Don Giovanni at the Met

The Met has rounded up a good cast for this Don Giovanni premiere, particularly stellar late replacements Fabio Luisi conducting and Peter Mattei in the title role. It’s a shame that despite a lot of excellent singing the evening rarely rose above lukewarm. Michael Grandage’s fearsomely homogenizing and tame production bulldozed any personality in its path.

Mozart/Da Ponte, Don Giovanni. Metropolitan Opera, 10/13/11. New production premiere, directed by Michael Grandage and conducted by Fabio Luisi with Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni), Luca Pisaroni (Leporello), Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna), Barbara Frittoli (Donna Elvira), Ramón Vargas (Don Ottavio), Mojca Erdmann (Zerlina), Joshua Bloom (Masetto), Stefan Kocan (Commendatore).

Based on this and Anna Bolena, the new Met house staging style seems to be “no interpretation allowed.” More on that in a second, let’s start with the interesting and positive part–the music. New principal conductor and Levine stand-in Fabio Luisi led an elegant and clean account of the score, with fast to moderately fast tempos and light textures. He has a fantastic sense of dramatic pace and is never obtrusively showy or different. Everything flowed along as it should. He played the harpsichord continuo himself (the first time I’ve seen a non-HIP conductor do that, I think) and was witty and well-timed without ever straying towards René Jacobs’s sports commentator fortepiano territory. He passed my Don Giovanni conductor test–how is the timing in the Act 2 sextet?–with flying colors.

The cast was almost universally strong, and well-cast for vocal size, projecting without sounding oversized. Peter Mattei’s velvety baritone is the most seductive characteristic of his Giovanni, who otherwise tends towards the aggressive and dangerous. But it is a very sexy voice, and his serenade was a highlight, simple (with tasteful ornamentation in the second strophe) and quiet. He also managed an unusually accurate “Fin ch’han la vino.”

My last impression of Luca Pisaroni was in the Wiener Staatsoper’s Nozze di Figaro, but no singer should be held accountable for that particular production. He was a delight as Leporello, funny and spontaneous in the recitatives and musical and smooth in the big aria. It is nice to see Ramón Vargas back in Mozart as Don Ottavio after his dubious attempts at heavier rep. There was palpable effort in his “Dalla sua pace” messa di voce, but he sounded sweet and clear and the coloratura in “Il mio tesoro” was long-breathed and impressively clean. Stefan Kocan was an undersized Commendatore and Joshua Bloom an excellent Masetto.

Rebeka and Vargas

The women were led by house debutant Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna (like 60% of singers these days, she is Latvian). Her cool, somewhat steely and white soprano isn’t naturally glamorous, but everything was evenly produced, elegantly musical, and solid, including her coloratura. She’s quite loud and tended to dominate the ensembles. Barbara Frittoli’s much warmer and richer-voiced Elvira was an excellent contrast to Rebeka. Her top notes often turned wobbly but I appreciated her refinement. The cast’s weak link was Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina, whose fragile, very small soprano awkwardly shifted between a straight silvery tone and an excess of vibrato. Her phrasing was inexpressive.

But despite the good performances, no one gave a true star turn. Zachary Woolfe’s “charisma” and JJ’s “glamour” were both in short supply. The extraordinarily bland production may be to blame. If you gave any opera buff or stage manager this set and these costumes and told them to produce the most conventional Don Giovanni they could imagine, they’d probably come up with something like it. The Personenregie is detailed and not that bad, meaning that it’s clear and it’s not static. Mattei and Pisaroni are strong actors, Vargas and Rebeka less so. But Grandage has no perspective on a work that really demands interpretative unpacking. Don Giovanni is a weird, fascinating, confusing, contradictory opera, it’s a black hole of mystery, but no personality at all emerges from these harmless characters. They all seem to lack individuality and soul. It’s a smoothly executed job, but there’s nothing beneath the surface, and fails to draw you in emotionally.

Christopher Oram’s set has multiple levels of balconies and lots of little doors. This is a look we’ve seen before at the Met and it’s not one I like. The tiny space at each balcony doesn’t allow for much action, and Donna Anna and Don Giovanni’s confrontation at the beginning of the opera (something I care about a lot) was so constricted in space that you couldn’t tell what was being expressed. (I was gratified that she did not seem to like him very much, though.) The walls move around a bit, creating some variety, but it’s basically a unit set. The costumes, also by Oram, are basic frilly 18th century, with a side of our favorite (meaning least favorite) time period, the Slutty 18th Century, when even Donna Anna’s mourning dress displays lots of cleavage.

Ben Wright’s choreography is rather busy and fills the stage during Zerlina’s wedding and the first act finale, but it seems to function solely as a space filler. Grandage surrounds Giovanni with some downmarket ladies of the night in the last scene, hardly as daring a move as giving them to Scarpia but still the most originality to be found here. The final scene is a conflation of an anticlimactic Darth Vader entrance by the Commendatore and the Fire Swamp scene from The Princess Bride (minus the ROUSes, unfortunately). After a lot of am dram shaking, some hellfire does start up, but it’s too little, too late.

Despite the musical accomplishment, this was an unfulfilling evening. Unlike Jean-Louis Martinoty’s recent Wiener Staatsoper train wreck, it is not a confusing or incompetent Don, just an empty one with a discouraging lack of intellectual curiosity. Very disappointing.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera (special thanks to @PaulCavaradossi)

Curtain Call (photos courtesy of B., who unlike me had a camera and was on the orchestra level):

Video: Peter Mattei sings “Da vieni alla finestra” in a different production.

Continue Reading

Last year at Oneginbad with Herheim and Jansons

You can escape into romantic fantasy if you like–for example, at the opera. But it’s not the best way of solving your problems, and you might end up touching off the Russian Revolution. Such is the message, more or less, of Stefan Herheim’s production of Yevgeny Onegin at the Nederlandse Opera. Modern Onegin is wandering around a bunch of bored nouveaux riches when an obsessively repeating bit of recorded dance music triggers his memory, the live orchestra starts the prelude, and away we go on a journey through Russian history.

This is a show that really goes for broke and is a triumph on just about every count. That live orchestra is no less than the Royal Concertgebouw, with Mariss Jansons conducting, and the all-around strong cast is led by Krassimira Stoyanova’s arguably absolutely perfect Tatiana. And there’s that production…

Chaikovsky, Yevgeny Onegin. De Nederlandse Opera/Holland Festival, 6/20/2011. New production by Stefan Herheim, sets by Philipp Fürhofer, costumes by Gesine Völlm, lighting by Olaf Freese. Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest conducted by Mariss Jansons with Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatiana), Bo Skovhus (Onegin), Andrej Dunaev (Lenski), Mikhail Petrenko (Gremin), Elena Maximova (Olga), Olga Savova (Larina), Guy de Mey (Monsieur Triquet).

First I want to say that this production will be broadcast on June 23 on Mezzo TV and presumably later available on DVD. I encourage you to watch it, and perhaps do so before you read my review–I didn’t read anything about the production before I saw it and I think it was more effective that way. Spoilers, as they say, ahead.

Past and present overlap in this production. Onegin looks back on the chance he lost through the lens of 19th century Russia, and Tatiana also reflects back on the days when she was more of a dreamer. In Pushkin’s poem, Onegin is a “superfluous man,” rich, intelligent, and idle. In Herheim’s production, Onegin’s search for a place in society is equated with Russia’s own perpetual identity crisis. Lensky and Gremin are in part his alter-egos. Lensky is the 19th-century poet who sacrifices himself for his ideals, Gremin is the modern Putin-age capitalist and functionary. Onegin himself is caught in between, passive and powerless.

We enter the story at the moment after Onegin’s Act 3 arioso–which you will know right off if you recognize the recorded music at the start. (That this recorded music, placed somewhere upstage, is more “realistic” than the much richer sound of the actual orchestra is only the first of the production’s ironies.) Until we reach that point in Act 3, everything is a dreamy flashback. The unit set is the tacky marble-walled salon of the opening, but a diamond-shaped glass room in its center unveils Onegin and Tatiana’s memories, first revealing Larina and Filipevna. Later, the room produces peasants resembling colorful Russian dolls (who sing together with the modern guests from the opening), and a full-fledged nineteenth-century ball.

Sometimes the staging is straightforwardly plot-oriented but makes you understand the characters in a whole new light: when Onegin and Lensky first appear, Olga is interested in Onegin, not Lensky, and Onegin seems to go to Tatiana just to tease her. Lensky is even something of an ignored loser. The events that lead to the duel suddenly make a lot more sense.

But it’s not all that simple. In the Letter Scene, Tatiana lives or relives her writing as Gremin sleeps, and Onegin simultaneously writes a letter to her or takes her dictation (remember how he sings the music from her aria in Act 3?). She gets to sing it to him as she imagines him, and he gets to witness what he missed (she even manages to transform the Gremin in her bed into Onegin by the end of the scene). It’s a gratifying change for everyone, audience included–usually we don’t get to see Onegin and Tatiana in love with each other but here we do and awwwww–but, still, it’s only in their imaginations. That, in fact, is the point.

Other fantasies are more dangerous. In the midst of a fancy ball complete with giant dancing bear (the turntable of the glass room is used to great effect, none of the poem’s provincialism here), the Baroque M. Triquet summons a large star that shoots sparks, setting his giant wig on fire, to general hilarity. Um, was that just a joke or was it the revolution of 1905? Watch out for those stars. Challenging Onegin, Lensky gets ahold of Tatiana’s red book and the glowing star is replaced with a flaming iron one, and the ball is invaded by armed men. Welcome to the Russian Revolution. As history, its interaction with the plot is dubious–I guess the poet loses his innocence and takes violent action (while still depending on the fantasies found in his books, this time a red one). But the sense of honor involved in a duel doesn’t fit with that. As theater, however, my jaw may have literally dropped.

After the personal drama of the first half (which extends up to the first ball), the second half is comparatively scattershot and aims some jokes at giant Soviet targets. But it’s still massively entertaining. In the duel, Onegin kills off nineteenth-century Romanticism by shooting Lensky in the back. In the Polonaise at the ball that follows, we see a parade of Soviet icons: ballet dancers, cosmonauts, steroid-enhanced Olympic athletes, etc., none of whom can help Onegin or Russia find their way. Tatiana and Gremin now appear in kitschy glitter. And we have gotten to the point where we started. At the very end, Gremin encourages Onegin to shoot himself, but takes out the bullets first. Onegin is powerless to the very end.

In a production as complex and involving as this one, the specific musical choices tend not to stick out–not because they aren’t important, but just because there is so much to look at and think about. That was not the case here, which was close to musically ideal. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit was a rare luxury, and sounded exquisite, though not Russian at all. This was Jansons’s approach, which favored delicacy and transparency over bombast and soupy sentimentalism and showed beautiful details of texture and phrasing. They also proved to be considerably better accompanists than the very loud Berliner Philharmoniker, and despite a shallow orchestra pit balances were excellent. The chorus also sounded very good. (It must be noted that Jansons must be using a Von Karajan 2000 XTall Edition podium, and was very visible at all points.)

Bo Skovhus was a good Onegin for many of the same reasons he was miscast as Mandryka in Vienna in March. His lyric, expressive voice and urbane air are perfect as this confused but unusually personable Onegin, though he overacts at times. The real vocal highlight of the performance was Krassimra Stoyanova’s glorious Tatiana, sung with ease, beautifully rich and slightly dark tone and perfect musicality. She tends to be a cool actress, but here found a very sympathetic restrained warmth and vulnerability that was touching without ever being too much. (Overacting must be tempting in Herheim productions. You’ve got a lot of competition. Did I mention the giant dancing bear?) Andrej Dunaev sounded ardent and impassioned as Lensky, perhaps a bit too ardent and consistently loud at times. A little more expressive subtlety would have helped in the aria. The three other ladies were excellent, particularly Elena Maximova’s sparky Olga. Mikhail Petrenko was onstage a lot more than most Gremins (though his role was defined by a lack of personality), and sang the aria with expansive but still lyric tone.

In all, a marvelous night at the opera. Don’t miss this one, even if you have to wait for the DVD. Performances continue in Amsterdam through the beginning of July.

Video:

***
The Muziektheater in Amsterdam is a modern venue, located in the same building as the city hall and shaped like an arena similar to the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg (though considerably smaller). It’s not beautiful and the many little light bulbs look like a movie theater, but it’s a lot better than the Opéra Bastille. Logistically, however, it seems to suffer something of a shortage of bicycle parking (this is Amsterdam), leading to a lot of clutter outside.

Production photos copyright Forster.

Continue Reading

Otello at the Opéra Bastille

I’m in Paris! And I went to Otello at the Opéra Bastille with Renée Fleming and Aleksandrs Antonenko, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack. You can read it here! Surprise: La Fleming was great. Not a surprise: Marco Armiliato was boring.

One thing I didn’t mention in the review: while doing her death throes, Fleming slid off the bed and her nightgown began to head north. She managed to push it down in a relatively natural-looking way before we saw her knees. That’s some stage experience.

This was my first visit to the modern and giant Opéra Bastille, and I kind of hated it. It’s an airport with good acoustics, astonishingly cavernous and soulless. I was expecting something like the Deutsche Oper Berlin but bigger, but it is so much worse. But once the opera starts you stop noticing, and the sight lines and acoustics are excellent. And the seats are very comfortable.

The same can not be said of the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, where I saw Idomeneo last night. It is a pretty theater with, from where I was sitting, bad sight lines and problematic acoustics. More on that in a bit. The Idomeneo, not the sight lines and the acoustics, that is.

Continue Reading

Yevgeny Onegin: Love in a cold climate

There’s a chance that this was my last rep performance at the Staatsoper this season, so it’s a shame I have to go out on a mediocre note. This revival of Falk Richter’s dire production is notable and perhaps worth seeing for Peter Mattei’s stellar assumption of the title role. But this isn’t really a star vehicle opera. I guess some people can overlook the incoherence in rest of it more easily than I can, but I didn’t find it a satisfying experience. Maija Kovalevska’s Tatiana isn’t that bad, though.

Chaikovsky, Eugen Onegin. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/11/2011. Production by Falk Richter (revival), conducted by Michael Güttler with Maija Kovalevska (Tatiana), Peter Mattei (Onegin), Marius Benciu (Lensky), Ain Anger (Gremin), Nadia Krasteva (Olga), Zoryana Kushpler (Larina), Aura Twarowska (Filipjewna).

Falk Richter’s production is a grab bag of clichés that come and go. The one constant is an awful lot of falling snow in nearly every scene. Dress is modern, set is minimal, and blocking is static. Color symbolism, imaginary characters and doublings, and really annoying acrobats are combined into a static, chilly mix that shows little interest in the story and characters, or any sensitivity to the music at all. At first, we see doubles of Tatiana with a mystery man as frozen couples in the background, and the happy peasants also seem to belong to her fantasy world, identifiably by its, um, romantic navy blue business suits. The more practical characters wear red. If anyone wants to make this red mean something obviously significant and Communist, I would first caution you that this production doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Russia at all. The blue plus red plus white snow does look like a Russian flag, though (after my Italian flag the other week). Also, he forgets about all this after Act 1.

Letter Scene

Act 2 features a truly dreadful party scene that includes awkwardly enthusiastic attempts at current dance styles by the chorus, further flips by said acrobats, and, because we’re in Austria, some people in puffy shiny dresses waltzing (Tatiana incongruously wearing diva-approved long sleeves). I kind of liked Monsieur Triquet as a faded rock star, but like everything else he doesn’t have a point. Act 3 involves lots of people in black walking up and down stairs quite slowly. I was hoping Tatiana or Onegin would rip off her bedazzled shower cap, but they didn’t. That would have made everything a little more exciting and less Norma Desmond-looking. I could go on, but I’ll try not to, because the main sin of this production is that it is not interesting. The lighting design is also far too dark at times, including a Letter Scene that while not too dark is lit entirely from the back (see above), the lack of front light means you can’t see Tatiana’s face clearly. OK, I’ll stop.

For two lead singers, both new to this production and in fact making their house debuts, the staging offered little help in terms of characterization, and while both showed good acting skills they ended up a little underdeveloped and generic. Maija Kovalevska cuts a pretty figure as Tatiana and is a good actress, within the unfortunate strictures of this production. I never warmed to her metallic, tense sound and fast vibrato, but her singing was musical and rock solid secure, and she can manage impressive power in her upper register. On the other hand, Peter Mattei is seemingly incapable of making a less than beautiful sound, with a chocolately baritone that he never forces (his voice is not large but it is well-projected). His Onegin went on a clear journey from arrogance (Act 1) to boredom (Act 2) to despondency (Act 3), but I think he was much better in this Salzburg production available on DVD.

Act 3

Michael Güttler conducted a rushed account of the prelude followed by an ensemble in which the sisters’ offstage singing had little to do with whatever the harp was playing in the pit. It got a little better. Being too tough on Güttler would be cruel since he probably didn’t get any rehearsal, but this was not good and the orchestra was not trying very hard. In the rest of the cast, Marius Brenciu was a thin-toned, underacted Lensky, though his pp account of the aria’s second strophe was nice. Ain Anger is the youngest and least crusty Gremin this side of René Pape and sang lyrically and not so giant Russian-ly but well. As Olga, Madame Larina, and Filipjewa, Nadia Krasteva, Zoryana Kushpler, and Aura Twarowska showed that the Staatsoper ensemble has a smashing group of Slavic mezzos and altos, all three of them outstanding. Somewhere there’s got to be an opera by Cui or Dargomyzhsky or somebody that has three lading mezzo/alto roles for these impressive ladies.

If you want to go hear them in Onegin, well, you can do that too. Performances remain on June 10 and 13.

Video: Peter Mattei in said Salzburg production

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

Continue Reading

Rusalka in Munich: Not part of this world

Martin Kušej’s new Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rusalka is not a happily tragic fairy tale.  Rusalka’s lake is a dark, damp cellar, where she is imprisoned with her sisters by her abusive father.  But once she finally escapes, she is thrown mute and alone into an equally brutal world where she is utterly unequipped to survive, and he increasingly looks like a protector.  It is a deeply unsettling and, for the most part, enormously effective production.

Dvořák, Rusalka, Bayerische Staatsoper, 10/26/2010.  New production by Martin Kušej, sets by Martin Zehetgruber, costumes by Heidi Hackl, lights by Reinhard Traub.  Conducted by Tomáš Hanus with Kristine Opolais (Rusalka), Klaus Florian Vogt (The Prince), Günther Groissböck (The Water Goblin), Nadia Krasteva (The Foreign Princess), Janina Baechle (The Witch).

We open to see a giant photographic cyclorama of an idealized alpine vista, flat and fake.  In front of this is are the accoutrements of a run-down living room and the house’s occupants, a man in track pants and a bath robe and an indifferently caftaned woman with long curly hair.  Wait, what?  Then this room rises to reveal a wet, dark, filthy cellar below, populated by a group of imprisoned girls of various ages.

Yes, the concept is based on the Fritzl and Kampusch cases.  The light on the water of the opening is the man above (for he is the Water Goblin, their father) shining a flashlight down through a trapdoor from the room above, before he climbs a ladder into the cellar to abuse them.  Rusalka’s moon is a bare neon globe; how she has spotted the Prince is left unsolved.  She begs her mother–Jezibaba–for freedom, but when she finally gets it she’s given a pair of Dorothy-like red heels that she can’t even walk in, deprived not only of her voice but also her grace.  Unsurprisingly, she attaches herself to the first person who happens upon her, the Prince, even if he meets her while pointing a gun at her.

The second act opens with the Gamekeeper systematically dismembering a deer with occasional breaks to grope his niece, the Kitchen, um, Girl (usually a pants role).  So, you know, not that much of an improvement for Rusalka.  She’s tottering around mute and lost and utterly helpless, confronted by wedding guests in tacky Alpine Tracht that recall nothing so much as the mural of Act 1.  Rusalka discovers the Prince enjoying a pre-marriage bump with the Foreign Princess against a wall and runs back to her abuser/guardian.

For the first two acts, it’s a brutal but rather brilliant exploration of Rusalka’s battered outsider status, and her twisted relationship with her father.  But like in many of these sorts of productions, in Act 3 things get a little too complicated.  The Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Girl corner the Water Goblin, who unexpectedly stabs the Gamekeeper to death, but it seems that this was some kind of sting operation as police officers jump out to catch the Water Goblin (their timing is a little off).  The daughters are all put into a mental institution that, while a plausible consequence, in the plot resembles a deadly serious version of the jail in Act 3 of Fledermaus: everyone keeps inexplicably showing up there.  The Prince reveals unexpected and implausible depths of guilt and kills himself, Rusalka is left broken and alone with her similarly insane sisters.

The visual vocabulary of this production could be a winner in any game of Regie bingo: the icky father figure in a bathrobe toting Aldi bags, the Prince’s wallpaper almost matching that of the opera house, the dead animals (more dead deers are wielded by a crowd of brides in a horrific wedding ballet), the deflation of Alpine kitsch.  (I know by now that as soon as anyone steps onto a German opera stage wearing lederhosen that they’re about to do something horrific.)

But for all its occasional reliance on cliche and its unrelenting darkness, I loved this reinterpretation of Rusalka’s character.  The nymph is usually a spirit of longing, not a character but a collection of romantic desires in passive feminine form.  Kušej is usually described as a total misanthrope (his productions of Don Giovanni and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk bear this out), but I thought he gave her, for once, a revelatory humanity.  This soul adrift is not pretty in her yearning, she’s a woman who has been destroyed by total alienation and abuse and has only instinct left.  You can read this (and I would like to) as an implicit critique of the tradition that has given us all these beautifully longing spirits in the first place, and as a challenge to an art form that still often stages female objectification without thinking twice.  Like many operatic characters, Rusalka cannot control her own fate or even or own body, but for once we can’t miss the inhumanity of that loss.

Kristine Opolais had a theatrical triumph in the title role, acting with raw commitment and an utter lack of diva vanity, stumbling and trembling the entire evening.  Her voice is also raw and pushed, and her senses of rhythm and pitch sometimes approximate.  But while this is not a lusciously sung Rusalka, it’s a heartbreakingly vivid one.  Less earthy was Klaus Florian Vogt’s Prince, sung with exquisitely crystalline tone that effortlessly fills the theater.  For all its beauty it can be a somewhat bloodless, unvarying sound, though he acts with a passion his voice can’t really command.  His unearthly Prince and Opolais’s tough Rusalka were a fascinating reversal of the usual sounds in these roles.

All the musical values were top-notch and Tomáš Hanus conducted a beautifully contained performance with great lyricism and transparency.  He never lapsed into sappy sentimentality, but found the kind of romantic sweep you need in the big moments.  And the orchestra was excellent.  But this was a performance more memorable for its production than its music.  The Personenregie was detailed and across-the-board convincing to a rare degree down to the small roles (particularly the haunting nymphs, who also all sang wonderfully).  Günther Groissbock sang the Water Goblin with a medium-sized, very secure bass, and gave a creepy but, even creepier, never overacted portrayal, defined by his extremely ambivalent relationship with Rusalka.  Nadia Krasteva was a glamorous Foreign Princess and sang well, though it is odd to hear a mezzo in this role.  Janina Baechel’s Jezibaba had no magic, but was another fascinatingly conflicted, ambiguous character, and sung with authority and precision.

There’s a place for fairy tales, but to see something that dismantles them so thoroughly and devastatingly is not to be missed.  Leave the kids at home, though.

N.B.: I had a restricted-view seat for the first two acts (found something slightly better for Act III) and missed some of the things happening on stage left.  This production is being filmed for DVD, there were cameras all over the place, so I’m looking forward to seeing it again with more complete visuals.

And I saw someone who looked like Katharina Wagner, but I’m not sure if it was her or not.

Next: What’s this mermaid opera I’m seeing tonight?  Oh, yeah, Rusalka again!  This time at the Volksoper.
Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper except the two below.
Edited because diacriticals are critical.
My most successful bows photo yet:

Nationaltheater under a very Bavarian sky:

Continue Reading

Andris Nelsons and the Philharmoniker: Old orchestra in a New World

Watching Andris Nelsons conduct is great fun.  His hands flutter wildly, he crouches, he stands on his toes.  He looks like he is having a much better time than anyone in the Wiener Philharmoniker ever seems to be.  But it’s a measure of the musical success of his Philharmoniker debut that I did not regret having gotten up early on a Sunday morning for a trombone concerto.  Much less for his absolutely spectacular Dvořák 9.

Wiener Philharmoniker 3. Soirée, Andris Nelsons, conductor; Dietmar Küblböck, trombone.  Musikverein, 24/10/10.  Mozart, Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K. 319; Tomasi, Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra; Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in e minor, “From the New World.”

These 11:00 Sunday morning concerts are a common thing in Austria.  It’s a Catholic country, but I suspect there’s a lot of Kunstreligion in these parts.  Usually around this time I’m having a second cup of coffee and thinking about doing laundry, but I’m glad I dragged myself out of the house for this one. 

Andris Nelsons had already had his second cup of coffee, if not his third and his fourth as well.  The Latvian wunderkind is a disciple of the Faster is Better School of Conducting Prodigies (see also Nézet-Séguin, Yannick; Harding, Daniel), but there was a lot else going on here too.  The program began with Mozart’s Symphony K. 319.  Mozart with the Philharmoniker is inevitably a plush experience.  This is not my personal preference, but Nelsons’s light and fluid approach made it an enjoyably frothy and brilliant performance in the fast movements and a clear, delicate one in the canonic entries of the slow movement.  He seemed to want a more rustic character in the minuet than the orchestra was giving him, but in the last movement gathered speed like a 16-year old given a sportscar. 

Henri Tomasi (1901-1971) was a new name to me, he was a mid-century French composer of exceptionally tonal music.  His 1956 trombone concerto sounds like the bastard child of Gershwin and Prokofiev as raised by Poulenc.  It opens with a series of recitative-like confrontations between the trombone and orchestra, but then settles into a more relaxed and melodic groove, which it more or less stays in for the rest of the three-movement piece.  There’s a lot of jazzy stuff, there’s some twinkly and mechanical-sounding wind writing, there are passages that sound like trombone outtakes from An American in Paris.  Nelsons conducted it with as much rhythmic verve as he could locate.  It’s an enjoyable piece and Dietmar Küblböck played it with mellow command, but I don’t feel inspired to locate the rest of the Tomasi oeuvre.

The highlight of the program was the ever-popular Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” of Antonin Dvořák.  Nelsons conducted it with Brahmsian attention to rhythmic detail and texture, bringing out unexpected inner voices and harmonies that are usually lost behind the big tunes.  Except for the trio of the Scherzo, nothing sounded folksy at all.  As an orchestral musician I have been around the Dvořák 9 block and heard things I have never heard before: the first movement development emerged as a developing variation between strings and brass, a trilling string accompaniment figure in the second movement foreshadowed the birds near the end of the movement.  The last movement was, yes, very fast, but also Nelsons finally seemed to get a sharp-edged violence from the orchestra that never turned heavy.  Great all around.

Nelsons and the Philharmoniker repeat this program in the Musikverein on Tuesday and on tour in Japan next week.  I, on the other hand, will be in Bavaria on Tuesday to see Rusalka and can only hope that soprano Kristine Opolais proves as adept a Dvořák interpreter as her boyfriend is.

Photos: Royal Academy of Music/Telegraph.  As you probably guessed from the empty seats and lady violinist in the first row, that photo is not of the Philharmoniker.

Continue Reading