Of all the unreasonable choices for operatic fare to sweep cheery breezes across this season’s repertory, a revival of 2001’s 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 evening’s level of low-down jokiness.
To those unfamiliar with the airborne wonders of Lehár’s 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 company’s 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 Wagner’s 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 Salonen’s ensemble, live at Disney. The more remarkable: He was flown in only in time for a day’s 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 Brewer’s 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 Viola’s 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 doesn’t diminish Bill Viola’s 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 man’s credit.
To the ensemble’s 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 group’s 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 city’s 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: Bach’s Chaconne, Schubert’s Ave Maria, Ponce’s Estrellita, the Chaconne another time. Post reporter Gene Weingarten had asked the conductor Leonard Slatkin what he thought the hour’s take might be for a world-famous violinist playing under such conditions. Slatkin’s guess was $150. Joshua Bell’s take came to $32.17, which, considering the playing I’ve 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 I’ll bet nobody else has ever thought about. I’ll try to remember his wonderful Russian word order. “After all, who knows how good play cello Toscanini?”
There’s 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.