Sunday, Nov. 21
In recital at Alice Tully Hall this afternoon is Christine Schafer, the great hope of lieder-singing. She is a German soprano, young but wise, who has studied with, among others, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the late, remarkable Arleen Auger (whom Schafer resembles in important respects). A couple of years ago, Schafer put out a Schumann album that was so refreshing and impressive that it earned Gramophone magazine's Solo Vocal Recording of the Year award, no minor distinction. Lieder?the reams of German art songs composed by masters (and others) from Mozart on?need singers of exceptional insight and technique for them to come fully to life, and Schafer, happily, meets all the requirements.
She has chosen an appetizing program for today, consisting of 12 of the Mörike Lieder of Wolf and the Poemes pour Mi by Olivier Messiaen (which are, if you will indulge the paradox, French lieder).
Eduard Mörike was a poet of near-endless variety and sensitivity, and Hugo Wolf took to him with deep understanding and total artistic success. Schafer begins with one of the best loved and most difficult of the Mörike songs, "Schlafendes Jesuskind," about the sleeping Christ-child. This is an "exposed" song?soft and spare, with little for a singer to fall back on?and therefore a pisser to lead off with. Schafer does not seem fully prepared for it; she may not be adequately warmed up. She sounds a little breathy and hesitant?nervous, even, which would not be beyond the realm of human comprehension. The voice is not especially beautiful, but it is intelligently deployed, which is the main point in this sort of singing. Schafer flats on the final, ethereal syllable, kind; fortunately, she has only just begun.
By the time she reaches the beguiling "Verlassene Mägdlein," she has gained strength. This is music of emotional and psychological complexity, and Schafer handles it deftly and unobtrusively. She is no less convincing in "Der Feuerreiter," which is a little scena, almost operatic in character, full of intensity and drama. In the winsome "Er ist's," however, Schafer lacks swing, and the voice seems strangely feeble, bordering on anemic. Better is "In der Frühe," in which the soprano is fragile without being broken (Alice Tully is the right setting for this music; it could even be smaller). The concluding song is "Neue Liebe," whose poetic power Schafer fully conveys.
In the second half of the program?the Messiaen?Schafer is even more assured. The intermission, and the trials of the Mörike songs, have done her good. Her French is heavily accented, but this is easily overlooked, as Schafer makes up for it with an obvious affinity for this luminous and odd little song-cycle. She has the sense to let the music speak for itself; she does not attempt to enhance what in fact cannot be enhanced, but only defaced. She sings simply, transparently, as Auger did?which is a lofty comparison. There is little that is contrived or forced (or cute or hammy) in this singing. Most satisfying about the Poemes is that Schafer presents them as a whole, seamlessly unified, with no fragments, interesting or not.
Of the five encores, the most memorable is a brief, early song of Alban Berg. It lasts no more than 50 seconds, but it is an unadorned, honest little prayer, and with it Christine Schafer touches the very heart of the lied. A great hope, indeed.
Sunday, Dec. 5
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is back out of the pit and onto the stage of Carnegie Hall, for an afternoon of showing off. And why not? A machine so capable and finely tuned should not be confined to the garage, or limited to pulling trailers.
Its conductor, James Levine, opens with Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, the shimmering, radiant little beauty that Schoenberg composed before he became fully Schoenberg. Levine, curiously, is seated while conducting this piece, reflecting, in a way, the modesty of his interpretation. This is a most chamber-like Verklärte Nacht, recalling its forerunner, Wagner's Siegfried Idyll. Carnegie Hall assumes some of the intimacy of a Viennese salon. The orchestra displays a nice ensembleship: Its members are used to playing together, and they listen to one another with care. Yet this performance is lackluster in spots?too subdued and matter-of-fact?and not all of the entrances are clean (which is typical of your average orchestra, but not typical of Levine's). In the end, Levine gives a correct and satisfactory reading, but not one to haunt your dreams?which may seem too high a standard, but hey?consider the performers.
Next comes "a break away from the everyday" (as an ad slogan once had it): Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, for winds and percussion. The strings have had their turn in the Schoenberg; now it is their friends'. This is a strange and wondrous creation?like its composer?and the Met forces make a first-rate case for it. The unison tuba playing, for example, is excellent. (How often does a critic have an opportunity to comment on unison tuba playing?) In relatively understated ways, the agony of hell is expressed in this music, as is the bliss of heaven. Messiaen tries to say as much as possible with as little as possible, seeming to revel in his compositional austerity. Levine's performance is a model of order, evenness and intelligence, cool but passionate, in its Messiaenic way. In his orchestral and chamber outings with these players, Levine likes to showcase unusual repertory, and he has certainly succeeded here.
After intermission comes a star?growing ever brighter?from the opera world: the Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, who has wowed audiences, most recently with her Amneris in the Met's Aida. She will not sing opera today, however; instead it is Ravel's Sheherazade and, to close, Berlioz's Mort de Cleopatre. Borodina's glories have been enumerated in this space before, but here is an abridged version: She is rich but thin, heavy but light, lush but supple. She bends her voice to whatever is required. Almost never does she execute something in bad, or even questionable, taste. Her French, to be sure, is wretched?Christine Schafer is practically Regine Crespin by comparison?but Borodina is a major singer of our time, and Levine seems to agree. Ten years ago, he trotted around Jessye Norman in exactly this music; now it is Borodina at his side, confirmation of her greatness, if any were needed.
In between the two pieces for soprano, we should not forget, came Debussy's Danse sacree et danse profane, for harp and orchestra. This might, believe it or not, have been the performance of the day: suave, graceful, enchanting. The piece provides a thorough test of the harp, and the soloist, Deborah Hoffman, passed it admirably. The entire performance was perfectly French: everything in balance, every color to the fore, a fairylike haze left in the air. Chouette, quoi?
Saturday, Dec. 11
Tristan time, the hour that musical New York has been waiting for all year. The Met's Tristan und Isolde features the great Wagnerian hopes of the present age: Jane Eaglen, an English soprano, and Ben Heppner, a Canadian tenor. The success of Wagnerian opera?at least of Tristan, maddeningly difficult to cast?seems to rest on these shoulders. Eaglen and Heppner did their first Tristan last year in Seattle; the Wagner-loving population of the world, which undergoes cruel periods of famine, shouted for joy. New York could not wait to get the pair in its clutches, under the baton of James Levine, one of the most penetrating Wagner conductors in history. This would be a Tristan for all time, one to remember and savor when hunger set in again.
It is a good one, yes?but one that falls short of expectations, even of expectations properly framed. Heppner, on this night, does his part. He knows this music, and he knows the role. His sound, in the course of the five hours, is steady, fully supported and, aside from the occasional rough patch, gleaming. This is a lyrical Tristan, with no barking and just about zero crooning. Heppner has stamina too, and, though the performance is uncut (a rarity), it seems that, at midnight, he could still go another hour or two. Each of us might quarrel with him on particular points, but Heppner deserves to be classed with Jon Vickers, Wolfgang Windgassen and the rest of the men who have tackled tenordom's most punishing role.
Eaglen, sadly?at least, again, on this night?is rather less successful. She has all the power requisite for Isolde, and her technique, for the most part, holds (despite some shaky intonation), but her performance is a musical failure. Her approach to Isolde and her music is rather standoffish, as if she were afraid to clasp the treasure upon treasure that Wagner offers. She is weirdly empty of feeling, merely checking off the notes as they come, unwilling to ride the crests of the music, unable to transmit to her audience the passion, sensuality and tragedy of her story. She is a humdrum, indifferent Isolde. The love duet?one of the dreamiest, most ecstatic stretches in all of music?is damnably drab, and it is mostly Eaglen's fault. Equally unacceptable, the "Liebestod"?the "love-death" that ends and crowns the opera?is nothing, a wet noodle, just another aria, or a snatch of recitative, utterly lacking in wonder or transfiguration or even something like happiness. This is a cheat.
Levine, too, it must be said, does not pull his oar. He conducts a restrained, small-scaled Tristan?which is both understandable and welcome?but he renders the score something very close to dull, which is astonishing. He does not drive the opera where it needs to be driven, does not breathe life into his wan soprano, and so leaves much of the music cold on the page.
There is, happily, a little show-stealing. Though all eyes (and ears) are on Eaglen and Heppner, the night's heroes are Katarina Dalayman, as Brangäne, and René Pape, as King Marke. Dalayman is a Swedish soprano with a glorious instrument?juicy, strong and thrillingly communicative. Pape, a German bass, was no less than spellbinding, vocally, musically and psychologically. He not only triumphed in the part, he inhabited it, and his monologue will not soon be forgotten by those in attendance. Pape has (a) beauty, (b) power and (c) understanding, and in equal measures. What more could be asked of an opera singer is hard to imagine.
Almost never does a production of an opera?an unwieldy, multifaceted affair?fire on all cylinders; and that is why we all leave our seats both grumbling and exulting.
Friday, Dec. 17
Ah, but here is a performance that does, in fact, fire on all cylinders. It is of Donizetti's Elisir d'Amore, and it features the couple whom so many love to hate: Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. This pair, married, but tempestuously, if you believe the gossip, is notorious for selfishness, imperious demands and a lack of collegiality. They are said to be exemplars of the worst opera-star airs; but as they are also exemplars of excellence in bel canto, who the hell should care?
Let us begin, not with the soprano, but with her husband, Alagna, a personable and lavishly gifted Parisian of Sicilian parentage. No one ever looked more like Nemorino, the lovesick Italian rustic who can "only sigh." Alagna scampers and darts and jumps around the stage with enviable agility. No one ever sounded more like Nemorino should sound, either. Alagna's tenor is both virile and tender, graceful but not too small, somewhere between, say, Alfredo Kraus and Jussi Bjoerling. There is a lovely bloom in his upper register, and his technique is well oiled?liquid, flexible, easy. His intonation is, quite simply, perfect. Best of all, he is brimming with musicality, completely reliable in both cavatina and cabaletta. His big aria, "Una furtiva lagrima," a hackneyed old thing, is a newborn babe, decorated by pretty interpolations. He milks the piece, but you would, too, if you could, like that. And?this may seem small, but it is of earthshaking significance?the distinction between his high G and his high G flat at the end is perfectly clear, and smashingly effective. Most tenors blow this.
And the little woman? Not too shabby either. She has a slightly bottled voice, with some Callas-like steel in it. (Actually, it is a typically Romanian voice, as befits a siren from that singer-rich land.) Like her husband, she sings blissfully in tune. She has a full sound up top, not birdlike, which is precisely what is desired in this music. And, again like Alagna, she is very, very musical: all the correct dynamics and phrasing are there. She puts on a clinic in bel canto?everything has the ring of rightness.
To gild the lily, Dmitri Hvorotovsky, the elegant Russian baritone, is present, as Belcore. He produces his usual aristocratic and even sound, but, unfortunately, he is often too far to the back of the stage, and is thus not adequately heard. Present, too, is Paul Plishka, a splendid and resplendent figure, who, at this late-ish stage of his career, is the ideal Dulcamara, the "doctor" who peddles the potion that Nemorino eagerly guzzles. Plishka, a bass from Pennsylvania, is full of life and, like his colleagues, musical to his toenails.
It might be noted as well that the set and costumes are pitch-perfect?colorful, gay, merrily Italian, mainly pink, giving the impression of a Valentine's Day card from Hallmark. At the end, with perfect timing, a banner is unfurled: "VIVA L'AMORE!"
You have perhaps noticed, in this little entry, the repeated use of the word "perfect"? It cannot be helped?as is, every now and then, once in a blue moon, when we are at our absolute luckiest, the case.