Though New York”s winter weather has indeed been frightful, the music in this corner of the world has certainly been delightful.
When a performance of Handel’s “Theodora” was scheduled at Carnegie Hall for February 2nd, I was reluctant to buy a ticket. With New Jersey serving as host for the first time, this was Super Bowl Sunday, which meant ridership on the train to New York, not to mention security issues, threatened to be overwhelming. But “Theodora” was to feature Harry Bicket and the English Concert, joined by some expert Handelians, so I just had to go (P.S.: It turned out I had no trouble whatsoever with transportation that day).
After a slow first act (Handel’s fault, not the performers’), the work just bloomed. Dorothea Röschmann, whose dark soprano was a perfect fit for the heroine, was simply on fire that afternoon. Sarah Connolly was a wonderful contrast as Irene, and David Daniels (Didymus), Kurt Streit (Septimius) and especially Neal Davies (Valens) were equally expert in their roles. I’m in awe of singers who perform Handel at this level—in addition to considerable vocalism, they’re required to complement the orchestral line in a manner that few other composers demand. But the key ingredients that day were Harry Bicket and the English Concert, who together with these soloists turned what is basically a one-line plot (Christians vs. Early Romans and we all know how that ends) into a musical spellbinder.
Next up was the Met’s new production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” a work that hadn’t been performed by the company in nearly 100 years. This one’s a great deal of fun for fans of the musical “Kismet,” like myself, since so much of the score of that show is derived from this opera—a phrase here, a few notes there, and of course, the “Polovtsian Dances,” a.k.a. “Stranger in Paradise.” What makes “Prince Igor” somewhat unique is that there isn’t a set edition of the score. Borodin died leaving entire sections of the work unfinished; Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov then split the responsibility of completing the opera and orchestrating it. The Met’s current version omits the Overture, yet adds other Borodin-composed music, and presents Igor’s encounter with Khan Konchak and the Polovtsians earlier than usual, this time immediately after the Prologue.
Musically, the performance I saw was extraordinary: conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, the opera was marvelously sung by Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor), Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna), Anita Rachvelishvili (Konchakovna) and Sergey Semisher (Vladimir). The richness and exoticism of the score were a welcome change from the standard Italian-German repertory, especially in the seductive mezzo-tenor duet. Dramatically, though, you have to wonder why this is called “Prince Igor” when his wife, Yaroslavna, has the better role—she’s the Russian version of “Game of Thrones’” Catelyn Stark, betrayed by her usurper brother, Prince Galitsky (a terrific Mikhail Petrenko), yet trying in her husband’s absence to hold the kingdom together with her faithful boyars.
I thought some of the choices by director Dmitri Tcherniakov were odd. The poppy fields in rows for the Polovtsian scene were unnecessarily confining for the dancers who were forced to hurdle the flower hedges like track stars, and Igor’s hallucinations seemed too realistic (his “missing you” duet with Yaroslavna was staged in full light as she stood right next to him). And there was too much old-fashioned “Oh my God” head-holding and similar gestures by some of the singers. Nevertheless, “Prince Igor” is a wonderful change of pace, and one which the Met should be performing on a far more frequent basis.
The term “physique du rôle” could have been coined to describe Jonas Kaufmann as Massenet’s “Werther” in the Met’s new production–he absolutely embodies all aspects of the character in a manner not often seen on the opera stage. Unlike other singers, he shows us Werther’s social awkwardness in Act I, as a man far more comfortable extolling nature than interacting with people. His first scenes with Charlotte are magical in this production, as we see them dance at the ball to what will become a recurring theme in the opera, the motif that signals Werther’s love.
Nevertheless, Kaufmann had to resort to some odd choices to produce the sound the role demands. Werther is somewhat tricky—the role is lyrical at the beginning of the opera, yet it requires dramatic force when the character finally confesses his love for Charlotte. Kaufmann has a big voice—the man sings Wagner after all—so there was some reining in at various times in the performance I saw, and not a small amount of crooning on his part. When he finally let fly with an impassioned “Pourquoi me reveiller” I was relieved to hear that golden Jonas sound.
Sophie Koch’s vibrant mezzo brought out the best in Charlotte. There was a welcome warmth to her performance (I’ve seen more than one Charlotte who so tended toward ice you wonder why Werther would even bother), and she added no small amount of insight. At the beginning of Act II, when Charlotte and Albert, her new husband, enter, they sit a bit apart on a bench. While he marvels at his happiness by exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s been three months since we wed,” her stiff posture alone, even before she repeats that line, shows her quite opposite view of their marriage.
The production by Richard Eyre is traditional, which to me seems fitting for some of the most romantic music in the repertoire. Nevertheless a few directorial choices were questionable. With the exception of showing Werther and Charlotte at the ball, Eyre’s invented moments of illustration for the prelude and scene transitions ranged from unnecessary to ludicrous. We didn’t need to have the opera start with the death of Charlotte’s mother, and Charlotte’s struggling into her booties onstage before rushing out after the dispatch of those pistols was a mood-breaker, to put it mildly. On the other hand, the suicide is extraordinarily realistic—when Werther shot himself and the blood spattered on the opposite wall, I gasped and the woman sitting next to me jumped right off her seat. And for once, Werther and Charlotte’s final scene is properly staged. The man is dying of blood loss and Kaufmann acts it superbly, lying prone for the most part and only able to stand with Charlotte’s considerable assistance (In the prior Met staging Werther was on his feet so much you expected him to finally shake it all off and go out for a beer).
“Werther” will be shown as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series on March 15th. With Kaufmann and Koch, as well as two unusually vivid characterizations by Lisette Oropesa as Sophie and David Bizic as Albert, this is a performance that shouldn’t be missed.