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In performance: weekend roundup

A bonanza of classical music reviews in today's Washington Post:

The NEA Opera Honors celebrate a cross-section of American opera, by Anne Midgette
Lang Lang plays with the NSO
, by Anne Midgette

Kiri te Kanawa in recital (not farewell), by Joan Reinthaler

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (scroll to the bottom of the page), by Mark J. Estren

Haochen Zhang, Cliburn winner, at Wolf Trap Barns, by Mark J. Estren

François-Frederic Guy begins his Beethoven sonata cycle (scroll to the bottom of the page), by Charles T. Downey

By Anne Midgette  |  November 16, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Next: Monday notes


I attended Sunday's performance of Götterdämmerung, and it was indeed one of the better offerings from the Washington Opera, though perhaps not in the same class with its very best: Parsifal, Don Carlo, Tamerlano, Billy Budd, or Jenufa.

Let's start with thew conducting of Philippe Auguin. There was a lot to admire in his no-nonsense leadership, drawing some wonderful string playing, and keeping always a discrete but firm hand. His was not by far the most aggresive Wagner conducting, as one reviewer suggested. Yet there is more to Wagner. For the first time in my memory I remained unmoved by Siegfried's Funeral March. Another example is the very first chord which should express the sense of doom of the work. In Sunday's performance, it just was there and little more. (BTW, the best version of Siegfried's Funeral March that I heard, live or on records, is that of Sergiu Celibidache - by quite a wide margin.)

The singing is again, a mixed bag. Theorin dominated, as a Brünnhilde should. But, while Jon Fredric West handled admirably the difficulties of the role (and that's no small matter), and was more than just a happy last minute replacing for Ian Storey, I have little else to say in his favor so I will stop here. Solid work from Alan Held, and also from Gordon Hawkins and Elizabeth Bishop, who was the best of the norns as well. The Gutrune was serviceable but she should be sent back to the provincial German opera houses where she belongs. Neither the Norns, nor the Rhine Maidens were the strongest team that I heard.

Saks was of course an impressive Hagen. Yet I was lucky enough to hear Matti Salminen who for me is the major Hagen of the 20th Century; I prefer him even over the marvelous Gottlob Frick - who, admittedly, I only know from recordings. Salminen not only had the darkest of dark voices, but, especially in Otto Schenk's much criticized version, also looked the part and was genuinely terrifying. Still, the fact that Saks projected that menancing face with little staging, without costume, and that his singing was first rate speaks a lot for him.

I am curious to hear how anyone else feels after listening to Wagner's operas. I feel emotionally drained and barely able to drive back home. Once at home I eat some fruit and sleep, then the next day I pass through my mind what I have heard the night before.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 17, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

A comment from gauthier310 on his past weekend's activities, posted with his permission:

I finally got to attend the last performance of Ariadne auf Naxos on Friday. Some beautiful singing, especially on the part of Theorin and Popova. I enjoyed the music, but I can't remember a single phrase. It's not the sort of opera you leave humming La Donna e Mobile. Hard to tell, though, why Zerbinetta would fall in love with the Composer, a Hosendumpling with a beautiful voice, but still a dumpling. Gnocchi, anyone? Some of the performers actually sang in German. I am pretty sure I heard someone sing "Nicht" and "Gott". Actually, "junger Gott", The rest of the cast just kept on singing EIEIO, as usual. Someone ought to donate a higher resolution rear screen projector to the WNO; the fireworks at the end were as blurry as the diction of some of the singers.

I recall the review that had the music of Ariadne going from Mozart to Wagner. If so, the reviewer missed the Schubert -- first, when the comedians sing a lovely Lied to comfort Ariadne, and later, the dialog between Ariadne and Bacchus, an inversion of Der Tod und das Mädchen. Ariadne now wants to die (or at least wants Bacchus to assist her with the necessary drugs). She is an older and, perhaps, wiser Mädchen, with a better understanding of the advantages accrued had Der Tod taken her in the flower of her youth, so she would not be reduced to solicit him at the deflowered age of her abandonment by Theseus. Trying to check up on the various myths surrounding Ariadne, it's not clear whether she was supposed to be married to Dionysus or Theseus or both, and when and in what order. If von Hoffmanstahl and Strauss wanted another Greek tragedy to follow up on Elektra, why pick on the myth of Ariadne, instead of, say, Iphigenie, with whom Gluck had struck gold twice? Also, why do they use the Roman name of Bacchus instead of the original Greek of Dionysus? Is it a metaphor for Ariadne finding solace in drink?

The work reveals lots about a Europe poised on the threshold of modernity. In the background, the Radetzky March was rehearsing to play at the funeral of Austro-Hungary. Eros and Thanatos stalked the streets of Vienna, revolution was in the air, and deadly fireworks were lurking below the horizon. I remember reading somewhere that maybe half the Viennese population had contracted sexually transmitted diseases at one time or another. Se non e vero, e ben trovato. The two women in this opera conform to the stereotypical dichotomy of the time. Ariadne is the motherly type, who provided the thread (umbilical cord?) used by Theseus to exit her labyrinth (Sigmund, were you at a performance?) while Zerbinetta is the slut with the heart of gold.

The opera is staged in the home of a philistine bourgeois capitalist, which makes you wonder whether Hoffmanstahl is trying to score points with Vienna's antisemites by marking his distance from his Jewish merchant grandfather. Ariadne is presented to an audience listening on stage, a twice removed opera within an opera, providing a therapeutic setting for the vicarious experience of sex and death that protects the audience from the consequences. More importantly, this device lets the composer and librettist also protect their modernist street creds -- their cool -- by showing how ironical they can be. This deliberate aesthetic distancing of the work evokes Brecht (no friend of filthy capitalists he) and those six characters in search of Pirandello. It is also typical of the self-referential trends, "see me, I'm an opera," decried, if I recall correctly, by Ortega y Gasset in his long complaint about the dehumanization of art brought about by modernity.

Then, on Saturday, we went to a Smithsonian concert by the Axelrod Quartet, playing Amati instruments. For Mendelssohn's Octet, Op. 20, they were joined by the Adelphi String Quartet, consisting of graduate music students from the University of Maryland, playing Stradivari. I hesitate to mention this venue in public, because I would hate to have it spoiled by becoming a popular attraction, but this was the next to last concert of the season, and by the time they play again the tourists will have forgotten. This is an intimate venue; the people come to listen to the music, know when to applaud, and are stingy with standing ovations. There are no power couples loudly proclaiming opinions to one another.

It does not take a lot of musical experience to recognize the sounds of Amati and Stradivarius, and to be awed when these instruments are played by a set of outstanding musicians. The instruments bring about their own kind of magic, and from the first notes of the Octet (which Mendelssohn wrote when he was 16 years old!) the veterans and the young musicians fused into an ensemble that played as they had never played before, and maybe would never play again. I found myself warmly enveloped by the music, music that knew where it came from and knew where it was going, a healing refuge from the Wagnerian thuggishness of Siegfried and the WNO's dammering Götter, back to the glorious "Judentum in der Musik" of the Mendelssohn that Wagner had so bitterly disparaged. I could picture poor Richard screaming soundlessly as he melted onto the floor, until nothing was left but his beret, floating in a puddle of foul-smelling liquid.

Don't publicize where or when the Smithsonian concerts are held. Just give an address for people to send checks, for the salvation of their souls.

--sent by gauthier310

Posted by: MidgetteA | November 18, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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