The Fifth Annual Lully Awards
THE FIFTH ANNUAL LULLY AWARDS
2005-2006 saw the beginning of one era in New York and the end of another. Clive Gillinson took the reins at Carnegie Hall and remained remarkably low key, his only major initiative a partnership with the struggling City Center across 56th Street from the back of his fabled auditorium. On the surface, this seemed like a good move, designed to extend the imprimatur of Carnegie and expand its performing spaces, but some of us were given pause when neither classical music nor opera was even mentioned as possible art forms for the new spaces. With Carnegie now throwing open its doors to rap and pop in a big way, the place is in serious danger of becoming just another unfocused space where anyone with the promise of filling the seats can come and play. Mr. Gillinson touts as one of his favorite partnerships whilst with the London Symphony their recording of the music from the “Star Wars” series of films. Oh dear.
The Metropolitan Opera said goodbye to its longtime general manager Joseph Volpe with a star-studded, if ultimately tedious gala, in May. Mr. Volpe was notoriously difficult to work with, but he deserves high praise for his steadfast championing of the Met’s traditional productions. New GM Peter Gelb is refreshingly candid: He has no compunction about stating that he only cares about the bottom line. He will be inviting in many new European productions, performers from the pop arena, and high profile directors. What is troubling is his apparent lack of enthusiasm for the music itself and his relationship with the New York Times, where his father was managing editor, an arrangement roughly the equivalent of that which Nikita Khrushchev enjoyed with Pravda. However, Mr. Gelb doesn’t officially begin until September, when James Levine is being dangled as the conductor of a new Butterfly directed by movie guy Anthony Minghella. But you had better come on opening night, because Mr. Levine has no intention of leading any of the work’s other performances. Oh dear.
While we are waiting, here are the highs and lows from the season just gone by.
BEST NIGHT AT THE OPERA: MANON
Fortunately for the Met, this excellent production appeared at both the beginning and the end of the season. For me, it was a revelation. Renee Fleming was spectacular (no surprise) and Marcello Alvarez was lyricism personified (also no surprise). The Ponnelle production was breathtaking. I have seldom seen a staging that so integrally enhanced an opera, right down to the colors of the costumes as dramatic situations ebbed and flowed. Jesus Lopez-Cobos, a favorite of mine from his days in Cincinnati, conducted an intelligently paced and remarkably colorful evening in the pit. What was such a wonder was the depth of the opera itself, stunningly revealed like the petals of a flower in these capable hands.
BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE IN AN OPERA: ANNA NETREBKO
I did not catch opening night of Rigoletto, but went instead to a later performance where the baritone, Carlo Guelfi, was indisposed and could not come out for the final act. But it was truly no matter, as my companion and I were simply knocked out by the incredible artistry of Anna Netrebko as Gilda. Not only was the voice rich and flowing, but the stage presence was far beyond even the above average opera singer. Not only did Ms. Netrebko have to literally carry her father around in the last act so that he could find his marks, but she went so deep into character that, months later, I am still shocked over one particular second of this performance. Gilda is almost always one of two character types, either a cartoonish exaggeration of a lovesick puppy, or, depending on the age and timbre of the singer, a sympathetic but misguided ingénue. But Ms. Netrebko dared to paint her as a real human being and used her marvelous athleticism to chilling effect. Just before she ran into the house of Sparafucile and her own certain death, this Gilda stopped, turned to the audience and contemplated her destiny, instantly but consciously choosing to be a heroine of the most honorable variety. Then, because of her muscularity, she was able to run across that stage and go through the open door on the beat, an accomplishment few of the more, shall we say, generously endowed sopranos of our era could have achieved. And the voice! Poor Rolando Villazon, a fine tenor in his own right, was simply outclassed this evening.
WORST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE IN AN OPERA: ANGELA GHEORGHIU
Apparently, many fans are surprised by some recent comments that Ms. Gheorghiu made about Maria Callas. If they are, then they do not understand the highly successful marketing strategy of this very savvy singer. Angela has adopted what I like to call the “evil wrestler” persona, realizing that keeping her fans angry is the surest way to fill the seats at the opera house. Here in New York, there are thousands of Gheorghiu haters, who line up on Lincoln Center Plaza to plunk down 375 dollars to go inside and experience her inconsistent performances. And here’s the key: She can be breathtakingly good when she wants to be. Unfortunately, her Violetta this season was erratic and the night that I went was simply phoned in. Since she was obviously not committed to give her best that evening, I left early. But I’ll be back next season and so will all of her detractors (of course, I don’t have to pay for my seat…)
MOST MEMORABLE NIGHT AT THE OPERA: WOZZECK
In the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s, the Met squeezed in a performance of Berg’s masterpiece conducted by its greatest living, and perhaps greatest ever, advocate James Levine. Attending this Wozzeck, one realizes that this interpretation is the best that one will ever hear, and there is an especial poignancy to the comments made by Mr. Gelb that he will never program any Second Viennese work in future unless Mr. Levine absolutely insists upon it (there were quite a few empty seats). The cast was only so-so: Truth be told, I have heard better in this same production, but the orchestra and the maestro were clicking on all cylinders. Those of us who were there will cherish this performance for a very long time. I guess we will have to as it appears to be already just a memory.
WORST VOCAL PERFORMANCE NOT IN AN OPERA: MAGDALENA KOZENA
There was much to discuss when the Berlin Philharmonic came to town this year. The orchestra is now decidedly that of Sir Simon Rattle, that smooth, Abbado nurtured, silkiness now just a snippet of nostalgia. Rattle dazzled on some nights, disappointed on others. But by far the weirdest movement of the week was the finale of the Symphony No. 4 of Gustav Mahler, sung by his significant other Magdalena Kozena. Something was wrong with Ms. Kozena this night. First, she could not find her way to the front of the orchestra, entering the stage during the big chord in the third movement, but not able to choose a path through the forest of strings to reach her spot. Finally, she circumnavigated the entire stage and arrived in about as fit a condition as the bulk of Magellan’s crew. Her makeup was badly smeared and although her pitch control was excellent, her interpretation was neither grandmotherly nor childlike. The band chose this movement to go off in their own directions, leaving Mr. Rattle rattled. Everyone has an off night, so let’s just leave it at that.
BEST VOCAL PERFORMANCE NOT IN AN OPERA: EWA PODLES
I suppose that it is a bit unfair to bestow an award every year on Ewa Podles. Perhaps I should just give her a lifetime achievement Lully right now and be done with it. But if Mr. Gelb really wants to ingratiate himself with the New York crowd, then all he really needs to do is hire this amazing artist, whose voice simply blows everyone else right out of the water. This season we only experienced Ms. Podles in a rather quirky recital with orchestra, but her intonation of Rossini’s Joan of Arc Cantata with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall one Sunday afternoon was delivered not as if by a modern contralto, but rather by Saint Joan herself. Nobody, nobody, gets into character as deeply as Madame and the results were chilling. She simply owns Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death and even overcame a somewhat sloppy rendition of the somewhat sloppy Shostakovich orchestration to send shivers throughout that auditorium. If you have never heard Ewa Podles sing “bayushki, bayu, bayu” then you really haven’t lived.
BEST INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMANCE: VLADIMIR FELTSMAN
Okay, enough already with the singers. Since there is such a connection between the rhythms of the Russian language and the music of “Pictures at an Exhibition”, Russian artists simply play it differently from others. I own over 50 recordings of this piece and few non-Cyrillic versions pass muster. Last season, it was no accident that Sergei Schepkin performed it so brilliantly while Leif Ove Andsnes sounded clueless. Mr. Feltsman is a bit of a hybrid — a man of Germanic sensibilities and Russian heritage — and his playing reflected this. An episodic piece by its very nature, “Pictures” can showcase the quirkiness of an artistic personality, and that is exactly what we got on this day. This ravishing performance featured a “Bydio” of a high level of gravitas, a “Promenade” of rather fast speeds, and an “Old Castle”of timeless mystery and descriptive mastery. But nothing could prepare me for the finest of all effects: Mr. Feltsman’s quiet grandeur in the “Great Gate” section put the lie to the notion that one must be loud to be imperial. This was truly a triumphant performance, and the pianist knew it: His body language betrayed the confident stride of the victor. If you must hear every note, then he may not be your man, but if it’s the music that you are after, this is as good as it gets.
BEST ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE: LONDON SYMPHONY
Sir Colin Davis captured the intensity of the Symphony No. 6 of Ralph Vaughn Williams right from the opening, unleashing his superb lower brass for maximum impact. The pacing was inexorable, the otherworldly solos by the saxophone downright spiritual, the needle-sharp entrances and well-coordinated exits spot-on. Performing the work without pause between the movements also increased the tension, which was only broken in the dreamlike ending section (think Holst’s “The Planets”). The scherzo, described by the composer’s wife Ursula as “clear as ice,” was especially thrilling.
BEST CONCERT THAT NEVER HAPPENED: NADJA SALERNO-SONNENBERG
This season there were three recitals scheduled that offered a rare opportunity for head to head comparison. All three consisted of the same program: The three violin sonatas of Brahms. Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt went first and I found their interpretations joyless. Jaime Laredo and Leon Fleisher were the final pair. Mr. Laredo was brilliant, mellow, rich in vibrato, sensitively communicative. Mr. Fleisher, due to years of physical hardship, struggled, but valiantly. My original prediction for the best of the lot, however, was the duo of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Anne-Marie McDermott, or, as I like to call them, the hyphen twins. They had previously offered the best version of the “Rain” Sonata that I had ever heard in fifty years of listening. Alas, Ms. S-S, in the thrall of a different drummer, cancelled.
STORY OF THE YEAR: CROSSING OVER
For years on the short walk between Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, one passed a television studio and theater where a program titled “Crossing Over” was videotaped. The premise of the show was that a man named Jonathan Edwards purported to be able to speak with the dead, inviting his audience members to ask questions of their dear departed. Mr. Edwards’ ability to channel dead white men is oddly close to the mission of classical conductors, but that is a thought for another day. What I found wasteful was that the sign that read “Crossing Over” was not moved to Carnegie or Avery Fisher Halls after Mr. Edwards moved out. Carnegie has now instituted an “anything goes” policy, even giving over an entire month of its “Perspectives” series next season to rocker David Byrne. Mr. Gelb has invited pop stars to submit their own ideas for future events at the Met, and the other colossus in town, the New York Philharmonic, will open its 2006-2007 season with guest artist Andrea Bocelli. What they need to learn from Mr. Edwards, however, is that you can only cross over so often before you are no longer welcome to come back.
Frederick L. Kirshnit