In a stunning yet not totally unexpected late season announcement, the Metropolitan Opera declared that its long-time artistic leader James Levine, with the company since 1971, would finally stand down as music director at the end of the 2015-16 opera season. Health problems have visibly ravaged Levine over the past few years, leading to complaints of uneven performances, unreliable direction, and occasional withdrawals from big-ticket assignments. But for anyone who heard Levine’s last productions in the house earlier this spring, his departure leaves much to be lamented. In any case he is not really going. With no replacement waiting in the wings, Levine has been promoted to “Music Director Emeritus” and will continue to conduct productions and work with young artists. The announcement left ambiguity over the future of the concert series by the Met orchestra, an ensemble Levine has raised to a truly world class standing over the past few decades. Of the three concerts booked for Carnegie Hall’s venerable stage, Levine conducted two (with his “emeritus” status already noted in the program), including last night’s all-Wagner concert featuring excerpts from the Ring of the Nibelung. Esa-Pekka Salonen has been announced as the conductor of next year’s Met concerts, so the Wagner extravaganza may well be Levine’s last.
It is true that at times Levine’s gestures lacked their past precision and subtlety. One could say that the orchestra’s radiant performance occasionally plodded along, with the musicians perhaps responding more to their long and deservedly celebrated experience playing Wagner’s music than to what they were seeing on the podium. The opening orchestral excerpts did reveal the orchestra in the fine form that it owes so much to its maestro. Levine’s program introduced “The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” with a thunderous playing of the leitmotif associated with Alberich’s curse. The piece then opened up into glorious harmonies the captured the pomposity of the dramatic moment. Then came the famous “Ride of Valkyries,” played with a steady tempo that never reached into the realm of the histrionic. The second part featured Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Death March, both delivered in vivid character with each and every note pollinated by careful deliberation.
Vocal artistry commanded the final selection of the concert’s first part and the opening and final selections of the second part. Both halves of the concert featured the latest Wagnerian discovery: the already much celebrated dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde. In the first part she sang that character’s awakening in Act III of Siegfried, followed by the duet with the title character, sung by the sturdy tenor Stefan Vinke. Part II featured the duet in the prologue of Gotterdammerung and ended with the Immolation Scene. Goerke has been appearing sequentially in all three Brunnhilde parts, most recently in Washington as a stand-in for Catherine Foster in the Walkure installment of that city’s Ring. The voice rests on a solid, composed middle register that supports both strong chest singing and allows a platform for the role’s treacherous high notes. At times the technique was visible in a way that detracted from the higher range dramatic effects, but the overall impression was that we are witnessing the birth of a stunning Brunnhilde, one of maybe four or five singers working today who can deliver the part more than credibly. Vinke’s Siegfried seemed a bit tested by the orchestra and at times the voice had an unattractive leathery quality. But very often it provided a strong romantic partner in rapturous duet. He may yet rise from his Wagner singing in smaller German houses to an international career of some standing. The evening’s most lasting impression, however, was the departure of Maestro Levine from his principal role. This may well have been his last Wagner conducting. The legacy will live on.
Paul du Quenoy
David McVicar’s gray production of this iconic Verdi work – often called the last bel canto opera because of the eras and styles it bridges – has returned this season. I was not a fan of the effort when it premiered two seasons ago or when it migrated to San Francisco the season after that. But it has grown and become more effective. Although I could not put my finger on one precise factor, it seemed that the energy levels were up in a way that reminded one of the addage that any party ultimately succeeds because of its guests. The sets also seemed brighter, livelier, and more agile than in the past, when they recalled the battleship backdrop in the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera.
The current revival, which has been a surprise sell out despite the competition of the Met’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, is populated by some of the best Verdian singers today, the proverbial party guests. Marcelo Alvarez acquitted himself beautifully in the title role. What a surprise it was that he withdrew due to illness after the first part, but in the person of his understudy Arnold Rawls what a revelation replaced him! Called in at the last minute and hastily fitted into Manrico’s costume for the second part, Rawls delivered a stunningly phrased performance that drew heavier applause than one normally hears in such a situation. Sondra Radvanovsky lent ler limpid lyrico-spinto soprano to the performance with great verve. The voice at times approached a metalic quality that has not really colored it before, but on the whole she resonated through the Met’s enormous hall with appealing strength. Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Simon Boccanegra delighted Met audiences earlier this year. His di Luna was even more impressive. The gorgeous line that this distinguished singer brings to his parts and his mastery of the Verdi baritone’s difficult tessitura were purely evident. His dramatic talents lent the character a violent edge, which underscored the deep passions whirling in this plot of murder, revenge, and lust. Stefan Kocan stood out among the supporting cast with his well crafted bass, an asset that has already taken him to leading roles.
“An opera,” says one of the characters in Richard Strauss’s last effort in the genre – his so-called “conversation piece in one act – “is an absurd thing.” At the heart of Capriccio is an impassioned but exquisitely polite debate over what matters most in opera – the music or the words. At stake is the favor of Countess Madeleine, a dilettante dwelling in a country villa outside Paris who balances the musician Flamand against the poet Olivier as they create an opera for her amusement. The artist who makes the better case for his medium will triumph in love as well as in art. After more than two hours of rumination, intrusion, and glorious singing and versification, Madeleine decides that there is no answer to the dilemma that could not be trivial. That Strauss and his librettist – the famed conductor Clemens Krauss — could ask such a question as German armies ground their way to defeat at Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942 alone speaks to the power of art.
The Met’s Capriccio first appeared in the 1998-1999 season as a vehicle for the leading soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who was well known for her interpretation of Countess Madeleine’s dominant role. This rival, the only one since the premiere, is also a vehicle – for the star soprano Renee Fleming. Some critics charge that the voice has lost its luster, particularly in lighter and bel canto parts if the mixed reviews of her performances in this and last season’s Armida are any guide. But the Strauss repertoire remains her ravishing own. Indeed, as the years pass, I only find her more and more at home in Strauss heroine roles and similar parts, such as her triumphant Thais in Massenet’s opera of the same name. The vocal line is articulated with great care and nuance, while the dramatic personae she delivers are truly aristocratic creations. Countess Madeleine demands no less. The finale, a monologue in which she ruminates on the question of which art form matters more, flowed with iconic charm. Fleming maintained her hauteur throughout, only playfully letting her guard down during the famous Moonlight Music, when Madeleine basks in the romantic situation she masters, clad in a gorgeous silvery gown while twirling a long-stemmed rose. The cloying artists can only pale before such a woman, but Joseph Kaiser’s Flamand and Russell Braun’s Olivier captured their spirit with excellent performances. Peter Rose sang the impresario La Roche, whose monologue about theater reminds us, if in a parodic way, of how important management is to the magic. In his debut season and role, Morten Frank Larsen played Madeleine’s brother, identified only as the Count, as what used to be called a sportsman, a philistine whose interest in art extends only as far as the talented mezzo-soprano Sarah Conolly’s Clairon, his actress love interest. Olga Makarina and Barry Banks were well considered additions in the short roles of the Italian singers who serenade the Countess and her party of guests. Sir Andrew Davis may well be the best conductor of the work performing today. He led a drawn out performance that balanced the score’s harmonies with the dissonant elements that recall the twentienth century musical milieu Strauss did so much to shape.
With such a talented orchestral reading of this complex yet sublime score, it makes sense that the John Cox’s production is updated to the 1920s – nearly the time of the opera’s composition — from the original eighteenth-century setting. The dialogue that revolves around Lully, Rameau, and other composers whose memories were more present in the earlier era seemed a bit anachronistic in an era when Wagner was the most popular composer in France, but Mauro Pagano’s inviting sets place us well at ease in a milieu where the arts are considered both so seriously and so lightly. Having Madeleine served a martini added the perfect touch. – Paul du Quenoy
Alban Berg’s only finished opera (Lulu was left incomplete at his death in 1935) has returned to the Met for a short run of four performances. Despite this discreet revival, the reappearance of the one hour and forty minute work has already created a stunning buzz. Met music director James Levine has long championed Berg’s oeuvre and has now presided over nearly forty performances at the house, about two-thirds of the total since the opera entered the Met’s repertoire in 1959. His enthusiasm was very much in evidence last night, although concerns about his troubled health have continued to make news, cause the cancellation of engagements, and led him to end his tenure as director of the Boston Symphony. Levine clearly laid all those troubles aside as he assailed Berg’s intricate score – which balances atonality with moments of romantic sweep and parodic gestures toward such familiar forms as the military march. The Met Orchestra played with some of its greatest delicacy of the season. Indeed, after such a satisfying performance, it is easy to understand why the opera’s premiere in Berlin in December 1925 is regarded as a milestone in the history of Western music.
Levine cast some of the best suited singers working today. Baritone Alan Held, who has grown considerably over the years and now counts a credible Wotan among his parts, took the title role. Capturing all of Wozzeck’s insecurities and vulnerabilities, he easily moved from humiliated buffoon to murderous killer. Waltraud Meier’s Marie showcases some of this talented artist’s best singing. At 55 and on the verge of receiving the Lotte Lehmann Memorial Ring from the Vienna State Opera, she looks young and agile enough for the part – an unfaithful mistress who is tortured by feelings of guilt and fear. Her piercing soprano will not please everyone, but it overcame the difficult orchestration to deliver her music without once descending into shrillness. Tenor Stuart Skelton, in his debut role for the Met, captured the Drum Major’s arrogant pride with consummate skill. The seduction scene – an upskirting against a wall – defies Marie’s standard luring of him into the house and only adds to Skelton’s allure. In the roles of Wozzeck’s tormentors, Gerhard Siegel and Walter Fink, cut excellent figures as the captain and the doctor. F Siegel’s pinched tenor perfectly conveyed the cruel captain, a martinet who abuses Wozzeck while chiding him for his immoral life. Fink’s baritone rolled out almost too beautifully to allow one to believe that he is a social oppressor great enough to pay the impoverished Wozzeck to take part in his medical experiments.
Mark Lamos’s stark, stylized production – based on walls placed askew – captures both the degenerated psychology that dominates the piece and the intimacy that we need to understand it well. The stage direction by Gregory Keller spares nothing by way of cruelty. Wozzeck’s humiliation is egregious yet captures our sympathy. His murder of Marie is not a conventional operatic stabbing, but a full-on throat slashing. The children’s mockery that ends the opera packs a full emotionally disturbing effect. – Paul du Quenoy