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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Concert Review: Call Her Madeleine

Renée Fleming returns to Strauss at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She's not done yet: soprano Renée Fleming. Photo by Andrew Eccles.
The soprano Renée Fleming remains a legitimate superstar. So it caused particular turmoil in the operatic world last year when she announced that the performances as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss' opera Der Rosenkavalier would be her that role. Last night at Carnegie Hall, Ms. Fleming returned to Strauss as another heroine, the Countess Madeleine in the composer's final opera, Capriccio.

This was the first of two New York concerts this week by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The entire first half was devoted to three excerpts from Capriccio. It started with the string sextet that raises the curtain on this unique opera, labeled a "conversation piece for music" by the composer. Capriccio is an opera about the nature of opera itself, a long conversation between a composer, a poet (both in love with the Countess) and the members of a company plannng to put on a new opera. Characters include an impresario, an actress, two Italian singers and even a prompter.

The presence of current BSO music director Andriss Nelsons seemed superfluous in the opening Sextet. Starting with a sweet downward phrase and shifting through a complex series of moods, this music represents Flamand, the composer who is one of Madeleine’s suitors. It turns mercurial and stormy, with the deeper voices of violas and cellos growling under keening violins before settling back into its original theme. After a short pause (the Sextet is played in the orchestra pit in performance and then taken over by a second ensemble on the stage after the curtain rises) Mr. Nelson’s led his small crew through that last bit to a harmonic close.

The full orchestra trundled onstage, with Ms. Fleming for the Moonlight Music. This short intermezzo was led by the sonorous voice of the principal horn, before the entire carpet of Strauss orchestration unrolled with all of its gleaming threads.  While this piece incorporates some of the themes from the opening sextet, the juxtaposition of the two works was a bit jarring without the fabric of the whole opera to support the transition. The soprano stood silent, waiting for her entrance which was, oddly a little further along in the opera than this listener expected.

Madeleine's great monologue is the last piece of vocal music that Strauss wrote for the operatic stage. It serves as kind of a summing up of the vast breadth and length of Strauss’ career, and Ms. Fleming’s choice of this music may have been quite deliberate. Madeleine is reflective on her situation, conducting the opera’s debate of words versus music with herself. She sings the piece "created" during the opera by the team of Flamand and Olivier, but her final decision is appropriately a question mark. In the world of opera, words and music are necessary in equal proportion, and the message of Capriccio is that neither claims victory over the other.

She chose to follow with an encore in honor of her friend and collaborator André Previn. This was the penultimate aria from Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Ms. Fleming played Blanche DuBois. The music was heartfelt, lushly orchestrated supporting Ms. Fleming's voice. While the intent of this performance was noble, Previn's music seemed pallid after the saccharine glories of the Strauss score.

The second half of,the concert was devoted to Also Sprach Zarathustra, the Strauss tone poem that stands (thanks to the  movie 2001: A Space Odyssey) as his best known instrumental work. Here, the opening "Dawn" music was played with sonorous tone and earth-shaking power. What followed was a series of dance movements that went from lumbering to elegant. Finally the Dawn theme thundered forth to a giant cadence. The climax was the Midnight Song of Zarathustra a shattering cascade of notes marked by the tolling of a heavy bell in the percussion section. This led to a short and puzzling coda, an argument between two unresolvable keys, quietly carried out between the woodwinds and double basses.

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