La Monnaie is crowned Europe’s best | Xpats | The Bulletin

It’s official: the daring, magic and beauty that light up the stage of Brussels’ opera house night after night earn top honours 

Opera house of the year! That’s the title recently bestowed upon Brussels’ Royal Opera La Monnaie by the world’s leading opera magazine, Opernwelt. It’s like winning an Oscar, as La Monnaie’s director  Peter de Caluwe jubilantly exclaimed  when he heard the news, which was made all the sweeter by being compounded with the award for best production. That honour went to Olivier Py’s staging of Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots, which premièred at La Monnaie last June.

An international jury of 50 critics have a say in  who gets Opernwelt’s coveted annual award.  Several members of this year’s panel have told me that the choice of La Monnaie was unanimous. They praised the team spirit, the choice of conductors, stage directors and singers, and the perfect planning and execution. « No doubt about it, » reads their tribute, « under Peter de Caluwe’s leadership, the Théâtre de la Monnaie has reached a peak in our time and in its rich history ». What makes the award all the more significant  is that this is the first time the prize has been awarded to an opera house outsidethe German-speaking world.

De Caluwe, 48, has been general manager of La Monnaie since 2007. When congratulated, he hastens to credit his predecessors’ achievements. Gerard Mortier, who now heads the Teatro Real in Madrid, pioneered innovative productions of the mainstream repertoire, from Mozart to Verdi ;  and Bernard Foccroulle, currently in charge of the Festival of Aix-en-Provence, hired the brilliant and young conductor Antonio Pappano as music director  (Pappano is now music director of the Covent Garden opera in London) and brought in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dance company Rosas as artists-in-residence. Foccroulle also commissioned new operas from leading Belgian composers such as  Philippe Boesmans and Benoît Mernier.

De Caluwe worked at La Monnaie with Mortier in the mid-1980s. From that experience, he tells me, «I learned how important it is to develop a team spirit in an opera house. When we embark on a new production, all departments – from chorus members to stage hands – must have the feeling that we are in the adventure together. »

De Caluwe’s willingness to take risks is perfectly illustrated by his choice of stage directors. In March 2009, he invited the cutting-edge theatre company La Fura dels Baus to produce Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, a notoriously difficult opera to stage. I suspect that at the time, the Monnaie team must have felt unsure about the prospect of collaborating with such a resolutely avant-garde group. But as it turned out, the production was a huge popular and critical success. I confess that I had never seen a convincing performance of the work until I saw theirs, which won me over. And so when de Caluwe announced that La Fura would be returning this autumn to stage George Enescu’s Œdipe, his colleagues’ reaction was a mixture of delight and impatience to get started.

Œdipe is typical of de Caluwe’s refreshingly unconventional  programme planning. Although the four-acter is considered a masterpiece of 2Oth-century music, it has rarely been performed even in Enescu’s native Romania since its Paris première in 1936. The version created last month by La Fura dels Baus, with its sets more evocative of ecological disaster than of ancient Greece, was an eye-opener. Producer Alex Ollé saw a  parallel  between the spreading of the plague in legendary Thebes and the tide of red, toxic mud that swept over a region west of Budapest in October 2010. Suddenly, Enescu’s opera appeared relevant to the present day.  De Caluwe scored an even more astonishing coup with Romeo Castellucci’s production of Parsifal. The Italian theatre director and set designer had never staged an opera before and came up with a radically new interpretation of Wagner’s hallowed work in which all the pseudo-religious baggage was thrown overboard.

Each of the three acts was based on a breathtaking visual concept. The Knights of the Holy Grail in the first part were a bunch of frightened hunters lost in a primeval forest. Kundry’s attempted seduction of Parsifal in the second act took place in a blindingly white psychiatric clinic amid scenes of Japanese-style bondage. The greatest shock came in the last scene : far from being hailed as a redeemer, Parsifal was just one in a crowd  facing the public and marching on a moving walkway. When the curtain fell there was a moment of total silence, then the audience erupted in wild applause.

Familiar classics such as La Bohème have also been given a welcome facelift, and in this regard, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s stagings deserve a special mention. The Polish artist has presented a vigorously updated version of Verdi’s Macbeth,  with uniformed generals in a high-tech war room,  and in Cherubini’s Medea he introduced a contemporary subtext of intercultural tensions. Die-hard operagoers may sometimes wince, but the new approach fostered by the Monnaie has overwhelmingly found acceptance in Brussels. We are now in mid-season, and the upcoming productions look exciting  indeed. Next month, French stage director Laurent Pelly will put a fresh spin on Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon, an all-time  favourite  since its 1899 première in Paris. After seeing Flemish director Guy Joosten’s spine-chilling staging of Richard Strauss’s Elektra at La Monnaie in 2010, I can hardly wait to discover his portrayal of Strauss’s  Salome. In April, Ghent-born René Jacobs, in my view the supreme interpreter of 18th-century opera, conducts Handel’s  spectacular Orlando, with staging by Pierre Audi.

Unlike many other European opera houses, La Monnaie has long championed contemporary dance. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company Rosas continues to enjoy high visibility there (her new work Cesena has just made its Belgian debut at La Monnaie), and Antwerp-based dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui found an early supporter in de Caluwe, who remains an avid admirer of his work. Cherkaoui’s Three Duets will première at La Monnaie this coming March. Karlsruhe-born Sasha Waltz, another inspirational choreographer, will present in June a work for 24 dancers based on Edgard Varèse’s volcanic score Arcana.

Also this spring, legendary conductor Pierre Boulez will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra on two successive evenings. A radical composer who has mellowed in recent years, the  Frenchman, who is 86, is revered for his laser-like precision  and tireless promotion of 2Oth-century music. To accommodate the very large audiences that are expected, the concerts will be held in Bozar’s larger facility, but the occasion is co-produced by La Monnaie.

Speaking of conductors, this January, Ludovic Morlot, 37, will take over as chief conductor of La Monnaie’s orchestra. The Lyons-born musician’s arrival is eagerly anticipated, and all the moreso since the search for the right musician to fill the position has lasted three years. The very first time Morlot took up his baton at La Monnaie, the  orchestra members knew they had found what they were looking for, and his limited experience conducting opera doesn’t faze them in the least.

La Monnaie is crowned Europe’s best | Xpats | The Bulletin.


Book Review: Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries by Peter Conrad | California Literary Review

Parallel Lives

On Saturday, May 1, 2010, a rare cultural event took place in Santa Monica, California. A classical music ensemble known as The Verdi Chorus presented a program entitled Wagner & Verdi: Opposing Roads to Greatness. In a two act presentation, The Verdi Chorus performed excerpts from the works of the two preeminent masters of 19th century opera, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.

Why would a joint classical music program like this be such a rare phenomenon?

The answer lies in the competitive relationship of these two great music masters, a rivalry that was based on the personal styles of the music they composed and the ethnic and national traits that their lives and work embodied. Wagner and Verdi never actually met nor publicly criticized each other’s musical compositions. Yet, their rivalry was acknowledged during their lives and occasionally manifested itself in off-hand remarks. It has continued since in a duel of comparisons that has extended even to the way that their music has been incorporated into motion pictures like Apocalypse Now and Pretty Woman.

This shadow-boxing match is the subject for a major interpretative study by Peter Conrad. In Verdi and/or Wagner, Conrad takes hold of every conceivable strand of the professional careers, political ideals and personal lives of the rival composers. These he weaves into an intricate tapestry that evokes major themes of human creativity and cultural identity.

Conrad, who taught at Oxford University from 1973 to 2011, is the author of several highly regarded books such as Modern Times, Modern Places and A Song of Love and Death: the Meaning of Opera. Conrad is a profound and original author, whose vast knowledge is presented in a literate and highly readable style. This is a matter of no-small importance. Conrad places high demands on his readers’ willingness to think deeply and clearly about fundamental matters of human life and thought. To properly read one of Conrad’s books, one must be ready to enter into a dialogue with a writer of exceptional insight – and with our own inner voice as well.

Wagner and Verdi composed their immortal works during opera’s golden age. This halcyon era for music, however, coincided with decades of political turmoil and a crisis of religious faith brought about by the publication of Charles Darwin’s theories on human origins.

As Conrad shows in considerable detail, Wagner sought to use the myths of the ancient Germanic tribes and of the Middle Ages to create a new religious experience for the civilization of the West. The faith that the French Revolution and Darwinian evolution had undermined, Wagner devoted himself to replace with a new creed. His temple to music at Bayreuth in Bavaria was built to become the new Delphi, with himself as the prophet and oracle of the modern world.

Verdi, an agnostic with deeply felt human convictions, held a less grandiose conception of music. It is this difference between the two composers that provides the essential conflict in Conrad’s book. The contrast between their operatic forms has been commented upon so often in the past that it would merit at most an analytical article, hardly a book-length treatment. The true rivalry of Wagner and Verdi dealt with the first principles of human life, a clash that was of far greater significance than a squabble over the primacy of symphonic music in Wagner’s operas versus the traditional role of lyricism in Verdi’s. Conrad explains:

Verdi and Wagner represent two sides of our nature that are usually not on speaking terms – the virtue of charity or caritas as opposed to the rage of the egotistical will, a need for human connection as opposed to the mind’s proud solitude … Verdi appeals to humanists, Wagner to mystics and also to misanthropes. Is it impossible for one person to love them both?

From the distance of the 21st century, Conrad certainly displays a high regard for both men. He conceived the idea for his book after viewing portrait busts of the two composers in a public garden in Venice. The sculptures are set at a discrete distance, the faces of each – fittingly – looking in opposite directions.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, this “temperamental opposition” of Verdi and Wagner was enhanced by geopolitical forces. There was a perceived superiority of Europe north of the Alps over “backward” Italy. Commentators seized upon these contrasts, Verdi vs. Wagner, Latin Europe vs. the Teutonic north, in order to pontificate on the way that “Italians used music to express feeling, whereas for Germans it was a mode of thought.”

Conrad’s book is literally a study of contrasts. Fortunately, he quickly dispels a lot of facile nonsense by noting that in their personal demeanor and habits, Verdi and Wagner completely confounded the ethnic stereotypes that cultural pundits were intent on underscoring.

Verdi was taciturn and pragmatic, haunted by the death of his first wife and children. He was anything but a histrionic Latin, being something of an English country-squire in temperament. He used the financial rewards that his operas brought him to buy farmland in his native province in the north of Italy, showing a commendable solicitude for the agricultural workers who made his estate into a model farm and a commercial success.

Wagner may have been the son of a Jewish actor, Ludwig Geyer. This raises quite a few questions over his obsession with the Nordic gods and the adulation paid him by Hitler and the Nazi cultural elite. Wagner’s private life, likewise, did not bear close inspection and he was improvident with money, despite the huge sums that he enticed from patrons such as the “mad king” of Bavaria, Ludwig II. He dressed and lived extravagantly, posing – and perhaps believing – that he was the supreme creative genius of his age. Friedrich Nietzsche described him less positively as “the most enthusiastic mimomaniac … who ever existed.”

Culture was a serious matter in Germany and Italy during the 19th century. Both Wagner and Verdi were born in 1813, the year that Europe rose up against Napoleon. Following the French emperor’s downfall, their countries remained divided and dominated by the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria, with the jackboot of militaristic Prussia on the rump of Germany that the Austrians did not control. Wagner was a political radical during his youth, a supporter of the abortive Liberal revolutions of 1848. Verdi was an ardent, if not strident, Italian patriot. His chorus Va, pensiero, sung by the Hebrew slaves during the third act of Nabucco (1842) became an anthem for Italy’s unification movement, the Risorgimento.

Verdi showed more understanding for Wagner’s situation. The Sturm und Drang traditions of German culture all but demanded the heroic action and the dramatic symphonic structure that Wagner gave to the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen, composed between 1848 and 1874. Wagner, by contrast, paid scant regard to Verdi’s work. Verdi’s operas, especially during the high tide of the Risorgimento, were bound by the constraints of Italian musicology. Its central features, melody and lyricism, were not to be lightly ignored. When Verdi incorporated symphonic elements, as opposed to a pure reliance on singing, in his later operas, he was condemned by critics for having deserted the hallowed traditions of Italian opera.

“Fine result after 35 years of career,” Verdi gruffly noted.

Even a revered cultural hero like Verdi could not discount the musical traditions of his county. Opera played a vital role in promoting unique national identities for the German and Italian peoples as both nations achieved their dreams of unification in the same year, 1871. Moreover, the operas of Wagner and Verdi achieved the status of instruments of state, bolstering the reputations of their respective countries.

Wagner’s opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, first performed in 1868, is especially relevant in this respect. Die Meistersinger was Wagner’s only comic opera, depicting the lives of the musicians and singers of Germany during the Middle Ages. Comedy it might have been, but it had the serious purpose of promoting the claim that Germany pioneered opera centuries before Claudio Monteverdi did so in Italy in the early 1600′s.

This was a challenge that Italian patriots like Verdi and his colleague, Arrigo Boito, who wrote the libretti for Verdi’s Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), could not let pass without challenge. Wagner had died four years before the first performance of Otello, but as Conrad shows in the following passage, opera had become so bound in the coils of nationalism that even the influence of artistic genius was of little account.

Fending off accusations of Wagnerism late in his career, Verdi made a point of re-establishing Italy’s pre-eminence in Otello and Falstaff. Boito reminded him that Shakespeare’s tragedy had its source in a tawdry tale from Giovan Batisita Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, and later sneakily traced the character of Falstaff back to Il pecorone by Ser Giovnni. Here was a mythic source as primordial and as elusive as any of Wagner’s…

Shakespeare, amazingly, was not sufficient authority for Verdi to create a new opera. Forgotten Renaissance pot-boilers like Hecatommithi and Il pecorone had to be dusted-off because the authors were Italians. In the increasingly poisoned atmosphere of late 19th century nationalism, even a composer of Verdi’s stature had to remain aware that opera was no longer immune to realpolitik.

For the most part, Verdi evaded nationalism’s iron-grip. A man of compassion, Verdi filled his operas with flawed protagonists, Violetta in La Traviata, Falstaff, who rise above the tragedy or comedy of their situations to stand for humanity as a whole. In Wagner’s case, however, the obsession with Nordic mythology led to life-denying themes, to a realm where sins are not forgiven but purged with cosmic fire. This was a strange foundation on which to build a new culture for the German nation. Yet, at the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876, Wagner proclaimed, “My children, here you have a truly German art.”

Conrad presents Wagner as a fully nuanced character, brilliant, possessive, mercurial and deeply conflicted. Germany achieved unification, but not through the agency of Wagner’s creation of a mythic creed. Bismarck’s cunning diplomatic moves and the skill of the Prussian General Staff succeeded where Sturm und Drang had failed. Wagner, for all his genius at self-advertisement, was largely a marginal figure in the drama of German unification, as testified by the fact that his Kaisermarsch (1871) was rejected as the national anthem for the German state. It was his posthumous role in German history, when the four operas of Der Ring were embraced as foundational texts of the Third Reich, which toppled him from the pedestal of renown.

All of the many contrasts between Verdi and Wagner are dissected, analyzed and commented upon by Conrad with amazing versatility and insight. However, the structure of the book, along with its sheer mass of information, presents a number of problems. The lives of Verdi and Wagner are not depicted in alternating chapters, but rather thematically, with dense, detailed paragraphs treating both men at the same time – and often in the same breath. Without a general introduction or a timeline to guide them, readers lacking prior knowledge of opera are likely to experience considerable frustration trying to stay afloat amid Conrad’s total immersion approach to 19th century music and culture.

Also, the very nature of “compare and contrast,” when utilized to such an intimate degree, can lead to a skewed appreciation of these two composers. Wagner’s relationship with Franz Liszt was closer and more significant than any general rivalry with Verdi, even without Wagner’s marriage to Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, being entered into the equation.

Perhaps, the best way of approaching Conrad’s book is to regard it primarily as a meditation on creativity. As with opera itself, where passion and empathy lead, intellectual appreciation will follow. The key insight of this fine book is easy enough to grasp. In an age of strutting nationalism, both Verdi and Wagner gave the world music that ultimately transcends the limits of borders or political ideology, regardless of how subsequent regimes used it.

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy,” Verdi is famous for having said. And in fact it was a universe, a universe of the heart’s torment and the soul’s desire, which he and his German rival bequeathed to us.

Book Review: Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries by Peter Conrad | California Literary Review.

Peter Gelb’s Tenure at Metropolitan Opera –

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“The Nose,” at the Metropolitan Opera, produced under the tenure of Peter Gelb.
Published: November 25, 2011

Under the tenure of Peter Gelb the Met has seen “Don Giovanni.”

Once again Fabio Luisi will take over. Though his title is principal conductor, Mr. Luisi has essentially been functioning as music director all season. Opera buffs can differ about his work. But he is an indisputably accomplished conductor and an astute musician. He does all his own coaching and, from all reports, does it extremely well. Met orchestra players have openly said they find him easy to work with and empowering, as came through recently in the transparent, lithe performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried” that he led.

Yet with all the concern about Mr. Levine’s absence, not enough attention has been paid to a more pressing matter. Since arriving in 2006, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has assumed responsibility for new productions. He recruits directors, talks through their concepts and puts production teams in place. So far, the results have been frustratingly mixed.

Mr. Gelb, who previously was the president of Sony Classical, has raised the stakes by talking big. He has pledged to bring cutting-edge theatrical thinking and technical capabilities to the house, and to make the Met a place where opera will be presented as compelling theater. He has also been on a mission to re-energize the art form by recruiting directors from theater and film, even some with scant experience in opera.

Yet measured against the promise, his spotty performance as de facto director of productions raises concerns. It may be time to revive an experiment in which the director John Dexter served as the Met’s official director of productions from 1974 to 1981, then as production adviser until 1984. Not many opera companies have a full-time director of productions. But in its budget and international influence, the Met is the largest performing-arts institution in the United States and should set the standard for excellence and innovation in opera.

Dexter, who died in 1990, gave the Met some landmark productions still in use, like Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which is breathtakingly spare. He was not all-powerful and may have claimed too many assignments for himself. Still, a theatrical pro was in place to maintain standards and foster innovation.

The assumption that major directors from outside opera will automatically bring fresh thinking to bear is questionable. It is just as likely that a newcomer may be intimidated by the towering masterworks of the repertory and their rich performance legacies, not to mention being daunted by the sheer dimensions of the Met’s stage.

I am thinking of the brilliant director John Doyle, who gave Broadway audiences powerfully intimate productions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” When he took on Britten’s “Peter Grimes” for his Met debut in 2008, Mr. Doyle seemed not to know what to do. Working with his set design team, he filled the huge Met stage with an imposing wall: a movable, three-tiered thing with doors and windows.

To his credit, Mr. Gelb has given Met audiences some terrific productions. Yet with a couple of exceptions, the most inventive have been collaborations involving two or more houses. When companies pursue joint ventures, one is often the prime mover. Still, mutual collaboration ensures that diverse input from experienced production departments will factor in.

And the outstanding co-productions at the Met during Mr. Gelb’s still-short tenure have been the work of directors with long experience in the field. Take the searing staging of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead,” which involved the Vienna Festival, the Holland Festival, the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, directed by Patrice Chéreau in his long-overdue Met debut. Another surreally beautiful and deeply moving co-production that recently returned to the Met is Phelim McDermott’s staging of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” first seen in 2008. This co-production with the English National Opera makes wondrous use of aerialists, gargantuan puppets and spectacle.

In joint productions Mr. Gelb placed some bets on relative newcomers with excellent results, especially in Shostakovich’s bleak comedy “The Nose.” Directed and designed by the artist William Kentridge, it was a co-production with Aix-en-Provence and the National Opera of Lyon. For a while, Mr. Kentridge’s production, with its inventive use of still and animated projections, put the Met at the center of the modern-art scene in New York. On Tuesday evening Metgoers will see the next new co-production: Gounod’s “Faust,” directed by the Tony Award winner Des McAnuff, in his Met debut, which was introduced at the English National Opera.

By pushing for up-to-date theatrical values, Mr. Gelb has never suggested that repertory works should routinely be presented with updated concepts. There is of course a place for traditional productions. But the more traditional ones on his watch have been tentatively traditional, often courting a middle ground by mixing contemporary sets with period costumes.

The director Michael Grandage, known for his boldness in the theater world, has no strong take on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” his Met debut, which opened in October. And here again, in what is beginning to seem a default mode for new Met productions, the staging relies on a three-tiered set of balconies and doorways.

Contrast Mr. Grandage’s “Don Giovanni” with the modern-dress, sexy, subversive production that Christopher Alden created for the New York City Opera in 2009. The Met was shown up even by the Mostly Mozart Festival in August, when Ivan Fischer conducted “Don Giovanni” with the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Rose Theater. Though billed as a staged concert, this daring presentation, directed by Mr. Fischer, was more imaginative than many productions I have seen. Instead of sets, a roster of ghostly actors, doubling as choristers, linked limbs and bodies to evoke windows, tables or whatever was called for. Giovanni went to hell falling backward into a tangled web of human arms, a harrowing image.

Not all co-productions by veteran opera directors have worked out. I need only mention Luc Bondy’s gratuitously seedy staging of Puccini’s “Tosca,” shared with the Bavarian State Opera and La Scala. And some shows created specifically for the Met have been successes, like Bizet’s “Carmen” in Richard Eyre’s sleek, fluid and grimly atmospheric production.

Peter Gelb’s Tenure at Metropolitan Opera –

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Alles neu macht der November mit Wagner – Wiener Staatsoper – Wiener Zeitung Online

Von Daniel Wagner

  • Wagners Tannhäuser unter Generalmusikdirektor Welser-Möst überzeugte in der Staatoper.


Franz Welser-Möst


Hedonist, Frevler, Büßer: Steven Gould hat die Seiten gewechselt. Erfolgreich. Gerade noch als überstolzer Nibelungenheld im Haus am Ring, mimte er in Wien zum ersten Mal den verletzten und verletzenden Ritter Tannhäuser. Das war ein Antiheld! Noch kämpfte er im eröffnenden Venusakt mit aller egomanischen Kraft gegen die Potestas der übergroßen Liebesgöttin. Hausdebütantin Iréne Theorin lieferte eine Venus mit Dramatik und Vibrato ab.

Glasklare Kantilene


Von Richard Wagner
Franz Welser-Möst (Dirigent)
Wiener Staatsoper

Kaum war Gould in den Bann Elisabeths gezogen, musste es mit seinem Seelenheil weiter bergab gehen. Ja, Anne Schwanewilms machte als reinste Jungfrau Thüringens ihrem Namen als herausragende Wagner-Interpretin alle Ehre. Glasklar intonierend genoss das Publikum ihre wortdeutlichen Kantilenen bis zum letzten Atemzug Elisabeths.

Dem gar nicht so argen Schuft Tannhäuser nahm spätestens in der Romerzählung jeder den zutiefst suchenden, verwirrten Menschen ab. Unterstützung erhielt er vom Altgestein der Produktion. Matthias Goerne bewies abermals in seinen Wolfram-Gesängen, dass er ein passionierter Liedsänger ist. Sein “Abendstern” zeichnete sich durch die Intimität einer Schumannschen Ballade aus. Erstmals in Claus Guths ach so psychologisierenden Bildern des Fin-de-siècle gesichtet: Sorin Coliban als Landgraf Hermann, Herbert Lippert als souveräner Vogelweiden-Walther und Ileana Tonca als kleiner Hirt. Generalmusikdirektor Franz Welser-Möst hatte das Staatsopernorchester bestens unter Kontrolle.




Alles neu macht der November mit Wagner – Wiener Staatsoper – Wiener Zeitung Online.

Ludovic Morlot at the BSO; Philippe Jaroussky with Apollo’s Fire – Classical

Morlot’s fire   By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 21, 2011
MIX MASTER Conductor Ludovic Morlot made a coherent — and exciting — concert of the BSO’s extremely varied program.

Former BSO assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot has returned for two programs planned by and for former music director James Levine. Morlot, now music director of the Seattle Symphony and about to become chief conductor of Brussels’s La Monnaie theater, last weekend led a kaleidoscopic yet coherent concert that included Berlioz’s gorgeous and exhilarating Roman Carnival Overture, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C (with Richard Goode), Elliott Carter’s 2008 Flute Concerto (with BSO principal flute Elizabeth Rowe — a BSO co-commission, completed in 2008, Carter’s 100th year), and the ferocious and lubricious suite from Bartók’s surreal theatrical pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin. I felt reassured even before the concert began: for the first time all season, first and second violins were on opposite sides of the stage, just as maestro Levine (and surely the composers themselves) had wanted them.
In the stunning Berlioz — brilliant and fresh and flexible and clear — you could hear everything, each new climax building upon the last. Robert Sheena’s luscious English horn solo, one of the great Berlioz melodies, sounded as if (like Morlot) he were discovering the beauties of Berlioz as he was articulating them. The grand trumpet-and-drums Mozart was lovely if understated, the keyboard too dainty, the phrasing unpointed, even in the innocent yet knowing finale.

Was it the bad weather or the modern music that triggered a post-intermission exodus? Those who left missed Carter’s scintillating concerto, with Rowe repeating her superb American-premiere performance. The concerto begins with a brassy blurt and feels like a youthfully uninhibited work until the long, slow elegiac nocturne marked Mesto (“Mournful”). No one writes more moving slow movements than Carter. Orchestral outbursts try to interrupt the floating, long-lined, pure-toned flute, until the orchestra finally gives up and, listening, gives in. The Bartók begins with traffic noise, which Morlot brought to the level of apocalyptic frenzy. Next at the BSO, more Morlot: Harbison, Ravel, and Mahler.

People who heard countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in the Boston Early Music Festival production of Niobe, and people who wish they had, crowded into Emmanuel Church for his concert with Apollo’s Fire, Cleveland’s premiere period-instrument ensemble, under the tight and lively direction of harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell. High male voices, usually castrati (because parents saw an opportunity to get rich on their sons’ potential talent) were all the rage in the 17th and 18th centuries. Jaroussky is one of the rare countertenors today who arouses audiences to similar excitement with his phenomenal technique (ecstatic, endlessly suspended breaths; machine-gun runs, roulades, and trills), beauty — and size — of tone, eloquent expression, and elegant phrasing.

He floored us again in arias by Handel and Vivaldi. Sorrell designed the program to show that, although Vivaldi’s vocal music is far less familiar to us than Handel’s, much of it is just as beautiful. And based on what Jaroussky sang, Vivaldi was every bit as ravishing as Handel, though he wasn’t quite as good a text setter, so the fireworks sometimes exploded in the “wrong” place. But fireworks there were! And an even more breathtaking quietude.

Sorrell interspersed the arias with Handel and Vivaldi instrumental pieces. Her positively demented improvisational arrangement of Vivaldi’s setting of the famous song “La folia” (Madness) was greeted with almost the same rapture as Jaroussky. We were treated to three encores: arias by Porpora and Handel, ending with Handel’s famous and sublime aria to a tree (!), “Ombra mai fu,” from Xerxes. I haven’t heard this sung as beautifully and sensitively since Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the Boston Lyric Opera’s 1996 production. Is higher praise possible?

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