May 2008 Archives
I have been remiss in updating this blog because I was participating in a seminar on "The Musician as Listener" at the Orpheus Institute in beautiful Ghent, Belgium. I discovered that in addition to van Eyck's celebrated altarpiece in the cathedral, Ghent has a lovely art museum that contains first-rate works by Bosch, Brueghel, van der Weyden, van Dyck, Rubens, Hals, Gericault (one of the extraordinary portraits of mad people that he was working on when he died), Corot, Courbet, Rodin, Redon, Ensor, Kokoschka, Magritte, and many others. And of course I had to devote a great deal of concentration to the task of stuffing myself with Belgian chocolates.
But back to musical matters. As New York's 2007-08 musical season draws to a close, I would like to take a backward glance at some of the performances I attended this year. In this blog entry, I'll limit myself to a few of the 14 or 15 Met productions that I observed.
Two new productions -- Lucia di Lammermoor and Macbeth -- were memorable above all for the conducting of James Levine. This statement may cause some surprise, because the Donizetti work in particular and to some extent also Verdi's earliest Shakespearean foray are considered primarily "singers' operas" rather than "conductors' operas," and most of the critics' attention in both cases was understandably focused on the singing and the new productions. Certainly Natalie Dessay was remarkable as both singer and actress in Lucia (as also in Donizetti's La Fille du regiment toward the end of the season), but her voice is not a huge one. Levine not only balanced the orchestra to match the soprano's capabilities -- a relatively easy task for any competent opera conductor: he actually adapted the dynamic levels of the entire opera to Dessay's resources, so that the orchestra wasn't suddenly playing noticeably softer for her. That, my friends, requires large quantities of experience and intelligence. And it means that one of the golden rules for singers -- The Softer You Sing, The More Clearly You Must Enunciate -- was also being obeyed by Levine and his magnificent orchestra. The Lucia production, directed by Mary Zimmerman and designed by Daniel Ostling, had its beauties (the wintry first act, for instance), but it was marred by numerous absurdities, of which the most noteworthy was the photo op for Lucia, her family, and the wedding guests, who mugged calmly while singing the grandiose, emotionally charged sextet in Act II. This error of judgement made me think of the Italian director Giorgio Strehler's statement to the effect that you can stage a great work as arbitrarily as you like, but please remember that your miserable ideas will look very, very small next to the work itself. The production's other principal cast members (Marcello Giordani as Edgardo, Mariusz Kwiecien as Enrico, and John Relyea as Raimondo) did not match Dessay's technical level, but all were well prepared
Strehler created a brilliant production of Verdi's Macbeth at La Scala in 1975; the setting was medieval but highly stylized, and every movement the singers made had a reason for existing, By contrast, Adrian Noble's new Met production, set in modern times, teemed with visual effects that, to this audience member, seemed largely gratuitous. With the exception of the young tenor Dimitri Pittas (Macduff), the principal singers (Zeljko Lucic and Maria Guleghina as Macbeth and his lady, respectively, and John Relyea as Banquo) were unexceptional; once again it was Levine's handling of the orchestra and the entire ensemble (including the chorus, excellently prepared by Donald Palumbo) that made these performances worth hearing -- truly dramatic, and with none of the heavy-handedness of Claudio Abbado's conducting of that way-back-when Scala production. A later run of Macbeth performances had a less worn-out-sounding Macbeth (Carlos Alvarez), a dramatically intense but vocally rough Lady (Hasmik Papian), a magnificent Banquo (Rene Pape), and a constantly shouting Macduff (Joseph Calleja), but the ensemble was, if anything, even more dramatically convincing than in the fall.
More specific highlights of the Met season, for this listener, were the singing of Susan Graham and Placido Domingo in Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride and of Anthony Dean Griffey and most of the other cast members in Britten's Peter Grimes. A serious disappointment, on the other hand, was Karita Mattila (an artist I greatly admire) in the title role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut -- a role that simply does not lie right for her voice. And I confess that I would rather spend a week in jail (if I could have writing materials with me) than listen to another performance of Philip Glass's Satyagraha. I tried -- I really did -- but I found it a crashing bore. For me, however, the season ended wonderfully with Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, splendidly sung by the amazing Susan Graham and the rest of the cast (Ramon Vargas, Tamar Iveri, Heidi Grant Murphy, Anke Vondung, and Oren Gradus), incisively conducted by Harry Bicket, and still beautiful to watch in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1984 production.
I've looked up a note I wrote to myself on June 22, 1976, after having observed Riccardo Muti (who was then not quite 35) rehearse the orchestra of La Scala. Bear in mind as you read the following excerpts from those hastily jotted-down pages, that I myself was active as a conductor at the time, although at very modest levels, and that I had previously followed the rehearsals of George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Karel Ancerl, Claudio Abbado, Carlo Maria Giulini, Karl Boehm, Carlos Kleiber, Georges Pretre and many other conductors.
"I had heard many good things about him [...] and was prepared to shake my head and wonder what all the fuss was about - as is usually the case. I am delighted that the reverse is true: I feel that he has not been praised highly enough.
"[...] He knows exactly what sound he wants and he knows exactly how to get it - and this not only in regard to the general, overall picture (which he never loses sight of) but in regard to every detail. His mastery of the score is complete, his ear absolutely first-rate, and his way of dealing with the orchestra just right - firm, always demanding the best they can give, but totally unauthoritarian. His attitude in front of the orchestra is unegocentric - it is that of working towards a common goal, and he never loses sight of that. He has the ability and self-possession of a Szell or a Boulez, but far greater naturalness and humanity than the former and a sense of conviction that the latter seems to be lacking in a considerable chunk of the repertoire. [...] And as much as I admired Carlos Kleiber's work here earlier this season, I must say that I think Muti's natural gifts, certainly insofar as balance, intonation, and sheer memorization of detail are concerned, are greater than Kleiber's. They both communicate enthusiasm to the orchestra very well, but in completely different ways. Kleiber is more 'personal,' one has more of a sense of his own psychological make-up [...], whereas with Muti what radiates is more a sense of drama [...]. Muti seems more a phenomenon of nature."
During the intervening 32 years, I have had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of opportunities to observe Muti at work in Milan and elsewhere, in the opera house and concert hall, and my initial impression of his complete seriousness, competence, and musicality has remained unchanged. Do I always, automatically, agree with his repertoire choices or interpretations? Of course not. But what is most important in conductor-orchestra relationships is the feeling on the part of individual musicians that the person in charge is guiding them expertly and with conviction - that that person can be trusted completely to do the job in an outstanding way and can therefore communicate the need to do likewise to the people who are playing the instruments. Over the last three years, watching and listening to Muti work with the grateful and enthusiastic Orchestra Cherubini (a youth ensemble) in the small town of Piacenza, Italy, was an absolute delight, and then observing him electrify the New York Philharmonic - which, like most other first-rate professional orchestras, can often be ungrateful and unenthusiastic, usually with good reason - was simply amazing.
As a New York resident - and despite my esteem for Alan Gilbert and high hopes for his forthcoming tenure with the Philharmonic - I am sorry that Muti will be diminishing his appearances with the local band, but at least we will be able to look forward to frequent visits by him with the magnificent Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
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