A few performances to remember - 1

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.

May 26, 2008 10:47 AM | | Comments (3)


Wonderful quote from Strehler! It concisely sums up the problems I find with so many radical updatings of the standard opera rep.

Excerpts from the 1975 Macbeth can be seen on YouTube, sometimes in copies many generations removed from the original broadcast. However, two excellent quality videos, of Lady Macbeth's Letter Scene and the Brindisi, can be seen here and here.

Constantly shouting Macduff??? I was there for the three performances and Calleja's singing was extraordinary for its beauty and particularly exciting for its dynamic flexibility. Are we going to start complaining now because we finally have a tenor that is not drowned by the orchestra in key moments? Calleja also garnered the biggest applause on all the three nights both after his aria and at the curtain calls. When was the last time this has happened for a tenor singing Macbeth? Incidentally I was there for the fall premiere with Pittas. Pittas did a good job but he didn't make any kind of an impact before his big aria.

One can have preferences and dislikes about timbre, voice and style but stating, and I quote, that he "shouted constantly" is simply an untruth and it shows your ignorance in the matter more than anything else.

I'm glad to have you at Artsjournal as a blogger; I enjoy your comments.I remember your excellent Toscanini biography.
I saw some of the Met productions you comment on on PBS. I didn't mind the updated Macbethproduction;it worked for me on its own terms,and was far from being as ridiculous as so many updated versions have been,especially in Europe.
But the treatment of the witches struck me as unintentionally funny. Their absurd gestures reminded me of those wonderful Monty Python sketches where the fellows dressed up as dowdy older women and behaved in a deliciously silly manner!

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Me Elsewhere


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(These are two organizations that any music lovers in the New York area should get to know.)

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Overflow published on May 26, 2008 10:47 AM.

Mutatis mutandis: Muti goes to Chicago was the previous entry in this blog.

A few performances to remember - 2 is the next entry in this blog.

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