Monthly Archives: February 2018

Goerne, Van Zweden, Walkuere

Verdi and Wagner are the two great opera composers that suffer especially grievously in our current performance climate. All opera labors, but the mightiest the most. The insidious combination of spavined vocalities, openly or underhandedly adversarial production practices, and musical renderings that with rare exceptions emerge as “lightened,” “clarified,” and/or mechanical, serve to reduce these two most regularly to the status of pitiful giants. In my Traviata and Forza del destino posts I have had some occasion to deal with Verdi. Trovatore and Luisa Miller will receive attention soon. Wagner, though, has simply not presented himself in our New York season to date. Even now, he’s just edging in, with a Met revival of Parsifal and single acts (the most surefire ones, and the cheapest to present) of Die Walküre and, in April, Tristan und Isolde, in concert format.

In a faint echo of the commercial symbiosis that once took place between record releases and live events, the conductor and Sieglinde of the Walküre Act I (Jaap van Zweden and Heidi Melton) are also those of the complete Ring underway from Naxos (the Siegfried has just been issued), while the Siegfried of that cycle is our Siegmund. Further, the Wotan of the Naxos Ring, Matthias Goerne, has just appeared at Carnegie Hall in the role that has earned him his greatest prominence—that of champion of the profundities of the German art song— and has been announced as the New York Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence for next season, when Mr. Van Zweden takes over the orchestra. Goerne being first to stand in the docket, I’ll begin with him and elements of the Naxos recording.

My earlier experience of Goerne was limited to a single Papageno, back in 1998. It wasn’t quite at the level of the best I’ve seen (Hermann Prey or, in an Americanized context, Theodor Uppman) or heard (Prey again, Fischer-Dieskau, Gerhard Hüsch), but it was nice (and no, Papageno is not a slam-dunk). I did mark a peculiarity in his rendering of the spoken dialogue. For that, he adopted a high-set adjustment—higher in pitch, in fact, than most of his sung notes—shallow and mouthy in timbre. It reminded me somewhat of Peter Lorre’s default speech mode, or more specifically of a tone taken by the eminent actor and director Gustaf Gründgens in some of his snakily seductive speeches as Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and so produced an effect oddly creepy for the character. I wondered if there were some culture-code signal in this usage that I was missing, or if Goerne simply thought that this unnaturally high placement would carry well in the big house. In any case, it did lodge in the memory. I’ve had no further occasion to see Goerne in opera, noting only at a distance and with some surprise the roles he has more recently undertaken, and have been remiss in catching up with him in recital till the evening of February 6.

I have heard and seen grumblings about an over-seriousness in Goerne’s recital programming and presentation. These get no support from me. One reason I find myself at the recital hall with reduced frequency is that the programming (when one can find out about it in advance in any detail) seems designed to avoid a dreaded “heaviness,” and the presentational mode is one of casual friending, often of a patent insincerity. The world of the Lied is richer and deeper than that, and if you’re not going to go there, neither am I. On this occasion, Goerne was offering the four songs of Berg’s Opus 2, the complete Schumann Dichterliebe, Wolf’s three Michelangelo settings and three of Shostakovich’s as well, and finally the Vier ernste Gesänge of Brahms. From beginning to end, substantial nourishment for heart and mind. What less could you want? And let me stipulate: Goerne has a sturdy, reliable voice. He’s entirely in command of his material. His intonation is excellent, and at least in this material, the tone is never spread or tremulous. He’s clearly dedicated and sincere. His collaborator on this occasion was the acclaimed young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, this recital being one of the events he is “curating” as Carnegie Hall’s artist-in-residence. All these good things notwithstanding, I found Goerne a strange performer, and this a strange evening. In such cases, I think it can be informative to search for technical causes. It’s part of my ongoing attempt to pin down what’s gone on with classical singing over the past half-century, a search that’s best conducted among the most gifted and successful, since their talent always consists in part of compensating for whatever weaknesses may be present. But before that, a note on self-presentation, which actually creates the first impression.

How Are We Moved and Why Do We Like it?–with notes on the death of tragedy.

In my very first working post (“Traviata 1,” Aug. 4, 2017), I confessed that despite my dislike—on grounds not only of taste, but of artistic principle—of  Willy Decker’s production, there were moments in the Act 2 finale and the final scene when I found myself moved. I also had to admit that while I am often moved by these same passages, even in poorish performances, and attribute this mostly to the power of Verdi’s music to override the failings of his interpreters (and, on this occasion, the generally sour, resistant mood the production had put me in), I couldn’t indulge myself in denial: there had to be something in the production and performance that at least contributed to my emotional response. I was also aware that whenever I attend or listen to a performance of La Traviata, I am hoping for something like this response at these junctures; that although the emotion is of deep sadness, evoked by representations of cruelty, shattered love, and mortality itself, I enjoy having it and am disappointed when I don’t; and finally that this enjoyment or disappointment is a starting-point (though that only) for critical evaluation. I intended to pursue this subject in “Traviata 2,” but did not. Now’s a good time.

I was talking recently with a friend about François Girard’s production of Parsifal, which is returning to the Met this season. It’s another representation I object to on principle, whether I’m moved or not. And I’m always moved by Parsifal, because at certain places the music invariably overtakes all other considerations. In that sense, being moved has nothing to do with my opinion, so I concede the former and hold to the latter. But my friend was moved, specifically, by certain production choices. One was that in Girard’s auteurial universe, Kundry gets to be the officiant at the end. Wagner says she doesn’t, but Girard says she does, and since it’s Girard’s show, he holds the high cards. My friend felt that this choice contradicted only the letter, not the spirit, of Wagner’s apparently nullified law, and was moved to see Kundry dispensing the nourishing radiance. “She has to be redeemed!”, he said.

There’s a thread here, about women in the realm of the Grail, which I may take up after I’ve been to this year’s Parsifal revival. And one can’t very well be in the business of invalidating someone else’s emotional responses. For my money, Kundry should stay on the floor,  because her redemption inheres simply in being released from the centuries, eons, of agony to which she has been condemned for a blasphemy, and the only release is through death. There is plenty to explore in this notion; we don’t have to agree with it or like it. But it belonged to RW, and like another W, he’s the Decider in this pretty basic matter, according to my code of artistic ethics. (Which of the principal characters completes the work’s central action is well beyond the “Joe averts her gaze and frowns” level of stage direction, I would think.) Nonetheless, this little disagreement serves to remind me that I, too, was moved, as always, at the end of this Parsifal, this despite the fact that Kundry was having her mini-Resurrection. Further: this “being moved” was similar to, but not the same as, the “being moved” of La Traviata. Deeper? Not really, but different. Less personal, more “universal.” And while La Traviata is a tragedy of a peculiarly operatic sort, Parsifal, though marinated in tragic juices, isn’t. It’s a drama of redemption that shares the Christian dream of redeeming the world. That makes it one of a handful of outliers on the edge of the Romantic metanarrative.