National Review / Digital September 16, 2013
T HE music business loves an anniversary. If presenters didn’t know who was born when, or who died when, how would they know what to present? This year is a “Wagner year,” and also a “Verdi year.” Both of those composers were born in 1813. So they’re celebrating their bicentennials or we are. In reality, every year is a Wagner year and a Verdi year: They are staple composers. But, in 2013, they are receiving extra attention, if possible.
So is Benjamin Britten: It is his centennial the centennial of his birth. (He died in 1976.) Britten is a major composer, and you might even call him a staple. But he could probably do with a “year.”
In any event, the Salzburg Festival has been celebrating all three composers in particular, Verdi, four of whose operas have been performed, or will be. Wagner has had to settle for two. Fortunately, his ego can take it.
One of the Wagner operas is Rienzi, a rarity. More formally, the opera is titled Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen, or, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes. This is a Roman spectacle. It was Wagner’s third completed opera, and his first commercial success. Its overture has long been a popular piece an orchestral staple. But few know the opera beyond the overture.
Wagner took the story from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, that much-mocked novelist (and poet, and politician, etc.). Bulwer-Lytton opened, not his Rienzi, but another novel with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Peanuts made this line famous. And it’s supposed to be the epitome of bad writing. There is a Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which people compete with one another to write badly. Bulwer-Lytton also came up with phrases and sentences that are as natural to us as air: “the great unwashed, “the almighty dollar,” “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Beat that, as William F. Buckley Jr. would say.
Wagner’s Rienzi is composed in the grand-opera style, epitomized by Giacomo Meyerbeer. Indeed, Hans von Bülow cracked that “Rienzi is Meyerbeer’s best opera.” (Bülow was the conductor who was married to Liszt’s daughter Cosima, who soon took up with Wagner.) Others have countered, “Actually, Rienzi is Meyerbeer’s worst opera.” Whatever our opinion, Meyerbeer was a big influence on Wagner, and a benefactor of the younger composer personally. Among many other kindnesses, Meyerbeer helped get Rienzi staged. Wagner later repaid him by launching a campaign of vilification against him.
Why? First, because Meyerbeer was another composer. Second, because he had helped Wagner, including with money (and beneficiaries often resent their benefactors). But the third reason is the most important: Meyerbeer was a Jew.
We should talk about Hitler for a second (but no more). It’s a sad fact that he adored Rienzi. He had the overture played at his rallies. He possessed the manuscript. Apparently, he requested the manuscript for his 50th birthday in 1939. The Wagner family happily obliged. Rienzi, in Wagner’s own hand, was with him in the bunker, at the end.
That said, Hitler also adored The Merry Widow, Franz Lehár’s operetta, and the best-loved operetta ever. Hitler saw it over and over. And there is no taint on the Widow, so far as I know.
Rienzi is Meyerbeer-like, for sure, and it also has dashes of Carl Maria von Weber and Rossini. The music from the overture wends its way all through the opera. Often, the score is blowsy or bombastic, full of forgettable rhetoric. But now and then, Wagner peeps through: We hear the genius who would go on to compose The Ring, Parsifal, and other works.
The Salzburg Festival presented Rienzi in a concert performance, which is to say, unstaged. It also presented the opera cut sharply abridged which is no sin. The orchestra was the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, based in Vienna, and the conductor was Philippe Jordan, a Swiss. He is the son of Armin Jordan, the late, esteemed conductor. Philippe is now almost 40, but he still looks like a kid like he could belong to this orchestra.
The overture, from these forces, was weak, without the necessary sound, and without gravitas. Had Salzburg employed a boy to do a man’s job (so to speak)? But elsewhere in the opera, the orchestra was plenty competent, and admirably nimble. Jordan is a fine, alert, polished conductor as he proved when he made his Salzburg debut almost ten years ago.
Singing the title role, Rienzi, was an Englishman, Christopher Ventris, who is a bona fide heldentenor. They are thin on the ground. He had some struggles, but that is assumed, where heldentenors are concerned. I might mention, too, the bass-baritone in the small role of Kardinal Orvieto: the Chicago-born Robert Bork. He sang judiciously.
The other Wagner opera here at the festival is Die Meistersinger, that grand comedy. Salzburg also did Verdi’s grand comedy, his last opera, Falstaff. They are doing Don Carlo too. And Nabucco, the opera from which we get the beloved hymn “Va, pensiero.”
Along the way, Salzburg presented a curiosity, a rarity: Giovanna d’Arco, i.e., Joan of Arc. This is an early Verdi opera, seen and heard at least as seldom as Rienzi. It, too, received a concert performance. The story is based on Schiller’s version of Joan, more or less. And about the music, I will say this: If Verdi depended on Giovanna for his reputation, we might not have heard of him. But there is still Verdi in it and a great performance of this opera can make your hair stand on end.
In Salzburg, we received such a performance. An Italian conductor, Paolo Carignani, conducted a German orchestra, the Munich Radio Orchestra. Carignani was clear, authoritative, and impassioned. Giovanna is a three-singer opera, essentially, and those singers are as follows: a soprano, Joan; a tenor, Charles VII (or Carlo, here); and a baritone, Joan’s father, called Giacomo.
Joan sounded dark and Slavic in this performance, as she was sung by Anna Netrebko, the Russian star. Netrebko was scorching. At times, Joan sounded less like the Maid of Orléans than like the Battle Axe of the Steppes or something. Yet Netrebko did the necessary subtle singing as well. She had some wayward notes, as she usually does, but her musical and dramatic intelligence overcame everything, as it almost always does.
Carlo was a real Italian tenor a genuine, rugged Verdi tenor and those are as thin on the ground as heldentenors. He was Francesco Meli, a Genoa native in his early 30s. He sang with power, yes, but also with control and some beauty. His hand gestures tended to the parodic, but he can work on those.
In the baritone role, Giacomo, was one of the great tenors of our time: Plácido Domingo. Once upon a time, he was Carlo, and he recorded that role, too. But these days, he is singing baritone roles though he still sounds like a tenor who’s using his middle voice. When he sang a high F from Carlo, for example, he sounded like he could go miles above it.
And, throughout the opera, he sounded magnificent. Giacomo calls himself an “old man”; Carlo calls him a “bold old man.” Domingo is one, yes. How old is he, exactly? Seventy-two, according to official records. In reality, he may be older. For at least 15 years now, I’ve called him “the ageless Spaniard,” and I see no need to stop now. On the Salzburg stage, he was virile, magnetic, overwhelming. The longer the evening became, the stronger he got. He seemed to draw energy from his exertions.
From all of these performers, Giovanna d’Arco was, indeed, hair-raising. It was opera in the raw, Italian blood and guts, sheer testosterone (and whatever the female equivalent is). A Schubert string quartet, it was not. But everything has its place.
Benjamin Britten, the centennial man, was represented primarily by his War Requiem a masterpiece, by almost anyone’s reckoning. Britten wrote it for the consecration of a new Coventry Cathedral in 1962. (The prior cathedral was destroyed in the war.) The War Requiem mixes traditional Latin texts and poems of Wilfred Owen, the “war poet” (meaning, World War I poet).
Britten was a pacifist, and a proud one. In World War II, he was given a complete exemption from service by the British government an exemption given to only a handful. Britten refused even to play the piano for the troops, holding that such an activity would feed the war machine. He said to the relevant authorities, “The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction.” Because others would, Britten went on to have his glorious career in the land of his birth.
He scored the requiem for massive forces: soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists; chorus and boys’ choir; organ; and two orchestras a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra. The specific soloists he had in mind were a Russian, Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich), an Englishman, the tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s lifelong partner), and a German, the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Salzburg, too, had a Russian soprano: Netrebko. And an English tenor: Ian Bostridge. Not a German baritone, however, but an American one: Thomas Hampson.
The conductor was Antonio Pappano, whose nationality is multiple. He’s an Englishman indeed, he’s Sir Antonio now. He’s Italian, thanks to his parentage. And he’s American, thanks to some formative years on our shores. He is also one of the best conductors in the world, the music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and of the Santa Cecilia orchestra in Rome. It was that orchestra that played in Salzburg, along with the Santa Cecilia chorus, plus a Salzburg boys’ choir.
Pappano conducted consummately: with efficiency, understanding, and musical instinct. He gave a lesson in musicianship. He allowed no fussiness and Britten, more than most composers, is killed by fussiness. And he allowed no sentimentalism. The music-making was pure, while scanting no emotion.
Netrebko was scalding and imperious, rather like her predecessor, Vishnevskaya (than whom no one has ever been more scalding and imperious). Alternatively, she was plaintive, according to the music’s shifts and demands. Bostridge sang with his usual thoughtfulness and skill. He seemed an authentic, timeless voice of England. Hampson, too, did justice to his part, contributing, among other things, beauty of sound. It is possible not to like the War Requiem, or not to be wild about it. But it would be hard to imagine a better performance. If there is such a thing as secular prayer, or prayerfulness, these forces, along with Britten, achieved it.
I began this report by knocking “anniversaryitis” (to use an old coinage of mine): the habit of organizing music around anniversaries. There are worse organizing principles, however. And the Salzburg Festival has put on a very good show.