Sunday, November 30, 2008

Confessions of a MET insider

This was sent to me today, and I thought that it would be appropriate to post here. Here is some of the musical backstage drama that occurred last week as Daniel Barenboim was preparing his MET opera debut conducting Tristan und Isolde.

"His approach to the orchestra was very arrogant. He has a way of presenting his ideas as though it is our fault that we didn't think of them. Nevertheless I think most people admired his musicianship and either learned or were reminded of a lot of important musical values. On the other hand, while every phrase was beautiful, I don't think he got the same shape, intensity, and drama that Levine gets. I think a lot of the problems resulted from his disorganization at the rehearsals.

"We had nine hours of rehearsal with the orchestra alone, and other than a cursory run of the Vorspiel, we never played longer than 10 seconds at a time. He jumped around from spot to spot for 3 long mornings, unsure of how to proceed. It's very difficult to recover from that sense of disjointedness and disorientation. Once we reached the pit, he decided after an hour that our usual setup would not work, so he radically reorganized our seating. Whereas we usually sit more or less like a normal orchestra (with the winds in the middle) he moved all the strings left and all the wind and brass right. The 1st Violins were moved into a formless mass surrounding the podium and the seconds to where the firsts normally sit. The winds are now way off to the right. I happen to like this seating, mostly because it brings the string section together as a unit, but it takes a lot of getting used to, esp after years the other way. I think he likes to keep everyone (including himself) guessing. It's a power thing. I suspect the performances will improve as we remember the sweep of the piece and get used to the new seating. It's been refreshing… it's always great to do something differently, and Barenboim is very good at demanding accountability from everyone (not JL's strong point). We are all on the edge of our seats, in a good way, but I miss a certain depth that Levine gets from this most profound piece."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tristan und Isolde und Barenboim at the MET

The commentary that I hear most often by New York seasoned opera goers is that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is a well-oiled machine. Even I, after a particularly satisfying performance, have used similar words to describe this fine orchestra. I have always understood this comment to be a loving compliment which has its roots as a response to the many years when the pit at the MET was not the best musical ensemble in New York City. On the whole, however, I object to this robotic comparison which seems to turn the players into a group of automatons where the conductor pushes a button and off they go playing whatever score is in front of them as predictably as the holes in a piano roll. I am sure that the majority of the players, as a result of their musicianship and the repetitive aspect of opera production, know their parts inside and out, but I hardly think that they should be compared to a heartless machine that just plays the right notes. The greatest achievement that James Levine has accomplished with the orchestra is that he has populated it with intelligent musicians who are flexible enough to be responsive to just about any conductor who comes in to lead them.

This is exactly what happened on Friday night when Daniel Barenboim finally made his debut at the MET conducting the 450th performance of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Peter Seiffert might have been singing his first Tristan along with Katarina Dalayman's first Isolde, but as far as Friday night's audience was concerned all eyes and ears were on the debut occurring in the pit. And the orchestra did not let him down. It responded to Barenboim's baton with such incredible passion and precise playing that in gratitude the maestro made the orchestra stand up to receive the audience's enthusiastic ovation at the beginning of each act.

What does it take to get this incredible sound? An orchestra of accomplished flexible musicians. Under Levine, Tristan und Isolde is a robust wonder, sure of itself at all times and marvelously sonorous. In Levine's hands we are reminded that this opera brings the Romantic movement to its apogee while destroying it completely. In contrast, Barenboim elects to concentrate less on musical history historic; instead his Tristan und Isolde reaches into the dark night of love via his expansive tempi, slowing down the rhythms, and causing the final "Liebestod" conclusion to explode with incredible passion. At the risk of making it all too simplistic, Levine is about precision and brains, while Barenboim is more about instinct and heart. And over and over again, the MET orchestra delivers no matter who carries the baton.

On stage, the musicianship was equally strong. Both Seiffert and Dalayman were excellent in the title roles. Acts I and II were simply perfect. Seiffert survived the musical onslaught of Act III, although his voice was, at times, pushed to its limit. Dalayman sang a very strong Act I and II. However, when she came in at the end of the opera to sing its famed conclusion, it seemed as if her voice had lost much of the warmth we had heard earlier. The "Liebestod" came out a bit breathy, the sound quality totally different from the previous two acts.

Gerd Grochowski's splendid, vocally secured Kurwenal was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and Michelle De Young's Brangäne was a tower of strength in all three acts. The biggest ovation of the evening was reserved for René Pape who returned to the MET to reprise his well-known characterization of King Marke. A very popular singer at the MET, Pape never disappoints. His expressive phrasing and clear diction always make his Act II monologue heart wrenching. Pape will be singing the role for only two performances. South Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, one of the current staples at The Bayreuth Festival for the past few summers, will replace him starting with the December 6th performance.

New York is once again enjoying a very strong revival of Tristan und Isolde. This is probably one of the strongest casts that can be assembled for this opera. It will be playing throughout the month of December. Don't miss it!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tonight: Daniel Barenboim at the MET

When Argentinian-born Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim leads a world-class orchestra, the performance immediately becomes a high profile event. When Barenboim conducts the music of Richard Wagner, the event transcends the boundaries of art and enters into the realm of politics, with ramifications that stretch from the Middle East right to New York City.

In 2001 when Barenboim decided to conduct Wagner's music in Jerusalem at the annual Israel Festival his decision was met with severe criticism from many prominent Israelis, including Ephraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who said that what Barenboim did amounted to "cultural rape." The state of Israel has always had an unwritten ban on Wagner's music because he was Adolf Hitler's favorite composer and because Wagner's music was instrumental in the inspiration of the Nazi cultural propaganda that sprang in the decade of the 1930's and on through the War Years.

If you remove Barenboim's outer layers of virtuoso pianist and world-class conductor, however you will find in his inner core the role of humanitarian and peacemaker. As Oliver Mark reported in Time magazine:

"A classical-music conductor taking the podium always becomes a peacemaker of sorts. The central mission of conducting, after all, is to dispel discord and bring dozens of competing voices into concert. The Israeli maestro Daniel Barenboim, 65, sees in this act the opportunity to bring a deeper kind of harmony to one of the most violent and vociferous regions in the world: the Middle East."

One of the maestro's current projects is the West-Eastern Divan Youth Orchestra, an organization that he formed with the American-Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. The ensemble draws together Israeli and Arab musicians, many from disputed territories. The orchestra under Barenboim's direction has played in Weimar, Germany under the shadow of the ruins of the Buchenwald Nazi death camp, as well as in Ramallah in the West Bank, where the musicians played under armed guard.

In January of this year it was reported that the conductor was granted Palestinian citizenship. He is believed to be the first person in the world to possess both Israeli and Palestinian passports.

Now he finally comes to New York to make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera conducting a stellar cast in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The same work with which he opened La Scala, in Milan this season. It is not the first time that New York will hear his "Tristan." He also conducted the work back in the fall of 2001 in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall.

His MET debut tonight may not have the political gravitas of his daring historic concerts in the Middle East, however we must not forget that New York is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and that when it comes to the music of Wagner and particularly when the anti-semitic aspect of Wagner the man is brought to the forefront, emotions can and do run high. It promises to be a very interesting and important debut tonight.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

La Damnation de Faust at the MET

The Metropolitan Opera has not staged La Damnation de Faust since the beginning of the twentieth century (1906); however, this season the MET has revived this unusual work by Hector Berlioz in a decidedly 21st century production. Not entirely big enough to be called an opera, and at the same time too grand to be labeled a mere oratorio, La Damnation de Faust is a unique work that even though might defy categorization ends up being one of the composer's most satisfying creations.

The MET's new production by Robert Lepage (who will be directing the MET's upcoming new Ring of the Nibelung production) makes extensive use of interactive video projections that seem to react to the movement and voices of the actors (Is this the stylistic and directorial approach that he will take with the MET's new Ring?). The result is a phantasmagoric, and at times surreal staging that requires a degree in computer sciences to fully understand, but which manages to be artistic and relevant to Berlioz's music drama.

The composer is just one among many who obsessed over Goethe's epic drama Faust. History tells us that Berlioz read it constantly in a French prose translation by Gérard de Nerval. He even co-wrote the libretto along with Almire Gandonnière. When it came time to write the music, Berlioz created a score of extreme beauty and great power. I think he knew that it was impossible to match the breath and scope of Goethe's masterpiece, but it didn't stop him from letting his own genius go to work on the Faust legend. The result is one of the great adaptations of Goethe's work, rivaled perhaps only by Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele.

Had the MET mounted this work twenty-five years ago, it would have starred Plácido Domingo, Jessye Norman, and Samuel Ramey and I am sure that it would have been one for the ages. The current cast, which features Marcello Giordani as Faust, Susan Graham as Marguerite and John Relyea as Méphistophélès may not ignite the vocal fire of my dream team, but they each do a fine job throughout. John Relyea is particularly strong in the vocally showy role of the devil. His costume, which is reminiscent of the garb usually worn by bass-baritones performing Gounod's Faust circa the late 1890's, is memorable in an old fashioned way, and it makes for an excellent contrast to the otherwise ultra-modern production.

James Levine conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with great flair. The result was a polished reading of Berlioz's quirky score which was matched only by the intensity and polish of the MET's chorus under the direction of Donald Palumbo. Their singing was one of the true highlights of the evening.