Who Needs Staged Opera?

No one can accuse Lorin Maazel of lassitude. Having returned to the Met after 45 years in early January for “Die Walkuere,” the fit 77-year-old conductor also offered a testing and generally successful Berlioz/Profokiev program at his home base, the Philharmonic. The featured vocal work was Hector Berlioz's “La mort de Cleopatre” – a piece associated in older Phil-goers' ears and hearts with Jennie Tourel and Leonard Bernstein, who premiered it for the orchestra in 1961 with high drama captured by the subsequent taping.

Maazel's reading was cogent and polished but somewhat lacking in drama. Susan Graham is an excellent high mezzo, a fine, dedicated artist working at top form. Yet, having seen her attempt this grand-format scena after performances of Gluck's mature Iphigenie in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, I must own that she does not strike me as a natural tragedienne. She heaved a measured, attractive tone rather than a huge cannon of a voice in the manner of Rita Gorr or Regine Crespin, two of the last real Gallic lyric tragediennes.

Susan Graham, Anja Silja, and David Daniels in exciting Carnegie recitals.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, with a smaller, less rangy voice than Graham, managed the soulful declamation of Berlioz's Didon, for which his Cleopatra – flamboyantly decrying her lost status and slipping beauty and resolving not to be shamed by the Roman conqueror Octavius – is assuredly a study.

Graham's French style is practiced and her interpretive instincts good, but fundamentally there's something too normal and centered about her vocal persona that inhibited her from rising fully to the huge, sometimes messy emotions at stake in works like these. Graham looked wonderful as to gown, hair, and jewels, and was aptly dignified. In sheer vocal terms, she encompassed Cleopatra's high notes impressively – certainly with more ease than did the 60-something Tourel in the recording – but held off on chest resonance until right near the work's end. As with her Iphigenie, one emerged happy that she undertook the fascinating piece so capably and intelligently-but wanting something further.

Two interesting evenings at Carnegie's Zankel Hall closed the month. January 26 the Met Chamber Ensemble devoted a few hours to contrasting works by the three pillars of the Second Viennese School. I think I prefer home-listening for Webern – musical set-up changes took up more time than for the beautifully spare pieces themselves. Berg's “Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin, and 13 Winds” got a rousing, exemplary reading with guests Yefim Bronfman and Gil Shaham furnishing luscious tone, never at the expense of precision.

I have heard James Levine conduct, and occasionally accompany singers countless times over the years, but his aptly low-key rendition of Schoenberg's “Six Little Piano Pieces” marked the first time I heard his solo-piano skills.

Finally, the ensemble gave a splendid reading of “Pierrot Lunaire,” with the Sprechstimme poems expertly delivered by the legendary Kunst-diva Anja Silja, who at 67 is still an interpretive force to be reckoned with. Imaginative, nuanced, but integrated with the other musicians, Silja disposed of more actual singing tone than one might have expected.

David Daniels won vociferous applause and cheers from an even starrier, more “industry-heavy” crowd the next day in the same venue, for a very pleasing recital with veteran pianist Martin Katz. Raven-haired these days, confessing that he's ready to relax a bit after a six-recital tour, the first out superstar countertenor showed himself to be in very good form. Daniels' singing was remarkable for its evenness, control of breath and legato, and attractive tone (save perhaps at the very bottom of his compass when he chose not to switch over into baritonal resonance). A real stage animal, his English and Italian is vivid, his German less so, and – though the feeling was there – in the initial Brahms set the words themselves weren't satisfyingly enunciated.

The real highlights were the old Italian songs, “A Chloris,” Reynaldo Hahn's breathtaking simulation of French baroque style, and two Handel arias, Rinaldo's lament “Cara sposa” and the dazzling coloratura display “Furibondo spira il vento” from “Partenope.” He sang two Vaughan Williams numbers beautifully,”Linden Lea” and “Orpheus with his Lute,” which he has recorded.

The emotional high point was “King David,” a 1919 Walter de la Mare setting by English composer Herbert Howells. Katz was a little foursquare and heavy-handed in the gorgeous “Amarilli” but more than earned his check elsewhere.

One must be grateful that Carnegie continues to program frequent vocal recitals in its three spaces, and not always by the same few names, year in, year out, like other presenters in the city. But when is someone locally going to program solo recitals by Bernarda Fink, William Burden, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Nicholas Phan, and the still-resplendent Helen Donath?

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