The most anticipated new production on the Metropolitan Opera calendar was that of Rigoletto. I say “anticipated.” What I mean is, it was the most looked forward to and the most dreaded. It was looked forward to by those who think of the Met as Squaresville. Who want the company to get with the program, and be more like Hamburg, Lille, and other cool capitals. It was dreaded by those who want to stave off Europeanization for as long as possible. Who like that the Met is the last bastion of “traditional” productions, as they’re called.
In my January chronicle, I spoke of the Met’s new production of another Verdi opera, Un ballo in maschera. I said I liked it—that I enjoyed looking at it—but that it was not really a Ballo. If you’ve seen Ballo a hundred times, and know it well, this was a pleasant break away. But what about the newcomer? Had he truly experienced a Ballo, the way the composer and the librettist conceived it? I feel much the same way about the new Rigoletto. I liked it, I really did. I’m glad I saw it, and would happily see it again. But I’m not sure it’s a Rigoletto. The gap between the production and the opera—that is, between the production and the Verdi-Piave work—is wide.
The director here is Michael Mayer, of Broadway distinction. He sets his Rigoletto in 1960 Las Vegas—the time and place of the Rat Pack. Countess Ceprano (I believe) is Marilyn Monroe, or a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. The title character is not a hunchback, but a man who walks around normally. That’s okay. But what is the handicap, or deformity, that shapes his personality? The misfortune of which he constantly speaks? We don’t see it. When the curtain opens on Act II, which shows the aftermath of a very Vegassy party, the audience laughs. Or at least it did on the night I attended. And Act II of Rigoletto is one of the darkest and most disturbing acts in all of opera. Act III is set in a strip club, complete with nekkid lady on a pole. Take that, squares!
Let me protest once more (maybe too much): I like this production, even aside from the naked girl. It is clever and I dare say thoughtful. The director is sincere in what he is doing; he obviously likes Rigoletto, and is not trying to mock or undermine it. But I wonder whether his production serves the opera. We can understand that opera-world professionals are bored, seeing the same operas, over and over. They need to jazz up their lives with “untraditional” productions. But, again, what about the newcomer, the person encountering Rigoletto for the first time? Moreover, if you want to set an opera in 1960 Las Vegas, why not write an opera set in 1960 Las Vegas, or get someone else to do so? Why transform a Verdi opera set in sixteenth-century Mantua? Is it because no one around today can compose? Some people say, “There are plenty of Mozarts, Beethovens, and Verdis around, but we are too blind or deaf to notice them. In fifty or a hundred years, they’ll be famous and heralded, and boy will we have egg on our faces.” Could be. But I doubt it. Another thought: Directors love to update, but would they ever think of backdating? Will someone set, say, Doctor Atomic in sixteenth-century Mantua? Maybe have Oppenheimer toy with the musket or something?
Of course, the most important part of an opera performance is the music—the singing, the playing, and the conducting. I have a lot to say about the Met Rigoletto, musically, but I have a lot to say in this chronicle generally, and you will permit me to move on . . .
A concert by the American Composers Orchestra, in Zankel Hall, began with a work by Zhou Long. He came to this country in the 1980s. The work in question is Bell Drum Towers, which evokes a timekeeping method in ancient China. Zhou has written a winner: a delicate, impressionistic, mysterious piece. It is also a little jazzy (or do I think that simply because I’m an American?). The piece is exceptionally well orchestrated, with a slidey trombone and an interesting piano. At two or three different points, I thought the piece was on the verge of being too long—but then it would save itself, or the composer would, with something compelling. I believe I heard a technique from Strauss’s Elektra toward the end. In any event, it was a pleasure, and a relief, to enjoy a new work so much.
I had the same experience in the second half of the program, with Kyle Blaha’s Triptych. This is in three movements (how did you guess?), and those movements are designated only by metronome markings. The first movement is dramatic and varied—cinematic, I thought. I was reminded of a western. The second movement, the slow movement, has sweet music interspersed with fierce. The last movement is rather like the first: cinematic and western-like, open and confident. I thought I heard a choo-choo, I swear. The music is driving by not annoyingly frenetic. I very much look forward to hearing Triptych again, as well as Bell Drum Towers.
For concerts of new music, Carnegie Hall is using a slogan: “My Time, My Music.” Let me just say that Bach, Beethoven, and Ravel are my music too. They are of their times, our time, and no time. Bruckner is as much my music as Birtwistle (at least). But I am scoring a cheapish point, and I know that businesses must have slogans.
A concert of the New York Philharmonic included Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Conducting was Lorin Maazel; doing the solo honors was Yefim Bronfman. Maazel conducted the long orchestral opening at an unusually slow tempo. But the music had its due majesty and drama. When Bronfman came in, he played with exemplary equilibrium. He has the gift of knowing just what weight to apply to notes. The first movement, for the soloist, gets unpianistic—but it did not seem so in Bronfman’s hands. He is a tamer of unruly music, as he has proven in, for example, Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata in G major. In Brahms’s first movement, he took the leaps basically in time. That is, he did not have to adjust the tempo, as he leapt around the keyboard. His octaves were colossal, and they had no banging in them at all. On the podium, Maazel did some eccentric, or let’s say unconventional, things. There were Maazelian pauses and the like. But he was always interesting and musical—and one learns from him. At the end of the first movement, he proved once again that he is one of the great cutters-off of notes in history. This seems like such a simple act. For some reason, not every conductor can do it.
The middle movement, Adagio, is one of the most beautiful, and warm, and moving things Brahms ever wrote. Bronfman and Maazel did well in it, although it could have been warmer, and more religioso. As for the Rondo, it was fast, nimble, and commanding. This movement is a rare example of what you must call something like gargantuan playfulness. Bronfman had a few finger-slips, but this only confirmed that we were not listening to a studio recording. Nothing can duplicate the excitement of live. Honestly, this was some of the best piano playing I have ever heard. And, believe it or not, I will write the same sentence a little later in this chronicle.
The Metropolitan Opera brought back La rondine, Puccini’s operetta-like opera. In the starring role of Magda was Kristine Opolais, a soprano from Latvia. The Baltic states are teeming with musicians. Opolais is married to Andris Nelsons, another Latvian, and an excellent young conductor. The soprano is a beauty, looking in this production a little like Elizabeth Montgomery, in Bewitched. And her singing? It ranged from adequate to excellent. In the main, she was elegant, mature, and accomplished. And her acting was better than the operatic norm. Her Ruggero, which is to say, her tenor, was Giuseppe Filianoti. And he sang very well—in the middle and lower registers. Up top, he struggled. Probably 98 percent of Ruggero’s notes are in the middle. A mere handful are up top. Why do we care so much about the high notes? It is a cruel but stubborn fact of operatic life. In the pit was a conductor previously unknown to me: Ion Marin, a Romanian (as his name may tell you). He conducted intelligently, sensitively, and beautifully. He understood La rondine, its lilt and grace. He let the music float, as it does, but he also gave it the substance it must have, and has inherently.
Here is a touchy issue—one I can’t remember addressing before: What do you do about a singer who lisps? There were at least two singers in the Rondine cast who lisped. While you want to ignore this, it is not entirely possible. Should a lisp disqualify a person from singing? Certainly not—people lisp, and singers are people. The great, immortal Olga Borodina lisps now and then. Yet it is a problem worth thinking about. Anyway, as I said, a touchy issue, and maybe we can think about it another day . . .
Did I mention Romanians? Radu Lupu, the pianist, played a recital at Carnegie Hall. He began with the four Schubert impromptus of D. 935. Then he played Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue. I will make some general remarks about his playing of these pieces. That which requires gentleness or reflection was wonderful. That which requires force, heft, or brilliance was less wonderful. Lupu was persistently modulated, subdued, polite. He was sometimes mushy or wispy. Here is a remark about a specific Schubert impromptu, the one in B flat: It needed more of a smile, some joviality. Lupu was sober.
There is a Cult of Lupu, a cult I understand, and one that I’m sort of a fellow traveler of. There is an aura around Lupu. He has unruly, genius-style hair, and a gray-white beard. He looks like a prophet. He carries himself very gravely. People hear profundity, even if the playing is not quite right. Image plays a role in music, as in other departments of life. Eye and ear conspire together.
On the second half of his recital, Lupu played Book II of Debussy’s Préludes. And this playing was stunning, mesmerizing. Lupu put on a clinic of color, imagination, technique. He out-Frenched all Frenchmen. Honestly, this was some of the best piano playing I have ever heard. The entire hall was mesmerized, and the beard had nothing to do with it. Sign me up for the cult!
The Met brought back Le Comte Ory, the Rossini romp—one of many, to be sure. Our soprano was Pretty Yende, a South African new to the Met. If you’re going to name your daughter Pretty, she’d better be: And this soprano is. She also knows what she is doing, vocally and otherwise. She sang brightly and flexibly. She did not keep a consistent tone from top to bottom, or bottom to top, but many fine singers have been inconsistent in this way. She has plenty of lyricism but a dose of power too. Her high notes were generally secure. She gave us a good, clear E flat, and she ended the opera with a wonderful, easy C. It would be unfortunate to send ’em home with a poor note.
Our tenor was the Rossini tenor of this age, Juan Diego Flórez. Before the curtain rose, an announcement was made for him: He was suffering from a chest cold, but would sing anyway. I’m of two minds about such announcements—two minds at least. If a singer is under the weather, maybe he ought to give an understudy a chance. Also, there is the issue of excuse-making. Then again, perhaps an announcement frees a singer, psychologically, to sing away. “They’re not expecting my best,” he thinks, “so I can just relax.” In any event, Flórez sang basically like the Flórez we know, chest cold or not.
At the 92nd Street Y, Marc-André Hamelin played a recital. He is an old-fashioned piano virtuoso, the kind to play transcriptions, the kind to write transcriptions—the sort of pianist who will give you a symphony or concerto for solo piano by Charles-Valentin Alkan. He also knows the value of Mozart (inestimable). At the Y, he opened his recital with a Bach transcription by Theodor Szántó: This was the Great Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, an organ piece (an organ piece and a half). You immediately noticed something about the piano—not about the playing, but about the piano itself: It was bright, live, and loud. These days, I’m always hearing pianos that are muted. This kind of piano is relatively easy to control (although you sacrifice a lot). A piano like Hamelin’s can be a beast with its own mind. I don’t know whether Hamelin chose this piano or was presented with it, but I was glad to hear it.
He played his Bach-Szántó well and arrestingly. I think the fugue should have had a stricter tempo, but Hamelin’s looseness was not fatal. I like that he is unafraid of triple-forte: The work ended with thrilling, deafening G major.
Later, Hamelin played several Debussy pieces, starting with Reflets dans l’eau. He played this more rhapsodically than a classic French Impressionist would. But then, Horowitz played his Debussy the same way, often. Hamelin’s least successful Debussy piece was L’Isle joyeuse, which was slightly clumsy. After intermission came a piece of his own: Variations on a Theme by Paganini. You know what theme. Hamelin’s take is a virtuosic, nutty joy. He ended his printed program with Rachmaninoff, beginning with the G-major prelude. I believe people should play this sublime composition straight—with minimal rubato. Rachmaninoff has baked all the wonderfulness in. Hamelin warped it a bit, I’m afraid. But he played the Sonata No. 2 commandingly.
His final encore was the “Minute” Waltz, souped up, weirdified. We can be glad that throwback pianists such as Hamelin exist.
Another pianist, Nicolas Hodges, played a recital in Zankel Hall. In the middle of his program were two pieces by Elliott Carter: Intermittences (2005) and Caténaires (2006). The first piece is scherzo-like, and bursting with youthfulness. The second piece is a veritable showpiece, almost a throwback to the nineteenth century. Carter acts like a Paganini of the Piano. Caténaires has nothing but fast notes—a blizzard of notes—and conveys huge energy. I emphasize the youthfulness of Intermittences and the energy of Caténaires because Carter wrote these in the ninety-
seventh and ninety-eighth years of his life. He died last November, just shy of 104.
Stay in Zankel Hall for a moment, for a recital by Dorothea Röschmann. I have called her a Schwarzkopf for our time. She is a German soprano who shines in Mozart opera roles and German art song—and in other areas of vocal life, of course. Her program in New York was composed of Schubert, Strauss, Liszt, and Wolf. All German-language. She sang with her typical intelligence and taste, along with her remarkable diction. The beauty of her voice seems almost incidental. I might remark a bit more on that diction: From Röschmann’s mouth, German seems the most beautiful language in the world. I once heard Marilyn Horne describe Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as “the Bible,” where German is concerned. Röschmann is pretty Scriptural herself. Her pianist, Malcolm Martineau, was a worthy partner, as usual.
Did Röschmann do anything wrong? Was she a paragon? She was a paragon, yes, but there was one bad note: in Strauss’s “September.” I believe the soprano lost her place, did not quite know what she was singing. Some of the high notes were not perfectly pretty. And there was a speck of sameness about the evening: sameness of approach. Some of the Wolf, for example, could have used more bite. But if you’re going to have sameness, have Dorothea Röschmann’s sameness, by all means.
Ascend from Zankel Hall to the larger and main hall within the Carnegie building: There, Daniil Trifonov gave a recital. He is the 21-year-old Russian pianist who won the Gold Medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition two years ago. He opened his recital with a Scriabin sonata, No. 2, which is in G-sharp minor—not an oft-used key. Trifonov played with amazing smoothness, limpidity, and seamlessness. His arms seemed to have no muscle or nerves in them at all: They were wet spaghetti, and they were completely at his command. He tightened his arms only when he wanted to; it was purely voluntary, which is a rare and covetable gift. He handled the Presto of the Scriabin with gentle ferocity. As I was listening to him, I thought, “The judges at the competition in Moscow must have blinked in amazement.”
Next came the Liszt Sonata, which he played very well, of course. But his playing was also a little muted. Was it one of those pianos I have mentioned? The pianist could not seem to generate enough volume, and I saw him pound a black note toward the bottom of the keyboard with his fist—I swear. Liszt’s sonata missed some of its diabolicism and thunder. But I am holding Trifonov to a very high standard: He played the piece with daunting skill and artistry.
The second half of his program consisted of Chopin: the twenty-four preludes. He played them as though they were movements (many movements) of one work, and this approach was effective (rather than affected). I could pick at him: The E-minor prelude was a little fast. The B-minor prelude began with a bad accent. The A-flat-major prelude was a little mannered. But it would be far easier to praise. The G-major prelude, for example, was a lesson in limpidity. The A-major prelude was beautifully sculpted, lovingly sculpted. The E-major prelude had its wonderful generosity. Throughout the twenty-four, the pianist had control of colors, dynamics, and most everything else. I should mention, too, that he is an exceptionally good pedaler, a significant tool in a pianist’s kit.
He sent the audience home with a circus act, Guido Agosti’s transcription of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird. Like Hamelin, Trifonov enjoys throwing back. As I said a few chronicles ago, the music world will enjoy listening to Trifonov for decades to come.
It will enjoy listening to Andris Nelsons for decades, too. He’s the excellent young Latvian conductor, married to Kristine Opolais, the soprano from La rondine. He conducted the New York Philharmonic, in a program of Dvorák, Brahms, and Bartók. His Dvorák was a tone poem, The Noon Witch. Nelsons was clear, alert, and natural. He phrased very well, letting the music have its tensions and swells. The orchestra played like a well-oiled machine (though not mechanically). The Brahms was the Violin Concerto, whose soloist was Christian Tetzlaff. The less said about this performance, the better. Tetzlaff was not himself. He could not play. He will be himself again, one trusts.
The Bartók was the Concerto for Orchestra, a famous test for an orchestra, yes, but also a test for a conductor—and Nelsons passed with flying colors. “Colors” is a good word, because the concerto is full of them, and they appeared in their glory. From the first notes, the disorder and horror of the Brahms were washed away. Restored were authority, confidence, unity. Bartók’s hit was fresh as a daisy, not hackneyed in the least. It was subtle, virtuosic, kaleidoscopic. Nelsons led the orchestra in an unassuming way, with no need to browbeat or show off. He knew what to do, and the orchestra knew what to do in response. I was not 100 percent admiring of the final movement—which I thought missed some of its excitement, its extremeness, you might say. “Sing out, Louise!” I wanted to call out. But the arrival of Andris Nelsons on the scene is very good news.
Several years ago, André Previn was asked, “When was the last time you were excited by a new piece of music?” In the 1940s, he said, when he heard the Concerto for Orchestra. I don’t know whether Previn had his tongue in his cheek. But, man, that was a long time ago.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 7, on page 45
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