As a Dutch friend confirmed to me, Michel van der Aa would almost certainly be first on a class roll: you would not start with V but with A, and Van der Aa has two of them. He is a Dutch composer, born in 1970. He was trained as a recording engineer before studying composition. He has had a big 2017–18 in the United States. An opera called Blank Out was staged at the Park Avenue Armory here in New York. It combines film and “live action.” Sunken Garden is another such piece, described on Van der Aa’s website as “an occult-mystery film-opera.” It ran at the Dallas Opera. And Carnegie Hall heard his Violin Concerto.

It was written for Janine Jansen, the Dutch violinist, of whom Van der Aa is a great fan, as most of us are. “If Janine had played the flute,” he has been quoted as saying, “I would have written a flute concerto.” It was, in fact, Jansen who played the work in Carnegie Hall, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The violin produces some elegant savagery.

The work is in three movements, marked—brace yourself—“I,” “II,” and “III.” When I see that, I think, “Why bother?” But a composer is entitled to his reasons and instincts. Van der Aa’s first movement begins with the violin alone, introspective and intriguing. It is soon joined by other instruments, and there is a feeling of unease. I have oft described the current period in classical music as an age of anxiety. Van der Aa clearly belongs to it. His concerto also makes use of ample soft percussion, another hallmark of this age. From the violin, there are moments of beauty—a lyrical beauty. The violin also produces some elegant savagery.

Movement II begins with the violin alone, like its predecessor. Then there are little pings in the orchestra. This movement is slower than the first, and less anxious. For a while, it is pretty, almost resembling a lullaby. Then a hornet’s nest is kicked. The music is furious for a longish stretch, finally calming down. At the end of the movement, there are mysterious bells. Are they friendly or unfriendly?

Janine Jansen. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

In the last movement, the hornets are at it again, buzzing like mad. Then there is something like dancing—capricious dancing— almost scherzo-like. As the movement continues, there is much energetic noising around. The work has an abrupt, effective ending.

This is a creditable work, showing skill and (yes) energy. But I have a question, in two parts: Has this work received inspiration? Does it give it? I have my doubts. But there is no doubt that Janine Jansen played it magnificently, with a committed heart and true virtuosity.

At the Metropolitan Opera, they staged Elektra, Richard Strauss’s shabby little shocker. (Actually, that line was famously applied to Puccini’s Tosca, but you may lay it on Elektra, too—and on another Strauss opera, Salome.) I am tempted to say, “An Elektra needs an Elektra”—but what it most needs is a conductor.

In the pit on this night was Maestro Nézet-Séguin. He was competent, but Elektra was not shown off to full effect. There was sloppiness in the orchestra, including at the very beginning and the very end. Too many entrances were approximate, too many notes were approximate. Worse, there was a lack of heft, of gravitas, in the orchestra. At the same time—this may seem contradictory—Nézet-Séguin was prone to covering up singers (a Strauss hazard, to be sure).

Elektra needs a range of qualities, including warmth, tension, glee, and madness. A really good performance is riveting, and I found my mind wandering, which should not happen in an Elektra. (I grant that it might have been me.) In Nézet-Séguin’s favor, however, is that he obviously loves the work, and loves conducting, both of which count for a lot.

Christine Goerke in Elektra. Photo: Karen Almond / Metropolitan Opera

In addition to a conductor, an Elektra certainly needs an Elektra, and the Met had a superb one in Christine Goerke. This American soprano was absent from big stages for several years, or so it seemed to many of us. When she returned, she was better—more capable, more glorious—than ever (and she started out pretty capable and glorious). She sang Elektra with a big, beautiful, and cutting voice. She acted with that voice, as well as with her body. Her understanding of the role is abundant, her sympathy with Elektra is abundant. Goerke has taken her place among the outstanding and memorable Elektras.

Chrysothemis was Elza van den Heever, the South African soprano. She sang intelligently and with penetrating, thin-ribboned power. What was missing—this is desirable though not required—was lushness or creaminess. Michaela Schuster, a German mezzo, was Klytämnestra, and she was a good one. Yet I have a criticism that I have never made of a Klytämnestra, and may never again: the role was underplayed. Klytämnestra is an invitation to over-the-topness. Orest was Mikhail Petrenko, the Russian bass, whose beautiful voice had the desired air of holiness (which might be strange to say about a character who has arrived to commit murder—double murder—understandable as it may be).

Is Elektra the best opera? I mean, not just by Strauss but by anyone? I’m tempted to say so, but several operas—Giulio Cesare, Fidelio, La traviata, The Ring (all four of them), others—are looking at me reproachfully. Let me say there is none better. When American soldiers arrived at his door at the end of the war, the composer drew himself up (as I imagine it) and said, “I am Doktor Richard Strauss, composer of Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.” I might have mentioned Elektra, period.

The Met also did Lucia, more formally, Lucia di Lammermoor, the opera by Donizetti. Is it a shabby little shocker? No, it is a long and elegant shocker. Lucia certainly needs a Lucia, but it, too, relies on a conductor, and it had a good one in Roberto Abbado (nephew of the great Claudio). He is one of the best bel canto conductors on the scene. He knows these operas, and they are not allowed to be silly or limp in his hands. A good bel canto conductor is rarer than one might think.

Our Lucia was Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti, the Russian soprano who is married to Michele Mariotti, an Italian conductor. In Act I, she was serviceable. The voice was not as big as you would have liked, and the singing was not Italianate. The voice, and the approach, were a little cold, and a little Slavic. Passagework was decent—but the soprano was miles low on her highest notes.

Her Edgardo was a wonder, Vittorio Grigolo, the Italian tenor. He was at his “hooked up,” all-cylinders best. The voice was free, beautiful, and loud. His singing was packed with emotional power. In technique, he was close to flawless—and I had a thought: In the old days, opera singers were on Time magazine covers and The Tonight Show. Herbert Breslin, the impresario, helped make Pavarotti a big star, and there was huge publicity for Domingo as well. Soccer-like fans packed stadiums and arenas. Today, there is much less of that. Otherwise, Vittorio Grigolo would be a household name, and deserve to be. With a publicity machine behind him, he could be as well known as—who? Justin Timberlake? Maybe not, but perhaps Josh Groban could be in reach.

With a publicity machine behind him, Vittorio Grigolo could be as well known as Josh Groban.

In Act II, Peretyatko-Mariotti was singing considerably better. And then came the mad scene—which was shocking, and not just in the usual way. The soprano was utterly free. She was exhibiting complete technical control. She was newly flexible, even gymnastic. Also, the voice had taken on a new beauty. This mad scene was unerring and gripping. Nothing in the previous acts had prepared me for it. Like others in my business, I have heard many Lucias, some of them legendary. I have never heard a better mad scene, ever.

Therein lies a lesson, operagoers: it pays to stay till the end (sometimes).

Another Met offering was Così fan tutte, the Mozart opera—the Mozart–Da Ponte opera—in a new production by Phelim McDermott. He is a British stage director. His Così, in the words of Met publicity, is “set in a carnival-esque, funhouse environment inspired by 1950s Coney Island—complete with bearded ladies, fire eaters, and a Ferris wheel.” Plus sword-swallowers, contortionists, snake-handlers, and more. The production is clever and colorful, often a treat to watch. But is it Così?

During the overture, there is much busyness onstage, as throughout the opera. Indeed, someone holds up a sign that says (if I remember correctly), “Opera Starts Now.” There is another sign that says (again, if I remember correctly), “Please Concentrate.” Okay: concentrate on what? The music or the busyness onstage? I sometimes think that directors and others believe that Mozart needs to be helped. He and Da Ponte are too boring on their own. Their operas need to be spiced up and tricked up.

Kelli O’Hara in Così fan tutte. Photo: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera

In Act I, Don Alfonso and the boys are in a Playboy lounge, apparently—and yet Don Alfonso is addressed as “Don Alfonso.” Do you see what I mean? There is an incongruity, a gap in eras and places. The title “Don” and a Playboy lounge don’t go together. I thought of a recent Faust at the Met, set in the nuclear lab at Los Alamos. Characters, as they do in the story, the libretto, fought a duel—right in the nuclear lab.

In this Così, there is slapstick all through the big soprano aria, “Come scoglio.” Really, that aria is interesting enough—it contains a world of theater all on its own. Yet this slapstick was well conceived.

The big question—my big question—is, wwmt? What would Mozart think? And his rakish librettist, Da Ponte, for that matter? I think they would initially have been aghast and appalled—and that, ultimately, they would have liked and appreciated the production. As I did.

David Robertson was the conductor, always competent, often stylish. He had a good, Mozartean night. Of the six singers, I will touch on three, starting with Christopher Maltman, who sang Don Alfonso. Only a short while ago, this British baritone was a “bari-hunk,” bare-chested and starry. Is it already time for him to be an avuncular, middle-aged Alfonso? Yes, and he still has star quality. He sang with great freedom and flair. An American tenor, Ben Bliss, was Ferrando. I will give you a criticism that I have almost never made of a tenor in a Mozart role: I think he was undersized. Bliss has a beautiful voice—a beautiful light lyric voice—and I think it was too small, if not for the part then for the part in this house, the Met. Yet, to his credit, he did not oversing. He gave what he has, naturally.

Kelli O’Hara was fearless in her Mozart.

The great surprise of this production—even more than the bearded lady or snake-handler—was Kelli O’Hara in the role of Despina. O’Hara is maybe the greatest Broadway star of her age. And here she was in an opera, singing a role that is heavy on recitatives. In fact, Despina does relatively little singing—real singing, apart from recitative. When O’Hara had a chance to sing, I was delighted. Yet she handled her recitatives well too—with accurate pitch, for example. And her Italian was genuine Italian. She was perhaps a bit small of voice, but not too small, and I had this thought: if she has no need of being miked in this vast opera house, why does she have to be miked in the comparatively small theaters in which she spends her career? The overamplification of Broadway is one of the scandals and outrages of our age. In any event, Kelli O’Hara was fearless in her Mozart—and fearless in Mozart is a very hard and good thing to be.

May I say that few Despinas have ever been so beautiful? Also, I doubt the role was ever better acted. Finally, here is the big question: If you had no idea—if you knew nothing about Kelli O’Hara, this great, world-famous star of the musical theater—would you think she was an opera singer? A real, full-time opera singer? I think the answer is yes.

Into Carnegie Hall came the Bavarian State Opera, from Munich. They gave two concerts under their music director, Kirill Petrenko. I felt I had to go and report. Why? Because Petrenko is to become the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2019. This is a highly, highly important post. The bpo is arguably the best orchestra in the world, and arguably the most important. Who conducts it is a very big deal.

Kirill Petrenko conducting the Bavarian State Opera. Photo: Stefan Cohen

Petrenko is a Russian, of course, long operating in Austria and Germany. He has captained the Bavarian State Opera since 2013.

From a trusted European critic, I heard great things about the two concerts to be given in Carnegie Hall. (The Bavarians and Petrenko had given them elsewhere.) But I was reluctant to go. The first program was all-orchestral, and the main work on it was Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. I am an ardent admirer of Tchaikovsky and an ardent defender of him—not that he should need a defense, ever. Yet I have never liked the Manfred Symphony. Quite the opposite. I have found it inferior and unworthy Tchaikovsky. The second program was to be an opera: Der Rosenkavalier. What do I have against this opera, this masterpiece? Nothing—except I would have thought it especially ill-suited to a concert performance. Rosenkavalier is an opera you have to see.

Anyway, I went—and the opening work on the opening program was Brahms’s Double Concerto, for violin, cello, and orchestra. The soloists were Julia Fischer and Daniel Müller-Schott. I will concentrate on Petrenko, however, because he’s the one taking over the bpo, and we are coming to the finish line of this chronicle. Petrenko and his current orchestra were undistinguished in the Brahms. They were passable, but the concerto did not have the right flow or effect. Moreover, the orchestra was too often sloppy, as in its pizzicatos. During intermission, I was sort of dreading the Manfred Symphony.

But there was a new conductor on the podium, and a new orchestra. Petrenko was transformed and so was that orchestra. From the opening measures, Petrenko was in complete command. The orchestra was completely responsive to him, and to Tchaikovsky. Manfred tells a story (courtesy of Byron), and the conductor must be a storyteller too. Petrenko was—and he moved that story along. Voices in the orchestra were well balanced. Rhythm was precise. The music was dramatic and exciting. Petrenko and the Bavarians were pulling the maximum out of it.

The second movement, Vivace con spirito, soared with happiness. It was also beautifully calibrated. The third, the slow movement, was bucolic and songful. In the audience, the listener could wallow in glorious sound, an Alpine sound, if you will. And the last movement was rightly witchy, virtuosic, and brilliant. On the podium, leading his orchestra, Petrenko was gesturally at one with the music. At the end, the pizzicato was poor, but what did it matter at that point?

You can now count me a liker, if not a lover, of the Manfred Symphony. (I still think the last movement is too long.) It must be conducted and played properly. For a jubilant audience, the Bavarians played an encore: the most famous and best-loved Interlude from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich’s opera. It was fast, crazy, sarcastic, and thrilling. Shostakovich would have thoroughly approved.

“No wonder they elected him,” I thought. No wonder the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra elected Petrenko its leader. I had wondered. But obviously the bpo will be in good hands.

I was still a bit worried about Der Rosenkavalier, in concert. Before the downbeat, I saw a pretty little girl in a pretty dress and a short fur coat. Was it her first opera? Would she be bored? Even in the theater, Rosenkavalier can be a bore, when the performers are that way. “Every year,” said Stravinsky (reportedly), “thousands of people go to Der Rosenkavalier and are bored.”

No one could have been bored on this night, staging or no staging. Rosenkavalier was at its most vivid. It is an orchestral opera anyway, but with the orchestra on the stage, rather than in a pit, Rosenkavalier sounded like an orchestral piece with voice obbligatos. And talk about storytelling: Strauss tells this story through the orchestra, as well as through the acting singers, and Petrenko grasped every twist and turn. His tempos were brisk, refreshingly so. At the end of Act I, the critic sitting next to me said, “So unsentimental.” He meant it as a compliment. Rosenkavalier was both clean and beautiful.

It was also all the other things it should be: sighing, sexy, squirmy, waltzy, funny, sly, Viennesey (to borrow a Gershwin word). After a while, I stopped listening to Petrenko—stopped critiquing him, stopped evaluating him—and simply enjoyed Strauss. Outstanding as this performance was, the pizzicatos were still poor. So credit Petrenko and his Bavarians with consistency.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 58
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