When the orchestra is the star of the opera
At the bottom of his sullen and bitter opera “Wozzeck”, Alban Berg evokes a barracks of soldiers in the middle of the night. A choir chants: a weak and mute gauze, punctuated by the strangled beats of a double bass.
When the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed this work at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, the vocals were soft but penetrating, evoking a silent, stuffy piece of sleeping men. The bass notes were brief but not too harsh, like jagged stones wrapped in wool – evoking anxieties made both vaguer and heavier by the late hour and the enveloping calm.
The moment is over after only a few seconds. But it’s one of countless, fiercely economical but utterly expressive passages that, if done well, convey a world of novelistic density in just 90 minutes. And the Boston Symphony, under its musical director, Andris Nelsons, performed this opera – arguably the most influential of the 20th century, with its cinematic flow and stylistic diversity – better than good.
‘Wozzeck’, especially in concert, is a study in orchestral sound, and this set did justice to both its overwhelming density and uncanny lightness – sometimes both at once, as in an opening interlude layering strings pale and whispering but denser brass. It wasn’t a smash performance, but it was dazzling.
It’s hard for singers to compete when they have to share a concert stage with all of this, even if baritone Bo Skovhus bit harshly as the featured soldier in the title role. Among small roles, tenor Christopher Ventris sang with sinister robustness in Drum Major, and veteran bass player Franz Hawlata avoided caricature in Doctor, all the more effective for his steady timbre than his overt madness.
Soprano Christine Goerke had one of the big hits of her career singing Strauss’ Elektra with Nelsons and That Orchestra at Carnegie in 2015. If Marie, Wozzeck’s wandering concubine, is a less pompous role, it’s a good one. for her, benefiting from the maternal warmth of her middle voice and the sharp cry of her treble.
But it was definitely the Boston Symphony’s party. It wasn’t the only performance last week in which an orchestra and a conductor starred in an opera. Handel’s “Rodelinda” returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, conducted by Harry Bicket, who made his Met debut with the piece in 2004, when Stephen Wadsworth’s grandiose production was new.
Over the past 18 years, leading another tour of “Rodelinda” as well as Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” and “Agrippina” – and Mozart, for good measure – Bicket has subtly revolutionized the sound of company in this repertoire, airing the instrumental textures to strike a balance between crisp Baroque agility and Met-filling richness. Its rhythm is sharp and varied, and the energy never wanes.
There was more musical incisiveness and glamor in the pit than on stage. It’s the first time “Rodelinda” has been performed at the Met without the star power of Renée Fleming in the title role of a fallen queen determined to remain faithful to her husband, who is believed to be dead. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t.)
The part, relying more on lyrical expansion than coloratura virtuosity, suited Fleming well. But taking over on Friday, soprano Elza van den Heever was representative of a pale, unassertive-sounding cast.
A bit strident in its top notes and underpowered in its bottom, van den Heever emitted plausible emotions and sang with admirable control, but had little impact. Ditto Sasha Cooke, with her soft and silky mezzo-soprano; light tenor Paul Appleby; gruff bass-baritone Adam Plachetka; and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, full of character but with a sharp tone.
Only the suave voice of countertenor Iestyn Davies, with the floating warmth of fine cashmere, truly seduced. And even he, as Rodelinda’s miraculously returned husband, Bertarido, was pushed beyond comfort in faster passages, like the climactic “Vivi, tiranno.”
The situation is similar to the Met in Verdi’s Don Carlos, where Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra have a grandiose and spacious conception of the score that is more charismatic than many voices. But while the playing is equally detailed and skilful in Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, currently conducted at home by Marek Janowski, in this work it seems better balanced with the singers.
Not only the engulfing soprano Lise Davidsen in the title role, but also the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard – her silver sound but grounded and full as a composer – and the tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who, as Bacchus, valiantly and in much effortlessly struggles with Strauss’ absurd demands. This “Ariane” is the spectacle of the orchestra – and of the cast too.