long sequence of Bernoulli numbers which some observers now consider to be the world’s first computer program. Readers are treated to an intimate portrait of Lovelace’s short but significant life along with an abbreviated history of 19th-century high-society London. —RH
Poetry: Alexander Nazaryan on John Berryman: Previously published in The New Criterion (read some of his work here), Nazaryan reflects on the American poet’s life and death, as well as the works soon to be reissued on the centenary of Berryman’s birth, October 25. —DY
Art: Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs" at the Museum of Modern Art (opening Sunday, October 12) and Egon Schiele: Portraits" at the Neue Galerie (opening Thursday, October 9): In the late 1940s, Henri Matisse turned almost exclusively to cut paper as his primary medium, and scissors as his chief implement. MOMA is presenting the most extensive presentation of his cut-outs ever mounted, sparked by an initiative to conserve The Swimming Pool, a particularly monumental cut-out acquired in 1975. Meanwhile, the Neue Galerie opens a special exhibition devoted to portraits by the expressive, controversial, and masterful Austrian artist Egon Schiele, whose work is central to the Galerie’s mission. —JP
Music: The Berlin Philharmonic in New York (October 5-8) and Lisa Batiashvili with the New York Philharmonic (October 9-14): The Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle are wrapping up their week-long New York residency by finishing a complete cycle of the Schumann symphonies at Carnegie Hall (Monday), and then with two performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory, semi-staged by the controversial director Peter Sellars, to open the White Light Festival. This orchestra, one of the very best in the world, is not to be missed, and comes to New York but once a year, at most. On Thursday and continuing through the weekend, Lisa Batiashvili, the most exciting of a rich field of young violinists, will play the Brahms Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. She is the Philharmonic's artist-in-residence this year, so there will be opportunities to hear her later in the season, but not in such towering repertoire as this.—ECS
Other: Alexei Ratmansky in conversation with Paul Holdengraber, Live at NYPL (October 8): Alexei Ratmansky has performed with and choreographed for some of the world’s greatest ballet companies, including the American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet. He now takes to a very different stage to reflect on his life’s work, which earned him a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013. —RH
From the archive: Against modernity: The American Academy in the ‘20s, by Cynthia Ozick: On the American Academy of Arts & Letters under the direction of Charles Underwood Johnson.
From our latest issue: A Schoolboy’s Guide to War, by Andrew Stuttaford: On the contributions of England’s public school boys during the First World War.
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From Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, by W. O. Dement for Harold Fisk (1944)
Choral music not heard since era of Henry VIII has been played for first time in 500 years
Woven and Severed
Clive James on his late flowering
How to Stop Time
From our pages:
Standing Up to Allah At Yale
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Sir Simon Rattle; photo by Jim Rakete
Outside Carnegie Hall last night, there was a red carpet. Not just for celebs, but for everybody. It was Opening Night. Inside the hall, there were red flowers. Critics with horticultural skills could tell you what they were. Let me say they were poinsettia-like, sort of.
The orchestra last night was the Berlin Philharmonic. The conductor was the BPO’s longtime music director, Sir Simon Rattle. And the soloist was Anne-Sophie Mutter, the starry German violinist.
The program consisted of favorites, not to say chestnuts: the Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff; Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor; and Stravinsky’s Firebird (excerpts from). This was “hum-along time,” as the formidable critic Martin Bernheimer says.
As a rule, I like hum-along time. I’ve been defending the performance of familiar music, even overly familiar music, my whole life. I am the squarest of the square. But even for me, this program was a little square. Opening Night might have included something more offbeat.
That said, the Symphonic Dances are not often played these days, or so it seems to me. They were an orchestral staple, back when. So was the Rachmaninoff tone poem Isle of the Dead.
One thing that distinguishes Carnegie Hall’s opening night from the two other big opening nights—that of the New York Philharmonic and that of the Metropolitan Opera—is this: no national anthem. I kind of miss it. True, it would be strange for a German orchestra (for example) to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And at least there’s a flag on Carnegie Hall’s stage.
The Symphonic Dances are rather a concerto for orchestra: Lots of first-desk players have solos. There is even a chance for the sax to shine. Everyone in the BPO shone; this is not an orchestra for weak links. The dances are also a chance for an orchestra in general to show off its color. The BPO was colorful indeed.
In the first movement, there is unison string playing, giving a dreamy “out on the steppes” feeling. The BPO handled this beautifully.
Overall, the dances were smooth, polished, and accurate. On the podium, Sir Simon did nothing stupid—he never does. But were the dances exciting, as they can be, and ought to be? Not really. Sir Simon is ever modulated, ever a moderate. That can be advantageous. Sometimes, less so.
Out walked La Mutter, for the Bruch concerto. I have a friend—a violinist, as it happens—who says, “I don’t go for the playing anymore. I just go for the dress.” Mutter looked smashing indeed: glamorous, hourglassy, as always. Also, blondish, I would say. That was new (to me).
Her playing was respectable, even good, in the first two movements. Most important, she took the concerto seriously. She was not slumming. She was tasteful, poised, and mature.
In the Prelude, she breathed like a singer. Her playing was notably singerly. And Sir Simon, I must say, conducted as though his life depended on it. He was not slumming, far from it. He can bring great care and vitality to these Romantic concertos. I remember a Rachmaninoff D-minor he did with Yefim Bronfman. I had never noticed the orchestral part so much.
Mutter, in the Adagio of her concerto, played with delicacy and beauty. But in the Finale—the pièce de résistance—she lost it. What happened?
I don’t know. But her intonation failed her, and so did her memory: She had a slip. The final movement was never comfortable, never in the groove, never itself. I wish she could have had a do-over.
But “life is not a studio recording,” as I like to say. Anything can happen in a concert hall, which is something that makes concert life thrilling.
Tonight, still in Carnegie Hall, the BPO will play the complete Firebird. Last night, the orchestra played beloved excerpts: the Infernal Dance, the Lullaby, and the Finale, that great, swelling, uplifting thing. Sir Simon and the orchestra were fine. But was the music electric, emotional, moving? I’m afraid not. It suffered from the quality of okayness.
But toward the end, a miracle occurred. The French horn came in. I had forgotten that Stefan Dohr was in this orchestra! His little solo was a piece of startling perfection. Dohr is not only one of the great horn players, he is one of the great instrumentalists. His moment—and Stravinsky’s, we should add—practically made the evening.
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Isabel Leonard and Marlis Petersen in Le Nozze di Figaro; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
When James Levine appeared in the pit on Saturday night, the crowd at the Metropolitan Opera went nuts. They were happy to see him, because the conductor has had a host of health problems, and is back in action. Of course, they were happy to see him even before these problems set in. On Saturday night, he waved at the audience for a good long time, expressing his appreciation. Then he got down to work.
His work was The Marriage of Figaro, the Mozart–Da Ponte opera. The overture was not Levine’s crispest or most stylish. But it was plenty good. So was his conducting of the rest of the opera. I have often spoken of Levine’s “just rightness,” especially in Mozart: a sure sense of tempo, phrasing, weight, and overall spirit. I have also spoken of a “natural law” of Mozart—a law to which all good Mozarteans conform. At his best, Levine conveys a sense of inevitability and inarguability: “This is not interpretation. This is the way it goes, period, according to the law.”
A funny instance occurred in the first act on Saturday night. The aria “Non so più” started too fast, or unnaturally fast, or unaccustomedly fast. Then Levine slowed it to its tempo giusto (by my lights, if not the “law’s”). Perhaps, and probably, the conductor had a dramatic purpose.
Playing the harpsichord on this evening, accompanying the recitatives, was Robert Morrison. He played with unusual robustness, even volume. This assertiveness was welcome.
The Met has a new production of Figaro by Sir Richard Eyre, the English director. The show begins with a beautiful nude girl, emerging from a bedroom (or somewhere). For a second, I didn’t know where I was: Was I in Salzburg or some other European city, or was I home in New York? In Salzburg, it is virtually de rigueur to begin a production with nudity. This is the director’s way of assuring everybody that he’s not a square.
But Sir Richard is a square, and I’ll tell you why: In a proper “subversive” production of Figaro, Susanna is freely conducting an affair with the Count, and the Countess is freely conducting an affair with Cherubino. Ideally, Susanna will join in with the Countess and Cherubino. The proper modern director rewrites the opera.
Not this director, not Richard Eyre. His Figaro is utterly Mozartean, and Da Pontesque. It is witty, fizzy, and delightful. It’s suggestive and sly, not blunt and coarse. Also, it is moving. I think of an old line: “If you want to know how to direct an opera, listen to the music.” This notion can be carried too far—but Sir Richard’s production does seem informed by the music.
Here is another line: “A building ought to be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace.” That’s Frank Lloyd Wright. His line applies to opera productions. And this new production is a grace to Figaro.
Singing the title role on Saturday night was Ildar Abdrazakov, the Russian bass. He has many virtues, one of which is versatility. He can sing Verdi, Mozart, Russian roles, other repertoire. His voice is big—or substantial, let’s say—yet it can flit. And, as I’ve often remarked, he has an uncanny ability to sing in tune.
Moreover, he knew his character, Figaro. For example, his “Se vuol ballare” had the right perturbation. Just for the record, that aria also had some unusual ornamentation. Was this Levine-approved, Mozart-approved? Both, I wager.
Susanna was Marlis Petersen, the veteran German soprano. Now and then, she was a little hard to hear—she was slightly faint, I mean—but she was a thorough pro, as usual. There is something else that should be said about her: Nice gams (as the production requires, or, at any rate, incorporates).
The Count was Peter Mattei, singing reliably. I’m not sure I’ve ever known this Swedish baritone to sing unsatisfactorily—even when you can’t endorse every note. Like Abdrazakov and other members of this cast, he knew his character: a caddish and befuddled aristo longing to hold on to his dignity. In certain poses, Mattei looked rather like the actor Dan Aykroyd.
Portraying the Countess was a soprano new to the Met, Amanda Majeski, an American. What she did not have was great beauty of sound. What she did have was breath control, sincerity, and self-possession.
Isabel Leonard was the “girl playing a boy playing a girl”—i.e., the mezzo-soprano in the role of Cherubino. She was rather convincing as a boy, amazingly enough. Frankly, she looked a bit like Alfalfa, from the Little Rascals. More amazingly, she was convincing as a boy playing a girl. In everything she did—vocal, musical, or theatrical—she was whip-smart.
I might mention here that there was no Italian in this cast, to my knowledge—I mean, no Italian member of it. But everyone’s Italian was passable at worst. And Leonard’s was natural.
To conclude, three footnotes, please:
1) I sometimes say, “One day, a bass is a star, bestriding the stage as Boris Godunov or Don Giovanni or King Philip. And the next thing you know, he’s asking for the rent.” What I mean is, a bass, in his later years, may be playing the character role of Benoît, the landlord in La bohème.
In Saturday night’s Figaro, Susanne Mentzer was Marcellina. She sang and acted the role superbly. She was perfect. And there’s no reason she shouldn’t be singing Marcellina at this point. It is utterly appropriate. Still, I think of her as a mezzo star, not as Ruth Buzzi, clocking people with her handbag. I felt a twinge.
2) To many, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, is a villain. The egotistical overlord who insulted the holy labor unions. I have no doubt that he can be tough or impossible to work for. I also have no doubt that the Met has benefited by his presence. Some people say he’s paid too much. Hell, I’d give him more.
3) There is no “best opera,” obviously. Julius Caesar? Fidelio? Parsifal? La Traviata? Elektra? But if someone held a gun to your head and threatened to splatter your brains on the sidewalk unless you named the best opera, you could do worse—a lot worse—than to blurt out, “The Marriage of Figaro.” The more you know it, the more you are in awe.
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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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