Cher Public

Black Friday

Familiarity breeds… if not contempt, perhaps indifference? Usually the longer I know a work the more I look forward to rediscovering it. But that’s just not the case with the Verdi Requiem which began a four-performance run Friday night at the Met. 

Each time I hear this piece I like it less and James Levine’s loud, dull interpretation did nothing to change that despite some fine singing by Krassimira Stoyanova and Ekaterina Semenchuk.

I bow to no one in my admiration for Verdi and would rather hear his music than that of almost any other opera composer. His particular genius lies in creating complex, conflicted human beings whose characterful music thrills and moves me. His realization of the pious abstractions of the text to the Requiem just doesn’t work for me; my mind wanders during all that “sound and fury” except for the hair-raising “Libera ma” that concludes the work but by then it’s too late.

I’ve never owned a commercial recording although I have a number of “pirates” but it must be decades since I listened to any at home. I have dutifully attended live performances and Friday’s must have been my sixth which like my very first was conducted by Levine. My student ticket which landed me in the third row of Music Hall but that 1980 Cincinnati May Festival concert didn’t grab me either as mostly I recall the heavenly voice of Teresa Zylis-Gara.

I note that Levine will return to the May Festival next year for the first time since then with rising star Michelle Bradley as his soprano soloist alongside Semenchuk and Matthew Polenzani.

Though it would seem an obvious choice for the house, the Requiem hasn’t had that many performances at the Met in the past 90 years. After a 1926 run conducted by Tullio Serafin that included soloists like Rosa Ponselle, Elisabeth Rethberg, Karin Branzell, Beniamino Gigli, and Ezio Pinza it disappeared except for a benefit for the Red Cross in 1944, Bing brought it back a few times during the 1950s as a Zinka-fest pairing it with the “Convent Scene” from La Forza del Destino.

Since then it’s been done in the house as a memorial: in 1964 (with the Good Friday Spell from Parsifal) for President John F. Kennedy and then in the new house in 1982 for Francis Robinson and 2008 for Luciano Pavarotti. Although this season’s run of four Requiems were scheduled as a stopgap after the cancelation of a new Forza they too became a memorial. After the great baritone Dmitri Hvorstovsky died on Wednesday, the Met dedicated all four to his memory.

Although no one else has conducted the Met’s forces in the piece since 1965 at the Lewisohn Stadium, this performance was only Levine’s third Requiem at Lincoln Center after the Robinson and Pavarotti iterations. Others have been on the 1981 national tour (a consequence no doubt of the labor strike that year), in Tokyo or at Carnegie Hall back in the day when the Met Orchestra concerts there often included large-scale choral works.

Lately Levine’s performances have been a wild mixture of chaos and exaltation. Friday’s Requiem veered from raucous ear-splitting choral outbursts to raptly serene meditations. The full chorus augmented by its extra members dressed in black suits and severe mid-calf-length black dresses designed by Isaac Mizrahi were seated on rows and rows of bleachers behind the soloists who sang in front of music stands which they raised and lowered throughout the evening.

Levine appeared not to pay much attention to the soloists or chorus which might have accounted for some less than ideal coordination among the large forces. Many movements were numbingly slow while the “Sanctus” raced by in a blur. The entire evening remained stubbornly earthbound with an enormously long, mightily self-indulgent pause at the very end. Overall I found Alan Gilbert’s with the New York Philharmonic two years ago a much more coherent and effective interpretation.

Nearly four decades after his Met debut Ferruccio Furlanetto retains the steadiness and power to thunder out “Mors stupebit.” After a very old-sounding Filippo in a dire Lorin Maazel-led Don Carlo several years, Furlanetto seems to have gotten through that bad patch although his stage deportment during the concert was frequently alarming. He looked utterly miserable, either bored with his face buried in his hands or ill as he more than once pinched his nose during his music. Maybe by now he’s just sung too many Requiems in his 68 years?

Aleksandrs Antonenko too appeared less than thrilled to be there sitting blankly with his arms folded across his chest most of the time after his blunt “Ingemisco.” Although there were some nice trumpety high notes which would have come in handy during the woeful Otello I last heard him plow through, his occasional attempts at dynamic variation went awry particularly in a woozy falsetto for the “Hostias.”

Happily the two ladies were on much finer form. I’ve always admired Semenchuk particularly in a very fine Didon in Les Troyens with Valery Gergiev at Carnegie Hall. I hadn’t realized she’d been missing from the Met for the past seven years following her sumptuous Marina in Boris Godunov (opposite Antonenko). This Requiem marked not only her return but also her first non-Russian “role” at the house; one hopes that it and the upcoming Santuzza are harbingers of more frequent future appearances.

I’d been recently listening to Elena Obraztsova and was struck during the early sections of the Requiem by the resemblance between Semenchuk’s pungent voice and that of her late compatriot. Her very dark, vibrato-rich distinctively Russian sound poured out unstintingly but she eventually reined it in doing some quietly sensitive duetting with Stoyanova in the “Recordare” and “Agnus Dei.”

A few local would-be pundit love to moan about how the Met ignores Stoyanova, although mere facts tend to punch holes in their plaints. In addition to these Requiems she has sung eight roles in the house from Donna Anna to Nedda. I’ve heard four of them and the Mozart was particularly excellent but her overly modest Mimi paired with the prosaic Rodolfo of Joseph Calleja combined for one of the dullest Bohèmes in memory.

Beyond the Met she’s also sung Anna Bolena, La Battaglia di Legnano, and Les Huguenots with Opera Orchestra of New York and a luminous Desdemona under Riccardo Muti with the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall. So New York Stoyanova fans shouldn’t complain.

I read an interview earlier this year in which Stoyanova addressed the alarm noted that she had taken on Aïda. Her reasoning was that Teresa Stolz, the first La Scala Aïda, also created the soprano part in the Requiem. Since she has been singing the latter for years, the Ethiopian princess shouldn’t be considered a stretch. For those who covet a full-fledged spinto at full blast Stoyanova might prove be inadequate but I appreciated the sensitivity and beauty of her singing in Friday’s Requiem.

The high, soft lines floated magically into the house and if the big loud notes didn’t ideally dominate the huge forces it didn’t matter that much to me. She remains a somewhat reticent artist, serious and musical if lacking a truly distinctive individual flavor.

Maybe I just don’t respond to requiems: Mozart’s may be my least favorite work of his and I run from Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem. On the other other hand, Fauré’s is just fine.

Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera

  • leoniceno

    Perhaps Antonenko was glum because he was originally hired to sing Don Alvaro in “Forza” and got stuck doing this instead after the production was canceled.

    I wonder what the tenor of the reviews would have been if Dmitri Hvorostovsky had not died before the performances? This sounds like kind of a dreary exercise to me.

    • I can’t imagine the tenor part (which has the most lyric writing out of the four soloists) being a congenial fit for Antonenko even on a good day. I can see why he looked unhappy.

      • Kullervo

        I’ve heard a lot of Requiems where the soprano and tenor ham it up in the Libera Me and Ingemisco but are otherwise disastrous in the ensemble writing. It’s tempting to put big glorious voices in it but truly the vocal writing is closer to Missa Solemnis than Aida.

    • ER

      Some singers vary night by night, but in every performance I’ve attended of his, Antonenko varies note to note. You hear a lovely, lush, phrase, then an unsupported creaky one, then a thrilling high note, followed by a wobbly one (every one of these was audible in the Requiem). There’s certainly a nice big voice in there, but his singing seems erratic to me

  • DonCarloFanatic

    “Raucous ear-splitting choral outbursts” sounds about right. I did not enjoy hearing this via live stream. Was reminded of Wagner’s men’s chorus in Gotterdammerung, which always makes me want to wear ear protection.

    • Susan Szbornak

      Jeez. I love the men’s chorus in Gotter…and it’s the first time you hear a chorus in the entire Ring….

  • Porgy Amor

    I love the piece (and Brahms’s, not Mozart’s so much), but I think you’ve summed up the performance fairly. Good women. Obviously, a good orchestra and chorus. Otherwise…not for me.

    I like Furlanetto a lot, and he’s had a great career, but I might have enjoyed the planned Padre Guardiano more than something like this. He’s almost always good dramatically, knows what he’s singing about and strongly makes the points of the scene. These are useful qualities in the Verdi Requiem too, but the trade-off there doesn’t favor what he has now, nearing 70. I just cannot go along with the “untouched by time” reviews he often gets at this point in his career. When he sang Fiesco opposite Domingo’s Boccanegra in London, I might have flipped their ages, just going by the sounds they were making, and that was some years ago now.

    But people let basses get away with it more. They’re so often “supposed to be” old.

    Antonenko, I fear, has hit a wall.

  • fletcher

    Tired: Verdi’s Requiem in lieu of Forza
    Wired: Dvo?ák’s Requiem in lieu of Verdi’s

    • Porgy Amor

      The Dvo?ák is something I would take any opportunity to hear, especially as it doesn’t come around so often. The old Ancerl recording is very beautiful, and that conductor’s life story is inspirational. He was a courageous person who did so much for the music of his homeland, after surviving the unspeakable, and I daresay this all informed his work. His conducting of the same composer’s violin concerto almost steals the show from Suk’s playing. Not in a showboating/upstaging way, either; it’s just that he makes a flawed work seem a masterpiece. But I’ve wandered.

    • Rudolf

      How about the intriguing requiem by Hector Berlioz? In 71 years of living I’ve only managed to attend 2 live performances.
      :-)

      • Monabel

        Heard it live in a Paris sports arena, many years ago. Absolutely wonderful!

      • fletcher

        You don’t have to lobby for Berlioz to me! In 30 years of living I’ve managed to attend zero live performances, so you’re averaging slightly better.

    • NineDragonSpot

      Requiems written in my lifetime that I would like to experience live: Stravinsky (SF did it in 1999, I missed it, stupid me), Martin (done anywhere but Switzerland nowadays?), Schnittke (modest forces, a university choir or progressive church might tackle it), Silvestrov (challenging, surely requires a plane ticket to Kiev), Denisov (underappreciated. will his time come? again?), Martynov (ticket to Moscow required, though the surreally glitzy work would surely pair well with a “special brownie” from Colorado), and Karamanov (stands the best chance of finding favor with the MET audience).

      • fletcher

        LA Phil did Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles this spring, programmed with Bartók’s first PC and Janá?ek’s fabulous Glagolitic Mass. It didn’t make much of an impression on me, especially compared to the other two pieces.

        • NineDragonSpot

          Sounds like a case of unfortunate programming. Les Noces might match the Bartók and Janá?ek, but not the Requiem Canticles. Off the top of my head, decent companion pieces for the R.C. would be Stravinsky’s Symphonies Of Wind Instruments (according to Taruskin, a mute Orthodox funeral mass), some Gabrieli, and maybe a chunk of Feldman (Piano and Orchestra?).

      • Camille

        How about the Brothers Karamazeltoff Mass?? That’d be a sure bet.

        And how about good old Cherubini’s specially for the arthritic crowd and to counteract the incipient Berliozian tendencies?

        Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, mc, and mucho spasibo!

        • NineDragonSpot

          Hiya, Camille. Nice to see you thriving.

  • Camille

    This entire performance sounded like yesterday’s lumpy gravy to me.

    Either everyone was depressed about Dima, or given insufficient rehearsal, or had indigestion from too much Thanksgiving the day before.

    I happen to LURVE the Verdi Requiem and have listened to it many times, but mostly canned. The one time hearing it live I had the de luxe soprano of Alessandra Marc, whose length, gorgeous and unforgettable “Sed is still heard in my mind’s memory, for what was its beauty. That was in Seattle and I think Schwarz was the conductor. The other I heard sort of live, was the Los Angeles Opera’s 2007 rendition in memory of Luciano Pavarotti. “Sort of live” as I had the curiously unique experience of hearing on my car radio as I drove to the Music Center to buy tickets for--what? Jenufa perhaps?—and then arriving there and listening to the rest while in the foyer. Think it was PláDo conducting. Anyway, that was strange, but still sounded better than this
    outing.

    I’m glad Semenchuk fared best of the soloists as she represented Mother Russia, and that was well
    as should be. So far as Furlanettonisnconcerned--perhaps it depressed him to be the thundering Voce della Morte at a memorial to a colleague a tood thirteen years younger? I don’t know but cielo e mar said it best in the chat anout his sell-by date. Antonenko sounds so distressed now that he needs some thpe of vocal rehab. Those “trills” were absolutely, even in this day and age, risible attempts. And La Stoyanova, much as I respect her and think highly of her, just doesn’t have the amplitude necessary, at least in the big yawning maw of the Metropolitan. She is admirable and lovely, yes, but lovely is not enough in these monster parts. La Stolz had a C in alt that could apparently be heard for MILES outside the opera house, by the way, so…….

    I will not be tuning in next Saturday to hear this dreary gravy once more.

  • Christopher, I’ve decided I will continue to read your fine reviews even after the shock of discovering your apathy towards the glorious Verdi Requiem. :)

  • Yige Li

    Since Verdi’s Requiem is the topic here, may I mention the performance from earlier this month by BR Symphony and Chorus conducted by Muti? Stoyanova also sang the soprano part, with Rachvelishvili, Meli, and Zanellato completing the trio. The video is on-demand on BR-Klassik’s website.

    https://www.br-klassik.de/concert/ausstrahlung-1223824.html

  • La Cieca

    “The ‘Requiem’ is supposed to be a mediation on the Day of Judgment, but under Levine’s baton it sounded more like the soundtrack of a movie about the destruction of Earth by a giant meteor.”

    http://observer.com/2017/11/review-verdi-requiem-suffered-from-james-levine-conducting-at-the-metropolitan-opera/

    • ER

      Interesting take.
      Hadn’t though of Levine’s career trajectory in such terms. While the 10 years have been hit-or-miss, I don’t think one can say he didn’t evolve or grow since he hit 40. Plus what he has done to the MET orchestra is itself a reflection of his own evolution and growth.

      That said, I agree that this is a very mixed-bag Requiem, with only the mezzo leaving a positive impression.

      • La Cieca

        Okay, let’s hear some examples of Levine’s “growth” since the early 1980s.

        • PCally

          I’m curious La Cieca what you thought of his Mozart, Puccini, and Berlioz? I make no case for growth per se but I did think that the performances he conducted of those composers in the 2000s were pretty spectacular and leagues ahead of the commercial videos of those composer he took part in in the 1980s.

          • La Cieca

            You mean after he spent close to a billion dollars upgrading the orchestra and then hogging the rehearsal time they played more accurately? Hard to imagine!

            • PCally

              Ok? I was just asking what you thought of those performances. Like I said I was not making a case for his artistic development and I’ve been pretty critical of Levine both in terms of his performance abilities and his role at the met, so I’m not sure what about my question merited such a snarky response. And I liked his butterfly and trittico quite a bit which is not at all the same thing as making claims that they were idiomatic. I’m nowhere near qualified enough to make such an assertion.

            • JR

              The gleeful Levine-bashing reminds me of this passage from a book by Gossett that I’m reading: “And, as is the fate of every artist with a long career, Verdi saw himself hailed as an innovator, exalted as the supreme master of the art, and scorned as an old codger who stood in the way of progress in the arts.”

              Apparently, it’s even a bad thing that the Met Orchestra is immeasurably better than before he took over.

            • La Cieca

              No one here is gleeful. I’ll be happy to accept your apology for deliberately and maliciously mischaracterizing what I and others wrote.

            • PCally

              Maybe you should read the comments before you make a blanket statement such as this. Virtually every comment I’ve seen regarding Levine almost invariably gives him credit where credit is due. Since pretty much the only thing you’ll see, read, or hear regarding Levine in the media is butt kissing praise I think it’s totally fair and understandable they desent should come up. It’s one thing to like someone and another entirely to wear blinders and pretend that the endless series of straight up shitty performances, the the mediocre casts, and risible productions that occurred under his watch is somehow not his responsibility whatsoever is revisionist history at its finest.

            • La Cieca

              I don’t think about those performances, at least in terms of conducting, because they are forgettable. Some of them were well-cast and most of the time the orchestra played with brilliant technique and virtuosity.

              But the point of opera is not to dazzle people who how expensive-sounding your orchestra is. Those of you who insist that Levine is (or was) a great opera conductor are welcome to specify which performances over the past 30 years or so exhibited this greatness, if you can get past the unthinking regurgitation of conventional wisdom.

            • PCally

              Not sure I see how remembering isolated performances is somehow “unthinking regurgitation of conventional wisdom” or how anything I said qualifies as such, but whatever. And once again, at no point anywhere did I say or argue that Levine was a great conductor.

            • La Cieca

              I apologize for giving the impression that this statement was directed at you. One hears a lot of “Levine is a great/the greatest conductor” sometimes here but mostly elsewhere, but nobody ever seems prepared to explain their opinions beyond “the orchestra sounds really expensive.”

            • PCally

              I understand and apologize myself for the crabbiness of my response. Yes I agree that people need to know that terrific orchestral playing and great conducting are not mutually exclusive. One should be able to praise his work with the orchestra while acknowledging his weaknesses and what that improved quality meant for other aspects of the opera house (I.E. the artistic vacancy elsewhere)

            • Christian Ocier

              Did the orchestra really sound that atrocious prior to Levine’s tenure? I don’t have many experiences listening to the Met broadcasts/recordings prior to the Levine era, so I can’t comment on the quality of the playing.

            • PCally

              I think the difference is that now when a shitty conductor is at the podium, the orchestra can more or less be trusted to hold their own and turn in a first rate performance. Based on my understanding that wasn’t the case at all previously and isolate broadcasts (even those with terrific casts) are pretty messy. Even when someone like Reiner is at the helm, I think it’s apparent that an amazing conductor is doing extraordinary work holding a less than ideal ensemble together.

            • La Cieca

              I disagree. The orchestra plays well for Levine or for conductors like Luisi and Nezet-Seguin who have enough clout to demand rehearsal time. Shitty conductors (which I shall define here as any conductor who’s trying to prepare performances at the same as Levine and therefore have only limited access to the orchestra) make very little impression at all.

              And this is all before we stop to consider that the technical excellence of the orchestra is bought at the cost of ruinous labor costs to the Met that may well end in shutting the company down.

            • PCally

              I guess I meant that I’ve rarely been to a non levine night where there were mistakes and snafus etc… very very faint praise and your correct it’s not at all the same thing as the orchestra making an impression. It’s also entirely possible that since he monopolized the best casts and best repertoire (or at least the rep that I care about most) my experience with non levine evenings are lacking. Actually if anything I think because of the state he’s in, the orchestra is at its scrappiest when he’s conducting these days (didn’t see or listen to this requiem, Verdi is one of the composers I find levine to be at his worst). Going back to pre-Levine era actually hurts the case for his status even more I think because listening to a genius manage a less than stellar group so that the end results are magical is even more revealing or Levines lack of anything beyond surface level polish (which he doesn’t even have anymore)

            • Christian Ocier

              The Met orchestra admittedly sounds much better today than it did during those old Reiner broadcasts, but I wonder if Levine was the sole driver behind that improvement in quality. If we equate orchestral excellence to the homogeneous, slick, Karajan-BPO esque quality many orchestras are able to command today, then I’d say all of the world’s orchestras have trended towards that ideal. Maybe conservatories and music schools improved their pedagogy and standards, maybe the influx of musicians in the market became larger during the 70s and 80s, so the pool of applicants became larger and better.

            • PCally

              That’s a very valid point and one that I hadn’t thought off.

            • Christian Ocier

              One more interesting thing about history of orchestral performance: I think we can give the most credit to Richard Strauss for elevating the way musicians play in ensembles today. During the time of Reiner, Kna, Furtwangler, and young Karajan, Strauss’s works were still the work of a living composer. To execute such technically challenging passages with finesse--that was a feat only the finest orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna could do on a regular basis. But Strauss’s works, like Mahler’s equally challenging symphonic compositions, entered the canon and became hot tickets for orchestras everywhere. To meet that challenge, it was of course mandatory that young training musicians were capable of executing that music well. But if one were to return to those earlier days, when Mahler and Strauss was still exclusive to the cream of the crop, one can hear so many inconsistencies in performance practice. I think of Jascha Horenstein’s Mahler, or the Beecham Strauss tone poems, or any of those famed vintage recordings. Even the Berlin Philharmonic of Karajan’s day had a hell of a time interpreting Mahler and the Second Viennese works. Now, everyone in the world can play Berg as well as Haydn, if not better. Those old recordings contained flaws and inconsistencies that would be unacceptable today, but what soul, what drive! Today, a college or conservatory orchestra can play Till Eulenspiegel or a Mahler symphony for their year end concert. Orchestral practice has really come a long way since the early 20th century, and I really think the canonization of these two great composers--in particular, Strauss--had much to do with that. But I feel like we’ve always had to pay a price with individuality. Everyone sounds the same! The woodwind character of a French orchestra, the string playing of an Italian ensemble, so perfect for Italian opera (the velvety cushion)--I’m just naming some of the elements that I find have been lost in the quest for this Teutonic perfection. Today’s orchestras are indeed more finessed but conductors I feel like are losing sight of the heart of the music. I think of people like Mariss Jansons--his orchestras always sound gorgeous, but it can get boring sometimes. Although I have to say that I have never heard a better performed Queen of Spades than his recent recording with BR Klassik. Levine--I think I’ve never felt an affinity for his Wagner operas, or the Strauss, or the Verdi, or the Puccini. But there’s a very fine Wozzeck with Jose Van Dam and Anja Silja (I think) that the Met put out a few years ago.

              Strauss too was instrumental in recreating the way Wagner conductors interpreted those scores. If slow, heavy Wagner is the stereotype for that genre’s performance practice, Strauss’s way with the scores during his time (color, transparency, drive) revolutionized the way we approach Wagner today. We can credit the Wagner of Clemens Krauss, Joseph Keilberth, Karl Bohm, Marek Janowski, Boulez, “current” Christian Thielemann (I say current because his older Wagner was of the slower school. His Dresden Parsifal ran about 4 hours +/- 5 minutes, his recent Tristan was pretty fast too, with a prelude clocking in at just under 10 mins), young Karajan, Rattle, and Yannick to Strauss’ line of thought. Levine, I’m not really sure where his Wagner stands. It’s SLOOOOOOOWWWW, but not in the Knappertsbusch sense of the word. Knappertsbusch could be broad, but listen to his 1950 Tristan with Braun and Treptow--it’s brisk. Same with his Lohengrin. His later Bayreuth Parsifals--transparent, brisker, more akin to a Strauss opera than the old 1950s Parsifals. Levine seems to do slow for the sake of being slow (god, the Friedrich Parsifal and the Met studio recording--it’s like watching tortoises completing a marathon). At least when Karajan was doing broad tempi in his dotage, it still sounded theatrical. Levine just treads those scores like molasses. So yeah, I think Strauss played a much larger role in redefining the musical practice for the 20th and 21st centuries.

            • PCally

              Exactly!! You’ve summed up my responses to early vs. later performances ideally. Going back to Reiner, I think if one were to listen to the 49 Salome (just one example) there’s a certain raggedness and recklessness that one doesn’t tend to hear today (Welitsch, who is ASTONISHING, nevertheless seems to be pretty much setting her own rules as far as tempos and rhythms are concerned, and she definitely cuts some corners). But once my ear adjusts, the performance doesn’t read as sloppy or disorganized to me, just utterly wild and demented in a way that you tend not to get when listening to Von Karajan circa 1977. I think if one compass Karajans 1952 Tristan to the commercial recordings twenty years later, the difference in approach and control is like night and day.

            • Christian Ocier

              Or, imagine this: Cebotari never had cancer, and Karajan conducts her, between 1954 to 1957, Vienna or Salzburg, in Salome. Schoffler is JtB, Lorenz Herode, Madeira Herodias. What a night that would have been!

            • Bill

              Christian -- there are so many dream casts which never happened (including some which were planned and did not happen). Cebotari was certainly an interesting Salome at least
              as heard in the Vienna Opera performance in Covent Garden in 1947 sharing the role there with Welitsch. von Karajan often liked to experiment with singers but from all reports
              when conducting was very considerate of a singer’s vocal limitations even if the casting of them was questionable in the first place.

            • Bill

              Christian -- you are probably correct.
              We must remember though that in Germany and Austria during the war years Mahler was not performed and after the war I do not think von Karajan, Boehm, Furtwaengler did all that much Mahler nor the Hungarians though I was first introduced to Mahler with Reiner’s 4th with Lisa della Casa- and even in the USA (despite Bruno Walter) Mahler symphonies and works were far less frequently performed circa
              1945-1960 than they are scheduled today --
              Bernstein’s embrace of Mahler helped
              bring his works back to more frequent
              performances in NY Of course Bruckner also was not as frequently done earlier on as well.

            • Christian Ocier

              Furtwangler didn’t touch much Mahler--the Wayfarer songs with Dieskau, an unrecorded Third, and that was it. He didn’t care much for the composer’s aesthetic. Bohm was similar--he touched a few songs, and that was probably it too. Karajan had been visiting Das Lied as early as 1960, even had the strangest performance where the first song had a dramatic tenor while 3 and 5 featured a lyric. It was indeed Lenny, and perhaps in Europe the Dutch (e.g. Mengelberg, Van Beinum, and Haitink) who championed Mahler into the modern canon. But regardless of the low frequency of his symphonies’ performances back then, the introduction of such monumental, thickly scored pieces into the main concert repertory gave reason to increase the technical standards of orchestras. The change in the Zeitgeist probably had much to do with how younger listeners dealt with the more overtly expressive music, which also meant an increase in the music’s popularity. Ultimately, even if Mahler wasn’t performed much immediately after the war, the championing of his works by top orchestras, the gradual inclusion of those important symphonies in the repertory, and the increasing standards set by conservatories worldwide, were instrumental (HAH!) towards giving us the modern orchestra as we know it today. Or modern concert/theatrical practice. Recordings probably played a role too--listeners are able to revisit a piece without having to go to the concert hall, and given the technical finesse of this recordings, live performances have had to readjust to a certain standard so that audiences do not get disappointed with mistakes. Hence, our current dilemma with the lack of spontaneity. Our easy access to recordings, the historical improvements in the modern orchestra, the dramatic improvements in the construction of brass and woodwinds, concert pitch (Europe is 2Hz to 5Hz sharper than the US right? Because of concert pitch, singers have to singer higher to match a brilliant orchestra compared with practices decades past or during the composers’ time; better instruments also mean louder instruments. A fighting battle between the voice, which hasn’t evolved, and instruments, which are better today), etc. All of these have set the stage for potentially constraining performances in terms of spontaneity.

            • Porgy Amor

              Their lackluster quality in the pre-Levine period has not been exaggerated, in my estimation. There was a lot of great singing in the 1960s, but the theater did not have a world-class orchestra at all in those years. Karajan by most accounts was very patient with them and got good results in his partial Ring there in the late ’60s, but he privately said to Wilford that it was like trying to teach his eight-year-old how to do calculus, and that many of the players would never even have had an audition in Berlin or Vienna.

              The chorus was dire too. Check out sometime the Peter Grimes that was Colin Davis’s Met debut, with Vickers and Amara. Guthrie’s production famously had a lot of fog in it, but I don’t think the chorus was supposed to be supplying more.

            • La Cieca

              Yes, it’s amazing how paying people twice as much to do half as much work improves the product.

          • Porgy Amor

            The best Levine, as I recall it, was “shipshape.” That’s the word that always came to mind. I am not speaking solely of his conducting at the Met but also, for example, his Brahms with the Vienna Philharmonic. He could lead immaculately well-groomed and well-managed performances, notably such even considering he was working with great orchestras. One was in safe hands in matters of execution; the performances had a shine to them. I never could take his lingering sweaty bear-hugs of Wagner (any of it), although the textures were beautiful, and I don’t think he had a feel for the rhythms of 19th-century Italian opera up through about Traviata (better in later Verdi), but I didn’t want to avoid him in any other composers.

            I agree he never deepened in advancing age, but I don’t think that’s as common with conductors as the maestro hagiography makes it seem. Were Karajan’s late performances better than the ones he led in his younger and midlife years? Giulini’s? Serafin’s? Toscanini’s? Klemperer’s? Barbirolli’s? Solti’s? Bernstein’s? In some of those cases I would answer with a definite “No” (maybe preceded by an obscenity), in others I might say, “Once in a great while, in the odd piece, but not as a rule.”

            Typically, in the best-case scenario, someone’s strengths remain strengths. Just as often, hearing acuity goes in the wrong direction and mannerisms calcify. A case could be made for Muti as a musician of Levine’s generation who has deepened, because he’s settled down a bit. His performance seem mellower, more patient, than when he was a firebrand. Quite relevantly, I consider the two live Chicago Verdi Requiems I have heard superior to his very good recordings of the 1970s (at the level of the conducting, that is; the solo singing is not special). But I think, also, he has lightened his workload in the post-Scala years, and that has something to do with it.

            • PCally

              I agree but I make an exception with Solti. I’m in the minority I think in that I actually like quite a bit of his work (I personally think the conducting on the ring and Elektra sets are way better than given credit for and were my favorite for a while, though no longer). I thought he mellowed considerably and while I didn’t love his mozart I thought he did significantly changed his approach yo the music as he got older. I think the live Salzburg frau is the best thing he ever did and still my personal favorite rendition of the score (and studer and lipovsk are terrific) and I love the Meister singer and actually think it’s of the best commercial. Muti also although I tend to go from opera to opera with him.

            • Christian Ocier

              Agree with you about Solti. The 95 Meistersinger, the later Mozart reinterpretations, and the Frau Ohne Schatten show much more nuance and sparkle than his earlier recordings. The textures and his view of the scores’ total arc displayed much more color and, for lack of a better term, connective tissue. I too enjoyed his earlier recordings--they were always exciting, always cast with properly chosen stars (unlike HvK, who toyed with lyric voices a tad much). Some of my favorites from Solti: his RCA Rigoletto continues to rank among my top 3 recordings of that piece, ditto with his Don Carlo and Aida; the Carmen with Troyanos, nearly all of his Strauss save Ariadne, and all of his Wagner output outside of Dutchman. I love his Parsifal for the exciting theatricality he brings to the piece, as well as the excellence of his cast). I also am a fan of his orchestral output, particularly the late Shostakovich and Mahler symphonies (3,4,6,7,8 are outstanding, as is the CSO Das Lied von der Erde), the exciting Bruckner, and his Bartok.

            • PCally

              Never really warmed to the Italian stuff other than the don Carlo and I thought some of his concert work was somewhat anonymous. But I think few conductors had as consistently fine vocalists and musicians. Most of his recordings are very well cast. I think in Italian operas though something about the ensembles always seem jarring like the singers aren’t really on the same page idiomatically and musically.

            • Christian Ocier

              That is an interesting point (re: Italian opera ensembles). Compare the Muti Aida, where most of the singers are steeped in the Latin tradition, and the Solti, which largely reads as a “Wagnerian walked into an Italian opera” kind of affair, and one could discern the differences in how the singers interact with each other. Maybe that has to do with the fact that his Italian operas were in many instances cast with non-Italian leads?

            • +1 Solti Frau, marred only by Moser’s Emperor.

            • Christian Ocier

              Muti brought the CSO to the University of Illinois Krannert Center last year for a performance of the Bruckner 7 and a Strauss tone poem (Till Eulenspiegel if I remember correctly). The sonorities he drew from the orchestra were ravishing, and the virtuosity he extracted out of them for Strauss reminded one why the Chicago Symphony often wins accolades as one of the world’s finest. However, his reading of the Bruckner 7 seemed metronomic and inflexible, misguided. Compare Muti’s reading with that of Thielemann, who is more inclined towards bending and stretching his pacing of the score, and one could discern where both conductors’ musical strengths are most evident. I appreciate Muti’s contributions to the French repertory, as well as his championing of Verdi’s works. However, his ideas on composers like Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler inspire me less due to the overtly clean come scritto presentation of the music, especially when compared with a potent conductor like Thielemann who has excelled in drawing the emotional impact out of these works. Muti is wonderful in the repertory he considers his comfort zone, less so with the Germanic and modernist composers. Contrast that with Thielemann, whose recent and future forays into verismo, Verdi, French music, Schoenberg (greatest Pelleas after Karajan’s BPO reading) and Mahler (he’s doing the 3rd Symphony at the Easter Festival with Garanca!!!) has shown a willingness to explore new ground.

      • PCally

        Regardless of the extent to which the orchestra improved, I’d argue that Levines growth more or less stopped after the late 1980s. I think pretty much any special qualities he had brought to Wagner and Verdi operas he more or less monopolized were pretty much non existent by the time the Schenk Parsifal. Pretty much any sense of forward momentum and drama was totally gone by the time I saw him conduct those opera live, regardless of how beautiful the orchestra sounded. And I thought the Verdi pretty much had degenerated into bombast, Otello being a notable exception imo. And I think he was always exceptionally variable in the 20th century operas that were advertised as ostensibly being his specialities. I thought after all the carrying on about how much he wanted to do Moses und Aaron, his conducting of the piece was straight up terrible, I never cared for his Lulu, thought at his best his Wozzeck was astonishing but often quite variable performance to performance and that the in works he only conducted occasionally (Strauss, Carmen, Samson) all that was evident to me was how indifferent he seemed.

        • ER

          Maybe I’ve been drinking the Levine Kool-aid, and I’m certainly not as familiar with the nuances of conducting that the above posters are (a fascinating discussion, by the way).
          But, regardless of whether and how he’s evolved over the course of his career, he has brought me much much joy. And I think that’s what counts at the end of the day.

          Performances in recent years have been variable (including this very erratically conducted Requiem) but that’s more likely a function of his current health.

          • PCally

            That’s a valid opinion but I think it’s one thing to like a particular conductor, and another thing entirely to pretend (as many seem to insist on doing) that a lot of the mets problems don’t stem directly from Levine pretty much getting his way all the time at the expense of almost literally everything else. People who will shit on Gelb for any and all things and yet will willfully ignore all the problems that arose from Levines tenure are willfully ignorant. And I think people would be more than happy to give Levine a free pass for his current abilities if we didn’t have the met itself and the press shoving the message down our throat that any one who doesn’t worship at his alter is an ungrateful plebian with tin ears. It’s particularly disheartening to me listening to singers rant and rave how great he is when pretty much every performance I’ve seen him give in the past five years have pretty much shown no regard whatsoever for what’s happening onstage and what a particular singers strengths and weakness are. Not to mention his insistence on maintaining the absurd workload of a younger man and being totally ubiquitous despite the increasing crappiness of his work. Even egomaniacal Von Karajan wasn’t as ubiquitous as Levine has made himself.

            • Bill

              P Cally -- What I have noticed about Levine
              these past few years is that he never looks
              up at the stage while conducting at the Met, just down at the pit -- was this always the case or maybe his illnesses do not allow him to strain his neck upward ? -- I always thought him to be a sensible conductor of Mozart Operas utilizing a full orchestra with reasonable tempi. But most of the truly memorable performances I heard over the years at the Met (and elsewhere) were
              conducted by other conductors. I do find it odd though that Levine conducted very little
              Richard Strauss at the Met -- I can understand that he might avoid many of the Bel Canto
              operas.

            • PCally

              Bill I know your a fan of Strauss but his operas are not universally loved by all and as a agnostic myself (the only operas I love unequivocally are Ariadne and Salome) I can understand why a conductor might not want to conduct some of his work, nor should they. I mean I have an exceptionally hard time seeing an argument made for operas like Daphne and Arabella as masterpieces despite isolated moments of beauty (this is just my opinion, but Strauss imo as someone who doesn’t universally love bel canto I dont really see Strauss as being inherently that much better or more complicated and just like bel canto his operas work almost exclusively when the cast is uniformly strong). There’s nothing worse than a conductor plowing his way through a work he evidently doesn’t care for which i think is apparent whenever Levine conducted Strauss. Pretty much the only thing that stood out to me whenever he conducted Elektra is how loud the orchestra was.

            • ER

              re: “It’s particularly disheartening to me listening to singers rant and rave how great he is when pretty much every performance I’ve seen him give in the past five years have pretty much shown no regard whatsoever for what’s happening onstage and what a particular singers strengths and weakness are. ”

              True, but that’s relatively recent-- and possibly due to his limited mobility? For much of his career, wasn’t it the opposite?
              Singer after singer has commented on what an amazing vocal coach he was, how sensitive he was to individual singer’s needs, and how he was able to make the orchestra live and breathe along with them in performance so they always felt extra safe when singing with him. Yes, the deterioration is noticeable and disheartening, but that shouldn’t detract from his legacy as a great conductor, and more specifically, a great singer’s conductor.

              But, now all this discussion has stimulated me to go back and listen to broadcasts through the decades and see how his conducting style has or has not changed.

            • PCally

              “but that’s relatively recent”

              That’s debatable. One only needs to watch the Schenk Siegfried to see what I mean. Levine casts two very light voices as Brunnhilde and Siegfried and then proceeds to choose among the slowest tempos I’ve ever heard in the final duet and basically plays at forte the entire time, the worst possible choices given the singers he’s chosen to cast in those parts. Jerusalem looks like he’s going to explode and Behrens basically starts snatching catch breaths left and right and more or less screams in order to get through it. And that’s a heavily edited video recording, I saw both of those singers basically collapse under the weight of Levine’s playing when the cycle was revived in 1997. One doesn’t even need to look at problematic singers. Hanna Schwarz was the Waltraute in Gotterdammerung and Levine conducted her monologue so slowly that she actually ran out of breath at one point the night I was there and dropped a couple of bars of music, visibly took enormous intakes of breath, and re-entered. I remember this because the person I was with actually gasped when it happened. All of his “pet” singers where troubled voices, often cast inappropriately (he cast Maria Ewing as Marie…in 1997 when no other opera house would have her, and actually kissed her hand and blew kisses at her during the curtain call even while the audience was literally shouting at her. Anyone who actually cared about the singers he works with other than the orchestra would have done something about that casting, or at the very least conducted in a way that would have shown her in the best light possible. As it was she basically inaudible) who most certainly could have used a stronger hand to help them out and Levine never did that.

              Moving away from singers, any conductor who thinks that Schenk and Zef productions as they looked in the late 1980s and 1990s are the way to stage masterpieces like Parsifal, Meistersinger, Carmen, and Traviata (and who has no problem standing idly by while one of those directors ignores the women singing a title part unless he’s verbally abusing her) clearly couldn’t give two shits about what’s happening onstage.

  • calaf47

    At the end of tonight’s performance (Nov 27), someone booed….twice…and loudly.

  • According to my favourite writer, Ivy Compton-Burnett, “Familiarity breeds contempt, and ought to breed it. It is through familiarity that we get to know each other.”

  • Cefalu

    It’s a shame to hear this.. I saw Antonenko last season in a Vienna ‘Fanciulla’ and he was absolutely fantastic, with top notes that could pin you to a wall, and that’s quite a feat considering the band that’s down in the pit sawing away as hard as humanly possible.

    • Based on my experience of his Samson, Verdi’s Requiem doesn’t seem like an ideal work for him. He isn’t an “ingemisco” sort of tenor.

    • Rosina Leckermaul

      Heard him sing Dick Johnson in Berlin a couple of years ago. He was excellent--even thrilling vocally though he’s a stick as an actor.

      • Not all the time, I think. Re Samson: “He made up in vocal heft for relatively uncharismatic stage presence in the first two acts. Then, after bringing down the act 2 curtain with a ringing “Trahison!”, in act 3 he acted up a storm, vocally (including some of those howling, Russian-style “wounded bear” sounds) and physically.”