Cher Public

The year in Yohalem

My memory is fading but the events I recall most vividly of the last season (and I’m lopping over into 2013 and its triple double-O composers here: Verdi, Wagner, Britten) seem largely to have been concert performances.

Britten’s Peter Grimes, given by the St. Louis Symphony at Carnegie Hall, starring Anthony Dean Griffey and the splendid St. Louis Symphony Chorus led by Amy Kaiser.

Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount, also at Carnegie. My first acquaintance with this score and I hope not the last. (Would it work on stage? I don’t know.)

Handel’s Teseo at Mostly Mozart with Amanda Forsythe, Dominique Labelle and Drew Minter. The Medea mythos and definitely worthy of more popularity.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride, always welcome in my opinion, given two concerts by the visiting Bolshoi in the Lincoln Center Festival under the ancient and venerable (and still lively) Gennady Rozhdestventsky. This opera has never been staged by or at the Met; it has not been staged in New York at all since 1922 when a visiting company of Russian emigrés did a whole slew of operas, New York’s first–and for fifty years last–opera performances in the Russian language.

Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, given in Boson by a local company, and starring Jay Hunter Morris. A small, elegant hall enhanced the huge neo-romantic sound.

Franco Faccio’s Amleto, under the auspices of the Baltimore Concert Opera, a fascinating score of 1865, reconstituted lovingly by conductor Anthony Barrese, who shortly thereafter conducted a fully-staged and orchestrated series of performances with roughly the same eager young cast for Opera Southwest. An imperfect work by one of Verdi’s admirers and frequent interpreters, and the libretto was the very first by Arrigo Boito.

I have obtained a CD of a Southwest performance; it confirms my opinion that while the first act is weak until the grand concertato finaletto (set around the play-within-the-play), Act II, with the sublime trio of Queen-Hamlet-Ghost over Polonius’ dead body, Claudius’ self-tormenting monologue, Ophelia’s mad scene (not quite as extended or excerptible as the one from Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet) and the conclusion of the opera are fascinating experiments in taking opera in a new, post-Verdi musical direction. Verismo, however, was a quarter century away and did not cross anybody’s mind.

Does it seem curious to you that so many of my happiest memories are of operas in concert, two of which I I have seen in excellent staged productions, though not the hideously untheatrical one the Met last gave of Grimes? It seems curious to me that standard rep, staged as it now generally is in perverse or dramatically bedraggled stagings and with often mediocre singers gives me very little pleasure.

The Met last season finally got going when Diana Damrau and Javier Camerena joined forces in La Sonnambula, and such was the delight produced by Camarena’s luscious tenor that his abrupt replacement of an ailing Juan Diego Florez in La Cenerentola soon afterwards (Joyce DiDonato in the title role) sold out to a house full of delirious fans who demanded (and got) a (rehearsed) encore. That was news! So much so that Florez demanded (and got) the encore, too, as soon as he returned to the cast.

The Met was full of excitement! Tickets were eagerly sought! Because a hot new singer had turned up, not five years after shooting the moon but in the very year most of us first heard of him. Does no one in the publicity department get this? Hot new singers taking the town by storm! That’s what brings opera alive. Jay Hunter Morris did it, to an extent, in the Ring; so did Jonas Kaufmann in the Ring, Parsifal, Carmen and–most of all–Werther.

In Europe he’s just done his first La Forza del Destino. At the Met, we’ll be lucky to have it five years from now–when he’s prematurely gray and the blossom in his cheek has turned to chalk. Why not now? Throw out the Joan Ingpen system of hiring people five years after they can make something of the music. It is the ruin of the Met that no one in management seems to give a damn about singers and voices. “They think of the money, always the money” – well, I’m back in Peter Grimes again.

In a concert premiere of an opera, The Purchase of Manhattan, by a Native American composer, Brent Michael Davids (but with text in English), sung at a commodious church (Marble Collegiate) on the Middle East Side, I had the pleasure that keeps an opera lover coming back: The discovery of a remarkable young singer evidently ignored by the powers that be.

Alexandra Loutsion easily filled the capacious hall with radiant sound, smoothly and evenly produced, deep enough to convince me she was a mezzo, unforced in higher registers. On her web site she lists many soprano roles. I would go anywhere in reason to hear her sing anything. She is the real deal, and it helped that Davids, if he lacks melodramatic excitement, knows how to write melody and to write for voice.

We all love to batter the Met, and it offers so many opportunities to do so, but their revival of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was flawless, sung with an attention to vocal beauty not always evident in the earlier Met appearances of Shostakovich’s score, acted superbly and in Graham Vick’s production that has grown into audience taste. The brittle, high-powered score was led with a sure hand by James Conlon, who specializes in this sort of thing. (Why doesn’t he bring us Die Gezeichneten? It’s never been performed in New York.)

But even at Lady M, I couldn’t help but wonder why this was so perfect a presentation of a little-known score, clearly each performer rehearsed and each one chosen for appropriate talents, yet the Met can’t do right by Aida, which ought to be one of its signature works. The dancers and monoliths all moved into place, but what was Marcello Giordani doing on the stage, attempting to sing at all?

And is there no one in the Met’s very highly paid dramatic staff who could coach Ludmila Monastryrska, possessor of a fine lirico-spinto voice, to act as though she had it, and as if she knew what a single word of the text meant? They used to accuse Emma Eames of ice skating on the Nile in this opera, back in the 1890s when no one was terribly critical of staid acting in opera. Monastryrska was snowshoeing through the Valley of the Kings.

The vocal standout of the evening was Solomon Howard, making a thrilling debut as the King. A small role, but a tall, slim, handsome man with stage smarts and a big, rolling bass makes it stand out. He reigned, folks!

The King was once a James Morris role, and I hope to hear Howard take on a few more such things. Morris was an old and rather juiceless fox pacing himself well through his no doubt last run of Die Meistersinger, but he was not a sensual pleasure–for that, I had to rely that evening on Johan Botha’s elegant fioriture as Walther, Hans-Peter Koenig’s warm Pogner and Paul Appleby’s delightful David.

Gotham Chamber Opera revived its utterly delectable Montsalvatge with puppets extravaganza, El Gato con Botas, in both Spanish and English performances. I’m very sorry for you if you missed this concoction, but rumors of its touring have reached me – I do hope they’re true. I’d go again.

There was a merry little performance of Handel’s Alcina at the WhiteBoxLab SoundLounge near the Bowery, rather superior to the one Joyce Di Donato led in Carnegie Hall (splendid Joyce herself aside). There was a revival of Carlisle Floyd’s curious Markheim with a wonderfully diabolic Jeremy Milner.

Dell’Arte’s Shakespearean double bill, Salieri’s Falstaff and Verdi’s Macbeth, in which Marie Masters’ Mrs. Ford and Hans Tashjian’s Banquo suggested that they were voices to take note of, and I was impressed at how well Verdi’s score worked when reduced to 19 instruments by the able conductor, Christopher Fecteau.

There was a spookiness to the story as sung in close quarters that was completely absent from the Met’s revival of the opera, featuring an outgoing and utterly unhaunted Lady M from Anna Netrebko and a rolling, pleasurable but again, unhaunted Macbeth from Zeljko Lucic.

For me, perhaps, the two most operatic occasions of 2014 were, first, the return to New York of Mariella Devia in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, a marvel of bel canto, of using your resources cautiously and deftly to give pleasure in a role that can easily singe the throat.

Second, and the most extravagant of all in terms of melodrama if quite affordable in money, was Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, the first blank verse masterpiece of the English-speaking stage. I’ve been waiting for a good Tamburlaine half my life–like Norma, it’s a work that should not be given at all until a really effective star turns up, and that happens once a generation or less.

This conjunction of the stars came to the Theater for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center near BAM, where John Douglas Thompson took on the title role in a production by Michael Boyd.

There was a one-man percussion band high above the playing area but no one sang. I don’t care. This was opera. This was real grand opera. There were arias. There were melodies. There were leitmotiven. Thompson opened his mouth and Niagaras and Liebestods poured out of him, diatribes and furies and seductions and betrayals and gloats in great endless streams of verbiage, words upon words upon words, words you never thought to hear, words you’d forgotten, new coinages, new spouts of metaphor.

You saw why this inspired his contemporary from Stratford, and why Shakespeare improved upon it – but the bones were glorious even here, a dozen years before Hamlet or Othello. It was a riveting performance, with a largely excellent cast and a non-stop production full of intricate stage techniques that never called attention to themselves. It was exhausting and revivifying. It was opera. Thompson was Farinelli, Lauritz Melchior and George London rolled into one.

Photo: Gerry Goodstein

  • MontyNostry

    A fascinating list.

    • Camille

      I concur.

      Thank you so much for your intelligence and diligence, Mr. Yohalem.
      Still rueing my lack of initiative the night of the Peter Grimes.