More Manhattan moments
I liked Holland Cotter's description, in the New York Times a few weeks ago, of Giorgio Morandi's still lifes, many of which are currently on view in an extensive exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum has dedicated to the man whose reputation as one of 20th-century Italy's most significant painters now seems indisputable. Cotter described Morandi's myriad variations on arrangements of bottles, vases, and the like as "stanzas of a single long poem, a kind of 'Divine Comedy' of the tabletop, with epic but miniature heights and hells; a meditation on time, art, isolation, self-preservation and the ordinary mystery of all of that." I trust that the Met, under its incoming director Thomas Campbell, will continue to provide the sort of stimulation that it has given visitors during Philippe de Montebello's long reign, and that Campbell will be able to weather the financial hurricane that will almost certainly beat down on all not-for-profit institutions in the all-too-near future.
Across Central Park at the other Met, I found Louis Langree's conducting of Don Giovanni technically capable but lacking the sort of emotional grip that can raise a decent performance to an excellent or even memorable one. Ultra-fast tempi like Langree's in the last part of the first-act finale or the peroration of the sextet do not necessarily create drama, and in this instance they seemed actually to trivialize the musical and theatrical discourse rather than heightening its impact. Ditto for the often ultra-leisurely pace of the recitatives. Erwin Schrott has the makings of an outstanding Don Giovanni, but for my taste his singing in the performance I heard was often rhythmically undisciplined and his acting hammy -- although the latter defect must have had a lot to do with the stage direction of Marthe Keller: much of the action throughout has a sit-com-like tinge that cheapens the production. The role of Donna Elvira may not be ideal for Susan Graham, but she is such a fine and intelligent artist that hearing her nuanced interpretation of it was stimulating as well as a pleasure. Matthew Polenzani was an excellent Don Ottavio. To my ears, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo sounded monochromatic as Leporello. But mainly, as I was leaving the theater after the performance, I found myself thinking that no matter how much and how deeply I love dozens upon dozens of operas written before and after those of Mozart, there is simply nothing greater in the genre -- as music, as theater, or as a summation of the inner workings of the human animal -- than the three Mozart-Da Ponte masterpieces.
I also attended a performance ofSalome in the much-hailed Jurgen Flimm production, with Karita Mattila in the title role. Her voice sounded strained and tired in the performance I heard, but it was a Saturday matinee, which singers generally find more trying than evening performances. Besides, I can't think of anyone I would rather hear in this part, and all the other singers (especially Joseph Kaiser as Narraboth, Kim Begley as Herodes, Ildiko Komlosi as Herodias, and Juha Uusitalo as Jochanaan) also did excellent work. The production itself, which showed Roman soldiers in plain outfits, Jews in Hassidic garb, and the toffs -- Herod, Herodias, their dinner guests, and Salome herself -- in modern formal dress, it made my mind go back, as it often does when I sit in the theater, to something that the great Italian director Giorgio Strehler told me years ago. He said, more or less, "We can do Shakespeare with everyone in tails or everyone naked, or some of each, but we have to remember how miserable our ideas will appear next to the greatness of that text." This statement can and should be applied to the interpretation of most works for the stage. I don't mind radical interpretations if the director has turned every idea over in his/her mind for a very long time before deciding whether the realization of that idea will deepen our understanding of the work or will merely provoke for the sake of provoking. The acting in Flimm's production is very good, but most of the other visual aspects seem to exemplify the "Ya Gotta Do Something, So How About This?" school of opera staging. In the "Mysteries of Conducting" department, on the other hand, the gestures of Patrick Summers seemed generic and imprecise, at least as viewed from halfway back on the main floor, but the Met orchestra played incisively and powerfully for him. I can only assume that he rehearses well and that much of the orchestra likes him.
Which brings me to a New York Philharmonic concert under the baton of Marin Alsop. I had never seen Alsop before, and I enjoyed these performances very much. Bartok's Wooden Prince Suite seemed to me well thought-out and beautifully realized by conductor and orchestra, and the same was true, on the whole, of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, which sounded fresh and powerful, not at all here-we-go-again-ish. I disagree with the little caesura that Alsop introduced in the first movement: had it occurred only once, it might have sounded spontaneous and interesting, but when it happened the first time you knew that it would happen again -- and it did, and sounded artificial and corny. In the finale, enthusiasm actually became a problem because it created too many climaxes: better to focus on rhythmic drive, of which there was plenty in this performance, and save the fortissimos and fortississimos for the very biggest moments. Maybe Alsop forgot one of Richard Strauss's Ten Commandments for conductors: "Never look encouragingly at the brass." But let's not be too picky: this was an enjoyable performance. The central delight of the evening, however, was 23-year-old Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz's Philharmonic debut in Chopin's F minor (Second) Piano Concerto. One could quibble that the finale lacked the sense of playfulness that some pianists brought or bring to it (I'm thinking of.recordings by Rubinstein and Ashkenazy), but Blechacz's playing was sensitive, intense, and technically impeccable throughout -- and with none of the extra-musical, look-ma-seventeen-hands shenanigans of some of today's other young keyboard heroes. This is a very promising talent.
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