No matter how you slice it…Andris Nelsons’ BSO Salome, plus other Boston treats

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Andris Nelsons, the BSO, and Gun-Brit Barkmin in Richard Strauss' Salome

Andris Nelsons, the BSO, and Gun-Brit Barkmin in Richard Strauss’ Salome

I was part of the capacity crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall (March 6) that rose to its collective feet to cheer BSO music director designate Andris Nelson’s first opera with his new orchestral family. Richard Strauss is one of his favorite composers, and at the press conference the day before he announced that among the ten relatively conservative programs he’s doing in his upcoming first season as music director, he’s scheduled two familiar Strauss tone poems, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life—“Not about myself,” he joked). The BSO’s only opera next season, one of its few daring choices of repertoire, will be Charles Dutoit leading the first BSO performance of Szymanowski’s King Roger, with Polish baritone Marius Kwiecień repeating his Paris and Santa Fe triumphs in the title role. 

Why was I cheering Salome? I had some serious reservations about the performance and they’ve only compounded in my thoughts in the days since. Still, on some immediate, visceral level, it got to me. It was forceful, intense, even funny—loud and wild. The orchestra, which hadn’t played this piece since 2001, at Tanglewood, was not at its most refined in terms of dynamics or perfection of ensemble. No question about the BSO’s greatness, and the cast was exciting, though the excitement they generated didn’t always come from the heart of Strauss’s sumptuous score.

Completed and premiered in 1905, Salome is very much a product of its time. Strauss’s vast orchestra, his chromaticism and even shocking bitonality, were taking 19th-century Romanticism to 20th-century extremes that would lead both to atonality on the one hand and later explorations of forbidden sexual subjects on the other. Salome is certainly one of the most extreme examples of the latter—it was banned at the Met after its first performance in 1907 and remained unperformed there until 1934. Strauss adapted his libretto from a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s French play—a biblical story only barely hinted at in the bible. The teenaged princess of Judaea becomes sexually obsessed with the imprisoned John the Baptist, who resists her invitations. At the same time, her step-father, the Tetrarch Herod, is obsessed with her and promises her anything if she will dance for him—jewels her mother doesn’t know he has, even half his kingdom. She grants his wish in the famous Dance of the Seven Veils, then asks for John’s head on a silver platter. Herod is appalled but is too infatuated to go back on his word. When Salome makes slathering love to the severed head, Herod orders his guards to kill her. It’s loathsome. But Wilde’s real power, intensified by Strauss’s luxurious colorations and lascivious harmonies, lies in the way he implicates all of us in Salome’s transgressive behavior. The opera made Saint-Saëns think “of those lovely princesses in Sacher-Masoch who lavished upon young men the most voluptuous caresses while drawing red-hot irons across their ribs.” We’re both appalled and seduced. As Salome sings at the end: “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” And if we don’t feel part of this mystery, if we don’t at least partly understand Salome’s desire at the same time that we are repelled by it, then we’re not getting the full effect, the full challenge, of this opera.

But this BSO Salome, rather than seductive and insinuating, was more industrial-strength. Except in Nelsons’s languidly titillating Dance of the Seven Veils (with our conductor practically doing the whole dance at the podium), the strings didn’t really “bend,” or tickle, or wheedle. Almost everything was loud, driven, and straight-on. Where was the fin-de-siècle? Where was Vienna? Where were all the other dances in the score? So much literalness, so much less insinuation.

Some of the most famous Salomes—most notably the Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch—had the ability to cut through the massive orchestration with the laser-focus of their voices. Welitsch also had a voice of multiple and complex textures. The Salome du jour, German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin (who has been singing this with Nelsons on his triumphant Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra tour—they did it the week before Boston at Carnegie Hall), is an intense performer, but it was hard to tell at Symphony Hall whether she really has this kind of incisive voice, or is just capable of singing at the top of it. She’s more petite than most Salomes. In her black, star-spangled Aubrey Beardsley-esque/Wiener Werkstätte cape that occasionally revealed the silver gown underneath, and Louise Brooks bangs, she looked quite the elegant and dangerous vamp—almost more like a mature Lulu than a teen-aged Salome. And she sang Salome almost as if she were singing Berg’s free-spirited but scary prostitute. The impermeable enamel of her voice has a silver gleam, and she summoned up huge reserves of volume that rode over (rather than cut through) the huge on-stage orchestra. But there was little variety of color or texture. Towards the end of the evening, her volume began to sound forced and was affecting her ability to hold squarely to the pitch.

In a YouTube clip from a 2010 Salome in Zurich), Barkmin, in a silvery dress and a different hairdo, seems more curious about Jochanaan, more like a teenager (say, a young Drew Barrymore) who hasn’t yet figured out her own impulses and desires. In Boston, Barkmin seemed more like a calculating predator, knowing exactly how to get from Herod what she already knows she wants. In this brief video, she seems both more disturbing and more moving than in the BSO concert performance. More febrile. Even sexier.

Even more impressive vocally was German tenor Gerhard Siegel’s Herod. His voice both rode over and slit through the heavy orchestration and never lost its flexible sense of line or sheer stamina, even after singing full out in the rehearsal the day before. There was never a moment when he was not in character, from Herod’s begging for Salome’s dance and his rash promise, to his command over and contempt for Herodias, and his final revulsion at Salome’s transgression. He played some of this for laughs and only on later contemplation have I come to question the appropriateness of this approach. Someone said to me that a friend of his compared the Herods to George Costanza’s parents on Seinfeld, which struck me as a remarkably accurate description of these BSO performers. It made me think that one of the most powerful elements of the opera is its relentless unity of tone. Making Herod more ridiculous by making him funny might not be quite what Strauss intended.

The third major character in the Salome triangle is, of course, Jochanaan, John the Baptist, and in Boston, the role was sung by the powerful Russian baritone Evgenyi Nikitin, who impressed me immensely as the evil Klingsor in the HD telecast of the Met’s Parsifal. In rehearsal, with his long pony tail, jeans, and high boots, he really looked like a subversive saint—less so in evening dress at the performance itself. Nikitin has a complicated background, having had a drug problem in his youth, when he worked as a hard-rock musician (it was conductor Valery Gergiev who led him into opera). A scandal erupted at Bayreuth when he was fired because of what looked like a covered-up swastika tattoo on his chest (he’s denied that was what it meant). He was certainly an effective Jochanaan, though he was one of the singers who began to run out of steam before the end.

Mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel, who sang Herodias at Tanglewood in 2001, still has a lot of power, though the full bloom of her voice was a bit erratic. She seemed less queen than angry hausfrau, but still a personage to contend with. The strong supporting cast included young Mexican tenor Carlos Osuna and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum (an excellent Page), along with David Cangelosi, Alex Richardson, Dominic Armstrong, Jason Ferrante, Walter Fink, Nathan Stark, Michael Meraw, Robert Honeysucker, and Abigail Fischer as Strauss’s motley assortment of Jews, Nazarenes, Cappadocians, and slaves; Keith Miller and Ryan Speedo Green made especially strong soldiers.

The press was invited to the dress rehearsal the previous day, which was also the day of the announcement of next year’s programs. Salome was given a straight runthrough followed by about a 20-minute cleanup session. Most of the singers were mostly singing full out—which might not have been a good idea the day before the concert given the vocal strain inherent in Strauss’s writing. Siegel seemed the only person in the cast not affected by singing two days in a row. Of course, there were only a dozen or so people in the house during the rehearsal and about 2600 at the actual performance, so balances would automatically seem different. I thought Nelsons took the singers’ needs more into consideration at the performance than in the rehearsal, where he seemed more concerned with the orchestra. At the press conference, someone asked him about the problem of concert opera, where the orchestra is not in a pit, where they’d be in a fully staged opera. Nelsons was thoughtful in his reply, suggesting that the orchestra had to hold back a little but that holding back too much would drain it of its color.

At the end of the press conference, I asked Nelsons privately whether he would consider dividing the two violin sections antiphonally, the way James Levine did when he became music director of the BSO and which many distinguished guest conductors, like Christoph von Dohnányi, regularly do. Returning to this traditional 18th- and 19th-century seating gives the warm Symphony Hall sound a little more breathing space. Under Levine, the sound was a revelation! Nelsons seemed uninterested and said something to the effect that he might consider this plan only if it seemed appropriate for the music.

Michael Mayes as Rigoletto and Morris Robinson as Sparafucile in the BLO's Rigoletto. Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2014

Michael Mayes as Rigoletto and Morris Robinson as Sparafucile in the BLO’s Rigoletto. Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2014

After Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, the Boston Lyric Opera returned to standard repertory with (if I’m counting correctly) its third Verdi Rigoletto in 20 years (at the Shubert Theatre through March 23). The best of these, though not a good production, featured the sublime and heartrending soprano Dominique Labelle as Gilda, the court-jester’s daughter who sacrifices her life for the man who raped her, the Duke of Mantua; and the inspired baton of Robert Spano. This isn’t a great period for Verdi singers right now, and we should probably be grateful for the ones who are even passable, especially in regional opera. In this new production, which will soon be shared by the opera companies in Atlanta and Omaha, we had a lovely, girlish, if never quite heartbreaking Gilda in Nadine Sierra, a 2009 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner who’s been singing a batch of Gildas in the US and in Naples (three years ago she sang Tytania in the BLO’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). She has a pearly tone with a terrific trill and a strong middle register, but she occasionally got awfully thin on top.

Rigoletto, perhaps the hardest high baritone part in the operatic repertory, was Michael Mayes, making his BLO debut. His voice isn’t entirely there for Verdi’s lyricism and he has a tendency to bellow. But he was convincing as the nasty hunchbacked jester working for the lascivious Duke, ridiculing the father whose daughter had been seduced, then the victim of the courtiers’ ridicule when his own daughter is abducted. His wasn’t a subtle performance, but it has the potential to be and his unleashed emotions were certainly intense.

Tenor Bruce Sledge, who has sung featured roles at the Met, Santa Fe Opera, and Covent Garden, was partly hampered by costume designer Viktoria Tzykun’s elaborate Renaissance get-up that made him look like an Italian Henry VIII. His strong upper range was rather charmlessly stentorian for this irresistible seducer who sings the lighthearted male chauvinist anthem “La donna è mobile,” maybe with the possible exception of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” the most famous tenor aria in the repertoire. His climactic high note in the famous quartet rather disappeared, and his lower range was pretty consistently undersupported. (Opening night there was an announcement that he had a cold; I was at the second performance two days later.)

I particularly liked resonant bass Morris Robinson, the former football hero turned opera singer, as Sparafucile, the hired assassin with an unusual (if finally limited) sense of honor. Mezzo soprano Audrey Babcock was fine if generic as his prostitute sister who wants to save the Duke from the assassination Rigoletto pays for. Some local luxury casting featured bass-baritone David Cushing as the aggrieved father Count Monterone, baritone David Kravitz as the gentleman Marullo, and baritone Ron Williams. Italian-based American conductor Christopher Franklin led with vigor and, sometimes, elegance, and the orchestral playing was generally excellent.

I was struck that BLO’s general and artistic director Esther Nelsons felt she had to apologize in her program note that the company “decided to leave the opera in its Renaissance time period.” Have we gotten used to so many updated, anachronistic productions (the current Met version has Rigoletto in Las Vegas) that we have to defend doing an opera the way the composer conceived it? Does every opera now have to be set during the Spanish Civil War?

But even a traditional production needs good judgment and taste, and this one, staged by Israeli-born director Tomer Zvulun (artistic director of the Atlanta Opera) and designed by BLO regular John Conklin, had its share of problems. Hovering on a ledge above the playing area was a small scale model of a Piero della Francesca city-scape, “the remote image,” Nelson explains in her note, “of an unobtainable ideal city.” Nice to see a reference to a great Italian artist, but did we need a program note to explain the image? Did we need the vision of an “ideal city” to tell us that we were in a moral cesspool? Art historians might be confused—or amused—to notice that the mural that served as a backdrop for the Duke of Mantua’s orgy was a collage of images from Annibale Carracci’s famous ceiling fresco in the Farnese Palace in Rome, not a mural. (Mightn’t Giulio Romano’s astonishing and grotesque Olympian murals in Mantua’s Palazzo del Te have been at least equally effective and certainly more authentic?) But even forgetting this dislocation, the garish mural clashed with the garish costumes, making the stage action rather hard to see. Rigoletto’s garden was a grim affair, with black walls looking as if they were dripping with Jackson Pollock tar. And what was Carracci’s head of Venus doing on Rigoletto’s garden wall?

One of the greatest ensembles in all of opera is the quartet at the beginning of the last act, in which Rigoletto forces Gilda to watch the escalating flirtation between the Duke she loves and Sparafucile’s sister. The libretto makes the stage image very explicit: the Duke and Maddalena are inside a “rustic pub” near a river bank; Rigoletto and Gilda are outside looking in. In this production, there are no walls, so the difference between indoors and outdoors didn’t exist, and all four characters seemed merely to be wandering aimlessly about some undefined space.

But this was not the worst. In the first of the great duets between Rigoletto and Gilda, when he discovers that she’s been abducted to the Duke’s bedchamber, and even in his outrage he tries to comfort her, a scrim descended to separate the father and daughter in their moment of aching intimacy.

At the very end, when Rigoletto is about to dump the sack with the body of the murdered Duke into the river, he suddenly hears the Duke in the distance singing his jaunty anthem. (In this production, though not in the libretto, the director had Rigoletto repeatedly stab the sack.) Rigoletto then opens the sack and discovers that what’s inside is the body of his own daughter. But Gilda is not dead yet—and Verdi gives the father and daughter one final duet, even more poignant in its tenderness and despair, with Rigoletto bent disconsolately over Gilda while she sings of meeting her dead mother in heaven. It’s one of the most horrifically melodramatic moments in opera, and in operatic terms it’s virtually foolproof. What could possibly go wrong?

But this is the Boston Lyric Opera. Some 22 years ago, BLO actually succeeded in wrecking one of Italian opera’s other foolproof endings, the death of Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème. In this Rigoletto, Gilda is actually a body double that Michael Mayes is forced to sing to, while Nadine Sierra appears dressed in white behind the same scrim she stood behind earlier. Having a father singing directly to the body of his dying daughter is heartbreaking; having him sing to a double is ridiculous.

*

Natalie Dessay. Photo © Simon Fowler.

Natalie Dessay. Photo © Simon Fowler.

It was love at first sight in 1999 when I first saw the enchanting French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay in the now legendary William Christie/Robert Carsen production of Handel’s Alcina, in which, dressed as a French maid, she played Renée Fleming’s companion and assistant. She was relatively unknown in this country then, but in the ensuing decade became a Metropolitan Opera star, singing leading roles in such Live in HD telecasts as Daughter of the Regiment, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata, La Sonnambula, and Handel’s Julius Caesar (she was Cleopatra). Approaching 50, and after a period of cancellations and recuperations, she’s announced that she’ll be retiring from opera and will devote herself to concerts and plays (she actually began her stage career as an actress and dancer). Too bad we had to wait until now to hear her in Boston, but under the aegis of the Celebrity Series, Dessay finally made her overdue debut (Jordan Hall, March 8).

The program was German and French songs, and the French songs went much better than the German. Not that her German is terrible, but that her voice, the thinnest filament (thinner at the beginning of the concert than later on), just seems wrong for these sentimental songs by Clara Schumann (including her setting of the same Rückert poem—“Liebst du um Schönheit”—that Mahler set so much more eloquently in his Rückert cycle) and Brahms. Her set of more “sophisticated” songs by Richard Strauss was more satisfying, but never truly idiomatic. Dessay may be a romantic, but despite her theatrical gestures (she sang Strauss’s “Ich schwebe”—“I’m floating”—with her arms stretched out and waving like the Dying Swan), she lacks Schmaltz and Gemütlichkeit.

With French it’s another matter, and the first half of Dessay’s concert suddenly came alive with two of Henri Duparc’s most gorgeous and erotic songs: “L’invitation au voyage” and “L’extase,” which she delivered with a restrained but potent urgency. It didn’t hurt that her accompanist, Philippe Cassard, is a distinguished and award-winning soloist and chamber musician, with impeccable chops and the most refined sense of color and line, especially in the French repertoire.

For the second half, Dessay returned in a new gown (“I’m French,” she explained) and a lovely Fauré set, though my favorite Fauré song, “Après un rêve,” was oddly too laid back. The pianissimo “Mandoline” was ravishing. Dessay was most completely in her element in Poulenc’s witty Fiançailles pour rire (“Betrothal for laughs”) cycle. Some people in the audience were disturbed by Dessay’s theatrical posings, others adored them. There’s no doubt that underlying all her singing is the presentation of self as a presence to reckon with—take it or leave it.

The official program ended with two extended Debussy songs—“Apparition” and “La Romance d’Ariel”—that had some of Dessay’s most secure and elegant phrasing. Encores included Debussy’s “Claire de lune” (she had already sung Fauré’s) with Cassard also playing it as a solo (Dessay introduced these as “Half moon and full moon,” a tender Rachmaninoff Romance, and an aria from Délibes’s Lakmé (“Not the big one,” she announced, “—a little one”).

*

I’d like to close briefly with an expression of gratitude for several musical events a little earlier this season. Benjamin Zander and his Boston Philharmonic moved into Symphony Hall for one night (February 28) and offered a stunning performance of Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 7, as fleet, as soaring, and as light on its feet as the Mozart Concerto that preceded it (No. 25, in C major, K. 503—Robert Levin at the keyboard), was bottom-heavy. Bruckner’s great opening melody for rising cellos lifted one’s heart. The “restrained grief” of the Wagner tubas in the funereal slow movement, composed as Wagner, Bruckner’s idol, was dying, was deeply moving. And although the fleet third-movement Scherzo (marked Sehr schnell—very fast), even faster than usual, was actually composed before the Adagio second movement, it so much reminded me of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, with its galloping demi-goddesses carrying dead heroes to Valhalla, that it seemed an almost clairvoyant aftermath to the hero’s preceding funeral. In this spirit (at least in my mind), the finale seemed an image of the Elysian Fields, a heavenly and celebratory afterlife. The orchestra was superb, and Peggy Pearson’s oboe, including a duet with Levin in the Mozart concerto, was another gift.

At Jordan Hall a week earlier (February 22), the Cantata Singers celebrated its fiftieth anniversary season with a capacity free performance (thanks to the Free for All Concert Fund) of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. This big 19th-century re-interpretation of Bach and Handel oratorios is one of the last works by the composer who, at the age of 20, was probably single-handedly responsible for the restoration of Bach to public favor after he conducted what was probably the first full performance of The Saint Matthew Passion since Bach’s death. Despite its undeniably lovely moments, I’ve always found Elijah a bit of a snore.

But not this time, with music director David Hoose leading the superb Cantata Singers orchestra and lean 60-member chorus (as opposed to the 270 choristers who sang the premiere in Birmingham, England, in 1846). Baritone Mark Andrew Cleveland gave what might be his strongest performance of his career in the title role, and there was some particularly outstanding singing by tenor William Hite, mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove (as Jezebel!), alto Emily Marvosh, and the sublime soprano Janet Brown, who used to be such a staple in Boston classical music circles before she decamped for Syracuse University, sounded as fresh and radiant as she did in the ART Peter Sellars/Craig Smith production of Handel’s Orlando in 1981. Hoose injected this Elijah (sung in German, so the music really fit the words) with a nervy urgency, a kind of tough, tensile energy, with unstoppable dramatic momentum that still allowed plenty of breathing space. This was the most exciting, moving, and convincing live performance of Elijah I’ve ever heard.

Merrily We Roll Along Excerpt from Seághan McKay on Vimeo.

And let me reaffirm my long-held opinion that The Boston Conservatory’s music-theater program offers some of our most satisfying and exciting productions of classic Broadway musicals. The latest was Stephen Sondheim’s challenging 1981 flop Merrily We Roll Along, a sour hymn to failed friendships and the false illusion of success, based on a 1934 Kaufman and Hart play. The marvelous score includes “Old Friends,” the haunting “Not a Day Goes By,” “Opening Doors,” “Good Thing Going,” the title song, and a hilarious Kennedy send-up, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack.” Kaufman and Hart’s gimmick, repeated by Sondheim and book-writer George Furth (who also wrote Company), is that each scene moves backwards in time, and ends—most painfully of all—with the starry-eyed optimism of the talented friends who have no inkling yet of the pain their successes, both jointly and separately, will bring.

Director Paul Daigneault’s central image, typical of the thought and imagination exhibited in Boston Conservatory productions, was the projection of a large wheel spinning backwards, in the hub of the which we could see iconic images of the time period we’re moving back to, from 1976 to 1957: Elvis, the Beatles, the Kennedys, Life and Time magazine covers, etc. So we always knew where we were and where we were heading—or heading away from. I was told that the production was rehearsed both forward and backward—a startlingly simple but inspired decision. The entire cast ranged from the merely excellent to the out-and-out outstanding, with consistently vivid acting and much terrific singing, all under the music direction of Steven Ladd Jones and conductor Peter Mansfield. I found this generally neglected and overlooked show both achingly sad and utterly compelling. Bravo Sondheim (I hope there’s a recording of this production he could see)! Bravo Boston Conservatory!

Lloyd Schwartz

About Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of three poetry collections and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and, most recently, The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Dr. Schwartz’s writing also appears in our sister publication, The Berkshire Review for the Arts, especially in the summer, when he visits Tanglewood and other festivals in the Berkshires. Click here for a list of them.

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