One lifetime hardly seems enough to appreciate the full range of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890–1959), a cosmopolitan, prolific, and versatile creator in almost every musical form imaginable. His opera output alone is a dizzying assortment of works in several languages and many styles, from the impressionistic surrealism of Julietta to the epic sprawl of The Greek Passion. Since the Metropolitan and City Opera have paid scant attention to Martinu, it was up to the ever-resourceful Manhattan School of Music to present the American premiere of Mirandolina, an opera buffa written in 1954 to an Italian text based on Goldoni’s play La Locandiera.
Would anyone ever guess that the composer of this opera was not a native Italian? I doubt it. The music bubbles and sings without a trace of a foreign accent as the innkeeper Mirandolina bedazzles and outwits all her male guests until she lands the man of her choosing. Like all musical chameleons, Martinu can sound a tad anonymous at times, but the sheer energy and sunny warmth of his score are irresistible. I also doubt that anyone would have guessed that this crisply professional production was performed by students, despite a miscalculation here and there. Elaine Alvarez in the title role may have suggested a determined dominatrix more than a lady of magnetic charm, but her attractively nuanced vocalization of the music left little room for improvement, and her suitors were impeccably characterized. The sets (David Newell), staging (Sam Helfrich), and music direction (David Gilbert) were all in tune with the antic spirit of the piece, which surely sent everyone out of the theater in the best of moods.
It was, in fact, a very good week for Czech opera, with Dvorák’s Rusalka returning to the Metropolitan’s repertory for three end-of-season performances. The production is still gorgeous to behold, Romantic realism at its freshest, most creatively detailed, and evocatively poetic. It scarcely seems possible that the team responsible for this beauty—director Otto Schenk and designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen—also gave us the current Met Ring cycle. But their Rusalka production was originally conceived many years ago (I first saw it in Munich in 1981), long before their style atrophied and degenerated into the sort of deplorable kitsch that characterized their later Wagner productions at the Met.
The setting for the forest glade that frames the opera is especially ravishing. A painstaking representation of every leaf, branch, thicket, and tree in the enchanted forest that surrounds the silvery, rippling surface of Rusalka’s watery lair, the scene is a place of magic at all times of day, in twilight and full moonlight and at misty dawn. Schenk’s stage direction, now re-created by Laurie Feldman, never rushes an opera that requires patience and breadth, concentrating on the fluid transitions between human beings in conflict and nature in repose with a steady, rhythmic pulse. The effect is positively hypnotic.
“The music bubbles without a trace of a foreign accent, as Mirandolina outwits her male guests.”
Renée Fleming was a lovely Rusalka at the last revival, and she continues to bring a luscious, first-class voice to the music, and is still stunning to behold. If only she could cleanse her vocal style of all the note-squeezing, pitch-bending, and pop crooning that have crept into her singing in recent years. At least Fleming toned down her irritating mannerisms somewhat for this latest outing in the role, but not enough to keep me from praying to hear this exceptional voice utter just one cleanly sculptured, honestly felt musical phrase. Otherwise, all was well. Dolora Zajick once again stole the show with her hilarious Mammy Yokum impersonation as the witch Jezibaba, but Oleg Kulko (the Prince), Willard White (the Water-Gnome), and Eva Urbanová (the Foreign Princess) were just as treasurable, thanks in large part to conductor Andrew Davis’s patient and affectionate shaping of the score.
Perhaps it was my imagination, but someone must have pressed Yo-Yo Ma’s personality button extra hard just before the cameras began to roll at Alice Tully Hall, midway through the cellist’s recent concert with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Since only an hour of airtime was available for this Live From Lincoln Center telecast, the first half of Ma’s Haydn-Vivaldi-Handel program never reached home viewers, which may explain why the ever-ebullient musician began the evening in a positively restrained mood compared with the neon-lit show he put on after intermission.
Far be it from me to suggest that Ma’s patented concert manner—the cello treated as love object, frequent soulful glances heavenward, broad smiles bestowed on every musician in sight, much post-performance kissy-face—is anything but a sincerely felt expression of delight at making music with congenial colleagues. Still, it seemed to go way over the top on this occasion, especially since Ma didn’t appear to be playing at his considerable best. One reason for that could be the fact that Ma wants the best of both worlds when he addresses early music. After giving his Stradivarius cello a makeover with touches of period-instrument authenticity such as gut strings, no endpin, relative tuning, and a Baroque bow, Ma may well be still getting used to the adjustments, which could account for the occasional finger slips, wailing shifts, and general lack of poise.
In any case, Ma had a kindred spirit on the podium and at the harpsichord: Ton Koopman, a hyper-early-music specialist who attacks his fragile instrument with more muscular vehemence than Horowitz used to summon up when laying into a concert grand piano. The Haydn symphony, excerpts from Handel’s Water Music, and the accompaniments to concertos by Vivaldi and Haydn definitely had an invigorating edge, but they were also wildly oversold. The whole affair was not exactly the best advertisement for the new Sony CD Ma and Koopman hoped to promote with this live event, an all-Vivaldi disc that includes authentic works as well as the conductor’s arrangements of scores originally intended for violin, voice, and viola d’amore. I’m glad to report that the performances on the disc are far more contained, thoughtful, and orderly than those heard during this rather disheveled concert, and with no loss of musical flair.