Saturday night Lyric opened its 54th season at the Civic Opera House with a Manon that smells and sounds like Manon.
A charismatic pair of singing actors in the lead roles and the local debut of David McVicar's well-traveled production, along with the quarter-century wait for the work's return, had generated keen interest since the season was announced last year.
The result is much more than just a celebrity-driven entertainment. With a gifted and deeply knowledgeable young French conductor in the pit and singers much more concerned with advancing their characters than their individual profiles, Lyric's new Manon is musically complete, dramatically involving, and a truly moving evening in the theatre.
French soprano Natalie Dessay stole local hearts -- and the show -- when she debuted here as Renée Fleming's sister Morgana in Handel's Alcina in the 1999-2000 season. As in that production and her Lucia four years later, she is actress first here and takes great but usually successful risks with her vocal interpretations to serve her part. In this story of the young girl who escapes a future in a convent to become a partying courtesan, we have no doubt that Dessay's Manon is much more than the kept woman with a heart of gold.
German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (left) takes a similar approach. He pours himself into the role of the torn and romantic young Chevalier des Grieux -- a sort of Romeo with self-doubt -- and along the way, with a remarkable command of French language and musical idiom, delivers immensely stirring performances of two of the greatest tenor arias in the French repertoire. Both Dessay and Kaufmann -- physically well-matched as well -- dig deep to bring us singing that arises from the situation rather than stand-and-deliver posturing aimed at the rafters.
Much credit goes to conductor Emmanuel Villaume (left), 44, the Strasbourg-born music director of the Spoleto USA festival. Taking the score with a remarkable level of seriousness, he plays it as music and not mere accompaniment or decoration. We hear immediately why Puccini was so enamored with his French predecessor and his gifts for theatricality and orchestration. The enviably malleable Lyric Opera Orchestra and its fine concertmaster, Robert Hanford, gave Villaume everything he wanted, even in the quietest passages.
As his Giulio Cesare, Trovatore, and Billy Budd have demonstrated here, McVicar is the go-to stage director for animated rethinking of works of the past. Although this production was created for the English National Opera in 1998, it is still fresh and effective, filling in the strong sense of social criticism and mockery that Massenet stripped from the Abbé Prévost's original 1731 story.
A cast featuring seven members of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center is highlighted by Ryan alum baritone Christopher Feigum's Lescaut, cousin and would-be protector of Manon. American baritone Jake Gardner is an assured de Brétigny, and Lyric's stalwart character tenor David Cangelosi dramatically unveils Guillot as much more sinister than a buffoonish lecher. Former Joffrey dancer Peter Kozak leads the third act ballet, itself a satire by Massenet on French convention.
[N.B. -- I erred in the print edition and typed the name of another fine former Joffrey dancer, Michael Levine, who is the alternate to Peter Kozak -- apologies to them both! -- aP]
As would be expected, Zachary Lewis's first review of the Cleveland Orchestra as classical music critic of the the Cleveland Plain Dealer -- Thursday night's season opener at Severance Hall -- is thoughtful and scrupulously fair.
There's a certain calm after the storm -- and before the next disturbance? -- in Cleveland today.
1 -- In addition to those fine critics and music writers we've linked to previously, Russell Platt of The New Yorker (scroll down), the distinguished author and scholar Harvey Sachs, and Janelle Gelfand of the Cincinnati Enquirer have all now posted pieces. Baltimore's Tim Smith, who first sounded the alarm, has offered a follow-up. Former Chicago critic (and now Chicago record producer) Marc Geelhoed has offered his perspective. [Note: Marc's site resembles mine, or rather mine resembles his -- but we are NOT the same person! ;-) ]
• By Mr. Rosenberg’s account he met with [Plain Dealer editor Susan] Goldberg, who has been editor of the paper for a little over a year, on Sept. 17. “She called me in and said they were making a change, and I would no longer be covering the Cleveland Orchestra,” Mr. Rosenberg recounted.
She told him that the “situation had become untenable for the newspaper,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “She said my reviews were unfair, and I was attacking the orchestra.” Ms. Goldberg also said that she wanted broader coverage of the orchestra, he added. “I don’t know what that means. In the 16 years I’ve been here I’ve written every kind of story imaginable.”
• Mr. Rosenberg said that after Ms. Goldberg took over as editor, letters criticizing his views on Mr. Welser-Möst continued to come in, and that orchestra executives including the executive director, Gary Hanson, expressed concern about the coverage — “which means me,” Mr. Rosenberg added.
• “He’s a highly competent conductor who is most proficient in opera and choral works,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “In the purely orchestral repertoire he’s extremely erratic and often vague in interpretive terms. I think this is a case of an extraordinary orchestra with an ordinary conductor.”
3 -- Gary Hanson (left), executive director of The Cleveland Orchestra, has caused the following statement to be posted on a number of websites (for whatever reason, it was not sent to me) -- It bears careful reading:
In recent days, the music writers’ blogsphere [sic] has been rife with assumptions and even accusations that the management of The Cleveland Orchestra engineered personnel changes at Cleveland’s daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer. These accusations are false.
I want to set the record straight: I was completely surprised by the news last week that Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg has been re-assigned and will no longer cover The Cleveland Orchestra for the newspaper.
A half dozen critics have called or emailed me this week asking if I met with the newspaper’s editors to lodge complaints. The answer is I have never met with them to protest Donald Rosenberg’s opinions. In the normal course of business during my tenure with the Orchestra, I have spoken with every editor, past and present, about the newspaper's coverage. In those meetings I have delivered compliments and concerns about their news and feature coverage as well as their editorial positions and decisions. But in every case I have also said, very explicitly, that the Orchestra’s management understands and respects the paper's and the critic’s role in expressing opinion about our artistic activities. And whether or not we agree with the opinion we fully accept and support their right and responsibility to publish it.
Donald Rosenberg has written about The Cleveland Orchestra for decades. I worked directly with him for many years, especially during my early tenure here as Director of Public Relations. In that role, I opened the Orchestra archives to him for research on his comprehensive history of the Orchestra “Second to None.” I very much enjoyed the productive and professional relationship we’ve shared. I appreciate and admire a great deal of his work on the subject of the Orchestra and I am grateful for his dedication to regular and comprehensive classical music coverage. Over the years we have agreed and we have disagreed. All the same I will miss working with him.
Some posters to Tim Smith's page have parsed this statement.
4 -- Retired supermarket mogul Richard Bogomolny (left), chairman of the Musical Arts Association, parent of the Cleveland Orchestra, (and before that its longtime president and CEO) posted the following on Tim Smith's site:
To those who practice the fine art of “ready, fire, aim”, it might be useful for you
to contact us before making accusations. For the record:
No one from the management and board leadership of the Cleveland
Orchestra has ever asked the Plain Dealer management to remove Don
Rosenberg as critic of The Cleveland Orchestra. Many of us, me
included, have had our differences with Mr. Rosenberg's views and the
choices he makes in expressing them, but we have never challenged his
right to say whatever he wants. More importantly, we are not a party
to internal decisions made at the Plain Dealer or within any other
newspaper. We had neither notice of the change nor participation in it.
We have hundreds of reviews from all over the world to inform our
audiences as to critical opinions. Don Rosenberg is one voice out of a
great many critics, all with significant credentials.
Most important, we have complete faith in our audiences, both at
Severance Hall, and in the music capitals abroad, to judge the merits of what is
communicated by The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst from the stage. It is
their vote that counts, whether in Cleveland or in Salzburg, for example. They are
completely able to place critics’ views in perspective and form their own opinions
of both the performances and the reviews.
End of Story.
Richard Bogomolny, Chairman
Musical Arts Association and
The Cleveland Orchestra
5 -- Susan Goldberg (left), editor of the Plain Dealer, has told subscribers to her newspaper who have contacted her that this is "an internal personnel matter" and that the paper will have no further comment. She used the same words in talking with The New York Times.
Last year we were able to bring our friend, colleague, classical weblog pioneer and maestro (www.therestisnoise.com), and hopelessly talented 39-year-old New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross (now 40) to Chicago to talk about his then-new book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (FSG, 2007; Picador paperback edition on its way, left). He did two programs in Chicago -- with students and faculty members of the Department of Music at The University of Chicago and for a general audience (with me this time) at The Art Institute of Chicago. And he's coming back November 1st for the Chicago Humanities Festival.
A lengthy post on, inter alia,
What a surprise!
Don Rosenberg's reviews of Franz's concerts going way back when he was a
guest conductor have been generally negative, and, since FW-M has become
music director, contrary to many other reviewers in the U.S. and Europe.
Don is a very astute, knowledgeable, and intelligent critic, as well as
being a really nice guy, but he did seem to have this one blind spot. And
within the past few years, his reviews have become the story rather than
Franz, so much so that they didn't seem to have much impact on attendance
Previously, Don had been sent on the European tours with the Orchestra, but
he did not go on the Salzburg/Lucerne trip this past August, a tour which
resulted in a landslide of very effusive reviews from the European press
. . . including several accounts which compared the Vienna Philharmonic
unfavorably with Cleveland. Oddly, there wasn't a word in the Cleveland
Plain Dealer until late in the tour; then they printed a short summary of
some of the reviews.
[Note: Don did provide daily and accurate summaries and translations of the overseas reviews of the tour on the CPD website -- Why these were not in the paper I do not know -- aP]
Now his not going on the tour probably stemmed from
the overall financial downsizing of the PD, due to the problems all
newspapers are facing these days.
Given that usually I personally have not agreed with much of Don's
Orchestra criticism, and while his other reviews are mostly spot-on, I am
still uncomfortable with this violation of press freedom.
I know that the PD did receive at least one visit from Orchestra management and many letters from concert goers. Perhaps, the paper has bowed to the pressure. On the other hand, the paper may have seen that the positive reaction of the European press was at great odds with Don's views, and this called into question his opinions.
This is somewhat like if the late Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy
had been fired because of her vitriolic reviews of Chicago Symphony
performances, especially those of Rafael Kubelik, whom she ran out of town.
She would have never been fired because then journalists had more prestige
and power than now.
President:WCLV and Cleveland Orchestra Broadcast Service
Host: Weekend Radio
Here is my Monday, September 22, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times review of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "opening night gala" concert of Saturday night September 20, 2008.
As the CSO jubilates, Lang Lang stays calm
REVIEW | Pianist tones down his style at opening gala
BY ANDREW PATNER
They are walking on air these days at Orchestra Hall.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's recently completed Europe tour was an audience and critical smash. The CSO's first tour to mainland China (with stops as well in Hong Kong and Japan) beckons in January and February. The orchestra is back on the radio, CD sales on the orchestra's house label are exceeding expectations and Web downloads -- both audio and video -- are off the charts.
Principal conductor Bernard Haitink has put a rosy glow on players' faces, and future music director Riccardo Muti already sends text messages to Chicago from what the Italians call a cellulare. As CSO President Deborah F. Rutter put it at the post-concert dinner-dance Saturday night, "What's not to be blissfully happy about?"
Even the opening-night-gala concert program Saturday night, usually pops-oriented, had more substance than glitz and included two top-of-the-line performances and one that was at least captivating.
Friday night's first subscription program found guest conductor Charles Dutoit in Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony a bit away from his core repertoire. But Saturday night, the globe-trotting Swiss was absolutely in his element. Dutoit knows how to crank out the overtures and brief pieces that are too infrequent these days on major orchestral menus. His sharp and defined take on Sibelius' great 1899-1900 national tone-poem Finlandia, Op. 26, was stirring, even thought-provoking following the season-opening thrills of a CSO "Star-Spangled Banner."
Before Dutoit would really shine in the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Picture at an Exhibition, he and the orchestra accompanied jet-setting pianist Lang Lang, making a stopover between his Pittsburgh Symphony opening night concert Friday and the beginning of his weeklong Toronto Symphony residency starting Sunday. This was the mostly tamed edition of the young Chinese superstar, as coached in recent years by former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim.
His performance of the 1830 F minor Chopin piano concerto, Op. 21 (published as No. 2 but actually the composer's first work in the genre), was sensitive and delicate, especially in the poetic Larghetto slow movement. Histrionics were banished -- and perhaps a waiting plane ruled out any encores. But we still had too much technique and not enough differentiation between passage work and actual themes. David McGill was the sensitive bassoon soloist.
There was not much Mussorgsky in Dutoit's Pictures. His interpretation is all about Maurice Ravel's remarkable and very French 1922 orchestral transformation of the 1874 Russian piano work. But what an interpretation, and what results! As many times as one has heard this showpiece, Dutoit still offered new details and an absolute control of balances and tonal color that allowed listeners to hear the piece as almost completely new. And Christopher Martin's trumpet promenade solos were heart and soul in the great CSO brass tradition.