March 23: The Prokofiev operas are being performed with ever more frequency,
which is good news for Prokofiev, and good news for opera. At the Met tonight
we have The Gambler, based on the Dostoevsky novella. The cast is (nearly)
all Russian, and is led by the conductor Valery Gergiev, who is Ossetian. (These
distinctions may not be important to us–they’re all Russkies, aren’t
they?–but, boy, do they matter there.) The tenor carries the great load in
this opera, and tonight’s, Vladimir Galouzine, can handle it. More than,
really. He turns in a tour de force. The part of Alexei is heavy, punishing and
sustained–and Galouzine never brays or barks; nor does he show any signs
of giving out, even at the mad, delirious end. That technique must be very well
honed. And listening to his Alexei makes you want to hear his Otello–and,
later in his career, the Wagner roles.
her Met debut is the soprano Olga Guryakova, an intelligent singer and a fine
actress. She makes the most of her voice, which may not win any prizes for beauty,
but which is interesting all the same, with some steel in it. And appearing as
the grandmother is the veteran Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obratzsova. This really
is Old-Timers Day. We had another one a couple of seasons ago, when the Swedish
soprano Elisabeth Söderström came in to play the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s
Pique Dame. Obratzsova, like Söderström, sings like an old lady,
but an old lady with power and wit. She retains an especially juicy lower register.
Her Grammy–I refer to her character, not to any music award–is hysterical,
but not necessarily inappropriately so. In the pit, Gergiev leads everything in
classic, crackling Russian style. The orchestra is blazing, hyperresponsive.
Gambler is very much a symphonic opera, with the voices acting almost like
additional (and, of course, prominently featured) instruments. The entire production
conveys the desperation and absurdity of the work. All the extramusical elements
are apt: the stage direction, the set, the costumes (down to the millinery). Even
the lighting is outstanding. And speaking of extramusical elements, I feel I should
mention this: Elena Obratzsova is fingered by her one-time colleague, the soprano
Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of the cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich), in
her phenomenal memoir Galina, as an awful, Communist, informing hack–the
kind that made the Soviet Union a hell. Frankly, I feel a bit of a twinge while
March 29: Tonight it is Wagner time, with an "Easter-season" Parsifal,
featuring Placido Domingo, the Parsifal of this age. Before we get to him, though,
we have to talk about this production’s Kundry, Violeta Urmana, who makes
her Met debut–the kind that can be described as "storybook." Odd
name, isn’t it? Violeta Urmana is a Lithuanian, and we might as well learn
the name, for it should be a major one. She has a rich, dark mezzo, extremely
well controlled. Her high B’s are not quite ringing, but they are effective.
As a singing actress, she is genuinely moving. She succeeds in conveying the unusualness
of Kundry, a most unusual character (or characters, we should say, because Kundry
is more than one). And–again, addressing the extramusical–although she
is not a svelte woman, she is a knockout in her way, and totally believable as
a siren. Tonight is star-is-born stuff.
good, too, to hear John Tomlinson, the veteran British bass who debuted at the
Met only in 1999, as the sun was beginning to set on him. As Gurnemanz, he is
sturdy and resplendent. And may I interject something totally off-the-wall, or
from-the-sky? When the swan falls down, having been shot by Parsifal, I can’t
help thinking of Bjork at the Oscars a few nights ago. Surely I’m not the
now, Domingo: many of us never fail to get a kick out of this creamy Italianate
voice in a Wagner opera. He is an heroic tenor–a heldentenor–to be sure,
but he’s also a Rodolfo or an Alfredo, making him very heroic, indeed. Tonight,
the years seem to roll off him. And, needless to say, the old charmer looks right
at home with his second-act bevy of sirens.
matter how great, or poor, the singers, Parsifal rises or falls with the
conductor–talk about a "symphonic opera." The key, or one of them,
is to conduct this holy music freely, naturally, not handling it with sugar tongs,
not being intimidated by its profundity. Blessings on a conductor who’ll
let it flow–and James Levine does. Probably everyone in attendance feels
that he is witnessing a great performance. I myself have no expectation of seeing
or hearing a better one–which, perversely, you might say, leaves me kind
April 11: The American pianist Abbey Simon is said to be "a link to the
golden age"–and so he is. He’s 79, but, more important, he studied
with Josef Hofmann, the very symbol of golden-age pianism, wherein feeling, expressiveness
and individuality count for a lot.
begins his recital at Carnegie Hall with one of the great works of the Classical
literature (or the Classical-Romantic literature), Beethoven’s Sonata in
A flat, Op. 110. His playing is a study in elegance. Every phrase is beautifully
shaped, and he uses a beautiful singing tone. Here is limpid, graceful Beethoven,
as befits this piece (or certainly its first movement). Simon is an intimate communicator:
he makes this sonata talk to us. His approach is both Classical and Romantic,
as, again, befits the work. He is quite liberal with the sustain pedal, but not
obtrusively so. And he groans and sings (I mean, vocally, this time) like Glenn
Gould–which is slightly obtrusive, but part of the Simon style, and
the Simon experience. In the sonata’s denser, faster pages, Simon betrays
some loss of technique–of incisiveness and punch–but he still has plenty:
enough to continue to earn the title "supervirtuoso." He plays the Adagio
as a romanza. In fact, he makes it sound like Chopin, but like Beethoven, too:
it is a Chopinized Beethoven, and perfectly acceptable. The great fugue that ends
the piece is just a little sloppy, but the performance as a whole has been masterly,
one of the most satisfying of this signal work I have yet to hear.
proceeds with the group of pieces known as Kreisleriana, by Schumann. He
proves, once more, that he is a remarkably "horizontal" pianist–that
is, his legato is supreme, as he stitches over everything. His playing almost
always has a sense of forward motion, or of latitude. He gives the impression
of a continuum, of something like water flowing. His playing occasionally threatens
to get soupy, but it manages to stay defined enough.
is extraordinary beauty and care in Simon’s work. You get the impression
that he couldn’t do anything ugly at the keyboard if he tried. He closes
the printed program with a set of Chopin: a couple of mazurkas and the E-major
Scherzo. In this, his playing is memorably poetic. The famous A-minor mazurka
he plays as you might imagine Chopin did, in his salon. Simon grasps the inner
meaning of this music, sort of communes with it, or with its composer. He tires
somewhat toward the end–the fingers get sluggish; he gropes a little–but
it hardly matters.
encores are "golden age," indeed. First there is a transcription of
the Liebesleid by Fritz Kreisler (no relation to Schumann’s Kreisler–well,
sort of a spiritual relation, actually). And then there’s a Petrarch sonnet
of Liszt. Simon certainly can’t be accused of failing to play to his strengths.
He leaves his audience in a reverie–or multiple ones–and we sigh in
appreciation that the golden age is still here.
April 12: The Met’s Lulu is supposed to feature the sensational
German soprano Christine Schäfer. She is indisposed, though, allowing the
American Cyndia Sieden to make her debut. And what an opportunity: a debut in
a big-time role, in practically a one-woman opera, conducted by the world’s
great Berg champion, Levine. The young debutante responds with a respectable effort,
if not a star-making one, a la Violeta Urmana.
begin with, Sieden looks a lot like Lulu should (as does Christine Schäfer–and
as their great, mercurial predecessor, Teresa Stratas, surely did). Sieden has
a light, high coloratura voice, and she handles it well. It seems underpowered,
however. It’s often hard to hear her–even toward the front of the house–and
it is even difficult to hear her spoken work. But she seems to gain strength and
poise as the (very long) evening wears on, bringing off this strange, demanding
part with real style, real pluck.
some others I have mentioned lately, Sieden is an obviously fine actress–and
not merely in the good-enough-for-opera sense. And the character of Lulu herself?
There is no end of interpretive blather about this woman: her complexity, her
moral responsibility. I would like to venture a harsh, unnuanced, boobish opinion:
despite decades of attempts to humanize this wretched being, she is… well, she
is what MUGGER calls the junior Senator from New York. But that’s probably
unfair to the dear Lulu, who did, after all, have a horrid childhood.