Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Eugene Onegin Letter Scene
Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtkartentexten von Peter Altenberg, Op.4 (Altenberg Lieder)
Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music
Capriccio Final Scene
Renée Fleming (soprano)
Julien Robbins (bass)
The Met Orchestra
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 8 January, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City
Perhaps the greatest of James Levine’s many accomplishments in his long tenure as principal conductor, music director and, since 1986, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera has been the development of its orchestra into an ensemble that rivals the world’s greatest orchestras. Beginning in 1991, he has led the Met Orchestra on tours across the United States and to Europe and has established an annual presence at Carnegie Hall, where its concerts regularly draw sold-out houses. The orchestra’s concerts usually focus on the standard orchestral repertoire rather than opera, but on this occasion, owing in major part to Fleming’s participation, much of the afternoon was devoted to operatic works.
The concert began with a stirring performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the only work on the program that was neither operatic nor vocal. Although the work’s depiction of Shakespeare’s tragedy places it within the category of the symphonic poem, its structure follows traditional sonata form. Levine’s reading emphasized the romantic, dramatic aspects of the music more than its abstract classical structure. The introductory chorale, representing Friar Laurence, created a peaceful atmosphere that gave way to the clash of the Montagues and Capulets – a very brisk allegro, punctuated with repeated cymbal crashes – followed by the soaring love theme, for which the work is best known, on the English horn and strings. In the coda Levine brought out most expressively the woeful fate of the ill-starred lovers, when, with the sudden entrance of the strings, the love theme turns tragic, followed by a transition to the major mode, bringing a ray of hope to the final dramatic chords.
The first half of the concert concluded with Fleming’s rendition of an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin”, which the composer described as ‘lyric scenes’ based on Pushkin’s great narrative poem. In the ‘Letter Scene’, Tatiana, having just met and fallen in love with Onegin, writes a letter declaring her love. As she writes her emotions change rapidly from bliss to hesitation, from self-pity to self-confidence, and from despair to hope. Fleming portrayed this emotional roller-coaster ride effectively, both vocally and by manipulating the purple stole she wore over her black gown. Although her dramatic voice rang out clearly for most of the scene, at a few points the orchestra was allowed to overwhelm the vocal line – a common problem when a vocal soloist joins an orchestra on Carnegie Hall’s stage.
After the interval, Fleming gave a striking performance of Alban Berg’s first orchestral composition, the “Altenberg Lieder”, a collection of vocal miniatures sung to an anything-but-miniature orchestral accompaniment. This early Berg work is, for the most part, atonal, although the final song – the longest and most densely-textured of the set – is more closely connected to traditional tonal music. Fleming ably met the challenges of the demanding vocal part, which features leaping intervals, irregular rhythms and wide-ranging dynamics. Her whispered “plötzlich ist alles aus” (suddenly, all is finished) in the third song had a particularly eerie and chilling impact. The large orchestra – which includes triple woodwinds, triple and quadrupled brasses, a large percussion section, piano, celesta, and a full complement of strings – played with precision and clarity, evoking a fascinating array of sonic colours.
Levine and the orchestra returned to more familiar operatic territory with the Overture and Venusberg Music from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”. Here, Carnegie Hall’s fabled acoustic worked to the orchestra’s advantage, and it seized the opportunity, filling the hall, the majestic brass sound of the pilgrims’ chorus over the violins’ rapid, descending figures; the Venusberg Music and Tannhäuser’s lyrical hymn of praise to Venus was beautifully played by the woodwinds and strings. Wagner divides the violins into as many as eight separate parts during portions of the overture, and Levine’s antiphonal placement of the two violin sections ensured that this complex aspect of the score was not lost. The overture continues directly into the Venusberg ballet scene, added by Wagner for the 1861 Paris production, replete with castanets, tambourines, cymbals and triangle. The customary writhing dancers and offstage chorus were left to the listener’s imagination, however.
The music of Richard Strauss has always been prominent in Fleming’s repertoire, and she was very much in her element in the closing scene from Strauss’s last opera, “Capriccio”, which contains some of the composer’s finest writing for the soprano voice. This is an opera about opera, posing the question of whether it is the words or the music that is the most important. In the final scene, Countess Madeleine is called upon to answer that question, and thereby provide a conclusion to the opera, by choosing between her two suitors, the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand. She sings Flamand’s setting of Olivier’s sonnet and agonizes over whether she is most moved by the words or the music, and over which of the men she loves. Singing to her own mirror image (as the orchestra alludes briefly to “Der Rosenkavalier“), she finally realizes that words and music are inseparable, and that she is unable to decide how the opera should end. She exits when her major-domo (bass Julien Robbins) announces that supper is served, leaving the opera’s central question undecided. Fleming’s smooth yet powerful voice conveyed the Countess’s struggle with the ‘words or music’ question, as well as her resigned acceptance of her inability to answer it. The concluding orchestral passage, ending with two horn-calls, brought the program to an elegant and satisfying conclusion.