At the end of its fall season, City Opera did something offbeat: It staged a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. That’s not so offbeat, except that this musical wasn’t one of the grander ones, wasn’t Oklahoma or South Pacific: It was Cinderella, a humble girl. Cinderella isn’t even properly a Broadway show, as it was composed for television. (Quick, name an opera composed for television: Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors is first to come to mind.)

Where were you on the evening of March 31, 1957? If you were sentient and American, you were probably in front of your TV, watching Cinderella, which starred the 21-year-old angel Julie Andrews. The broadcast pulled in 107 million viewers, making it one of those national experiences we really don’t have anymore. There are too many channels, too many options, too few leisure hours. A Rodgers and Hammerstein musical—what a wonderful reason for coming together!

Cinderella may not be a Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, but it has its modest charms. To use a Puccini analogy, it is La Rondine, not Madama Butterfly or Turandot. Its best-known songs are probably “In My Own Little Corner” and “Impossible!” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful” isn’t bad either. And if you’re going to do a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, I’ve often argued, you might as well do it with opera singers, although that is an essay—a quite contentious essay—unto itself.

In any event, City Opera did not put on an operatic performance; it put on a Broadway performance. As far as I could tell, there was only one opera singer in this show, and he sang the Royal Herald. He was good, too. Also good was the young woman who did Cinderella, Sarah Uriarte Berry; she sang correctly and purely. And her stepsisters, those nasty gals? Portia was played by Ana Gasteyer, who rose to national prominence as a cast member for Saturday Night Live. She did a lot of singing on that show—commendable singing—and she is a superb comic actress. With Portia, she did all she could, which wasn’t much. The other sister, Joy, was played by Lea DeLaria, an experienced Broadway and jazz performer. She played the part as a loutish lesbian, and on that subject, we’ll have more in a moment.

Everyone was surprised and delighted to see Eartha Kitt as the Fairy Godmother. She looked wonderful, and did some trademark purring—but she was wrong for the music, and wrong for the part. She simply didn’t sing it well, by proper showbiz standards. And you were ready to relish the veteran actors Dick Van Patten and Renée Taylor as the King and Queen—they would evince their charisma, display their professional timing, and talk their way through songs. But they were bad: almost completely flat on that stage, nearly amateurish. The audience poured love on them, though, as they did on everyone, especially the celebrities.

A young man named Christopher Sieber looked great as the Prince, even if he sang (and acted) in un-princely fashion. In fact, the whole production—which entered City Opera’s repertory in 1993—looked great. It looked like the fairy tale it should have been, like a Disney movie, complete with gilded carriage powered by white steeds.

I should now wade into a delicate subject: I have said that this was not an operatic production but a Broadway production; and that meant the intrusion of a campy-gay sensibility. This was perhaps not entirely fair to Rodgers and Hammerstein. A thousand other shows may beg for it, but does this one? The Stepmother was played by John Epperson, or, more precisely, by his female alter ego, Lypsinka (clever name). So, this was the opposite of a trouser role—a dress role, or in any case some travesty. Epperson was enjoyable, however, and he plainly enjoyed himself, dropping his voice, trying to shove his huge foot into that glass slipper. When he struck a Gloria Swanson pose—I was reliably informed it was that—his public went wild.

Throughout this show, there was a lot of wink-wink at the audience. You know: Amuse or scandalize the adults, and the kiddies will never be the wiser, just as in Rocky and Bullwinkle or, in a later era, The Simpsons. Mel Brooks’s Producers has a song called “Keep It Gay.” Apparently, that is a general Broadway credo, or command. And I was interested to read an article in a New York Times digest, about Epperson/Lypsinka. Title: “A Downtown Guy Gets to Play an Uptown Girl.” I quote: “Epperson, who has been doing Lypsinka for more than 20 years, said that defying gender stereotypes was not his ambition in taking the role of the Stepmother. ‘I tend to forget that I’m doing something that people find subversive and kind of naughty.’” I was struck by that phrase “gender stereotypes.” Ponder it for a moment; it is representative of our times.

I wish to close with an observation about Richard Rodgers, a composer who is underrated, popular though he is. Two and a half years ago, I caught Oklahoma!, on Broadway. As I was leaving it, I had this unbidden thought: “I wish I had composed it. What a great score. Moreover, if some magical being gave me the choice of having composed Oklahoma! or having composed The Tender Land”—that is a Copland opera, set in the West, and otherwise similar to Oklahoma!—“I would pick the former. I really would. Unhesitatingly, as a matter of fact.” And I report this as someone who is very fond of The Tender Land.

From Cinderella to the Bartók string quartets—that’s quite a jump. But musical life is like that, and so is music itself. In an age, and place, with a lot of false diversity, music offers the real McCoy. (Forgive the banality of that statement, but it is true.) In any event, the Orion String Quartet presented the complete string quartets of Bartók over two concerts—three string quartets each—at Alice Tully Hall, under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The Orion is a popular ensemble, and, in fact, when they first appeared, their fans whooped as though at a rock concert.

The four men claim a lot for these Bartók works, as do others. A note in the program said, “For us in the Orion Quartet, the musical challenges and demands of these magnificent works have been as important as the Beethoven quartets in helping us define who we are as an ensemble.” The new artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society—David Finckel and Wu Han (the husband-and-wife cello-and-piano team)—wrote, “The six quartets of Béla Bartók are a listening experience like no other.” And Dr. Richard E. Rodda, in his program notes, said,

The string quartets of Béla Bartók are monuments of music, unsurpassed by any body of work of any other composer: unimpeachable in their form and technique, with the tiniest motivic atom set spinning elegantly through the universe of an all-embracing structure; inventive yet masterful in their use of sonority; daring harmonically yet grounded in tradition; enormous in their range of expression. They are fundamental documents of 20th-century music, integral to the study of the disciple and the subject of many learned treatises. But the true importance of these masterpieces lies not in their demonstrable mastery of the craft of composition, not in the fierce intellect that attended their creation, but in the way that they allow us to share the spirit of one extraordinary man who affirmed his life—and ours—by wresting order from change and contradiction.

Well, then. Yes, they are important and excellent works—great works, to be sure—no matter what is said about them. Whether they should be presented all at once—bing, bing, bing, bang, bang, bang—is a different question. As I have remarked before, we are in an age mad for completeness, when you are really a dino if you aren’t exhaustive. Not one Chopin ballade on a piano recital, but at least two, preferably three, and ideally all four. Do you want to see that we are a serious string quartet? Okay, we will play all six Bartóks in a row—though, sadly, we must resort to two concerts—and we won’t taint the experience with anything else. This is an attitude that I think harmful to the concert world. In a majority of cases, composers didn’t intend these works to be played in toto. But mine is very much a minority opinion. This month—January —the Takács String Quartet, under the Chamber Music Society, is playing the complete Beethoven string quartets, over six concerts.

The Orion played the Bartóks well. You could have objected here and there. I think that, in some instances, the players approached the music too reverently, instead of merely diving in. Their playing often had a tone of “This is a holy experience, and don’t you forget it.” I also think that they played much of the music too prettily. Some groups are too savage and raw in the Bartóks, and some are too elegant and polished. It’s not easy to find the right balance. I would have favored more grittiness from the Orion, but that is a matter of taste. In some movements, I found myself thinking, “Tenser, tauter, spookier—this is too relaxed” (or too tentative). And technical missteps, including imprecision of attack, were detracting.

But the Orion’s general mastery of the material was unquestionable, as was their great respect for it. Their fans certainly maintained their enthusiasm. So the grousing of a critic must be of little import.

Come, now, to the New York Philharmonic, where the music director, Lorin Maazel, has been away. Part of what he has been doing is completing his opera, 1984, which will have its premiere at Covent Garden in May. There have been many substitutes—or guests—of whom we’ll touch on three. James Conlon is a widely admired American, who has spent much of his career in Europe. He will be heard increasingly in the United States, however, as in the next couple of seasons he will take over the Ravinia Festival, in Chicago, and the Los Angeles Opera. He has long been talked about for music director of the Philharmonic or of the Metropolitan Opera.

In October, at Carnegie Hall, he led what has so far been one of the most successful concerts of the season, taking the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus through an all-Russian program (Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich). He had a poorer outing with the Philharmonic, however—much poorer. His main offering was Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, and it was something astonishing: dull. It is almost impossible to make this symphony dull. But in these hands, it was cautious, limp, pedestrian—dull. The notes were there, most of the time, but Mahler’s character was not. Conductors, like Homer, are allowed to nod, and James Conlon will no doubt be more awake on future occasions.

No conductor is more ballyhooed than David Robertson—another American—whom some want to head the Philharmonic right this second. Can Maazel possibly be bumped off? Robertson has recently been hired by the St. Louis Symphony, but the Philharmonic has him guesting a lot, and he did two subscription concerts in a row. The first began with Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, which was everything it should not have been: flaccid, indifferent, dull. It was not dissimilar to Conlon’s Mahler, but somehow more offensive. The orchestra was a mess, technically, and there was zero musical spark to make up for it. You might have tolerated this performance in a college orchestra, but not in the New York Philharmonic. I have heard worthy Robertson performances, but this one had me thinking, “This is the conductor they’re dying to have take over the Phil.? This is the conductor they want ol’ Masur and ol’ Maazel out of the way for?”

Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto went far better, and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony went somewhat better. Even so, the Mendelssohn did not rise above the level of competence, and lacked distinction, to put it charitably.

In the next concert, Robertson teamed with the young German violinist Christian Tetzlaff for a great—truly great—traversal of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. (The Orion String Quartet would have been disappointed that Tetzlaff played only one Bartók concerto.) The purely orchestral works on the program were a transcription of Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet and the Beethoven Eighth Symphony. The Reich could have benefited from more flair—more musicality—minimalistic and straight-ahead though it may be. And the Beethoven performance was no disgrace: It was largely correct, and showed a basic understanding. Still, there was an overlay of mediocrity—some flabbiness, some time-beating, some “Another day, another dollar.” The Allegretto scherzando was deprived of its grace and lilt, and the Allegro vivace was denied its quivering thrill. Again, this was not a bad performance (particularly when compared with the Prokofiev), but it was hardly something to flip for.

You might have flipped—or at least stood—for Sakari Oramo, the young Finn who guest-conducted one subscription concert. The former concertmaster of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, he is now chief of that orchestra, as well as of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in England. (It’s he who replaced Sir Simon Rattle, now with the Berlin Philharmonic.) Oramo led a program of Sibelius—sure—Kaija Saariaho (another Finnish composer, contemporary), and Tchaikovsky (the “Manfred” Symphony). By the evidence, Oramo has all the tools: intelligence, discipline, leadership. This is a conductor who knows his mind, is of sound mind, and has the wherewithal to express what’s on his mind. There seems to be no limit to what he can accomplish. Sakari Oramo could be the ticket—if a ticket were needed.

Finish with the Metropolitan Opera, which laid on a sumptuous, spiritual, moving performance of Tannhäuser. No, music director James Levine was not in the pit, and it is always a shame to do a Wagner performance without your music director, if he is the best Wagner conductor in the world, and one of the greatest of all time. But Mark Elder, the British maestro, sufficed. Interestingly, he was perhaps least strong in the Overture, which was bland and meandering, rather than gripping and inexorable. Elsewhere, he might have provided more definition, more sweep, but he did justice to Wagner’s score, an achievement.

The tenor in the title role was Peter Seiffert, who did not have a good night, but who had a passable night. He is a relatively lyrical Wagnerian, not a barker, and he has this interesting trait: Even when he is singing badly—struggling—he sings confidently, as if there were no problem at all. This is a valuable mindset. It reminds me a little of what French-horn players say: You can’t worry about this crack or that, because you have more playing to do; you can’t afford to wring your hands; if you’re going to crack, crack with confidence! In the course of the evening, Seiffert conveyed some of the internal journey of Tannhäuser: the troubled man, the broken man, and the redeemed man.

The mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung made a satisfactory Venus (looking the part, for one thing). Along with Seiffert, she could have made more of Wagner’s notes and words—what juicy opportunities for singers—but she was never inept. Singing Elisabeth was the Elisabeth of our time, Deborah Voigt. The role begins with the aria “Dich, teure Halle,” and I was reminded that James Levine’s twenty-fifth-anniversary gala, back in 1996, began with Voigt in this aria (after Levine had led the orchestra in the Rienzi overture). The “Dich, teure Halle” of this Tannhäuser was not Voigt’s best, with some top notes a little low, but she assumed her glory as the night progressed. Her prayer in Act III was eloquent and poignant.

The great Kurt Moll was on hand, as Hermann, and he had a poor night, repeatedly off pitch, but he projected tons of authority, which mattered. And I should mention the boy singing the Young Shepherd—James Danner. He piped confidently and correctly, and, when taking his bow, flashed a world-class smile—all teeth. It was then that I recognized him: He was the boy who sang with Debbie Voigt at her Christmas concert, with the New York Philharmonic, in December 2003. Bigger in body, and stronger of voice—same smile.

The Met’s Tannhäuser was made—really made—by the Wolfram of Thomas Hampson. Go to the opera house for a hundred years, you will not hear or see a better Wolfram. Hampson was in superb voice, utterly secure, and he was perfectly aware of everything that was going on. He is one of the few opera singers who act other than when they are singing; he is the complete operatic package. He gave a clinic in clear, direct communication, seeming actually to talk to Tannhäuser—to reason with him. His “Evening Star” song was a wonder—a line-hugging wonder, and a startlingly holy moment. We were watching a big, splashy Wagner opera, but we might as well have been in a recital hall.

How about the production? It was that fashioned by the ever-amazing Otto Schenk, in 1977. Venusberg is the scene of erotic couplings, and triplings, and quadruplings —it was sometimes hard to tell. Perhaps the finest moment of this Tannhäuser occurs in Act III, when the protagonist is tempted to return to Venusberg. We see that physical Venusberg—the goddess and the rest in the background—but we have the impression that this is a state of Tannhäuser’s mind, not a matter of geography.

This was a performance whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. It had the power of convincing you that Tannhäuser is as good as anything Wagner ever wrote—a high point of craft and inspiration. Almost as good as the Bartók string quartets!

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 5, on page 47
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