A particular night at the Lincoln Center Festival had the air of a happening. Critics had come in from out of town, and there was a general buzz about the event. It was the New York premiere of an opera composed in 1968: The Passenger, by Mieczys?aw Weinberg. This is an opera about the Holocaust.
Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919. His father was a musician and his mother an actress, both involved in the Yiddish theater. Weinberg graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939—not the most auspicious of years. When the war came, he fled to the Soviet Union and stayed there for the rest of his life. His family was murdered in the Holocaust.
Weinberg married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels, the famous actor, who was murdered by the Soviets in 1948. Weinberg himself was arrested in February 1953—and saved when Stalin died early the next month. (A lot of people were saved by that death.) Weinberg had the fortune of becoming a friend of Shostakovich, who helped the younger man along. The Passenger is generally regarded as his most important work.
It is based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz, from which Alexander Medvedev fashioned a libretto. The story is essentially this: Walter and Liese, a West German diplomat and his new wife, are sailing to Brazil, where he is to take up a post. Liese is frightened—indeed, traumatized—when she sees a fellow passenger, whom she believes she recognizes. Could it be Marta, an inmate at Auschwitz? Liese herself was at Auschwitz—as an SS overseer. Her husband Walter has not until now known about this past. The opera is split between the present day, aboard the ship, and the experience of Ausch-witz. It is a tale of guilt and anguish.
Soviet authorities did not permit the opera to see the light of day. It was “cosmopolitan,” i.e., Jewish. Weinberg died in 1996. His opera received a concert performance in Moscow ten years later, and was staged at the Bregenz Festival (Austria) in 2010. The opera had its U.S. premiere last January at the Houston Grand Opera. And the HGO came to New York to perform the work at the Lincoln Center Festival.
The venue was the Park Avenue Armory, an extraordinary venue for opera: vast and faintly otherworldly. It reminds me somewhat of Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule, that old riding school carved out of rock. At the Armory, the orchestra was placed to the right of the stage. Singers watched the conductor on video monitors, I believe. The production is by David Pountney, a British stage director. He is the opera’s foremost champion. His production is an intelligent, efficient, and effective one. He has translated the libretto into English, and that is the libretto we heard.
Weinberg’s score contains a variety of music: classical, popular, primitive, jazzy, and so on. The music follows the contours of the story. We can hear that Weinberg is a skillful orchestrator—unafraid, for example, to use just a few instruments. The Passenger is redolent of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Specifically, I heard the latter’s Symphony No. 7, and then his Symphony No. 5. Is Weinberg’s score derivative (to use that putdown of putdowns)? Almost every score is derivative, to a degree. I would say that The Passenger is of its time and place.
Watching the opera, I asked myself the following question: “Is it cheap and exploitative?” No, it is blunt and honest. There came a time, I think, when Holocaust dramas got subtle, nuanced, glancing, and arty. The Passenger was put together before that time. You have the trains, the shaved heads, the striped pajamas, the terror, the wails—everything.
The singers gave it their all, holding nothing back, performing as if taking part in something important. Michelle Breedt, a mezzo-soprano, was Liese; Melody Moore, a soprano, was Marta. Virtually all of the singers sounded stout or heroic, but it is hard to judge them, as amplification was used, which is forgivable: The Park Avenue Armory is not La Fenice. Patrick Summers, the conductor, managed the performance with thorough competence.
Is it a good opera, a bad opera, a great opera? A discovery? It is a discovery, and a creditable opera (at least). It is furthermore an act of devotion: an act of devotion by a composer whose family was murdered in this genocide.
A few days after Opening Night at the Armory, a friend of mine told me that, after the performance, many people lingered, to talk about the opera. I also heard that the novelist, Zofia Posmysz, was on hand, to take a bow. She is now ninety. Why did I not see these things for myself? Forgive me, or damn me, but I left after the first act. A little Holocaust goes a long way with me. I’m glad that operas and novels and movies and museums exist for other people—people who need them. If I said that I was “sensitized” enough, would you know what I meant?
The Lincoln Center Festival hosted not only the Houston Grand Opera but the Bolshoi Opera as well. The Muscovites contributed a concert performance of The Tsar’s Bride in Avery Fisher Hall. This is an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. According to those who should know, it is a staple in Russia. Here, it is barely known at all, although the Opera Orchestra of New York gave its own concert performance in 2008.
Conducting in Avery Fisher was the famed Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, born in 1931. He first conducted the Bolshoi at age twenty. In appearance, he now reminds me of the late-vintage Stokowski: wizard-like, with a fringe of unruly white hair. Like the late-vintage Stoki, he sits down to conduct—although he rose a couple of times during The Tsar’s Bride: once in the concluding pages of Act II, and once in the concluding pages of the opera. The effect of this was stirring.
The plot of The Tsar’s Bride is screwy, which is to say, nicely operatic. There is an elixir of love, as in Donizetti. (Actually, there are two.) But this opera is no comedy. There are corpses at the end. At the beginning, the music sounds like Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, I swear. But it is quickly pure Rimsky-Korsakov. There are stretches of banality in this work, followed by stretches of inspiration. The composer ends the opera in the same D minor.
Rozhdestvensky conducted tidily and expertly. He was remarkably unworried—I don’t think I have ever used that word about conducting before. He was confident and unflappable. At times, you wanted more energy or intensity from him, but he got the job done, in his own way—with his own pacing and emotion. The orchestra was rough in the early going, with botched entrances and the like. But it settled down into unity and assurance.
Almost stealing the show were the men of the chorus. They sang robustly, accurately, and arrestingly. What is it about Russian men singing in chorus? Do equally good singers, non-Russian, singing in Russian, sound the same? The mind may be playing tricks, but I don’t think so.
The Bolshoi’s cast was of varying quality, as casts tend to be, but it was a very good cast. I will single out a member: Agunda Kulaeva, the mezzo-soprano singing Lyubasha. Kulaeva is the kind of mezzo who blows Slavic smoke into your ears. The character, Lyubasha, has something rare in opera: an unaccompanied aria. It can be a showstopper, and Kulaeva made sure it was so. She sang the aria convincingly—nearly spellbindingly—and she sang it in tune. It can be embarrassing to sing it out of tune, because the orchestra comes in every now and then, acting as a kind of check.
The supreme Lyubasha of our time—maybe of any time—is the great Olga Borodina. But this Agunda Kulaeva held her own.
I will tell you a secret, since I’m being personal and confessional in this chronicle. When I was younger and dumber, I often preferred concert opera to staged opera—because I thought that opera was generally insufferable, with the costumes and the acting and such. In a concert performance, the music was spared these indignities. With maturity, I saw that operas were meant to be staged—and I wish the Bolshoi and the Lincoln Center Festival could have given us a staged Tsar’s Bride.
Another Lincoln Center festival, Mostly Mozart, opened with an all-Mozart concert. This was a concert by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, conducted by the festival’s music director, Louis Langrée. He is also chief of the Cincinnati Symphony and the Salzburg Camerata. His opening Mozart concert employed the formula of overture-concerto-symphony. This is a good formula.
The overture was that to Don Giovanni, that study in light and dark (both the overture and the opera as a whole). In the beginning, the orchestra was not imposing, fearsome, or commanding enough. And the transition into light was ineffective. I have repeated myself in my Mostly Mozart reviews over the years: Langrée is marvelous, and the orchestra is less so. They cannot always give him what he wants. But he, and they, do a lot with what they have. Langrée is a master sculptor—a superb shaper of Mozart, and other composers.
The concerto was the Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488. This is known as “the big A-major,” contrasted with K. 414, “the little A-major.” The soloist on this evening was Richard Goode, the veteran and excellent American. Langrée began with the tempo giusto, as usual. The orchestral opening had wonderful grace. When Goode came in, he was dignified, of course. But he was also rather autumnal, tired—sleepy. The music was missing its sparkle and vivacity. The middle movement, Adagio, was much better: a graceful ghost (to borrow the title of a well-loved rag). In the final movement, Goode provided a reasonable approximation of liveliness, a facsimile of felicity. But, really, this was tired, wan Mozart.
I thought of Alicia de Larrocha, who, as it happens, was a staple of the Mostly Mozart Festival. There was scarcely anyone better in Mozart. But, in later years, the sparkle dimmed. The playing got dutiful and dull (which was not de Larrocha at all).
Langrée’s symphony after intermission—and Mozart’s—was the “Jupiter.” And let me pour a paragraph of praise on the conductor. I have often praised his colleague James Levine for “just rightness,” particularly in Mozart. Langrée has the same sense of just rightness: in tempos, phrasing, rhythm, dynamics, overall architecture, and feeling. There is something dare I say scientific in Mozart, almost a natural law of Mozart: Szell knew it, Levine knows it, others have known it. Langrée knows it.
He wanted to begin the finale with quivering anticipation, but could not get it. (Not his fault, I believe.) He wanted fugal majesty at the end, but could not get it—the orchestra was borderline pipsqueaky. It was a wonderful “Jupiter” all the same.
Part of the Mostly Mozart Festival is “A Little Night Music,” a suitably Mozartean title for a series of one-hour recitals beginning at 10 p.m. The venue is the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, which has huge windows, outside of which the city twinkles. One of the recitalists this year was Steven Osborne—who, according to his bio, is “one of the great pianists of his generation.” The things you learn from bios. What I did not learn from the bio, but learned elsewhere, is that Osborne is from Scotland.
His recital was all-Schubert, beginning with the Variations on a Theme by Anselm Hüttenbrenner. Actually, the recital began with talking, in the modern and apparently ineradicable fashion. Osborne said that the Hüttenbrenner Variations were obscure, but did not deserve to be so. When he hears a Schubert piece at a master class, he said, it’s almost always
the Wanderer Fantasy—and he does not like the Wanderer Fantasy. He said that, in it, Schubert is trying to be something he’s not. When Osborne knocked the Wanderer, a segment of the audience clapped enthusiastically. The things you learn from audiences.
In the Hüttenbrenner Variations, especially in the early going, Osborne was stiff, including in trills. There was too little bend or pliancy in his playing—that liquid quality that Schubert often needs. Still, he was sensible, as British musicians can be expected to be. (I figure I should refer to Scotsmen as British while I can.) And Osborne is right about the unjust obscurity of the Hüttenbrenner Variations. As long as we’re on the subject, let me put in a word for Brahms’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1. This work is never performed, and is masterly, I think.
Before continuing with his recital, Osborne did some more talking—and some interesting talking, I must say. He then played Schubert’s four impromptus, D. 935. Almost as much as I look forward to the passing of the talking craze, I look forward to the passing of the completeness craze: There is no reason to play all four of these impromptus, one after the other, as though they were a set, except out of a mistaken notion of musicological correctness.
In any case, these impromptus require evenness of line and sublimity of feeling, among other qualities. Osborne played them adequately. Sometimes his playing was beautiful. He caught some of the gemütlichkeit in the Impromptu in B flat. He was also steady in his rhythm, which is no small thing. At the beginning of the F-minor impromptu, he was suitably impish; later, he was suitably demonic. In everything he did, he was, again, sensible.
The audience loved him, and asked for an encore: He gave them something very obscure, a Schubert fragment, labeled the Andante in A major, D. 604. In my view, the encore was superfluous—an encore for an encore’s sake. Also, I was reminded that obscure doesn’t always mean good (and popular doesn’t always mean bad).
I have been picking on Steven Osborne, but I really mean to pick on trends and fashions: Puffed-up bios, talking from the stage, misguided completeness, encores for encores’ sake—così fan tutti.
I have a dollop of room left for Martin Fröst, the Swedish clarinetist. He was another of the late-night, penthouse performers. He had with him a couple of friends: the pianist Shai Wosner and the violist Antoine Tamestit (who had played a boffo solo recital two nights before). They began with Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio. It was okay—routine, competent, nothing to write home about. The music was at its most alive when Tamestit had a say.
Far better was the next piece, Debussy’s Première rapsodie, which he wrote as an examination piece for clarinetists at the Paris Conservatory. I have long observed that there is no second rhapsody—yet we always call this one the Première. In it, Fröst was satisfyingly French: subtle, nimble, scintillating. He added a touch of jazz or swing at the end (and that is French, too). After all these years, the Première rapsodie is still testing clarinetists. Fröst passed.
He and the pianist, Wosner, went on to the Poulenc Sonata—which, Fröst noted in remarks from the stage (what can you do?), was given its premiere by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. “They couldn’t be here tonight,” said Fröst, in a nice line. I’m not sure they would have been better. A few small complaints: Fröst was not at his slinkiest in the first movement. Also, his flutter at the end of the movement could have been suaver. As for the pianist, he showed a particular sense of piano: wispy, disembodied, on the surface. A lot of pianists regard this as French. I disagree. There is nothing un-French about a pure piano, with body. But these guys were fabulous, especially in the final two movements. Their rhythm was spot-on. Fröst seemed to act out the music, physically—yet he was not showy, simply musical (and virtuosic).
The audience reacted thunderously. They cheered as for Callas after Tosca. Fröst and Wosner brought back the violist, Tamestit, for an encore. It was one of Schumann’s Fairy Tales, Op. 132, a dreamy piece. It was not played dreamily. Frankly, this encore was a bit superfluous. But it would have been hard to leave that hepped-up audience encoreless.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 1, on page 54
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