Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ben and Debbie Show Finally Arrives for Met's "Tristan und Isolde"

After nearly three weeks, the Metropolitan Opera finally managed to get Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt on stage at the same time.

This "dream team," which pairs two of today's leading Wagnerians, was scheduled to appear in six performances of Tristan und Isolde, but a well-documented series of illnesses left that plan in shambles. For those who shelled out the big bucks on any the first five nights, they were rewarded with at least one substitute; for those who shelled out the big bucks on Friday night (like me!!), they were rewarded with a gripping performance of historic importance.

Heppner, as the doomed Tristan, returned from a serious blood infection to deliver an astonishing tour de force. He is a heldentenor in the truest sense--a physically imposing singer with a commanding voice that slices through even the loudest orchestra with incredible ease. Many tenors begin to crumble during the punishing Act III monologue, but Heppner seemed to relish it, singing with delirious, shattering intensity. Moreover, he attacked each note with complete integrity and security; pure intonation was never in doubt, even in the most angular, exposed high notes. Remarkably, Heppner was just as strong–perhaps stronger–on Tristan's final note as he was, five hours earlier, on his first.

It took me an act to warm up to Voigt. She has two habits that initially bothered me: drifting flat at the end of long phrases and sliding up into high notes. Beginning in Act II, however, she was mesmerizing. Her sweet, lyrical voice, which was balanced with soaring, dynamic power, quickly erased all my reservations, particularly in the haunting love duet. As she and Heppner sat in darkness, silhouetted against a glowing blue background, motion simply stopped, creating a blissful, erotic trance. Unfortunately, yet understandably, her final note in the Liebestod, a make-or-break moment in the opera for some listeners, fell a bit short of the mark. But it didn't even remotely ditract from a tremendous vocal achievement.

Without exception, the rest of the cast, including Michelle DeYoung as Brangäne and Eike Wilm Schulte as Kurwenal, was fabulous, particularly bass Matti Salminen, in what is rumored to be his final Met appearance. His King Marke was heartbreaking, filled with solemn, noble dignity.

James Levine drew another exceptional performance from the Met Orchestra. Some of his tempos were a bit slow for my taste–I wanted a little more visceral energy in moments–but he reveled in the score's tender, psychological pages. Of course, when strength and drama were called, Levine delivered effortlessly.

I've now heard the orchestra under five different batons: Levine (on three occasions) and four guest conductors. With the exception Semyon Bychkov's flat, lifeless Otello, the orchestra has always played very well. But when Levine is in the pit, there's really no comparison. He unquestionably changes the sound of the orchestra--it's richer, heavier, darker. Without fail, the loudest and most affectionate ovations in a Levine-led performance are for the beloved conductor. And he deserves every second of it.

Unbelievably, before Friday, Heppner and Voigt had never sung Tristan together, and the sense of occasion was undeniable. In a review of the performance, Anthony Tommasini, chief critic at The New York Times and someone with plenty of authority when it comes to opera, evoked the memory of another pair of doomed lovers: Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers. That's a bold comparison–Nilsson and Vickers are among history's greatest Wagnerians–but it's not completely unreasonable.

After the first act, I unexpectedly bumped into David Rubin, outgoing dean of the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and a lifelong opera buff. He has heard all the best singers from the past half century, and I trust his musical judgment without reservation. At one point, he said to me that 50 years from now, people will remember this night as one of the finest collections of singers ever assembled. And after hearing this remarkable performance, how could I disagree?

(Photo by Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Anthony Dean Griffey Sings Peter Grimes at the Met

For many people, operas can be an intimidating experience–they can be quite long and are almost always sung in an unfamiliar language. Yet I think the stories themselves are often the biggest obstacles. They all project fundamental human emotions, but through characters and events with whom the average person cannot easily identify. Mozart's lothario Don Giovanni is dragged off to Hell by a vengeful statue that comes to life; Verdi's forbidden lovers Aida and Radames live against the backdrop of pyramids and Egyptian pharaohs; Wagner's monumental Ring cycle is set in a mythical land of gods and mortals. No matter how powerful the emotions of the voices and the orchestra, it can be hard to sympathize with a one-eyed god who carries a spear.

Peter Grimes, however, is no such experience. It's story is startlingly real: Peter Grimes is a lonely fisherman who is the target of his community's deep mistrust. He is prone to extreme mood swings–at one moment pining for his beloved Ellen Alford; at another violently throwing a child about the stage. After two of his apprentices die under suspicious circumstances, the townspeople turn completely against him, banishing him from the Borough, sending him on a final voyage out to sea.

The Metropolitan Opera unveiled its new production of Britten's harrowing masterpiece on Thursday night staring tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. Since the opera's premiere, two radically differing approaches of the title role have emerged: Peter Pears, the role's originator, viewed Grimes as a man driven to terrible acts by an unforgiving, oppressive community; Jon Vickers, on the other hand, saw Grimes as a brute, bringing out the character's anger and resentment.

Performances of Grimes are measured against these two legendary interpretations, and Griffey adopted elements of both. His beautiful lyric voice was sympathetic and, at times, even appealing. But he dashed any goodwill with shocking violent outbursts. The emotional instability Griffey set up made his Grimes compelling and powerful.

I've always been able to tell how engaging a concert is by listening to the crowd; the less noise, the better the performance. During Act III, one of the darkest in all of opera, held the audience transfixed. Silences usually filled with coughs and sneezes were completely motionless; people
were seemingly too afraid, or too shocked, to move. The enraged townspeople resolving to march on Grimes's hut–culminating in the shattering cries of "Peter Grimes!"–was chilling. Colder still was the following scene, an emotionally-raw monologue in which Grimes is cast adrift within his own delusions, haunted by his inner demons and the voices of the distant, faceless mob, now hidden behind the claustrophobic walls of his hut.

The story of his downfall strikes at the core of many human fears–someone who's different, misunderstood, an outsider. It's no challenge to place yourself in the shoes of either the townspeople or Grimes; we see this scenario unfold in countless ways all the time, and many of us have probably experienced it from both perspectives. In the end, Grimes is led out to sea, and the people of the Borough resume their normal lives. Yet the desolation and despair of Grimes's final moments will be hard to forget.

(Photo by Nick Heavican)

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gergiev, Vienna Philharmonic Heat Up Carnegie Hall

Outside the entrances to Carnegie Hall's main auditorium, there are bins filled with Ricola cough drops. The next time the Vienna Philharmonic comes to town, however, cold towels would be more appropriate.

The orchestra and Russian dynamo Valery Gergiev were at Carnegie Hall for three sold-out concerts, beginning Friday night with performances of excerpts from Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette, the yearning Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and Debussy's shimmering La Mer.

As I see it, a music critic's primary job is reporting: What did the performance sound like? Look like? Feel like? In many cases, it would be pretty easy to write a cursory description, throw in some authoritative-sounding terms, and bask in one's own brilliance. After all, how smart does it sound to talk about sonic clarity and careful dynamic pacing? But such writing means little to the average reader; it merely sounds impressive and people get the general idea whether the orchestra played well or not.

After hearing the Vienna Philharmonic on Friday night, I'm not ashamed to say I don't have the words to do the concert justice. It's not enough to say the orchestra was outstanding–they were. Simply put, it was the greatest orchestral playing I've heard in my life. Gergiev and the orchestra were exemplary in every regard, but several moments struck me as near miraculous.

Close to the end of the Berlioz, there was an extended, passionate solo from Principal Clarinet Peter Schmidl that began as a halting whisper and grew to an emotional lament. In the opening phrases, Schmidl's tone–soft and beautifully mellow–seemed to have neither a beginning nor an end; it merely emerged and disappeared within a world all its own.

Gergiev built the Tristan Prelude to a single, heart-stopping climax. For much of the opening, he set an expansive tempo, but as the strings begin their sweeping upward scales (measure 63, for nerds like me who have the score!), Gergiev slowly gathered speed, reaching the summit 20 bars later in a crushing diminished seventh chord. The entire Prelude (the entire opera, for that matter) is constantly pulling you in different directions, withholding the resolution your ear craves, but I've found this passage especially restless and unstable. Gergiev's interpretation was how I'd always imagined it being done, and with such overwhelming effect.

Throughout the concert, the brass produced a sound that almost defied belief–perfectly balanced, perfectly in tune. No matter how loud they played (and Gergiev was not shy about letting them rip), their tone remained remarkably warm and mellow. The great brass chorale at the end of La Mer had the richness and purity of liquid gold.

For Carnegie Hall veterans, hearing the Vienna Philharmonic may have lost its special appeal. But for me, it was a revelation, a glimpse at what is possible from an orchestra. Even a simple pizzicato had the weight and unity to ring throughout the hall. It may be a long time before I hear the Vienna Philharmonic again, but they have set an imposing standard that will be difficult for any orchestra to exceed.

(Photo by Marco Borggreve)