Opera Critic

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

Washington Concert Opera, a venerable player in the capital’s arts scene, celebrates its 25th anniversary this season. A warm Washington spring may not be the first climate that comes to mind when thinking of Saint-Saëns’s best known opera, but it was not out of place. As an opera conceived more as an oratorio – and whose major actions largely take place off stage – Samson may be uniquely suited within the repertoire for formats such as Washington Concert’s.

Alas, it was not a great success. The performance’s major draw, rising star tenor Brandon Jovanovich, did not ultimately appear as Samson. With little notice and no explanation, he was, to audible audience murmuring, replaced by Frank Poretta. Known to Metropolitan Opera audiences, Poretta’s capacious volume could not compensate for a certain roughness in the voice and lack of coordination with the orchestra. While competent, the effort sounded rather under-rehearsed. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was more at home with the role of Delilah and the general surroundings. But her performance of the sultry part was disappointingly thin in places. The grand arias resounded rather more fully, but one missed Denyce Graves and Olga Borodina, both of whom have notably sung the role in Washington. Greer Grimsley’s fame in the opera world derives from his respected Seattle performances as Wagner’s Wotan. Age, however, seems to be catching up with him. His High Priest of Dagon sounded more strained than menacing, with dry patches marring its upper range. There were some annoying lesser vocal mishaps as well. Kenneth Kellogg, appearing concurrently in a minor role in the Washington Opera’s production of Massenet’s Werther, flubbed his initial lines in the small but important part of Abimelech. That he did so is unfortunate enough, but the reason appeared to be that he alone among his colleagues felt it unnecessary to have the score before him. In a concert performance in which everyone else used a score, this was inexcusable. Washington Concert Opera relies on a professional orchestra and chorus, led for ten years now by artistic director Antony Walker. Walker drew occasional flashes of insight from his ensembles, but the opera’s broad canvases remained rather elusive.

The audience at any Janacek opera must be ready to be appalled, watching persons acting in ways that are in truth no other than they ways they might have acted themselves; but they come back nevertheless because of the redemption Janacek unearths in the end, in the deepest and darkest places. Stark realism will afford only the truest of miracles.
Appropriately, then, the set of this new production is a stark white room furnished with only a simple metal table and a chair, elevated above the stage and framed in darkness. A woman in black has entered through a door in the rear and moves slowly to the right front looking out at the audience as if longing to be understood but having no delusions she will be. With so little by way of visual clues we can only assume she has been ushered into a doctor’s office and has bad news about a pregnancy. The wall on the rear slides to the right so that the door disappears and it is only an empty white wall but then continues to slide so as to reveal a breach from the left and Jenufa enters in a simple blood-red shift and heels, with her rosemary bush. Blood-red, sanitary white and the silent black of death, for the lady in black is merely a silent apparition during the first scenes.
Our view of the characters on the white stage in their monochrome costumes tends inevitably toward melodrama but then we watch how well this tendency is kept under control — how the art of the dramaturge is hiding art. The lady in black turns out to be the Stepmother, and it turns out that the Stepdaughter in red is the one who is pregnant. Her baby’s cap, the one thing brought back onto the stage from beneath the frozen river’s ice in Act Three, is also red. Again the simple decisions are packed with sense — the red of living love and the black of love that has died.
The Stepmother is a mysterious figure: she has become the sexton of the church and has been given the role of moral pillar by the community. In fact she is the second wife of the spendthrift second son of Grandmother Buryja, Steva’s younger brother Thomas, whom we do not meet. Only from the wedding song in the third act and the Stepmother’s staged reaction to it — a mounting revulsion — do we gather that she made some kind of mistake with this lout, the sort of mistake that would now make her so prudish as to disallow Jenufa to see Steve for a year because of his drunken behavior, ignorant as she is that Jenufa is already pregnant by him and needs him to marry her sooner. The Stepmother is the only woman in the opera who has no child of her own, only a stepdaughter — whence the title. And yet it is she that kills Jenufa’s baby thinking Jenufa can thus salvage her life by marrying Laca who truly loves her, rather than the older Buryja grandson Steva, his half brother.
Jenufa is the main character and the opera is named after her but the playwright had kept the stepmother in its title with a possessive pronoun. The main problem in the presentation of the story is therefore to maintain a balance between these two characters that in the end will tilt to Jenufa. She is the only character in the drama that does not change: she only loves and she only deepens. By the end, after Laca has defended her against the envious taunts of the mayor’s wife and the mob that supposes she killed the baby, we find there is only one person left who is worthy of her love, the one who loved her so much he cut her face. The plot tilts her way because the other pan has been emptied out. And now the back wall has disappeared, revealing a black beyond, and Jenufa closes the opera by telling Laca their love is is a good thing born as a miracle out of the dross of misguided passions; they turn away from the audience and begin to walk away from the audience, into a future they will illuminate with a truer love — the kind, Jenufa says, that comes from God.

Runnicles opened the prelude with a slower and more visceral pace than usual, and maintained this idiom, replacing the semi-autistic tenseness we have come to expect with a wilder and more reckless energy. This is the energy of Laca, the only life-loving energy in the story, and Hartmann’s powerful tenor brought this energy into song.  The Stepmother’s role requires a lot of body language to express the mystery of what is going on inside her and the task was handled well by the dramaturge and by Larmore. The mayor and his wife and daughter were, I felt, crude and hapless rather than the competent hypocrites they are. The dressing scene and bridal song, so richly deserved by Jenufa, were done with special charm and beauty by Spaulding’s chorus. Kaune’s Jenufa and Runnicles’ orchestra succeeded every time to pull off those wonderful moments Janacek always rises to, those high ascents above reckless fray of the world to the re-centering vision of dignity and faith; and the audience was very pleased.

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