Opera Critic » Miscellaneous

Musical New York was abuzz with these twin highlights of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual residency. Much extended this year in honor of New York’s general focus on Vienna and its culture, the VPO visit includes the city’s other great institution, the Vienna State Opera, to put on concert performances of Alban Berg and Richard Strauss’s avant-garde favorites.

In both cases the orchestra was the clear star, reminding us of how valuable it is in the orchestra pit of the Salzburg Festival’s opera performances. First up was Berg’s Wozzeck, his atonal adaptation of the extraordinarily depressing play that the lost dramatist Georg Büchner left incomplete when he died at age 23. Moved to amorality by his poverty and to murderous rage by the abusive circumstances of his downtrodden life, Wozzeck stabs his unfaithful mistress Marie to death and then himself dies as he attempts with neurotic desperation to conceal the knife ever deeper in a pond. Their orphaned child, too young to understand what has happened but nevertheless condemned to grow up in their shadow, is then taunted by his playmates.

Mattias Goerne captured the title role with a hollowness of tone that well captured the character’s aching existential angst. Superb legato alternated with harrowing broken lines as the character’s personality collapsed under the weight of his life’s horror. In the role of Marie, soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, well known in European productions of the late German Romantic repertoire, made a rare New York appearance. The voice is cavernous and buoyant. But it has grown edgier over the years. Some sharps are creeping in at the very top while ascents up the scale can sound rough. Still, the role of Marie requires more than a little imbalance and whatever flaws there were filled out the role well. Herbert Lippert is better known as a Lieder singer but his clarion tenor endowed the role of the Drum Major with great beauty. Franz Welser-Möst led the VPO with a precision that can occasionally make his orchestral performances sound too programmatic. But for Berg’s sophisticated score, the style worked elegantly and well. Every nuance emerged in attractive relief.

The next night was devoted to Strauss’s Salome. Based on Oscar Wilde’s play, this is the decadent tale of the Judean princess who performs the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils for her lecherous stepfather Herod in exchange for the head of the imprisoned John the Baptist, who has spurned her. The title role went to the young dramatic soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, who appeared in modish dress that suggested a 1920s-era fantasy of the Orient as perhaps Gustav Klimt would have painted it. Volume was no problem, but too often the voice sounded tired in the upper register as the role’s strident demands taxed the consistency of her pitch. Part of the problem may have been the artist’s rambunctious and unnecessary gesticulating. which may have detracted power from the chest voice she badly needed to sing the role successfully. The performance made for a fairly obvious comparison to Nina Stemme’s, whose more effective singing in the role in concert with the Cleveland Orchestra two seasons ago is still remembered by the New York audience. Falk Struckmann, originally cast as Jochanaan, was replaced at a late hour by the Polish baritone Tomas Konieczny, another talented singer better known in Europe whose superb instrument revealed both the excellent legato the Biblical music needs and the demanding high notes that challenge any bass-baritone undertaking the role. Gerhard Siegel and Jane Henschel were amusingly dysfunctional in their character roles leading the Judean royal family. Among the fairly large supporting cast, Kurt Link’s Fifth Jew stood out in its power and depth.

Once again it was the Vienna players who carried the evening, this time under the extraordinarily talented young conductor Andris Nelsons. He does not always leave enough space for the singers to soar above the orchestra, but his dynamism impregnated every note and phrase with an appealing intensity. The self-consciously kitschy Dance of the Seven Veils, unaccompanied by voices, revealed the instrumentation at its most powerful, though the loud repetition of the C-G melody that introduces the opera was also deafening in its appeal.

Paul du Quenoy

 

Disappointment with New York recent opera offerings leads one’s attention naturally to the city’s active recital life. This week at Carnegie Hall featured two noteworthy is sometimes overlooked performers. January 23 featured the recital in the Hall’s smaller Zankel auditorium of the German soprano Dorothea Röschmann, an accomplished Mozartean of note around the world. Ms. Röschmann possesses superb enunciation and a well trained voice, but the pastiche of songs in her recital revealed its limitations as well as its strengths. By far the most enjoyable part of the evening was the final selection of songs by Hugo Wolf. Their tight harmonics fit better with the soprano’s prominent middle voice than the more lyrical Schubert songs that began the evening. Since both song sets contained music set to four of the same poems by Goethe, the comparison was instructive, both in vocal terms specific to Ms. Röschmann and in relation to the evolution of nineteenth-century music. It was a bit unfortunate that a more direct comparison was impossible due to the Richard Strauss and Liszt songs inserted in between. At a few moments, especially in Strauss’s “September,” Ms. Röschmann really shined, but at others, notably in Liszt’s “Die Loreley,” the dramatic highs sounded too constrained by her upper range limits. While the Wolf songs were truly affecting, much of the evening unfolded with acceptable technical skill that lacked a truly dramatic reading. Malcolm Martineau’s deftly sensitive playing affirmed his reputation as one of the greatest recital accompanists performing today. The poetry of the songs would have gained much from a subtler and more lyrical vocal effort.

The next evening, January 24, saw the solo performance of another artist with definite strengths and weaknesses. The Romanian pianist Radu Lupu has been a fixture of the international music scene since he won the Van Cliburn Prize in 1966. Critical comment typically emphasizes the understatement in his playing, and this concert was no exception. To begin again with the final segment of the recital, which dominated its second half, Lupu’s technique was most effective in music written to be understated: Claude Debussy’s Preludes. Working through Book II of Debussy’s oeuvre in its entirety, Lupu perfectly captured the composer’s intention that his music should evoke an absolute reality – not the impressionism of the painting school so popular in his time, but the real moods and emotions that guide our psyches. The technique is extraordinarily well suited to Debussy, but the earlier part of the evening lacked in the absence of more voluble interpretations. Schubert’s Impromptus (Lupu played Nos. 1-4) depend on a stronger interpretive hand to draw out their romantic color. César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue betrays the overpowering influence of Wagner and needed a more decisive hand. Nevertheless, the excellent Debussy playing made the evening worthwhile.

– Paul du Quenoy

The Cleveland Orchestra’s annual residency at Carnegie Hall always raises much anticipation, particularly since its dynamic conductor Franz Welser-Möst took over the orchestra in 2002. Ten years later he has made his annual tour to New York to lead the orchestra in two concerts: an orchestral evening dominated by Brahms and Shostakovich and a concert performance of Richard Strauss’s searing opera Salome. Welser-Möst is not above criticism. His orchestral performances are sometimes found too precise and too technical to capture the grand sway of romantic works, for example. This was somewhat in evidence in the ensemble’s first concert, marred at the last minute by the cancelation of pianist Yevgeny Bronfman, who was ill. Instead of the announced Brahms Piano Concert No. 2, the orchestra found violinist Gil Shaham to perform the solo part in Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The Clevelanders acquitted themselves admirably, and Shaham did well enough under the circumstances. But an element of passion was missing. The second part of the evening featured Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, a haunting 2008 work which received its New York premiere in this performance. The work is harmonically strange, but not at all without power. It is even a bit spooky, with the odd requirement that the woodwind musicians whisper words relating to light and color into their instruments at times. Impossible to hold to any standard of performance because of its recent composition, all that can be said is that Welser-Möst did well to bring it to our attention. The final piece, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6, was a bit pedestrian in playing and lacked the flair that a Gergiev or Temirkanov might for obvious reasons bring to the performance.

The second Cleveland evening showcased the orchestra at its most dynamic. It is not an exaggeration to say that Welser-Möst, now the director of the Vienna State Opera, may be more of an opera conductor, so fine is his ability to make an orchestra perform to support singers. The need is nowhere more acute than in Strauss’s Salome, with its dissonant scoring for both instruments and singers. Welser-Möst led a driving performance, scarcely skipping a single nuance in the vast tableaux that must be produced. Careful attention even went into the placement of the singers on stage. Eschewing concert opera’s usual straight line at the front of the stage format, here the cast was divided into two groups and placed on raised platforms that fanned out diagonally from stage right and stage left. Fortunately, the effort was crowned with the excellently cast Nina Stemme in the title role. Famous in both Wagner and Strauss and heiress to the proud Swedish high dramatic soprano tradition of Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay, Stemme has conquered audiences everywhere with her full, rich middle register, soaring top notes, and impeccable diction. Since Salome is a rather more strident role than any Wagner heroine, there was some speculation that the voice might not be just right for the Strauss role. But it was. There is no better way to put it. Stemme’s natural range offered up the climatic highs and the chilling lows, including a delightfully monstrous G-flat at the end of the role’s meditation on the mystery of love’s capacity to outweigh the mystery of death. One left the hall wondering only how rewarding it would be to hear her in a staged performance.

Stemme’s sublime singing elided well with a truly outstanding supporting cast. Bass-baritone Eric Owens, one of the few genuinely successful soloists to emerge from the Metropolitan Opera’s troubled new Ring Cycle, mastered Jochanaan’s music with a strength and authority that only occasionally showed a hint of roughness. As Salome’s louche stepfather Herod, tenor Rudolf Schasching, known to Welser-Möst from his time as chief of Zürich’s opera but hardly known to American audiences, contributed an excellent repertoire singer’s voice into a part he obviously knows very well. Mezzo Jane Henschel was perfectly biting as his wife, Salome’s mother Herodias, who urges her daughter along on the path to evil. Garrett Sorenson’s Narraboth also stood out, and there was no reason to be disappointed with the fine ensemble cast of younger singers in supporting roles. Following on the excellent Chicago Symphony concert performance of Verdi’s Otello last season, New York should hope to hear much more fine opera in venerable Carnegie Hall. – Paul du Quenoy

The intrepid Wagner Society of Washington, DC has much to be proud of as it approaches the fifteenth anniversary of its founding. From a small number of enthusiasts meeting in a bookstore, the organization has grown into a significant cultural force in the nation’s capital, featuring monthly lecture programs, Wagner-themed trips for members, and concerts by young soloists of its Emerging Singers Program, a master class series directed by the great soprano Evelyn Lear and, until his death in 2006, her famed baritone husband Thomas Stewart. Concerts at the German Embassy and National Arts Club whetted Wagnerian appetites for this milestone Kennedy Center Concert Hall performance with the renowned Washington Chorus, an ensemble that has performed in Washington for more than half a century.

The nearly full hall and rousing audience reception left no doubts that an all-Wagner program can be dear to the hearts of Washington’s musical public. The Washington Chorus’s director Julian Wachner has grown in public esteem since assuming direction, and his efforts did not disappoint. The program roughly followed Wagner’s career in chronological progression. The first part offered the rival sailors’ choruses from the third act of The Flying Dutchman, the Festival March from Act II of Tannhäuser, the Liebestod from Tristan, the processional conclusion to Act II of Lohengrin, and the Ride of the Valkyries from Walküre. The second part consisted solely of the final two scenes of Meistersinger. Throughout the afternoon, the well rehearsed chorus spared no effort to capture Wagner at his loudest and most enjoyable. The ensemble’s fine orchestra accompanied them with exciting Wagnerian gravitas. None of the young soloists missed an opportunity to make a grand impression, and Wachner proved himself to be a model of a singer’s conductor in supporting their development. The voluble Washingtonian tenor Issachah Savage stood out for his superb, almost baritonal line in the Prize Song from Meistersinger, faltering only on highest of notes. Brent Stater’s stentorian Hans Sachs accompanied him well. Patrick Cook made clarion contributions as the Steersman in the Dutchman selection and as David in the Meistersinger scenes later on. Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham’s Isolde may not be ready for the operatic stage, but her attractive cool tones suggested that it is a valuable work in progress we may one day hail.

The only weaknesses were incidental. We probably could have done without the weakly enacted “Dance of the Prentices” in the Meistersinger selection, which was listed in the program as “semi-staged.” And it would have been less of a distraction if the program had listed which soloists were singing which selections. Nevertheless, one can hope that the Wagner Society’s Emerging Singers Program and the fine musicians it nurtures will have more opportunities to perform so professionally.

Paul du Quenoy

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