German Opera at the Met


On Music GERMAN OPERA AT THE MET by m anatole gurewitsch Under the musical directorship of James Levine, German opera is once again occupying a prominent place on the Metropolitan's seasonal...

...On Music GERMAN OPERA AT THE MET by m anatole gurewitsch Under the musical directorship of James Levine, German opera is once again occupying a prominent place on the Metropolitan's seasonal program This year, with nine German productions out of a total of 26, the Met is giving us a generous sampling of the repertoire Although it does not always fulfill the promise of its ad campaign ("You have a date with genius"), the company's German offerings have so far been strong, and genius actually has touched down from time to time This pattern should continue through the season's last Parsifal on April 18 (an earlier performance of the work will be broadcast live on April 5 at 1pm) The personnel of these Met productions reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the current musical scene Erich Leinsdorf, a native of Vienna, conducts Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and Beethoven's Fideho, Giuseppe Patane, from Naples, leads Wagner's Lohengrin, and the rest are in the hands of Americans Calvin Simmons (Humper-dink's Hdnseland Gretef) and Maestro Levine himself (Mozart's Die Enjuhr-ung aiis dem Serail, Wagner's Parsijal, Strauss' Elektra, Berg's Hozzeck, and Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) The producers and the casts have also been assembled from around the globe To an unusual degree, German opera relies on the seriousness of its conductors Certainly no one could accuse Leinsdorf, with his scholar's knowledge of the literature and seasoned practitioner's technique, of being a trivial musician Often, however, his meticulous workmanship leaves one's spirits hungry In the first act of Der Rosenkavalier, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss' brilliant "Comedy for Music," Leinsdorf achieved a fine transparency in the orchestral fabric, yet he was so unwilling to linger, to savor the shape of a phrase or the cadence of a line, and his tempos were so driven as to trample the all-important conversational mood and rhythm The same tendencies marred the spectacular opening of the second act and the scene of the presentation of the rose, one of Strauss' most heady distillations Then, in the middle of the same act, the performance was transformed, passages I have never known to sound other than disorganized and and, suddenly took ott Similarly, the routing of the boonsh Baron Ochs by creditors and character assassins m the third act can never have made its point with such bouncing gaiety Supported by Leinsdorf, the performance of the final trio by Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the Marschallm, Agnes Baltsa, a refined and resourceful Octavian, and the vivacious Gian-na Rolandi as Sophie, was lustrous Unfortunately, Tomowa-Sintow, a usually dependable (even a touch stolid) soprano, lost her nerve on the opening phrase, "Hab mir's gelobt, ihn lieb zu haben in der richtigen Weis "—a majestic restatement of one of the many waltzes that thread themselves so seductively through the score Without this flaw, the evening would have ended sublimely There could be few complaints about this year's revival of Fideho, starring Hildegard Behrens, the most ardent Leonore of the day, and Jon Vickers, whose musicality and dramatic intensity in the part of Florestan are unnval-ed Discophiles who are familiar with Vickers' Florestan from the beautiful recording under Otto Klemperer on the Angel label (SCL 3625), which has figured proudly in the catalogue for years, will be able to acquaint themselves with Behrens' Leonore in the soon to be released performance led by Sir Georg Solti for London Leinsdorf's reading, in the main, did not rise to the principals' level of eloquence or involvement Indeed, where conductors of Fidelio are concerned, the important news is that the Fereric Fncsay recording, long out of print, has just been reissued (Deutsche Gram-mophon 2726088) Fncsay's approach to the score is curiously Mozartean light and buoyant At the same time, every measure leaps with an immediacy of meaning that reveals the full grandeur of Beethoven's message ot liberty Lohengrin marked Giuseppe Pa-tane's first Wagner assignment in New York He has been admired most of all for his work in the Italian repertoire, but he quiekh proved his sympatic with the new music, building the vision of the Holy Grail represented in the Prelude through a sustained crescendo to an awesome climax and a shining resolution In the great choral frescoes he displayed an ability to pamt in bold, broad strokes Patane's finest moments came in the duet between the villainous Ortrud (Mignon Dunn) and her husband Tel-ramund (Donald Mclntyre) at the start of the second act In the previous action Telramund has, at Ortrud's instigation, accused his ward Elsa (winningly sung by Teresa Zylis-Gara, last year's Elizabeth in Tannhauser) of murdering her own brother to gain the Duchy of Brabant, an unknown knight in shining armor (Lohengrin) has arrived in a swan-drawn boat to vindicate her in trial by combat, and the false accusers have been branded outlaws The guilty couple now cower in the darkness outside the palace, where rejoicing is in progress, and Ortrud once more ensnares her husband to mischief For all his violence and ambition, Telramund is a man of honor, and no easy prey, this is reflected in the music which glimmers with an eerie, unwholesome allure as his wife weaves her wiles Harmonically, the final defeat of Telramund and Ortrud is signaled by the triumph of the tonal idiom associated with Lohengrin over the romantic chromaticism that reaches its peak in the evil-doers second-act duet McIntyre' s brawling management of the passage beginning "Du wilde Seherin" ("Mad prophetess") tore the spangled web of evil Patane spun from the pit Nevertheless, m the final passages of the duet, when Ortrud and Telramund smg m parallel octaves, everything fell into place Contemplative spaciousness seemed the keynote of Patane's conception James Levine's Wagner, by contrast, tends to athleticism and extroversion —except in Parsifal, where last season he managed to control this impulse and achieve a wonderful dynamic balance Levine is a conductor who grows from year to year, and it will be especially instructive to hear his latest thoughts on Wagner's final score when it is revived m April Meanwhile, he will preside over Birgit Nilsson's return as Strauss' Elektra (to be broadcast live February 16 at 2 30 p m ) and Berg's Wozzeck (March 8 at 1 p m ) Since Wozzeck has become standard repertory, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, the opera by Ber-tolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, seen nationally on Public Television last November, must be considered Levine's most adventurous outing of the season When as a kid I listened to the late Jim Morrison of The Doors rasping "Oh show me the way to the next whisky bar," I never suspected I would hear those same lines voiced by Teresa Stra-tas on the boards of the Metropolitan And the "Alabama Song," from which this request for directions comes, is just the beginning of Brecht and Weill's scintillating score It was a joy to have Mahagonny entrusted to genuine musicians (the work is frequently abused by the nonmusical with a political axe to grind) but the performance was not of a uniformly high standard Levine made only intermittent sense of it On the stage, Stra-tas' Jenny was mesmerizing throughout, thanks to her insinuating phrasing, accurate pitch and sharp verbal detail, as Jacob Schmidt, Arturo Sergi sang caressingly Otherwise the vocalism ranged from indifferent to deplorable This brings me to the matter of casting for the German repertoire In a word, there is room at the top Last year's Parsifal was Jon Vickers, and he was magnificent, this year, we have the privilege of hearing his Florestan But there is no one to fill his shoes when he moves from one role to another Last year's Florestan was the inadequate James King, and Parsifal this season goes to Jess Thomas, hardly Vickers' equal True, we have had the debuts of two new Lohengnns Siegfried Jerusalem (whom I heard) and Peter Hofmann While a find, Jerusalem is not a real Wagnenan, his tenor has a sweet, light timbre Yet by making up through clarity of focus what he lacked in brute force, he avoided the hideous snarl that sets in when singers venture into roles that are too heavy for them Jerusalem also had the considerable imaginative means to thaw the chill of Lohengrin's rectitude, his narrative of the Grail had the beauty of the soul's knowledge There are similar problems on the distaff side Birgit Nilsson's return brings the number of heavy dramatic sopranos at the Met to the whopping total of one, and after her four Elek-tras, no one knows when she will be back or in what roles The Met's overwhelming production of Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten has been in storage waiting for an appropriate cast to be pulled together A soprano core of Nilsson as the Dyer's Wife and Leonie Rysanek as the Empress could be formed, but not many mezzos are able?or willing—to smg the Nurse Two years ago, Mignon Dunn performed the part with verve and a high degree of professional elan As Ortrud this year, she outdid herself, though some strain was evident in her thrilling tones—and four Klytamnestras within less than three weeks of the final Lohengrin can hardly be what the doctor ordered Even basses are in short supply Aage Haugland, a Danish newcomer to these shores, received every assistance from Leinsdorf in his debut role of Baron Ochs, including numerous cuts (some standard, some unorthodox) and offered a portrayal of the utmost charm, humor, and musicality —but, regrettably, of no vocal distinction at all As for the productions, it is but the flip of a backstage elevator switch from the splendors of Ming Cho Lee's Lohengrin to the grossest absurdities Boris Aronson's Fidelio, like Rudolf Heinrich's Elektra, is one long and gloomy mistake The industrious liter-al-mindedness of Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O'Hearn in Rosenkavalier and Parsifal (with its Flower Maidens in a garden of concrete) celebrates, in different ways, the defeat of imagination But everyone knows that the first thing we go to the opera for is the music...

Vol. 63 • February 1980 • No. 3

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