The Classical Music Season Winds Down... And Dawn (Upshaw)
Saturday, April 21: It's good to have an afternoon with Korngold, that neglected, underappreciated composer. City Opera is reviving its 1975 production of Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), possibly the composer's finest work. Korngold was one of the great child prodigies in the history of music, compared frequently, and by some of the best musical minds, to no less than Mozart. He didn't quite pan out, although he left a distinguished, even enchanting, body of work. An emigre from Vienna, Korngold lived the second half of his life in Hollywood, where he wrote film scores, along with a small amount of concert music. (Quick: Who wrote the score to Ronald Reagan's best picture, Kings Row? Right, Korngold.)
If we know Die tote Stadt at all, it is commonly for the aria called "Marietta's Lied." It was a favorite of Leontyne Price, who sang it sumptuously and unforgettably. Taking the role of Marietta this afternoon is another American soprano, Lauren Flanigan, the star?the prima prima donna?of this house. There are many enthusiasts who would like to see her more frequently across the plaza at the Met, but she has built a solid career. Flanigan has a strong, cutting voice?you might even describe it as a virile one, and I write this without an ounce of disrespect. She has a sturdy technique, and she is an appealing, gutsy actress. Her performance will not set records for beauty, but it is a success all the same.
Singing the role of Paul?the tenor who is at the center of the opera?is John Horton Murray. This is a big, lush role, and Murray is almost up to it; but not quite. He has a lovely lyric tenor, but one without enough oomph to do the job. He often has to push his voice past its natural limits. Paul ought to be a lyric tenor, all right, but one with a touch of the heroic. Placido Domingo, for example, would eat this role up. Murray's strength and intonation give out toward the end, but one feels that he has given his all, which is something.
Bringing down the house with his big Act II aria is the baritone Mel Ulrich, singing Pierrot. The orchestra puts in a strong performance, competently conducted by George Manahan. The 1975 production, with its slides and film clips, works well, capturing the spookiness of this work. I might note here that we could use another recording of Die tote Stadt: for years, there has been one, led by the late Erich Leinsdorf, and this opera?an enduring, compelling thing?deserves better.
Tuesday, April 24: Dawn Upshaw, soprano, and Richard Goode, pianist, like to give joint recitals, and they usually do so with satisfying results. Tonight at Carnegie Hall they are giving a program of music influenced by the folk, from Haydn to Ives. Goode will do some solo playing as well?that is part of the deal, and that is why the recital is "joint."
The first thing that comes to mind, as Goode begins the Haydn songs, is: here is a pianist! I mean, a real pianist, not a run-of-the-mill accompanist. His Haydn is exquisite, a model of limpidity and taste. Upshaw is no less fine. She is "on" tonight, singing in slinky, lyrical fashion, and keeping her mannerisms in check. Her voice has always been remarkably youthful; it probably always will be. In the Haydn, she is expressive and personal, but also restrained and classical. Upshaw has been known to "overcharacterize" or oversell a song, but here she behaves. And her English is exceptionally clear?besides which, I must say that I have always liked that she doesn't Britishize her English (except when strictly necessary). It sounds American, and why not?
Goode plays the Beethoven Bagatelles, Op. 126, then it's time for Upshaw to sing selections from Mahler's Knaben Wunderhorn, which is right up her alley. She is expert at conveying childlike wonder, and in "Das Himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life") she is perfectly angelic. I should note, however, that her breaths feel a bit shallow to me; she often gasps a little at the end of a phrase. I find this rather distracting, but others might say that it lends immediacy and urgency. After intermission, Upshaw goes far afield (for an American), offering a set of Bartok. This is Upshaw as troubador, Upshaw as vocal world traveler. In these gussied-up folk songs, she sounds commendably idiomatic. Then Goode plays a set of Debussy?agreeable, if not first-class?following which Upshaw sings a group of songs by Ives, a composer she has long championed. She performs like a lithe, imaginative, glorious little patriot. I have taken my shots at Upshaw in the past, but, when she has her wits about her, she is a truly appetizing singer. This has been a delicious recital. Mainly because of the Goode additions, it has been an unusually long recital, too, and Upshaw thanks the audience for sticking it out. A well-mannered, endearing woman, Dawn Upshaw, in many respects.
Sunday, April 29: A music critic seldom "looks forward" to a particular concert, just as a sportswriter must infrequently "look forward" to a particular ballgame: it's just part of the job. This afternoon's concert at Carnegie Hall, however, is an exception. Indeed, it is just possibly the most anticipated performance of the season. The work is the Verdi Requiem, and leading the Metropolitan Opera's orchestra and chorus is James Levine, their master. He has with him some of the mightiest soloists in the business: Renée Fleming, the soprano, Olga Borodina, the mezzo-soprano and René Pape, the bass. This is a lineup about as mouthwatering as any in the past. The fourth soloist?the tenor Marcello Giordani?is not quite in the same league as his colleagues, but he can be expected to perform solidly nonetheless.
Borodina proves magnificent almost beyond description. Her voice is enthralling, her declamation is superb and her musicianship is spotless. She provides whatever Verdi desires. In the Kyrie, she is haunting and serene. In the Recordare (with Fleming), she is transporting. In the Quid sum miser, she is even and melting. In the Lacrymosa, she is (appropriately) fragile yet (vocally) secure. In the Offertorium, she is refulgent. In every respect one would care to detail, she puts on a clinic of Verdi singing?or of singing, period. Fleming, too, is impressive, offering her usual lush carpet of sound. She may be the most sheerly beautiful soprano in this work since the aforementioned Leontyne Price. But she is at times perhaps too beautiful, too lush. When she should give us more bite?put the fear of God in us, so to speak?she lays on yet more lushness, more of her velvet. Also, she has her assortment of mannerisms, which jar. Yet it is important to hear this important singer in this important work. When Borodina and Fleming throw (or float) their voices into the air together, the effect is spine-tingling.
René Pape is resplendent, commanding, focused: everything that is expected of him. The odd man out, unfortunately, is Giordani, who has a difficult day. His sound is decent in the middle register, but up top it's strangled and hard to bear. The Ingemisco, his big chance, is spoiled by flatness (of pitch) and strain. Later, he suffers some cracks, or near-cracks, and seems incapable of producing a piano. In this august?even Olympian?company, he brings to mind that cruel game show, The Weakest Link.
As for the conductor, he has a whip hand on this work from the beginning. His tempos are faster than the norm, and he controls everything to the nth degree. This is as tight a Requiem as I have ever heard. Levine allows even the soloists virtually no slack. His performance is extraordinarily determined, always proceeding somewhere, driven forward. The Sanctus has tremendous energy and propulsion. The Libera me may be the fastest, least dawdling on record. Everything is straightforward, no-nonsense, even classical. Here the Verdi Requiem is little distinguishable from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis?and it is thrilling. The audience stands and cheers for 15 minutes, a very long time in a concert hall. No one wants to leave. They think they have heard an historic performance?and they have.
Tuesday, May 1: It's not every day we get to hear Smetana's Ma Vlast complete. Usually, we hear just its hit section, "The Moldau," the greatest depiction of a river in music (with apologies to Johann Strauss Jr. and his beautiful "Blue Danube"). It is the only work on the Philadelphia Orchestra's program here at Carnegie, with Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Philadelphians' music director, on the podium. Although we hear the work complete, we hear it split up, as there is an intermission between Parts Three and Four (of this six-part work). This seems unnecessary, for Ma Vlast should flow on. Played without interruption, the work is no longer than a Mahler symphony. It is one big tone poem, requiring, above all, orchestral sound and lots of it. Fantastic, luxuriant, orgiastic sound. So who better than the Philadelphians to play it? There is some off-center, unpleasant string playing, however, and in certain passages the bassline should be more clearly delineated. But all told, we are treated to a convincing account of this Czech national music. In one section?containing a march?Sawallisch is as animated as I have ever seen him, stomping around, exhorting his troops, delighting in their response. They say that Sawallisch is a stolid Kapellmeister?baloney. And if so, give us more of it.
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