Almost surely, you are reading this after Groundhog Day, and probably after Valentine’s Day. But would you like to revisit New Year’s Eve for a moment? The traditional opera on New Year’s Eve is Die Fledermaus, by Johann Strauss the Younger. (It’s an operetta, actually.) The work has New Year’s Eve itself within it. The Metropolitan Opera performed Die Fledermaus on December 30. On December 31, it performed The Pearl Fishers, by Bizet.
The Pearl Fishers is an exotic tale set in ancient Ceylon (an island that since 1972 has been called “Sri Lanka”). It’s about love, death, betrayal, and redemption. In short, it’s a tale. Bizet wrote the opera when he was twenty-five. There are some phrases that anticipate Carmen, which he wrote when he was thirty-six. That was all she wrote: Bizet died after writing the immortal Carmen.
The Pearl Fishers is almost entirely unfamiliar, “but here’s what’s not unfamiliar: the opera’s great tenor-baritone duet, ‘Au fond du temple saint.’ ” I am quoting from my chronicle in these pages from June 2005, when City Opera had staged the opera. One learned a lot of repertory from the late City Opera. That was one of its services. About the duet, I wrote,
This is a staple of the French repertory, and the opera repertory, and opera galas. Wherever two or more singers are gathered, for a gala, there will be “Au fond du temple saint” (provided a tenor and baritone are among the singers). Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill made a hot recording of the duet in the 1950s, and there have been hundreds since. In the opera itself, Bizet has the tune and harmonies recur over and over. You would too, had you written them.
There are other operas that are themselves rarities but that contain a famous item or two. I think of La Wally, the 1892 work by Alfredo Catalani. It is unknown; the soprano aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” is very well known. It was given further life by the 1981 French flick Diva.
The Pearl Fishers has but four singers, three of whom really count: the soprano, the tenor, and the baritone. When writing about City Opera’s performance, I said that “the tenor, Yeghishe Manucharyan, has a lightish, pleasant voice, not dissimilar to Matthew Polenzani’s.” On New Year’s Eve, the Met had Polenzani himself. He sang beautifully and ably, as is his custom. The baritone was Mariusz Kwiecien, who also sang ably, if not always beautifully: he sounded older than he has in the past, and why shouldn’t he? Also, his French is not a model. I used to say of (the great) Dmitri Hvorostovsky, “He sings French comme une vache russe.” Listening to Kwiecie?, I thought of the phrase “vache polonaise”—but not for long, because he sang his character’s monologue with such power, control, insight, and, yes, beauty.
Crowning the cast, and probably the evening, was the soprano, Diana Damrau. She did everything required, and more. She gave a demonstration of light French singing. And, when she needed some force, she supplied it. She has the extraordinary ability of handling her lines like an instrumentalist. She sang her part with maximum drama. She even acted convincingly (which is a bonus from an opera singer). On this evening, her full talent, or close to it, came through.
Our conductor was Gianandrea Noseda—who a few days later was announced as the next music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. The first, emphatic note of The Pearl Fishers was not together. That’s always annoying. But Noseda conducted with a sure hand thereafter. The score is beguiling and tense, gossamer and bold. Noseda honored all its qualities. Some tempos were a bit languorous, in my judgment, but they were certainly defensible.
Many players in the orchestra have solo moments, making the opera almost a concerto for orchestra. The flute is a virtual third singer in “Au fond du temple saint.” Stephanie Mortimore handled her part nicely. The harp is the primary accompanying instrument in the duet. Emmanuel Ceysson filled the bill.
Responsible for the production was an Englishwoman (or certainly a Briton) with a classically English name: Penny Woolcock. The production is an “update” in that it has electric lights and so on. But it also has a sense of timelessness. Furthermore, it has some of the most realistic-looking water I have ever seen on a stage. And it’s beautiful, this production. Often shabby—but then the beauty startles you.
Not to be confused with Jim Gaffigan, the famous comedian, James Gaffigan is an American conductor, the capo in Lucerne. He guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic. He is bearded and maybe on the short side (or so it appeared from the seats). He is a smart conductor. His gestures are big and many, and they are a pleasure to watch. Will those gestures get fewer and smaller as he gets older? Probably so.
He began the Philharmonic concert with a Beethoven symphony, No. 4. This is a good test of a conductor. In the first movement, he managed the transition from Adagio to Allegro vivace niftily. That itself is a good test of a conductor. The first movement was generally a little dry, scrappy, and peppy. People think this is “real Beethoven,” as contrasted with a swollen variety. Often, people like an orchestra such as the New York Philharmonic to sound like a group whose name begins with “Camerata.” This is usually misguided.
Beethoven’s second movement, Adagio (without a transition), was a little workaday, somewhat lacking in gravitas. The next movement was respectable. And the fourth and last was really good: Gaffigan was graceful and neat, buoyant and fiery. So is Beethoven, in that finale.
Let me note that, when the audience applauded after the first movement—and at least one of the next two, as I recall—Gaffigan, without turning his body around, swiveled his head and nodded, in recognition and appreciation. I thought this was first-class. After it was all over, he went through the orchestra, shaking hands. I thought this was a bit showy, but that’s just one man’s taste.
The second half of the program began with a new work, which meant, of course, that it began with talking: the conductor conducted a little Q&A with the composer. The composer repeated what had been printed in the evening’s program notes, and added such banalities as “It’s a real pleasure to be here, with this amazing orchestra.” Will no one ever rebel against this tedious, time-wasting, and insulting practice? A practice that insults composer, performers, and audience alike?
In any event, the composer was Andrew Norman, an American based in Los Angeles. His piece was Split, for piano and orchestra, written for Jeffrey Kahane, the pianist and conductor long associated with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. It was he who was the soloist with the Philharmonic. Split has no movements, or one, in the modern fashion of concertos. And there is a story that goes with it. As a rule, I’m interested in the “outside story,” as opposed to the inside one. (“Outside story” was coined by Richard Brookhiser, for the title of his book about the 1984 presidential election.) In other words, what does the piece sound like from the seats, no matter what the program notes or other “aids” say?
Split starts with a whip, like the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major. There is some tinkling on the piano. The whip recurs, and the piece in general is loaded with percussion. This is another modern fashion. The music is jazzy, impish, and very busy. (More fashions.) There are brief sounds or gestures that get cut off. The piece has Bernsteinian high spirits, you could say. And I thought of a word that I myself coined, years ago: “scherzesque.” At one point, the music slows down, virtually to a stop. I suspect it is trying to be profound here. I was glad when it got impish again.
Toward the end, there is a pretty viola solo, and the pianist runs through arpeggios on the keyboard, à la Czerny. Eventually, he is running his fingers along the keyboard without making any sound at all. This caused the audience to titter or giggle, as is the composer’s intent.
On first hearing, the piece was not for me, as you can tell. I thought it was too busy, too unvaried, and, for the material at hand, too long. But I might think differently on a second hearing. And the work is no doubt intelligently crafted. Plus, I’m itching to say this: I admire Split for its embrace of humor and gladness. For its spirit of fun. The present age in composition, I have often said, is an age of anxiety. People write bleakly, horrifiedly, perhaps afraid of sounding simple-minded. Richard Strauss wrote a Burleske for piano and orchestra. Shostakovich wrote two piano concertos that brim with fun. Where are such pieces today? One has come, somewhat bravely, in my opinion, from the pen of Andrew Norman.
I will indulge in a footnote on the soloist, Kahane: he did not memorize the piece, and I always wonder why performers don’t take the trouble to memorize new music. The sheet music he used, I believe, was on a tablet. A computer, sitting right there on the rack. That was a first for me, in a concerto performance. And Kahane “turned” his own pages.
An evening at Carnegie Hall bore a title: “Evgeny Kissin: Jewish Music and Poetry.” Kissin, who’s he? The Russian-born pianist. Jewish music, what’s that? (Leaving aside poetry for a moment.) It is not music composed by Jews, obviously. But it is music of Jewish character. Mahler puts a klezmer band in his Symphony No. 1. At the end of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (subtitled “The American Four Seasons”), there is “Jewish wailing,” as I put it. It is distinctive, and it is terribly moving.
Kissin began his evening with the Piano Sonata of Ernest Bloch, the composer of Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque for Cello and Orchestra—talk about Jewish music. I was hoping that the sonata would prove a neglected masterpiece, but it is just neglected. It is very intelligent, skillful, and dull. But Kissin played it as though it were a masterpiece. He played it as though doing so were the most important thing in the world. This is one of his outstanding qualities, as a pianist. In this sonata, he was rich, masculine, big-boned.
Next on the program were seven poems by Yitzhak Leybush Peretz, the Yiddish bard (otherwise known as I. L. Peretz). They were to be recited by Kissin himself. Now, any other musician in the world would have taken a microphone and made a little speech. He would have said how glad he was to be there and talked about the composers on the program and talked about Peretz and waxed sentimental about Jewish culture and basically repeated the program notes. Critics and administrators would have purred. The musician would have been credited for “outreach.” But Kissin is different. He is a throwback, as I’ve said many times. He is unmodern. And he did exactly what I thought he’d do: he took a microphone and started reciting the poems. He said not one word before them (or in the middle of them or after them). He treated the audience as though it were composed of adults.
Kissin recited the poems in the original Yiddish; English translations appeared on supertitles. Kissin used no texts or notes at all, reciting the poems from memory. He did so the way he plays the piano: with intense concentration, as though engaged in the most important activity in the world. And his recitation had excellent musical sense.
To open the second half of the program, he played the Piano Sonata No. 2 of a composer much less known than Bloch: Alexander Veprik, who lived from 1889 to 1958. The sonata is Romantic, restless, sensual, and a little Scriabinesque. Kissin played it with utter self-possession. He then recited seven more poems by Peretz. I thought of the audience: how many understood the Yiddish? More than a few, surely. And I saw more kippahs than I usually do at a concert.
Kissin closed his printed program with something of a find, in my opinion: the Suite dansée of Alexander Krein (1883-1951). There are five movements in this suite. One of them is a graceful ghost (to borrow the title of William Bolcom’s famous rag). Another is touched by Albéniz or Granados or some other Spaniard. Kissin played all of them with sensitivity and affection. He has reverence for the Russian-Jewish culture, and, in perpetuating it, renders a service.
He played an encore, by one Moshe Milner. And he recited another poem, this one of his own devising: “Credo.” It is a statement of individualism. Kissin is certainly his own man, thank heaven.
Finally, let’s go to December 30—and the Met’s Fledermaus. It was conducted by the company’s music director, James Levine, who, before this season, had never conducted the operetta. The overture was mediocre. Which was not promising. And some pages in the early going of Act I were barely together. Which was worrisome. Personally, I’m loath for reviews of James Levine to become a medical watch. (He has struggled with physical problems for years.) But they threaten to become that.
Before moving on, a quick note about Strauss’s overture: if he had written nothing else in his life, he would still be celebrated. Leonard Bernstein once said, “I’d give five years of my life to have written The Stars and Stripes Forever.” One might give a few years for the Fledermaus overture.
Sometime in the middle of Act I, something happened: Levine got it completely together. And the music crackled, danced, and enchanted. It was robust and unflabby. Never was there a butcher Fledermaus, or a butcher operetta, period. Levine might as well have been conducting Beethoven. At the same time, as in Beethoven, he administered TLC, where it was called for. I once praised the late Lorin Maazel in this fashion: whether he was conducting the Mahler Seventh or accompanying the Vilja from The Merry Widow, he did it with appreciation and dedication. The same is true of Levine—as we have heard in, for example, his Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.
On New Year’s Eve Day Eve, he seemed to enjoy letting his hair down (to the extent a Levine-like Afro can be let down). When he was conducting the Watch Duet, his face was etched in delight (and is there any number more delightful?). The whole experience, under his baton, was invigorating. You were much more awake at the end of the evening than at the beginning. That was not the case when the Met’s current production premiered on New Year’s Eve 2013. Let me quote from my chronicle:
It is painful to watch a show bomb. . . . Fledermaus on this night seemed longer than Götterdämmerung, or the whole Ring cycle. Instead of a frothy fling, it was a four-hour death march.
December 30, 2015, could not have been more different. And the difference was thanks largely to the conductor, strong as the cast was. I’m afraid I have been spoiled for future Fledermaus performances: I have heard a Levine-charged one.
Seven or eight cast members deserve a salute here, but I will salute only two. The soprano singing Adele, Lucy Crowe, was saucy, winsome, and apt. She had so much charm that you could almost forget she was singing well: with accurate coloratura, for example. Her high D’s were fairly small, but they were there. And Susan Graham, that esteemed Cherubino and Octavian, was Prince Orlofsky. Is this where all mezzos arrive? They’re still wearing pants, no matter where they are in their career. And La Graham wore them with aplomb.
While the cast members took their bows at the end of the evening, the orchestra played—Broadway-revue style. Levine swiveled around in his wheelchair and kept conducting while acknowledging the applause of the audience. How many people, aside from his own orchestra and singers, get to see him like this? He was hamming it up, letting his hair down indeed. I fished for pearls the next night, and happily so, but December 30 seemed like my real New Year’s Eve.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 6, on page 58
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