January On The Vocal Scene

January On The Vocal Scene

Mozart’s birthday and other matters

David Daniels was to make his Philadelphia debut in a recital a few years back and was felled by the flu. The City of Brotherly Love finally got to hear the openly gay countertenor superstar in a program with the Philadelphia Orchestra last month. Heard January 12, Daniels was in fine form, dispensing beautiful tone and masterful legato despite the dullish efforts of Bernard Labadie to make a subset of the orchestra’s excellent players sound appropriate to this music.

After a pretty but rather musically unmemorable Vivaldi “Stabat mater,” Daniels treated his new audience to three Handel arias from two of his biggest stage successes. His voice catapulted through “Furibondo spira il vento,” from “Partenope” and then lavished breath control and concentration on the contemplative “Dove sei” from “Rodelinda.” For my tastes, the heroic “Vivi, tiranno” from the same opera with which he finished was too similar to the “Partenope” aria in scope and rhythm; it might have been more revelatory to offer Bertarido’s second act slow stunner, “Con rauco mormorio,” which went so enchantingly at the Met. But with Handel-singing this fluent, no one complained, especially after Daniels put the evening in his pocket with the ravishing “ O Lord, whose mercies numberless” from “Saul,” one of the highlights on his Handel Oratorio arias CD on Virgin.

Mozart’s 250th birthday on January 27 was, of course, widely celebrated. The Philharmonic labored under the disadvantage of its not exactly Mozartean conductor, Lorin Maazel, who seemed rather on autopilot for much of the program January 26. We heard two Symphonies, the 28th and the stirring 35th—for parts of which Maazel came to life. Also, associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples played the fourth violin concerto with sterling technique and admirable tone—if not much personality; she used elaborate cadenzas derived from Joseph Joachim’s which would not have sounded stylistically out of place at the Philharmonic’s premiere of the piece in 1872.At last—finally—came the vocal portion, the Coronation Mass, all 26 minutes of it.

A quartet of fine singers had been engaged—Nathan Berg, John Tessier, Joyce DiDonato, and Celena Shafer—and they all sang well despite the metronomic conducting. It was indicative of the listlessness regarding casting that characterizes the Philharmonic these days—having secured in DiDonato the services of one of the hottest talents in the musical world, fresh from debuts at the Met and La Scala and with acclaim being heaped on her new recordings—that they would not have thought to ask her to sing some concert arias, or maybe Sesto’s audience-wowing showpieces from “Clemenza,” instead of programming the anodyne 28th Symphony. Still, New Yorkers have a chance to hear the mezzo strut her impressive stuff when the William Christie “Hercules” touches down at BAM, February 14-19.

The Met’s Julie Taymor-driven “Magic Flute” revival the next night was a lot more fun. For the first 20 minutes or so the lighting and prop work seemed a bit off. Though Eric Cutler sang forthrightly as Tamino, things only really clicked with the arrival of Nathan Gunn’s acrobatic Papageno. Last year, this production hosted the gorgeously sung Pamina and Papageno of Dorothea Röschmann (first cast) and Matthias Goerne (second cast), probably world leaders in these roles vocally, and one had to dismiss the memories from one’s mind. But Gunn sang well and acted entertainingly, and Mary Dunleavy’s first ever Pamina showed her usual scrupulous preparation and dramatic acumen. Her pretty soprano remained angular in a few places Pamina’s music suggests more roundness, but that may come. After all, Lucia Popp had 11 years between her Met Queen and Pamina; Dunleavy has had less than five.

Erika Miklosa’s Queen remained from last year’s second cast, still channeling enjoyable biker babe attitude and pretty damn exciting even if the triplets aren’t perfect and the five high Fs were a little squeakier this time around. Morris Robinson’s German needs more seasoning and his very lowest notes don’t quite blossom, but otherwise he was an aptly dignified, rotund-voiced Sarastro.

After Maazel, Paul Daniel seemed highly animated, but to me showed no special reason for his engagement; why the Met’s British administrators should allow a middling debutant British conductor to import a less-than-middling debutante British First Lady (Susannah Glanville) is one of the Met mysteries the new management will hopefully contend with soon. Maria Zifchak and Malin Fritz were good as the rest of this crucial trio, but the First Lady has some of the opera’s best music and needs a front-liner; having wowed ‘em in Leeds with Luisa Miller may not be enough. Taymor’s visually stunning “Flute” remains a great asset; and next season promises both a full revival and a shortened, English-language variant for kids.

January 29 found the Met Orchestra and James Levine in great form at Carnegie Hall. Anja Silja, handsome and classy at 65, performed Schoenberg’s intense 30-minute monodrama “Erwartung” as incisively as I expect to hear it done. Her top notes—up to B here—and the essential “girlish radio wave” quality of the voice remain unchanged, though she now commands less power in the middle. The cheers were justified, and returned redoubled for Levine and his players after their staggeringly powerful yet precisely detailed account of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo .com) writes about opera for many venues.