The Classical Music Season Begins

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    Thursday, Sept. 30. The Metropolitan Opera opens with everyone's favorite pair, Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, a couple of verismo gushers centering on infidelity (the thematic mainstay of all opera). Pietro Mascagni did not produce much, but he scored big with Cav. Many who do not know the complete opera would recognize the "Intermezzo" for orchestra, which divides the work, and the "Easter Hymn," a soaring and moving piece. You could do worse than to have written only Cav, and, of course, most composers have. In the pit tonight is Carlo Rizzi, who does not fare especially well. The superb Met orchestra?James Levine's creation?sounds rather ordinary, even mediocre. The opening prelude does not melt, as it should, and neither will the "Intermezzo." Rizzi also has coordination troubles?chorus, soloists and orchestra frequently go their own ways.

    Further complicating the evening is the cancellation of mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, whom many have no doubt come to hear. In her place is Eva Urbanová, who is adequate, but just. She has a strong voice, with some metal to it, but she struggles. Her "Easter Hymn" is almost protectively rendered, and she exits her closing high note as soon as is seemly (well, actually, slightly before). She gains confidence, however, and by the time she gets to the love duet, she is justifying her booking: She is full of Romantic vocal power, yet unstrained.

    As is the evening's number-one star, José Cura, the Argentine heartthrob who is, incidentally, an excellent singer. He is thought of as "The Next Placido," but merely as Cura he'll do well enough. His big aria, "Addio alla madre," which is so easy to make risible, is a jolting surprise: It is understated, strangely quiet, well-paced, unhysterical, almost subdued?making it all the more effective. What's more, Cura is a competent actor, at times verging on mesmerizing, with a minimum of staginess. The operatic public is mad for this tenor, and properly so.

    I Pagliacci is Rugiero Leoncavallo's bloody little treat. A play-within-a-play, it's stuffed to bursting with sensual passion. If the average Joe knows anything of Pag, he knows Canio's aria "Vesti la giubba," or he can picture a photo of Enrico Caruso in a clown's suit.

    Tonight's performance is serviceable, if not world-beating. Juan Pons is Tonio, and his singing is correct (which is higher praise, really, than it sounds). The delightfully named Veronica Villarroel is Nedda, and she is, as usual, okay: Her sound is hooded, and she sings in Italian with a distinctive Spanish accent (which is about the most conspicuous accent of all, in Italian). She can't trill her way out of a paper bag?not on this night, at least?and her aria, so full of joy, is, in fact, without joy. But she gets the job done, which is not nothing.

    Truly impressive?suave and musical?is Dwayne Croft as Silvio. Here is a baritone whose importance in the opera world only grows; he reminds one of the creamy and restrained Ezio Flagello of yore. Canio is Dennis O'Neill, and he is just fine. This is, again, praise less faint than it may seem. For one thing, O'Neill's intonation is spot-on, which is always welcome, and he does not offend.

    I Pagliacci is the people's idea of an opera. With a horse, a fire-eater and a ballerina?together with some decent singing?how can it miss?

    Saturday, Oct. 2. James Levine is back in the Metropolitan pit, and that makes all the difference (or, at least, much of it). As I never tire of saying, New York can't really know what it has in Levine, who is a conductor for the ages. Perhaps we will all recognize his worth when he is grayer, or dead. I also can't help wondering?as long as I'm on this jag?whether the audience knows what it's in for tonight: Levine is seldom more masterly than he is in this opera, Otello, and our tenor is Domingo, who executes the title role as well as Verdi could have wished. And yet this is another relatively routine evening at today's Met.

    The first person onstage is Joseph Volpe, a dreaded figure?dreaded only because he is the Met's general manager, and when he appears, it is usually to announce bad news. Sure enough, he tells the stricken audience that Domingo is suffering from a cold. Great moans, even expressions of pain (so maybe they do know). But wait: Domingo is going to sing anyway?he is at "the tail end" of the cold, says Volpe?and he asks for our "understanding."

    Understanding, nothing. Domingo is in excellent form, as good as when he does not send out the GM to make excuses for him. His presence?it is too simple to say, but true?is commanding. He may not be exactly Shakespeare's idea of the Moor, but he is surely Verdi's. (The opera is far less subtle than the play, but then, how could anything not be?) Domingo is in better voice than he was in, for example, last season's Pique Dame, when he had to will his way through. His ailment is noticeable mainly in the "onset," which is to say, the entrance into a note. He occasionally sounds strangled?but that's Domingo, in sickness and in health, the dose of bad that one is forced to swallow along with the overwhelming good.

    Iago is James Morris, the veteran bass-baritone?snarling, preening, full of malign charisma. Morris is not now in his vocal prime, but his experience and basic operatic intelligence counts for a lot: He knows how to deploy his resources, and he gets the maximum out of what voice remains. He is also a topnotch dramatic actor. The duet that ends Act II?"Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!"?is one of the most stirring tenor-baritone duets in opera, and to hear and see these two lions, Domingo and Morris, perform it?well, this is the stuff that memories are made of.

    Barbara Frittoli is an acceptable Desdemona, boasting a juicy soprano and a flexible technique; she seems not to be penetratingly musical, but she is in no way a drag on the evening, and, in the "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria," she is a veritable plus. Kurt Streit, as Cassio, is sweet-voiced and pure.

    But the performance?even given the tenor and baritone?belongs to Levine, because Otello, at bottom, is a conductor's opera: It is fantastically easy to screw up, because it depends entirely on conductorial management?on pacing, on balance, on weight. With a pedestrian conductor in the pit, even the finest singers on Earth can't save the work. Tonight's performance is never for a second out of Levine's astounding control, and the orchestra, from the downbeat, is positively on fire. We have heard nothing less than a great performance of Otello. Ho-hum. The audience rushes out to their taxis and subway cars, as if they have just picked up a cartful of groceries at the Food Emporium.

    Have we always been this pampered?

    Sunday, Oct. 3. The Vienna Philharmonic, queen of European orchestras, has come to Carnegie Hall. On the podium is the American conductor Lorin Maazel, one of the most puzzling and maddening men in all of music. He has been famous since he was in short pants, a wunderkind (and a conducting wunderkind, which is a particularly strange kind of wunderkind to be). Maazel's gifts are many: Of his musical understanding and range, there is no doubt. And his baton technique? If André Previn weren't alive, it would be, inarguably, the most beautiful in the business. Maazel, no matter what he is doing musically, is always a pleasure to look at. And yet, he can be a curiously unsatisfying musician. There is something about his performances?this is a fiendishly hard defect to describe?that fails to ring the bell. (How's that for specificity?) His performances may be convincing in fragments, but they don't quite hang together. They tend to be stilted, unnatural. Maazel can drain the life out of a piece as quickly as anyone since Karajan (which is to open a whole other can of worms, to be sure). And despite all this, he is a conductor to be reckoned with.

    This afternoon, we have a single work: Mahler's Fifth Symphony, a tremendous challenge in that conductorial management, that pacing, of which Levine is master. (He is here, by the way?in jacket and sneakers.) The first movement goes smashingly well, and I want to take back all I ever thought and said about Maazel. The movement is slow, inexorable, compelling. The Vienna players, of course?let's give in to the cliche?have this music "in their bones." Their sound is lush and burnished?European to the core. Each player with solo bits is first-rate.

    Yet the second movement falters?it is dull and unimaginative?and the third, the Scherzo, is flat, disjointed. The Adagietto?one of the world's best-loved slow movements?never quite weaves its spell (an astonishing failing). We are too conscious of it bar by bar, rather than transfixed by the whole. And the final movement is utterly without joy and verve. It is loud, yes?very?but fails to deliver the visceral thrill of a superior performance. The climactic D-major is nothing, really?nothing at all.

    There is an encore: Can you believe it? Following the Mahler Fifth! It is the Meistersinger overture, and it is brutish, stentorian, out of balance?god-awful. The Maazel mystery continues.

    Tuesday, Oct. 5. Another day, another orchestra, this one the Philadelphia, under its soon-to-retire music director Wolfgang Sawallisch. The program is French and Hungarian?Ravel, Bartok and Kodály. Sawallisch is, to put it mildly, not known for his French music, and need not be. He opens with one of the treasures of impressionism?Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte. This haunting piece, like the Mahler Adagietto, weaves a spell, or ought to. But Sawallisch and the Philadelphians give a cloddish, plodding performance. If anyone is bewitched, then he is alarmingly bewitchable.

    But hang on; let's start at the beginning, and ask the momentous question, Why can no orchestra, at any time, anywhere, start the Pavane cleanly? The French horn is almost never accurate; the start is almost always false. It is a tricky beginning, manifestly, but this orchestra ought to be able to execute it in its sleep. The performance is altogether too heavy, too Romantic, lacking in otherworldly magic, as we remember a time, and a dance, and a young princess, long, long ago. We do, however, receive an affecting diminuendo at the end, which is something.

    The soloist for Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 is Gil Shaham, the talented young Israeli-American fiddler. (Or is he an American-Israeli? It's hard to figure.) He is endowed with a brilliant technique and ample musical intelligence. That technique is remarkably supple, relaxed and fluid; his intonation is never less than secure. He also happens to be an interesting musician to look at, though not quite distractingly so. He goes in for a lot of toe-tapping, and he does a move now and then that looks something like the "electric slide" of blessed memory. Sawallisch proves a worthy partner here (in the Bartok, not the slide).

    Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales are just as drab as the Pavane, without spark or lilt. Owing to another obligation, I am unable to stay for Kodály's Háry János suite (whose title is the subject of time-honored conservatory ribaldry). But the decay of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which for decades was something like the queen of American orchestras, is dismaying. It's not that, since the death of Eugene Ormandy, it has become a bad orchestra. It's that, under the reigns of Riccardo Muti and Sawallisch, it has simply been undistinguished, and that's not good enough for the men who used to be known, justly if cornily, as the Fabulous Philadelphians.

    Sunday, Oct. 10. Maurizio Pollini, the acclaimed Italian pianist, is here. He has launched a project, called "Perspectives," to be carried out over two seasons. It will feature programs of varying sorts, amounting to something of a personal survey of music. Pollini has a searching musical mind, and is nicely suited to this (unusual) project. Always a friend to the 20th century, Pollini begins with the three pieces of Schoenberg that make up Opus 11. This is appealing music, hovering between Romanticism and the modern period. Pollini plays directly into the keys, cleanly, sparely, with refreshingly little wasted. He is a formidable technician, if a tad severe. His shortcoming, if any, is a lack of cantabile, the singing line?which can loom large.

    It does, unfortunately, in the massive B-flat-major sonata of Beethoven, known as the Hammerklavier. Pollini is closely associated with this work, as he is with all of Beethoven, particularly late Beethoven. The Hammerklavier contains worlds within it, and hardly anything is so exalting as a successful performance of it. Yet Pollini is not at his best this afternoon, his problematic tendencies in overdrive.

    There is too much license in the opening Allegro. It is rushed and overpedaled; some voices in the left hand are neglected. Pollini is tight, more percussive even than usual. He jabs violently at the keyboard. The Adagio, a glory of the piano literature, is oddly unfeeling. Pollini wrestles with the Fugue that concludes the work, and he mostly stays on top, but he has bulled his way through. This has been more a feat of brute force than a triumph of musicality combined with physical prowess, as in the better performances.

    The second half of the recital is devoted to Karlheinz Stockhausen, now in his 70s and living in Cologne. Pollini comes out in shirtsleeves, and it is soon apparent why: In Stockhausen's Klavierstuck X, he will be using his forearms and fists as much as his fingers. This is a profoundly dissonant, rhythmically adventurous, aggressively unconventional affair. It is a work of obvious cleverness, but it can seem more exhibitionistic than honestly musical.

    Pollini, however, clearly loves it. He is not a man who "experiments" with such music, but rather is a dedicated user. The audience is indulgent, sensing that it is hearing (and seeing) something remarkable, yet it coughs with abandon. And there is a sideshow: Pollini fights with his page-turner, poor girl, who, given the score, is understandably bewildered.

    Pollini is a titanic pianist, oh yes. But Carnegie Hall is bothersomely deficient in warmth today.