Tannhäuser – Overture
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
The MET Orchestra
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 14 October, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Last week it was announced that James Levine would be returning to conducting at the Met next season, preceded by a concert at Carnegie Hall as early as next May. If he succeeds, he will find himself again in front of an orchestra on a par with the world’s finest ensembles. From the opening chorus of clarinets, bassoons and horns of the Overture to Tannhäuser to the final pianissimo chord of Strauss’s immense tone poem, the MET Orchestra impressed with its virtuosity and beauty of sound.
For the opening and closing works a huge string section was employed (the violins were seated antiphonally). Semyon Bychkov elicited from it the deep, rich sonority one hopes to hear in these quintessentially German compositions. In the Tannhäuser Overture he emphasized the religious aspects of the narrative, from the somber pilgrims’ chorus at the beginning to its glorious, majestic restatement at the end. But by presenting Tannhäuser’s hymn to Venus in an almost equally stately mode, he minimized the main issue of the opera, the struggle between the Minnesänger’s dedication to Elisabeth and Venus. Clarinetist Anthony McGill could not have been more beguiling as Venus (the “Geliebter, komm” motif), and it seemed that Bychkov was finally building up steam for Tannhäuser’s subsequent passionate outburst. But the conductor slammed on the brakes just before the re-statement of the hymn, instead of returning to the faster tempo Wagner indicates here. He thus turned the composer’s apex of lustful abandon into nothing more than a cheerful and slightly pompous song.
While An Alpine Symphony also could have benefitted from a little more fervor at times – especially in the ‘Storm’ section – Bychkov displayed a good grasp of its overall structure, shaping the sprawling tone poem into a coherent whole. Intimately familiar with the composer’s colorful language, the orchestra easily made the transition from a gloomy ‘Night’ to a bright, sweeping ‘Sunrise’, the horns lead the ‘Ascent’, and their offstage colleagues were sufficiently sylvan as the hunting horns in the distance. This work makes a lot of demands on the brass players – the first trumpet in particular (David Krauss) extends to the upper reaches of the instrument’s range, and the first horn (Joseph Anderer) also plays an extensive role – which were all met brilliantly. The woodwinds gurgled appropriately as a mountain creek and sprightly waterfall, and the oboe solo (Elaine Douvas) at the summit was touching. Not to be outdone, the strings showed not only virtuosity, but also a sumptuous tone one rarely hears nowadays. An Alpine Symphony was a speciality of Herbert von Karajan, who conducted it at Carnegie Hall in 1984 with the Berlin Philharmonic. This performance by the MET Orchestra can easily be put into the same league.
Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek had been scheduled to sing the Wesendonck songs, but due to illness she was replaced by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung who used the darker hue of her voice to good effect. It took her until ‘Im Treibhaus’ to fully immerse herself in Wagner’s world. This song is the precursor to, or “study” for, Tristan und Isolde, specifically introducing what was to become the introduction to Act Three of the opera. Except for ‘Träume’ the cycle was orchestrated by Felix Mottl, a fervent Wagnerian who brought his experience as a Wagner conductor to this task. Bychkov tapped into the delicacy and atmosphere of Mottl’s work, allowing DeYoung freedom of expressive characterization without having to force her voice, which effortlessly soared over the orchestra.