Old Hat, New Tenor, Etc.
Of all the unreasonable choices for operatic fare to sweep cheery breezes across this seasons repertory, a revival of 2001s The Merry Widow, in the San Francisco production by Lotfi Mansouri originally conceived by him in 1981 as a gala vehicle for reigning diva Joan Sutherland, padded out to Wagnerian lengths (like this sentence) with songs, choruses and an interminable ballet from other Lehár operettas is about as deadly a decision as I can conceive. Even the enlivening presence of the indomitable Susan Graham goes just so far. She makes her first entrance as a Dolly clone, in a red getup on a staircase surrounded by men in white tie, which draws its share of audience yuks and thus establishes the evenings level of low-down jokiness.
To those unfamiliar with the airborne wonders of Lehárs operetta under more reasonable auspices the EMI recording with Schwarzkopf, to name one of several I can only offer assurance that this is, indeed, a work of utmost elegance and pointed, sly humor, worthy to stand in the company of the best of Johann Strauss, and with a measure of tenderness that can even surpass that other Viennese master. To rev it up into this noisy burlesque of itself insults the work and its audience whose response on opening night was considerably short of ecstatic, by the way, for all the recent journalism about the need for opera to dumb itself down. The greater pity is that the two principals of this production, the witty and genuinely intelligent Graham and the companys longtime stalwart, Rod Gilfry, give off the sense that they could be the nucleus of a properly accented Merry Widow, which this noisy, waterlogged mess was not. They were in the wrong place the other night, and so was I.
Earlier in the week, I completed my 15-hour immersion in Tristan und Isolde, hearing Wagners transcendent masterwork for the first time at Disney Hall in a performance worthy of its name. Christian Franz had sung here before, through microphones at the Hollywood Bowl in Wagner led by John Mauceri, hardly reason to anticipate the rich, ringing, beautifully modulated Tristan he brought to Salonens ensemble, live at Disney. The more remarkable: He was flown in only in time for a days rehearsal with piano, to replace the ailing (and inadequate) Alan Woodrow, with a brief walk-through of the staging. The beauty of the blending of his bright, consistent tenor into the luminous torrents of Christine Brewers soprano is a memory that will remain; so will his racked death cry of Isolde as darkness finally closes in.
I am no further transported by the curious circumstance of Tristan-as-Project, or by the visual ecstasy, so widely proclaimed, in Bill Violas bubbles, after these many hours under the spell of the sound of the opera under Salonen with his orchestra, of Brewer and, finally, a tenor worthy of her. This matter of worthiness is at the core of my mixed feelings about the Project, and it concerns the height of the pinnacle upon which this one world-shaking, world-shaping work rests. It doesnt diminish Bill Violas art by very much to believe as I do that it is unworthy of Tristan und Isolde; most art is.
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg lives in history, not so much for any music he composed, but for the set of variations his teacher, J.S. Bach, wrote for him or so the story goes to play for his insomniac boss. The splendid Italian ensemble Il Giardino Armonico corrected that discrepancy at their Disney Hall concert last week by performing an attractive C-minor sonata (for two violins and viola) by the real Goldberg that contributes mightily to the mans credit.
To the ensembles credit, as well, was an enterprising selection of works, almost none of which I had ever heard before in a long life of hearing Baroque music. Giovanni Antonini, the seven-member groups director and recorder soloist, contributed three wonderfully madcap concertos for his instrument, by Telemann, Nardini and (need I add) Vivaldi a perfect way, all told, to sweep the hall of its last Wagnerian echoes.
For Whom Mr. Bell Toils
From Washington comes encouraging word of a rise in musical taste among the general public. It seems that the Washington Post hired the violinist Joshua Bell to perform as a street musician, incognito, to test his recognizability, or the abilities of a transit-bound big city to respond to good music. One morning not long ago, the violinist stationed himself, with his expensive instrument, at a well-traveled spot near one of the citys Metro stations, at morning rush hour. He wore the basic attire of a street musician. A TV crew and reporters were discreetly stationed nearby.
The program bestowed upon scurrying Washingtonians was generous and varied: Bachs Chaconne, Schuberts Ave Maria, Ponces Estrellita, the Chaconne another time. Post reporter Gene Weingarten had asked the conductor Leonard Slatkin what he thought the hours take might be for a world-famous violinist playing under such conditions. Slatkins guess was $150. Joshua Bells take came to $32.17, which, considering the playing Ive heard from him lately, seems at least 17 cents too high.
I met Mstislav Rostropovich twice. The first time was at a White House recital, when I was most impressed with the way Rosalynn Carter got all the Russian names right. The second was out here, when five minutes into our chat, there were already hugs. He called me Alanchik, which I still use for special messages. We talked about cellists becoming conductors, and he brought up something Ill bet nobody else has ever thought about. Ill try to remember his wonderful Russian word order. After all, who knows how good play cello Toscanini?
Theres one video that I often resort to for uplift: Slava and Carlo Maria Giulini performing the Dvorák Concerto (and also the Saint-Saëns, but never mind) on EMI. The man who could draw that long A-flat-minor melody in the first movement of the Dvorák into a conversation with all the gods of music is the man to spread the words of the peacemakers to the world at large. Slava was both.
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