Posts Tagged ‘James Levine’

Wozzeck is no Rosenkavalier, but the lush, late Romantic sonorities James Levine brings to Alban Berg’s masterpiece suggested a wide emotional spectrum that ultimately failed to deliver any particular thrill. The rich strings, the smooth brass sonorities, they seemed to serve no particular objective other than making a “difficult” work user-friendlier. However, the Karajanesque sonic narcissism turned out as somewhat monotonous, as fulness of sound ultimately had a big advantage on clarity.

Although Waltraud Meier’s unglamourously sexy tonal quality works well for Marie, she had to negotiate her high notes very carefully and what she could do was often thin and sometimes below true pitch. Alan Held deserves praise for for his hard work and involvement. Yet there is a difference between a carefully rehearsed and a powerful, legitimate interpretation. Among singers int this opera’s difficult minor roles, Gerhard Siegel proved to be the more reliable. His tenor is firm and forceful and his diction is very clear. Stuart Skelton seemed to find the role of the Drum Major too high and Walter Fink sounded basically unfocused.

Mark Lamos’s 1997 production for the Met does not seem to have any purpose other than providing images in elegant colors as background to the music. I could not find any insight from the director in this rather sterile staging.


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Although I cannot call myself a Berliozian (but rather the opposite of that), I couldn’ t help checking the Boston Symphony Orchestra’ s concert with the first part of Berlioz’ s gigantic rarely performed opera Les Troyens. I have to say that my first positive experience with that work involved James Levine’ s DVD from the Metropolitan Opera in spite of the exotic (if impressive) cast and seeing that he would conduct the work again tonight was the decisive element to make me buy my ticket. As in his New York performance with Jessye Norman and Tatiana Troyanos, Levine resisted the temptation of presenting too turgid a view of this pseudo-classic work.  On his hand, Les Troyens is a matter of Musikdrama, often shown in almost late-Romantic intensity – and that’ s all for the better.  In that sense, the BSO was the main feature of this concert. This orchestra’ s lush, full yet light sonorities never get in the way of soloists and chorus and also involve the necessary clarity that ensure that Berlioz’ s woodwind effects hit home as they should. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus also deserve compliments for their powerful yet disciplined contribution.

Levine has the habit of seating his orchestra in a rather exotic manner, which might be effective to balance the sound of violas with the remaining strings. However, I will never be convinced that having the soloists standing in the end of the orchestra right in front of the chorus is a reasonable idea. In the three times I could witness this arrangement, it has always been perverse to singers, who seem understandably nervous having to take pride of place in the sound picture when they are not in the front of the orchestra. Especially when you have lightweight soloists.

Taking the crucial role of Cassandra, Yvonne Naef displayed an exquisite middle-weight mezzo-soprano that makes me think of another Yvonne – Minton – although the Australian singer had a brighter edge to her sound. I am used to more incisive and intense portrayals of this role and I took some time to understand that it was not only a sensible but a sensitive idea for Naef to opt for a more feminine and vulnerable approach, since her creamy sensuous voice was a bit stretched by the more exposed top notes and tested by having to sing over a full chorus. That said, no ugly sound came out of her throat during the whole evening, not to mention that her diction is crystalline and her phrasing is musicianly and elegant.

Announced to be indisposed, Dwayne Croft still could produce a most praiseworthy performance. His dark baritone is supple enough for Berliozian phrasing and only the occasional bleached out mezza voce and also some coughing showed that this reliable singer was indeed ill. Curiously, it was Marcello Giordani who seemed not to be in his best shape. He was entirely grey-toned during the first act and regaining the brightness of his sound for the second act did not prevent the sensation of effort.

In the whole, Levine’s theatrical approach aided by the exquisite orchestral playing and the unconventional yet touching Cassandre of Yvonne Naef made me think I would gladly listen to the second part after a 20 min intermission (alas, this will be possibly only for those who – unlike me –  will be in Boston on May 4th), even if I have doubts about Giordani’ s Aeneas right when he has a lot to sing and most of all about Anne Sofie Von Otter’ s Dido, especially placed behind the orchestra. Last time I saw her, Levine was the conductor who chose to seat her like that in the Gasteig Concert Hall for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and I can tell you she had a bad time trying to be heard from the remote spot on stage reserved for her.

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The title role in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is a tough piece of casting. It is clearly a part for a soprano lirico spinto, but its constant shifting into the lower end of the soprano range will always be a test for any lyric soprano. I must confess that my heart beats for only one Manon in the discography, Renata Tebaldi. Only she is able to keep loveliness and femininity down there. I acknowledge Maria Callas’s and Renata Scotto’s brilliantly crafted accounts of this role, but the sound alone of their voices does not play the trick for me. Manon is the kind of woman who can turn all heads in her direction the minute she walks in. If the singer’s tone lacks this inbuilt sexiness, she is just a clever girl pretending to be a beautiful one. And that is definitely not what is wanted here.

Karita Mattila, for example, has it – her warm velvety soprano is sensuousness itself. Her In quelle trine morbide knocked the audience out in its sexy daydreaminess, for instance. However, at least at this stage of her career, Mattila’s voice shies away both at the bottom and at the top of her range. Her low notes only pierce through if thrown in chest voice and her acuti lack tone and risk to go off track. She often disguises that with dramatic effects, but the frequentation of heavy roles is not doing any favour to her voice. In terms of characterization, her Manon has a rather modern approach – something of a Paris Hilton (prison scene included) without the inheritance. She performs the concept with skill, particularly in act II, when she is not afraid of going larger than life. Her closing scene, however, was very subdued and both soprano and conductor went for a more exhausted than desperate Sola, perduta, abandonata.

I was suspicious about Marcello Giordani’s Des Grieux. This is a tenor formerly identified with bel canto roles tackling a rather heavy part, but I have to say his instincts were right. His bright tenor showed no discomfort with this writing and he sang stylishly and sensitively throughout. Dwayne Croft was a rich-toned Lescaut and Sean Panikkar displayed a healthy, likeable tenor in the small role of Edmondo.

James Levine is an exemplary Puccinian, building rich textured sonorities without drowning his singer in orchestral loudness – his subtle handling of the intermezzo was most refreshing.

The old production with Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes has aged rather well – I have to confess that Manon is one of those operas I prefer to see in a traditional staging – its minuets, wigs, deportations to the colonies etc do not go with cocktail parties, telephones and airplanes.

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The first production of Wagner’s Die Walküre I have ever seen was precisely the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen at the Met back in 1997. I may have published my comments somewhere in this website, but the fact is that I remember it as if I saw it yesterday. Deborah Voigt was a creamy-toned Sieglinde and the fact that she was overweight posed no problem considering her dramatic engagement, Plácido Domingo was in beautiful if not entirely heroic voice as Siegmund, Hanna Schwarz looked short in her first appearance but seemed to end her scene taller than her Wotan so majestic was her bearing and so incisive was her singing and Gabriele Schnaut… Before you start grimacing, I can tell you that back in 1997 Gabriele Schnaut was a fantastic Brünnhilde. Except for tight top c’s and the absence of mezza voce, she was just perfect. Our Wotan was James Morris and – what can I say? – he was more than perfect. He will always be my favourite Wotan. I know everybody says Morris is too smooth, but I think Wotan must leave an apollonian impression(after all, he is the Lichtalberich – the dark one is Alberich Alberich…). I remember, though, that the orchestra was not in a good day and I would only acknowledge Levine’s Wagnerian credentials in a superb Siegfried a couple of days later.

Seeing this production again eleven years later was like re-visiting in dreams people you have never seen again: there is a certain familiarity, but it is definitely not the same thing. To start with, although the sceneries still look beautiful in their Kaspar-David-Friedrich-ness , maybe it is time for a new production (even if it is another “traditional” one). I could neither sense any stage direction going on here – a regisseur pointing out entrances and exits at most. However, this performance breathes a fresh new excitement for me, due to the presence of Lorin Maazel at the pit. I don’t know if this has to do with the maestro’s legendary mastery of conducting technique, but rarely or maybe never have I listened to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in such great shape. Even the difficult passagework for the violins in the end of Act 1 was clearly articulated and you wouldn’t believe the perfect blending of rich soft-textured strings and glowing woodwind in the Walkürenritt. Also, the brass players can be proud for the almost complete absence of blunders. Some have complained about Maazel’s slow tempi – but that is nonsense. Not only do these tempi make musicians more comfortable for the extra polish displayed here, but also Maazel showed more than enough imagination to fill in the blanks offered by the more considerate pace. I was particularly impressed by the way the orchestra portrayed what Wotan explained to Brünnhilde in the long declamatory scene in Act 2 – that was the dictionary definition of what a truly Wagnerian conductor should accomplish as musical-dramatic expression.

Deborah Voigt has seen many changes in her life in these 11 years. Now she looks her part and seems even younger than she was in 1997, but as soon as you close your eyes, a shrewish tone, indifferent delivery of the text and complete absence of tone colouring soon dispel that impression. Only her big top notes remain to her advantage in this repertoire. Even her acting has become generalized and artificial. In that sense, I must admit that – in spite of her many flaws – I still preferred Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde. It is true that she started her performance with the Ho-jo-to-ho from hell, during which she sang not one note written by Richard Wagner, but this Australian soprano is a most intelligent and musicianly singer, who knows her German text as if that was her first language and who commands shapely and sensitive phrasing (provided she does not have to sing around a top a and above). I cannot deny that this is a significant drawback in this role and, as much as I am tempted to say that there must be one of those traditional tongue/throat/neck/you-name-it tension-problems impairing the flow of her top notes, I am more inclined to believe that she is no dramatic soprano, but rather a large-voiced lyric soprano trying to deal with hoch dramatisch roles. The basic sound of her voice is lyric to my years – it is a smooth, pleasant warm sound before it becomes tense in the higher reaches. She has all-right an impressively natural low register, but this is not a sign of a dramatic voice; otherwise, someone like, say, Carol Vaness would have to be labeled accordingly. Gasteen is also a very good actress and brought to her Brünnhilde a surprisingly teenage impatience and bravado, which I found particularly illuminating.

Michelle DeYoung’s debut at the Met also happened in that 1997 Ring at the Met (cycle B, if I am not mistaken) – she was Fricka in Das Rheingold. I remember I had a more positive impression of her voice then than I had tonight. She was a small-scaled and rather shallow-toned Fricka in this Walküre, but she is also a cunning artist and her astute word-pointing finally helped her to make her dramatic points clear. Clifton Forbis was a reliable Siegmund. His tenor can get off focus now and then and his high register may sound bottled-up at times, but this is a healthy big voice and he achieves really impressive results sometimes, such as neverending crescendo in Wälse, Wälse, wo ist dein Schwert?

As for James Morris, it is true that his luxuriant bass-baritone has lost some weight and power in a decade and that his tone has also become a bit more nasal and his mezza voce less spacious – but I don’t think any of his younger rivals can sing this difficult role as beautifully and expressively as he still does. I would add that his present resources are still entirely satisfying for this role – he still produces marvelous firm rich large sounds and anyone who saw him only tonight can claim to have seen the greatest Wotan of his generation.

Finally, Mikhail Petrenko is a decent Hunding, not particularly dark or menacing, but definitely unproblematic. I cannot forget to mention the impressive team of Valkyries gathered here – truly amazing.

You might have noticed that the title of this post mentions a third Walküre – it is the one to which I am listening right now on my iPod. It has also taken place at the Met and featured a famous conductor, but it also boasted the greatest cast of one’s life, which – alas -was not the case of tonight’s performance. I am talking about March 1st 1969, when Herbert von Karajan presided over another one of those greatest nights of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I was told that Karajan smuggled in many musicians from the NY Philharmonic to achieve that, but those were days when the Met’s house band had a notorious reputation. If you have never listened to this recording, don’t miss one more minute: Birgit Nilsson, Régine Crespin, Josephine Veasey, Jon Vickers, Theo Adam and Martti Talvela, all of them in great voice, and also a plugged-in Karajan, oozing energy from the pit. Those were truly great artists and personalities. Some might say that there was actually a great clash of personalities then, but it has certainly paid off.

[I feel I might be rambling, but if you think that Karajan’s rather highbrow DGG Walküre is a cosmetic affair, you should also sample his live performance at Salzburg, in which Régine Crespin and Gundula Janowitz are even more impressive than in the studio.]

PS – Maybe this has no importance, but I guess I saw Donald McIntyre near the box office at the Met. So I saw two Wotans at the same evening.

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Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has been chosen as the symbol of the Met’s 2007/2008 season. Natalie Dessay’s face is posted at every bus stop and subway station in Manhattan over the slogan “You’d be mad to miss it”. However, I would say that the whole production team may have exaggerated their focus on madness. Sure Lucia’s theme is the loosening of the title’s role mental health, but as shown in the Met there was madness written all over the place from note one – and that leaves very little space for development. As a result, the audience is perfectly used to Lucia’s drollness in the first act – the rest seems her just another extravagance.

In the Met’s old production, Lucia was first shown as the dictionary definition of the Romantic heroine – lovely, radiant, innocent. Her long scene with Enrico pictured her vulnerability, rather a prey of a dilemma because her brother was not portrayed as a gruesome psycopath but rather a passive-aggressive selfish but not entirely insensitive fellow. The wedding scene revealed a gigantic barely unbearable effort to “do the right thing” until we finally saw the shattering of the Romantic image into semi-grotesque in the mad scene. Although Elizabeth Futral was permanently struggling with her notes, her acting was able to convey all that. Although the production was far from brilliant, it allowed her to do all that. I do not know if Zimmerman’s direction allowed Natalie Dessay to do something of the kind. I have to confess I found her stage performance rather mannered, if skilled and neatly done. I would say more: I could only “get” Dessay’s Lucia from the musical point of view.

Although the French soprano’s high register has seen more focused days, her voice is still lovely and her descent to the lower reaches is now perfectly mastered. Her coloratura remains truly impressive and she can toss in alts whenever they are required. However, what makes her so admirable is her enormous musical imagination and endless tonal variety. Because of that, the wandering of Lucia’s mind were touchingly portrayed in the mad scene – a remarkable feat, especially in a big theatre. All that said, a singing-actress like her should know that bel canto requires tonal variety dictated by the weight of every word in Italian text, a lesson taught by Renata Scotto and observed by Patrizia Ciofi in her video of the French version of this opera. Dessay’s diction is too generalized for that.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani did not seem to be in his best days. His tenor was a bit bottled-up and his phrasing rather unflowing and prone to lachrimosity. In the closing scene, he produced all-right impressive high notes, but legato was still largely absent. He definitely could not dispel the memory of Giuseppe Filianoti’s expressive Edgardo, sung in dulcet voice.

Marius Kwiecien’s forceful bairtone was in healthy shape as Enrico, but his singing was rather one-dimensional. John Relyea offered a far more sensitive performance, but his bass can be somewhat colourless. Stephen Costello, on the other hand, displayed a dark-hued but light tenor that sounds really promising. Provided he is not tempted to sing big lyric roles too early, he will be someone we are going to hear about often.

James Levine proved that Donizetti’s music has plenty to offer in the hands of a great conductor. He provided rich sounds without drowning his singers, opted for sensitive tempi and offered amazing increase in tension in the sextett, one of the best I have ever heard. His partnership with Dessay in the mad scene (done with glass harmonica) was particularly positive.

As to the staging, again I cannot see why the fuss – the solutions for the opening and the Wolf Crag scene are downright cheap, the little comical touches throughout simply distracting and the sceneries could look provincial (especially in the mad scene). Although the old sets did not show an ounce of imagination, their claustrophobic interiors and evocative outdoors produce the right effect more immediately than the new ones – at least for me.

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Although one can always acquire a taste, sometimes you really have to work hard for it. So here goes my confession: I don’t like Falstaff. I know all the reasons why I should, but the ear can be deaf to reasoning in matters like that. With that in mind, considering the good opinion friends of good taste have on this season’s Met Falstaff, I have bought a ticket on the level of price I reserve to the operas _I_ like. Well, it seems I am condemned not to like it – at least in this life – since James Levine’s conducting was indeed admirable. Richard Strauss, whose opinion is way way more significant than mine, was a great admirer of the work and wrote a letter to Verdi expressing his admiration. In this sense, Levine could find the connection between both composers on producing rich orchestral sound perfectly descriptive in its instrumental effects. Sometimes the richness of sound would pose problems to singers. But that’s also a Straussian feature, one could argue. In that sense, maybe a more exuberant-voiced cast would have been helpful. As it is, only Stephanie Blythe, a spirited Ms. Quickly, could sail above the deluxe strings without any effort in her strong focused and penetrating mezzo. A major performance. Matthew Polenzani’s dulcet but positive Fenton was also most welcome. Maria Zifchak’s firm and pleasant mezzo is worthy of mention too – and that is a compliment for any Meg. On the other hand, the charming and musicianly Patricia Racette had very little leeway to start with. The result was a permanent colorless tone. The same could be said of Heidi Grant Murphy’s Nanetta, who was able to succeed nonetheless in producing the necessarily ethereal pianissimi. As for Roberto Frontali, his Italianate tone and energy helped him through having to sing Ford in a big theatre.

Regarding Bryn Terfel, it is hard to say something definitive about his performance. First of all, it seemed it was not a good night for him. He had some trouble with one or two top notes until he got entirely grey-voiced in the forest scene. However, before that, his handsome bass-baritone was pleasant all the way, even in the poor patches. Although Terfel has developed into something far less artificial than his studio recording with Abbado, it is still something “from outside to inside”, built rather from an intellectual approach for something that should be completely spontaneous. When one think of the great Italian exponent of the parts, natural flamboyance is a key element of all that. In this sense, Terfel’s studied extroverts placed him far from pole position in this competition. Of course, the part of Falstaff might be approached from other points-of-view. The excellent Gabriel Bacquier, in Götz Friedrich’s film, for example, builds his Falstaff from a Baron Ochs-like decadent patrician perspective incredibly funny in its seriousness, something which would become Terfel’s nobility of tone and somewhat narcissistic temper.

Finally, I don’t know if I was really keen on the revival of Zeffirelli 1960’s production. It certainly looked liked its age, not because it was in bad shape (it has been entirely refurbished), but because it looks like those pale photographs of productions we see in books. Something like “Gabriela Tucci’s Alice is wooed by Giuseppe Taddei’s Falstaff in this 1957 production in Florence”. Maybe I had just expected something more glamorous.

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