This chronicle will read like an opera blog—but first, we will go to the movies. In the week or so before its real season, the New York Philharmonic has movie nights, a little series called “The Art of the Score.” The orchestra plays that score—whatever it is—while the movie unspools on a big screen overhead. On the first night this year, the Philharmonic showed On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s masterpiece from 1954. Its score is by Leonard Bernstein, the Philharmonic’s own.
This is the only movie score he ever wrote. Before Waterfront came along, he had received many requests to write a score, but had always resisted. “It is a musically unsatisfactory experience for a composer to write a score whose chief merit ought to be its unobtrusiveness,” he recalled. But Kazan’s movie, he could not resist. Much of his music wound up on the cutting-room floor. This is something a composer simply must endure, Bernstein commented. “Everyone tries to comfort him. ‘You can always use it in a suite.’ ” Bernstein indeed fashioned a suite, a symphonic suite. He also fashioned a work for voice and piano. When you see it cited now, you also see that always-intriguing designation: “(withdrawn).”
The Waterfront score is recognizably, unmistakably Bernsteinian. It’s also very sad. Furthermore—and this is crucial—it goes with the picture, even enhancing the picture (and enhancing Kazan is very hard to do). The Philharmonic was conducted by David Newman, who is himself a film composer. The orchestra played well enough—but it was sometimes ragged. It was also loud, very loud. The music was too prominent, grafted onto the movie rather than being part of it. Nevertheless, this was an exciting evening. And a couple of first-deskmen stood out: Philip Myers, the French horn, who was off and on, but mainly on; and Matthew Muckey, the trumpet, who played nicely.
He would have a lot more to do the next night, when the Philharmonic screened The Godfather. The trumpet is the instrument that haunts that score. You could almost say that The Godfather, like Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, is one of the great trumpet scores. Muckey had a phonation problem or two, but he duly haunted.
The Godfather was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, as you know, and its score was composed by Nino Rota. His music for the picture is now a cliché. But it once was not. It was new, wondrous, and perfectly fitting (fitting with the movie). Imagine having written music so familiar, so iconic, that it becomes a cliché! The Philharmonic on this occasion was conducted by Justin Freer, another composer who has made a mark in Hollywood. This time around, I did not notice the music so much. What I mean is, it blended into the movie. Deserving of mention are the oboe, Sherry Sylar, and the cello, Eileen Moon. Like their colleague on the trumpet, they played beautifully and hauntingly. Also, this being Italy, the guitar and the mandolin had a lot to do.
By the way, I had forgotten that The Godfather includes a snatch of La traviata, played in a wedding scene: the Brindisi, the toast (and waltz).
The Metropolitan Opera opened its season, not with La traviata, but with another Verdi opera, Otello. I did not attend Opening Night, but a subsequent performance. In the pit, as from the beginning, was Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He conducted vibrantly, dynamically. I could pick at him, as who could not? A listener can hardly embrace every choice a conductor makes, particularly over the course of a long work. For instance, the Otello-Iago duet, “Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro,” is seldom fat and swaggering enough for me. Conductors tend to race through it, as Nézet-Séguin did. Still, he had a splendid night, and so did the orchestra under him.
Let me raise an issue. After Desdemona sings her Ave Maria, Verdi shifts the mood with an ominous low E. Nézet-Séguin went right to that E, but the audience wanted to applaud the Ave Maria, as well it should have. Nézet-Séguin had to cut the orchestra off. People in the audience shushed the applauders (which was highly annoying). Then Nézet-Séguin returned to the E. It is wiser, I believe, to let the audience applaud the Ave Maria, and not to gripe about it with headshakes and sulks (and shushes).
The tenor, singing the title role, was Aleksandrs Antonenko, from Latvia. Reviewing his Otello in Salzburg seven years ago, I said that he was “underpowered.” Antonenko “is a good singer, who owns a beautiful, somewhat luxurious voice. But this seems not to be his role, at least for now.” At the Met, I did not find him underpowered. But he started pretty rough, with wayward pitch (and no low notes whatsoever). His Desdemona was Sonya Yoncheva, from Bulgaria. In their duet, she showed an interesting cutting sound, but this beautiful music had precious little beauty, and the soprano exhibited a Kiri trait: she kept coming in early. This is sometimes endearing, sometimes not.
Iago was Željko Lu?i?, that veteran Verdi baritone from Serbia. He is a rugged pro, but he did nothing special in the early going. Allow me to note that these three big roles were all taken by Easterners (and I’m not talking about Vermonters and New Hampshirites). Not only was there nothing Italian, there was nothing Italianate coming from that stage.
But something happened as the opera wore on: everyone came to life. Antonenko settled into some heroic singing, really “booming it out there,” as Merrill once said of his friend Tucker. Lu?i? became a picture of baritonal villainy. And Yoncheva? After Act I, I could not have told you that she was capable of singing the Willow Song and Ave Maria so beautifully, so intelligently, so movingly. I doubt I have heard better.
I was much looking forward to the Lodovico of Günther Groissböck, the Austrian bass whom I have lavishly praised in these pages—for his Baron Ochs (Rosenkavalier) at Salzburg. He looked terrific as Verdi’s Venetian ambassador: a model of diplomatic and quasi-military splendor. But frankly, I couldn’t hear him. I wonder whether the part lies too low for him.
The Met has a new production of Otello, from the talented Bartlett Sher. It has wonderful, shifting skies. And nothing about the production is objectionable. At the same time, I wonder what is commendable (apart from the skies). The stage is dominated by very large, plastic-seeming semi-monuments—a friend of mine used the word “Lucite.” They slide around, frequently.
To some fanfare, the Met announced that its Otellos would no longer appear in dark makeup. This is understandable, given American sensitivities, and minstrelsy, and blackface. But I wonder about the importance of Otello’s race to the story. While we’re on the subject—a multifaceted one—what about Rigoletto’s disability? Is it important to that story? Rigoletto thinks so: he says so (in lines of great poignancy, even painfulness). In the Met’s current Rigoletto, as I recall, the character stands upright, evincing no disability whatsoever. But once we start asking for verisimilitude in opera. . .
Two nights after this Otello, the Met did Turandot, Puccini’s last opera (which he could not quite complete). As I approached the house, a sax was wailing “Nessun dorma,” the hit aria from that opera. It is sung by the tenor, Caláf, but you can’t have Turandot without the soprano, Turandot—and that is a very hard role to fill. It is a famous voice-wrecker of a role. Ideally, you want creamy lyricism and steely power in one woman. Good luck. The Met had engaged Christine Goerke, as good a candidate for Turandot as any. The character’s first music is her aria, “In questa reggia.” Here, Goerke was not in her best voice or on her best pitch. Her singing was slightly effortful—which is more than understandable in this aria—but it was also musical, expressive, and bold. Later in the opera, she was free. Entirely free. She was not so much producing sound as riding sound—and it was glorious.
Caláf was Marcelo Álvarez, the Argentinian tenor, who shouted a little, perhaps trying to will his voice bigger than it is. But if this was shouting, it was elegant shouting, let me say. Álvarez acquitted himself honorably. Regarding his “Nessun dorma,” I’ll give you a little scorecard. He had no low D. He composed his own rhythm. His high B was tight. He let go of his final A almost immediately. But, all in all, he sang the aria respectably, as he did the whole role. May I say too that, with every passing year, he looks more like Plácido Domingo onstage?
Since 1987, the Met has used Franco Zeffirelli’s production, and a colleague of mine has called it “critic-proof”: critics can’t kill this production, because the public loves it too much to let it die. In this case, the public is right, I believe. One by one, the Zeffirelli productions at the Met are falling. Turandot will probably be the last one standing. But it too will fall, and when it does, I and a million others will wail. Speaking of wailing, that sax was back at “Nessun dorma” as I headed home.
Two nights later, in the Met again, the applause for Dmitri Hvorostovsky was tumultuous. Not just at the end of the evening but on his entrance. An audience is always happy to see him, because he is one of the best performers in opera. But why the extra enthusiasm this time? Last summer, the starry Russian baritone announced that he had a brain tumor and would undergo treatment in London. He suspended this treatment in order to appear at the Met as the Conte di Luna in Il trovatore (Verdi). He signed on to sing three performances only.
And how did he do on this particular night? He was Hvorostovsky. He sang with his customary suavity, nobility, and self-possession. His phrases were as long as ever. “We think he has a third lung,” Renée Fleming once told me. Did I imagine that he sang with extra intensity and commitment? I’m really not sure. I am sure, however, that at the end of the evening the orchestra flung dozens of single white roses at him.
The evening’s soprano was another starry Russian, Anna Netrebko. She has been singing this role, Leonora, in Salzburg too. She commits some vocal errors, as Callas once did. But, like Callas, she delivers a knockout operatic punch. And I must not slight her technical ability. At the Met, she demonstrated a true piano—not a fake one, not a cheating wispiness, but a piano with body. By the end of the evening, she was giving no less than a clinic in singing. Her celebrity must not be allowed to overshadow her greatness.
Our tenor, Manrico, was Yonghoon Lee. When he is tight, he is painful. When he is free, he is marvelous. And he was free all night long. Dolora Zajick was Azucena, as she has been for as long as most people can remember. Should she hang it up? Not anytime soon. She ought to be studied by scientists who wonder about the secrets of longevity. So, Netrebko, Hvorostovsky, Zajick: these are usual suspects, but they are usual suspects for a reason. The Met had assembled a lot of vocal and dramatic talent on that stage. As the Met should. And the free-and-easy Lee was a bonus.
Two nights after that, the Met revived Anna Bolena, the first of Donizetti’s “Three Queens” operas. The others are Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. “Anna Bolena” is an Italian way of saying “Anne Boleyn.” “Maria Stuarda” is Mary, Queen of Scots. The queen in Roberto Devereux is Elizabeth (not the present occupant of Buckingham Palace). Beverly Sills made a kind of history when she sang all Three Queens. Another American soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky, is doing the same at the Met this season. For a long time now, I have called her the Met’s “go-to gal for Verdi.” She is now its go-to Donizettian.
On the night I heard her as Anna, she did everything required, and a lot is required: technically, dramatically, vocally, and mentally. She had the high notes and the low notes, the dynamics and the agility, the power and the delicacy, the poise and the pathos. Her mad scene was a model of control. All night, she displayed her “carpet of sound,” as I have long called it. Sometimes the carpet was raspy—frayed, if you like—but it was always elegant and effective. Her entire career, Radvanovsky has been good and dependable. But on given nights, she is great.
Taking the role of Giovanna (Jane) Seymour was Jamie Barton, the fast-rising American mezzo. In Act I, she did not sound very Italian, and she did not sound like a bel canto singer. But as the evening progressed, she was formidable. Her duet with Radvanovsky was a powerhouse, and it was musical too. The women were simply hurling sound (musically). I felt that I was hearing something close to historic. In any event, this was big bel canto, bel canto as grand opera, and the crowd roared appropriately.
As he was four seasons ago, Ildar Abdrazakov was Enrico. I wrote in 2011, “The singer’s bass voice seems to grow more beautiful every year, and his authority onstage seems to increase.” I can say the same today. The intonation is as sure as ever. The voice glowed regally. He even negotiated a little passagework. When he bowed, by the way, he did so with an apologetic smile: his character, Henry VIII, is such an SOB.
One nice touch of this production by David McVicar is Anna’s little daughter—an adorable redhead named Elizabeth. The great Sondra Radvanovsky will play her in Roberto Devereux soon.
A week after my Bolena, James Levine was in the pit, making his season debut. When the audience caught sight of him, there was near-tumult in the house. To many people, every Levine appearance is something of a bonus, given his medical struggles. On this night, the Met’s music director was conducting Wagner, specifically Tannhäuser. He was not at his best in the overture. The music was slightly disjointed and blunt. It did not melt where it should have. But it was exciting enough, and the conductor was just warming up. In Acts II and III especially, he paced the opera superbly. He was brisk, or undawdling, but not bull-like. He conducted with Wagnerian humanity. (No, not a contradiction in terms, despite the hateful side of that genius.) The surging orchestral phrases in the Pilgrims’ Chorus were rare and remarkable.
The Met orchestra was impressive, with the woodwinds excelling. I wish they—and the horns—could have taken solo bows (though this is seldom done in opera).
Eva-Maria Westbroek, the Dutch soprano, was Elisabeth. In her great, opening aria, “Dich, teure Halle,” she was big, bright, and generous. She was also wobbly in her tone. But Westbroek’s virtues can overwhelm any wobble. She is made to sing Elisabeth, that good and poignant soul. Venus was Michelle DeYoung, the American mezzo, who was in top form, a Wagnerian to the tips of her golden hair. “I heard a sound so sweet,” sings the Young Shepherd in this show. So did I, when the shepherd, Ying Fang, started to sing. This Chinese-born soprano was pure, guileless—astounding.
We should quickly get to the men, for Tannhäuser is loaded with male voices, in the forms of knights and pilgrims. Johan Botha took the title role, and the South African tenor was strong as usual. He had a problem or two, including roughness in the middle voice. But Tannhäusers are like Turandots and Otellos: they don’t grow on trees, and you’re grateful for them. Peter Mattei, the Swedish baritone, was Wolfram. He was sometimes imperfect of pitch, but always beautiful of voice. That Austrian bass, Günther Groissböck, was back, singing Hermann. This time, I had no trouble hearing him, and what I heard was rich and right. There is a chorus too, especially a men’s chorus—and the Met’s hit a very high standard.
Fine as the singing generally was, this was a night to appreciate another shot of Levine. When the curtain was falling, and he was conducting the final bars, people started to applaud, as opera audiences do, and other people shushed them. The shushing was far worse—more spoiling—than the applause. Isn’t it always?
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 3, on page 51
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