Il faut continuer

April 28, 2008

As balance to the well-merited sensation that the rapid-fire high Cs at the Met are causing these days, check out this completely different excerpt (from a live Vienna broadcast) in which pathos invades the comedy to great effect (as it always does in the greatest comedies like Cosí fan tutte). Even the interpolated high D-flat is employed for an expressivity miraculously divorced from mere showing off.

And none of this should be allowed to overshadow the brilliant work of Natalie Dessay in this triumph. Here’s a sort of video synopsis of her more showy moments:

Let it be noticed that she also excells in the limpidly expressive passages, like the “Il Faut Partir,” which can be heard at this link. It’s almost as though Popeye’s beloved Olive Oyl had suddenly become a casta diva.

A Night to Remember

April 22, 2008

History was made last night at the Metropolitan Opera House. Juan Diego Flórez was already having a remarkable first act in the first night of the new La Fille du régiment. But soon after he launched into “Pour Mon Âme,” it seemed pretty evident that the Met crowd would emulate their peers at La Scala and demand an encore (something that the Milan house had broken tradition to allow for the first time since Chaliapin in 1933).

After wild applause, not only did he do again what he had done to perfection once already — nailing in the process a total of 18 pristine high Cs — but he did so with enough variation in his stage manner and musical details to make the effect more than that of mere repetition. I have been unable to find anyone who can recall a prior instance of what happened next: a standing ovation in the middle of a scene.

Now, in such precedents, there’s always a danger of confusing opera with baseball and getting all worked up about “records.” And it would be especially unfortunate to be disproportionate in this case, since the production (already a hit in Vienna and London) is extraordinarily fine and the cast is full of first-rate performances that on any other night would be big news in themselves. But this is not a review, so I don’t need to be conscientious in that respect. (I trust many others will do everyone justice in print.) For now, I’m more than willing to grant the audience, and myself, the great pleasure of having been in the Metropolitan Opera House for one of those moments that we can impress or bore the youngsters with decades hence.

And, if you want to hear instances of the ease with which Flórez sings what has become his calling-card, look up performances of “Pour Mon Âme” or “Ah! Mes Amis” (of which it forms the second part) on this page of YouTube.

Video highlights of the whole production can be seen here.

UPDATE: You can now hear the actual “Pour Mon Âme” performances in question — ovations and all — on the New York Times site.

Starting in student days, I’ve performed or heard the Stravinsky Mass in highly varied circumstances. One memorable occasion fell on a cold, wet English January Sunday. The choir of King’s College, Cambridge sang it at the morning service, with a congregation that was outnumbered by the choir and instrumentalists. Another unforgettable hearing also occurred in that country (where it is far more likely to be found as part of the liturgical repertory than here in America), at a regular Saturday-morning Mass at Westminster Cathedral. In this case it was accompanied — to surprisingly good effect — by the organ in the apse.

But in the extreme resonance and utilitarian architecture of the late-19th-century armory on Park Avenue? The old-society WASPs of the Seventh Regiment would have stared, but last night was an important and liberating night for New York music, in a place whose previous concert events lie far back in another century. The start of the concert was held up for a while as a goodly portion of the audience stood in front of the building to see Pope Benedict drive by, and this was only a foretaste of how unfamiliar this event would feel to a regular local concert-goer. I have written here before about the imaginative use of different venues by George Steel’s Miller Theatre, and my imagination is still running wild as a result of their concert last night of sacred music by Stravinsky. Trying out three different areas in the fraction of the vast space that the performers and audience occupied, I found the acoustical issues challenging but not insuperable.

The performances were wonderful and profited by being freed from the conventional conditions of a concert hall. Future events — many of a sort that cannot yet have been even dreamed of — will tell us what the space can do for us musically. The building, now to be known as the Park Avenue Armory, could become a wonderland for creative types. I know I had some pretty wild thoughts last night: for example, what if some large Romantic organ of the type that lived in Paris’s old Trocadéro could be installed at one end? Could it be an opportunity for restoration of secular use of such pipes to our musical life? Stranger things have happened.

Musica Sacra 2.0

April 9, 2008

b6b6c0a3eb07e755982b089e06f2360d.jpg Passing the torch is not always a simple matter (as the sponsors of the Beijing Olympics can testify), but the sad loss of Richard Westenberg at least leaves behind a worthy successor in Kent Tritle.

Last night in Carnegie Hall, Tritle conducted his first concert as music director of Musica Sacra, and it was, most appropriately, Bach’s B-Minor Mass, sung in memory of Westenberg.

How different are things now than when Westenberg began developing the ensemble in the 1960s! By the ’70s, his concerts had become the great hope of New Yorkers who wished for some local choral manifestation of international early-music advances. It lends some perspective to recall how, 40 years ago, the senior music critic of the Times publicly expressed indignation when Thomas Dunn committed the outrage of performing the B-Minor Mass with a chorus of only 16 and an orchestra of 24 (when nowadays we sometimes hear it with only one singer or player on a part). No doubt carrying out Westenberg’s original goals, in this changed marketplace of options, will not be a matter of simply preserving in amber all of his practices. He would have been the first to protest against that. But matching his successes is a worthwhile goal, no matter how altered the environment.

Kent Tritle has become the leading force in a complete range of choral concert music in the city, through his superb concert work at St. Ignatius Loyola’s on Park Avenue and with secular choruses that include the Oratorio Society of New York. A healthy Musica Sacra will bode well for the whole commonwealth of music. And surely no one is better equipped to see to that health than Kent Tritle.

Russian Roulette

April 5, 2008

It has been a good week for the Russians in New York. The night after Hvorostovsky’s big recital in Carnegie Hall (after which a friend said it is becoming essential to learn Russian if we’re to overhear the good gossip at the best music events), I finally made it to The Gambler at the Met last night. Going with a colleague who had already seen this very production in St. Petersburg was an advantage, since I haven’t known this opera at first hand. It’s another musical world from War and Peace, which is in a different galaxy again from Betrothal in a Monastery. Speaking as someone who first became convinced of Prokofiev’s operatic genius by seeing the sparkle of A Love for Three Oranges at the English National Opera and then at the Minnesota Opera, I was unprepared for the authentically Dostoyevskian Styx that he gave himself to in The Gambler.

There are two other performances left, including next Saturday’s broadcast. If you want a thoroughly well-performed drama (characterized by the committed and skilled presidial skills of the estimable Gergiev) with a first-rate mostly Russian cast, I recommend this highly.