Exporing Verdi and Wagner

Untraditional editions of classic operas, alas with mixed results

Jonathan Sheffer runs the danger of becoming the younger, hipper Leon Botstein.

As the founder and media-savvy leader of the EOS Orchestra, Sheffer’s programming is invariably interesting and gives audiences––and indeed journalists––much extra-musical material to ponder and process. EOS draws even a more self-consciously “haut boho” crowd than does BAM: I felt underdressed not wearing Prada or Gianfranco Ferre to their “Valkyrie” (March 20) at NYU’s fantastic new Skirball Center theater.

And yet… EOS’ roster audibly includes some fine musicians but, even given the reduced orchestration, Sheffer’s traversal did not emerge particularly revelatory from the musical point of view; they got through it decently, with horns even more chancy than at an average Wagner performance. What if some of the energy and resources invested in ultrahip program books, lobby displays, and publicity materials had gone towards an extra orchestra rehearsal? Sheffer’s bow garnered worshipful standing ovations from some, with a few boos mixed in; both reactions seem to me extreme.

Christopher Alden’s funny and insightful “Rhinegold” unsettled me with a misogyny that seemed to outstrip even Wagner’s, but it worked on its own terms. “Valkerie” done as a family kitchen drama I found less engaging: by no stretch a waste of time, but weighed down by its own self-impressèdness. The trope of angst-ridden characters too individually obsessed to look one another in the face––which served Alden well in his brilliant “Rape of Lucretia”––quickly grew tiresome here, and too many touches (the Wälsungs humping in underwear, Brüennhilde’s Battle Cry into a cell-phone) seemed gambits for cheap laughs.

Sieglinde, surely the easiest role to cast in a chamber version, did not flatter Michal Shamir, whose voice was all slow vibrato. Charles Hens, Dutch but (unlike the Israeli Shamir) with no accent, made a sexy-scruffy Siegmund, sounding promising in middle-set passages but sorely tested at both extremes of his range.

Sanford Sylvan’s Wotan was… interesting. He looked like a somnolent Homer Simpson, with nary a trace of the majesty or, indeed, threat that we associate with the Battle Father––shouldn’t at least the latter have been evident, given the concentration on family dynamics? It was certainly salutary and moving to have Sylvan, seated in a chair facing the audience, relate his Narration directly to us in conversational style. But the Big Moments went for less in terms of Sylvan’s trademark, vocal coloration.

Linda Pavelka, an attractive and compelling actress, was the best all-around vocalist as Fricka and Valkyrie #1. Alden had rail-thin Meryl Richardson as Brünnhilde spend too much time cowering under tables, crouching and facing the wall, as if he wanted to make Brünnhilde’s emotions as unreadable as possible. In the hard, small-scale way that British casting directors seem to have seized upon for Wagner to spare their delicate visual sensibilities the sight of large people onstage, she sang with energy and focus.

Ethan Herschenfeld, another Israeli, sounded reasoably impressive as Hunding, but his character served Alden only as a one-note joke: his entrance in exterminator’s uniform drew a sitcom-style laugh, but then (like the freaky supporting players in the Coen Brothers’ current smarmfest) the character had nowhere to go.

The yearly concert operas given by Robert Bass’s excellent Collegiate Chorale have become some of the hottest dates on New York’s operatic calendar. Bass followed upon an exciting “Forza del Destino” in 2003 with a wonderfully played and sung “Ballo in Maschera” (March 31) premiering the new “Swedish text” edition of Philip Gossett and Ilaria Narici that restores the setting and terms Verdi originally intended before the censors gotr busy.

Michèle Crider gave the performance of her New York career as a very impressive and affecting Amelia, showing big improvements in musicality, feeling, and technique since her Met appearances in the 1990s. She launched both challenging trios superbly, a rare achievement. It was heartening to see that an internationally actiive singer in mid-career could apply herself with such profit to improving her artistry.

The much-ballyhooed tenor Salvatore Licitra could profit by her example; he showed more refinement than in that “Forza,” but has a considerable way to go before one would term him “an artist.” The timbre is pleasing enough, save for an uncomfortable patch in the middle, and it’s certainly bracing to hear such volume: bracing, but ultimately tiring. When in their love duet Crider revealed her love with the restrained “Ah sì, ben, t’amo” Verdi asks for, Licitra answered her back with a stentorian “M’ami, Amelia?” as if addressing someone across West 57th Street. Too often, huge high notes were hurled out as projective missiles and not as part of musical lines. The (historically bisexual) King Gustavus is Verdi’s most elegant tenor part; Bergonzi and Pavarotti have shown it can be done without yelling.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, too, preferred his own dynamics to Verdi’s: he excelled in “O dolcezze memorie” but elsewhere, especially at the bottom of Count Anckarstrom’s music, artificially darkened and puffed up his sound. He seemingly made only minimal textual changes from what he usually sings, nonetheless remaining score-bound and not very interactive with the other soloists. His was certainly a most positive contribution, but he’s reached that dangerous point in his New York career where he is cheered to the echo for being handsome, famous, and having an essentially beautiful sound, not for the particulars of a given appearance.

Ewa Podles (Ulrica) riveted the hall with her huge-scale interpretation: the brilliantly timed thrusting down of her music stand, as if to say. “I already am Ulrica”, was a great touch. Her vocalism won tremendous ovations. Harolyn Blackwell made a welcome New York return as a sprightly Oscar. Even the two bass conspirators, Arthur Woodley and Kevin Burdette, were outstanding

Most importantly, Bass proved a true Verdian conductor and both his chorale and the first-rate Orchestra of St. Luke’s followed his sweep. (What a pleasure to hear the solo cello, oboe and violin parts so well executed.) This tautly exciting “Ballo” will clearly be recalled as one of the season’s great nights.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes for Playbill, Time Out New York, and Opera News, among other venues.

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