The Wooden Prince, Op.13 Schoenberg
Deborah Polaski (soprano)
The MET Orchestra
The MET Orchestra/Boulez Deborah Polaski [The Wooden Prince ... Erwartung]
Sunday, May 16, 2010 Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Reviewed by Gene Gaudette
Hard though it may be to believe, Pierre Boulez – entering his seventh decade as a conductor – was, at the age of 85, making his first public appearance leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
Boulez has long favored the complete one-act ballets of Bartók to the abbreviated suites. The Wooden Prince is an early Bartók masterpiece whose sonorities show the clear influence of Rimsky-Korsakov. The opening of the fairy-tale ballet has more than a few passing similarities to the opening of Wagner's “Das Rheingold”, and Boulez conjured a palpably magical atmosphere. The orchestra played the ballet's rich melodic material with plenty of character and beauty, and Boulez also brought unexpected touches of color to the work's sometimes impetuous rhythmic drive, which he kept under tight rein – although there was just enough impact to hint at the fusion of percussive timbres and folk-music that characterize the mature Bartók's orchestral and chamber music.
Arnold Schoenberg's one-act monodrama “Erwartung”, a masterpiece of the German Expressionist movement, seems finally to be getting its due a century (!) after its publication. The plot is of a woman frantically searching for her lover; the music, devoid of tonality, traditional big melodies, and the conventions of music for the theater, unfolds in a richly colorful but unsettling stream of consciousness that also underlies the plot's ambiguity – is the woman going mad? Or has she already?
Deborah Polaski has been one of my favorite singers of Wagner and Richard Strauss in recent years; her voice has plenty of power, but she is a singing actress, and her ability to color the text with careful diction and timbre brought to chilling life the woman's desperation, fear, manic energy, and ultimate break from sanity after she discovers her lover's body in the woods. Balances and ensemble were astoundingly transparent, with Boulez and the orchestra, often playing with emphatic physicality, creating aural scenery that let Polaski rule the Carnegie Hall stage. Polaski, Boulez, and the MET Orchestra were all rewarded with a long, loud and very enthusiastic ovation.
This was one conducting ‘debut’ that was well worth the wait.