Does any work of music begin more gloriously than Die Meistersinger? James Levine handles it well, as he does all Wagner, and many other things, too. The Metropolitan Opera’s Meistersinger was one of the great successes of the (still-young) season; it was also one of the great Wagner successes in recent memory.

With Levine, you get brisk Wagner, Wagner that moves along, Wagner that refuses to be weighed down, thinking itself profound. Levine’s was both a Beethoven-like and a springy performance, if that is possible to say about Wagner, which, in this case, it is. The Met orchestra was (typically) splendid. The prelude to Act III was full of nobility and solemnity; not even some flubs in the horns could spoil it.

But Meistersinger, as much as any opera, belongs to the singers, and the Met had the stage packed with worthy ones. We will begin with the soprano, simply because she is the soprano, and used to top billing. That was Solveig Kringelborn, the Norwegian who had made a fine impression a few weeks before as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin. She made a good Eva here, hardly putting a foot wrong. There was just one, conspicuous wrong foot: an instance of flatness spoiled the climax of the great Act III quartet. But she made up for it shortly afterward with an exquisite sustained trill. The other female singer was the mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, outstanding as Magdalene. This is a big, bold voice, and Grove is a robust and arresting singer. She seems a mezzo who could qualify for that most old-fashioned and rare of designations: contralto.

We should hasten to the men, though, for they own this opera. The main tenor— singing Walther—was Johan Botha, a South African (as the name must tell you). A true Wagnerian tenor is worth his weight in gold, and this one is worth a lot. Botha put on a clinic of clear, smooth, even, and correct singing. It was both heroic and lyrical. Botha appears to be the sort of person for whom singing comes naturally, lucky guy. Now and then, he just slightly pushed, in the upper register, bringing to mind Ben Heppner; but his Prize Song—Walther’s great moment, and one of Wagner’s—was magnificent. The other tenor, doing David, was Mathias Zachariassen, a Swede making his Met debut. He will be back, surely, as he was a most genial contributor, with an open and lovely sound.

But to the basses and bass-baritones, who really make Die Meistersinger! The German wonder René Pape was nearly perfect as Pogner. We have come to expect this from Pape. With him, one just sits back and relaxes, knowing that all will be well (or even better). The Beckmesser was Eike Wilm Schulte, who was no less perfect than Pape: his singing was clear and precise; his diction was exemplary; and his inhabitation of the character was complete. He gave us Beckmesser with both voice and body—and did so with zero hamming, an achievement. The young Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea had the brief yet rewarding part of the night watchman; he was, as usual, rich-voiced and exciting, deserving his shower of applause.

Yet the number-one bass of this bassfest was the veteran James Morris, presenting his first Hans Sachs. Long an admired Scarpia and Wotan—to name but two of his roles—he proved a first-rate Sachs. Morris has some gray hair now, but he has plenty of singing left (which has sometimes been in doubt). His Sachs was haunting and endearing, tender and commanding, more lyrical than stentorian (a welcome surprise). He has always been a canny singer. He seems now the ideal age—and to have the ideal temperament—for Sachs.

This entire performance was infused with a high spirit, reflecting the qualities of the opera, which is playful, wordy, and ebullient, as well as wise. There was a chamber quality to Levine’s direction; Meistersinger —strange though it may be to say—is both chamber opera and grand opera, both light and dense. The Met’s performance was one of those giddy operatic events, in which everything comes together, in which everything clicks, in which there are no weak links. Every opera-lover in New York has been talking about it, and everyone who was there is glad he was.

One of the brightest ideas in concert life today is the pairing of Renée Fleming, soprano, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano. Fleming is, simply, one of the best singers going; Thibaudet is one of the best pianists. They turn out to be excellent collaborators, as confirmed in their outing at Carnegie Hall.

They gave a program of Marx, Strauss, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, mirroring their hit album stupidly titled Night Songs (a marketer’s gotta do what a marketer’s gotta do). One of the things this collaboration proves is that a first-rate pianist can make a serious difference in a vocal recital—the entire quality of the occasion is elevated. This is noticeable when the soprano Dawn Upshaw appears with Richard Goode: they are equal musicians, equal technicians, and equal (or nearly equal) stars. One objection I have to these recitals, however~dash\Fleming/Thibaudet, Upshaw/Goode—is that the pianist feels the need to play several solo pieces. Perhaps it is necessary for the pianist’s ego; he is not a “mere” accompanist. And yet a vocal recital should be a vocal recital—there is no shame in that. The piano interludes unnecessarily prolong the evening, and come as a distraction. (I might add that Daniel Barenboim has done this with Plácido Domingo as well.)

It is hard to talk about Fleming without first talking about the voice. But is there anything left to say about it? It is rich, creamy, glorious, and altogether one of the best in the annals of singing. André Previn is one musician who states flatly: it is the best—ever. You and I need not go that far, but there is no denying the flabbergasting singularity of this instrument. The songs of Joseph Marx are made for Fleming—as they were made for Leontyne Price before her— and she does them entrancingly. She has her passel of mannerisms—but these are more in the nature of endearing characteristics. Thibaudet’s effortless handling of the difficult Marx accompaniments made these songs a particular pleasure. (The soprano clearly understands how lucky she is. Toward the end of the evening, when announcing an encore, she said, “You can see that I’ve picked easy music, having Jean-Yves here.” She meant, with sweet sarcasm, that the sky was the limit with such a virtuoso on hand.)

In the first half of the program, Thibaudet played Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B minor, a shocking piece of trash, even for Liszt. It is impossibly vulgar and unmusical, basically a bunch of technical exercises with some cheap melodies thrown in. It is curious that a pianist of Thibaudet’s caliber would spend time on it, or impose it on an audience. But Thibaudet is a riveting pianist, so elegant and refined (capable of redeeming almost anything). In his playing —to touch on only one quality—nothing is wrongly accented; he has an extraordinary sense of line.

Then the two did a Richard Strauss set, concluding with the rapturous “Cäcilie,” one of Fleming’s signature songs, thrillingly sung. The Debussy group was superb— sensitive and moving—and then it was on to the Rachmaninoff, another soaringly romantic composer, ripe for Fleming. The first of the songs was the one whose title is rendered in English “In the Silence of Mysterious Night”; at the end of it, Fleming did a ritardando that Thibaudet clearly did not want—he was right. But the greatness of the voice makes up for any number of errors or dubiousness of interpretation. There is definitely a theatricality about Fleming, but she has a genuine musical sense, too.

One of the encores was “Marietta’s Lied” (as it is popularly known) from Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt. It was far too slow and self-indulgent, and Fleming’s intonation failed. There was also—this was a surprise —“Casta diva” from Norma, which Fleming sang in a most un-Bellini-like manner. She is not exactly a bel canto singer, but it was interesting to hear her assay this music. One could pick at Fleming and Thibaudet (in particular at the former), and I have done a little of that. But the truth is, their recital was an example of very high musicianship, and those in attendance—as with the Wagner— were privileged to have heard it.

The next afternoon saw another singer/pianist duo recital: the Polish contralto Ewa Podles and the American pianist Garrick Ohlsson (a renowned Chopinist) performed at Alice Tully Hall. Podles is at once a veteran singer and a new sensation. What I mean is, she is somewhere past mid-career—having enjoyed many years of success in Eastern Europe mainly—but she is a relative newcomer on the American scene, having caused a great stir a few seasons ago when she substituted at particular venues across the nation for (the frequently canceling) Cecilia Bartoli. Podles is heralded as one of the truly complete singers of the world. That she is.

The first startling thing about her is the word after her name on the program: contralto. She is the real deal, almost unique in that respect today. She and Ohlsson began their recital with a group of Rachmaninoff songs, some of which Fleming and Thibaudet had just done. Podles has a phenomenal sound, adjustable to her musical purposes. She can be a little hooty or fuzzy—as she was before she really warmed up—but she is invariably interesting. Her singing of the Rachmaninoff was technically secure, musically persuasive. Ohlsson was a highly sympathetic partner. He played from memory, meaning that he could look at the singer rather than at a score, which made a difference.

After the Rachmaninoff, Ohlsson himself participated in more than an “interlude”: he gave no fewer than ten etudes for the piano by Scriabin. His playing had much to commend it. It had a beautiful singing line, for example, and some poetry, and an absence of falsity. It was very Chopinesque—in fact, maybe too much so. This was Scriabin without the Russian edge, those sharp elbows that make playing Russian. Ohlsson was like velvet, when a little sandpaper was called for. He was perfectly good—perfectly unobjectionable—mind you; but a certain spark or flavor was missing.

Mussorgsky’s Nursery songs have long been a favorite of imaginative singers, and Podles did them brilliantly. She offered just the right mixture of characterization and musical respectability. Her semi-acting on the stage made one wish to see her in opera (her repertory is enormous). A second and final set of Rachmaninoff songs was soulful and penetrating. Here is, indeed, a complete singer, boasting a huge vocal range, intelligence, versatility, and a technique that we would describe as fantastically virtuosic if we were referring to an instrumentalist.

You have heard a lot of rhapsodic praise in this chronicle—but that is because there has been a lot of rhapsodically praisable musical performance in New York lately.

The Estonian Neeme Järvi is one of the most interesting conductors before the public now, the leader of both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. He is a smart, lively musician with a spirit of adventure. He has made a particular mark in the music of the composers from the former Soviet Union— there is, unfortunately, no neater way of saying that—and in American music. He also spends as much time in the recording studio as any conductor.

In his guest outing with the New York Philharmonic, his main symphonic work was the Symphony No. 4 of Sergei Taneyev, a composer of the late nineteenth century. But first came the young American-Israeli violinist Gil Shaham in the Brahms concerto. This is a most capable and appealing violinist. He is extremely relaxed, with no feeling of labor or untoward exertion about him. The orchestra, sadly, was sloppy and limp for him—uncommitted. He, however, was very much committed. He must have played this work a thousand—a million?— times, yet he was determined not to “phone it in.” His tone was sweet or aggressive, as required. He meandered amiably when Brahms asked him to meander amiably, delivered fire where Brahms asked for that. There were some strange tempo problems in the Adagio—it was extremely “expansive,” to use what can be a polite word for “slow.” The final movement had the vigor and elegance it deserves.

Always, there is a look of enjoyment on Shaham’s face, and this is worth noting, because a joy and a pleasure come through in his music-making. His physical movements on stage can be annoying; he is no Heifetz, practically inert; he slides around like Michael Jackson. But we are talking, after all, about an aural art.

Taneyev was a Russian composer in that he was a composer who was Russian, but he was very much in the Germanic, or Central European, or “neutral” tradition. He was a revered academic who was a particular master of Baroque forms. The Symphony No. 4 is far from a great work, and it may not even be a good work, but it is surely worth a hearing. It has the virtue of allowing the orchestral players to show off some virtuosity, as the Philharmonic players impressively did; sometimes they even played together. Järvi, in any case, is a valuable conductor, and, especially with the orchestras with whom he lives, he can bring off some exceptional performances.

The Met’s Arabella was poised to be one of the great Strauss evenings—and it proved to be so. It could hardly miss, featuring a great Straussian, Renée Fleming, and another excellent one, Barbara Bonney, and the worthy Strauss conductor Christoph Eschenbach in the pit. Eschenbach has worked with Fleming before, conducting her two Strauss discs, which feature songs and the major operatic excerpts. Bonney has worked with Fleming and Eschenbach, too. She and the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham back up the luscious soprano in the operatic excerpts, privately calling themselves “the Flemettes.”

Eschenbach—soon to take the reins of the Philadelphia Orchestra—is a bull-like conductor, tightly wound, sometimes frantic. His great energy aided Arabella, for it never dragged or languished, always keeping a pulse, though having its necessary bloom in the heavenly parts. Arabella can suffer from prettiness and preciousness; here, it was enchanting.

Barbara Bonney is one of the better Sophies in Der Rosenkavalier, and she makes an equally suitable Zdenka in this opera. Her singing is clear, clean, and accurate— fresh-scrubbed. Interestingly, she rather looks like she sings, or sings like she looks. The little-known American tenor Raymond Very contributed some shining singing as Matteo; he has a particularly beautiful upper register. Eric Halfvarson, as Count Waldner, lent an astonishingly big and arresting bass. The production’s Mandryka, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, proved competent, though he was somewhat stiff in both his physical presentation and his singing. He could not quite hold up his end of the sublime Act II duet. But he strengthened later, and was not too awkward a mismatch with Fleming.

But Fleming! That voice was the dominant power of the evening. But the technical control that undergirds the voice should not be overlooked; her abdomen must be from Gold’s Gym. She can act, too, as was especially apparent in the opera’s final portion, where Arabella takes control of what is a most confused, quasi-farcical situation. Some record company should do us all a favor by letting Fleming, Bonney, and Eschenbach record Arabella complete (there is a relatively minor excerpt on the one disc). It is an opera filled with the wistfulness, longing, and satisfied resignation that the composer would apotheosize in his Four Last Songs (also recorded by Fleming and Eschenbach).

After so much rhapsodic praise, it would be only fitting to reiterate that this was, indeed, one of the great Strauss evenings, and that—where have I heard this before? —anyone who attended was lucky to have done so.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 5, on page 50
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