A Basket Full Of Eggs
Hector Berlioz: Overture to Benvenuto Cellini; Roman Carnival; The Death of Cleopatra; Symphonie fantastique
Olga Borodina (mezzo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
James Levine (conductor)
As general manager of the Berlin State Opera, Heinz Tietjen assembled a staff of conductors, all with music director status, for the season of 1931/2 that has to have been the most accomplished in the long annals of vocal administration. Erich Kleiber, Leo Blech, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwaengler were all on the roster at the same time. By contrast, Joseph Volpe at the Metropolitan Opera (with a longer season) has James Levine. Of course, Tietjens’ dream team disbanded rather quickly: Kleiber was already planning to leave and the others, except for Furtwaengler, were forced out by the Nazis, Blech lasting a bit longer but soon emigrating to Riga. At the Met, however, all falls on one man who, by all accounts, hordes rehearsal time and stellar casts, leaving other productions to founder as best they can. One wag’s description of the guest staff as “the seven dwarfs” is not that far from the truth; the only maestro to get any ink other than Jimmy is the frustratingly erratic Valery Gergiev. Concerns of poor health and burnout of the boss have left the house jittery as it contemplates its future.
Even more dangerous is the position of the Met Orchestra when performing as a concert unit. Levine is the only conductor of this ensemble and, although there are many pluses to unilateral leadership, there is a perception that the band has become as crabbed, idiosyncratic and inconsistent as its leader. There is no doubt that he elevated the quality of play exponentially 25 years ago; the question is, how much erosion has there been since that distant pinnacle?
Next season, the Met will be mounting a production of a Berlioz rarity, the comic opera Benvenuto Cellini. The work is a true masterpiece, one whose obscurity I have never understood. It has all of the elements necessary for success: a rollicking score, a superb libretto, a fascinating subject, star turn parts for tenor, soprano and bass, moments of actually funny comedy, and one of the most beautiful love duets in the entire literature. What it lacks is a champion. Hopefully, Mr. Levine’s corona of stardom will serve to brighten this work’s future and lead to its inclusion in the repertory long after the 200th birthday candles have been extinguished. To promote their new venture, the orchestra presented last evening not only the overture to this neglected piece, but the underture as well, since the more famous Roman Carnival is actually imbedded whole in the first act of the opera itself. In fact, the leitmotif technique used in this little tone poem is basically meaningless if one is not familiar with the musical characterizations of the players from the comedy in question. But, like Leonore #3, the overture has been given a life of its own and many in the Carnegie audience who have never heard the opera were delighted to become reacquainted with this long familiar friend. Maestro is meticulous about preparing his productions and so one could think of these run-throughs of the two overtures as early rehearsals (Levine held four full-day sessions just for his orchestra one September in anticipation of a quartet of February Moses und Aron performances). If this is indeed the case, a generous dosage of élan needs to be added before the actual operatic event.
For those who think that the only operatic aria written for Cleopatra comes from Citizen Kane, there is also a prize-winning student work of Monsieur Berlioz (yes, I know there’s the Samuel Barber too, but let’s not cloud the issue). Certainly the highlight of this otherwise listless concert was the appearance of superstar mezzo Olga Borodina, fresh from maternity leave. It is heartening to point out that she is once again in superb voice, showing no ill effects from her lying-in. There are really two ways of approaching the big Berlioz heroic roles, one more human and intimate, and perhaps more modern in sensibility and the other, embraced wholeheartedly by Ms. Borodina, decidedly on the granitic and mythic side, treating the character as if it were an impressive, larger than life statue. Her Cleopatra was truly made of marble, devastatingly piercing in technical and timbral quality, but more a stone guest than a living, soon not to be breathing, protagonist. It was difficult to imagine how the asp could penetrate this hardened façade. One can see just what sort of a Dido she would have made in the Met’s powerful Troyens had she been available. It is hard to fault such an Olympian interpretation, in fact a strong case can be made for its superiority, especially when taking into account the composer’s fascination with the ancients, but I still prefer the more delicate, innocent side of a Janet Baker or Anne Pashley.
Many of Ms. Borodina’s loyal fans left at intermission and, in retrospect, I might have been better served had I departed with them. The closing fantastique was anything but; this was an inexcusably flabby and dull rendition. Mr. Levine has taken to sitting in a chair at these concerts, ostensibly for health reasons. His relaxed posture has a deleterious effect upon his conductorial level of energy, however, and this night that torpor extended to his troops. In addition to some surprising general sloppiness in the woodwinds, the overall interpretation of this normally exceptionally exciting work was prosaic at best, Levine’s only contribution a tendency for ridiculously loud cheap effects, lulling us all out of our somnolence like the “surprise” in the old Haydn chestnut. The scene in the country suffered from an entropy that was exceedingly soporific, enlivened only by the mistake of the Carnegie attendant, who left the door open too long on the offstage double reed player and his woefully labored and inaccurate attempt at the establishment of a bucolic atmosphere. The trumpets were spectacular in the guillotine sequence, but their virtuosity was subsumed by such a pedestrian accompaniment. A particularly difficult movement to pull off, the March to the Scaffold is irrelevant if one doesn’t smell blood by its end. Levine’s nonchalance in this section and the Walpurgisnacht that follows colored this entire evening a muddy brown. Considering that it took 200 years for this concert to come into being, one would have wished for just a tad more animation.
Frederick L. Kirshnit