Divine Divas

In 1950, when 20-year-old Roberta Peters charmed everyone at her Metropolitan Opera debut as Zerlina in Don Giovanni, the opera world was a different place. For one thing, in those days the Met actually was a company, in the familial as well as corporate sense. Peters was the youngest and last member of a generation of American singers who could legitimately call that house a home, remaining there for 34 seasons. She was also one of the last light coloraturas to carry on the decorative vocal traditions of Amelita Galli-Curci and Lily Pons, a style in which technical perfection and éclat took precedence over emotional weight and expressive depth. It was an art that had its limitations, but Peters has practiced it with honor and critical success during a long career, and in the face of formidable competition. In 1950 few had heard of Maria Callas, then a young singer making a stir in Italy, while Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, and Beverly Sills were totally unknown, divas who would soon change everyone’s idea of how the classic lyric-coloratura repertory should be sung.

How ironic that they are now either retired or figures of dusty legend while Peters, who shared many roles with them even if she never achieved comparable fame, carries on, sounding much as she always has. She recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her Met debut with a recital at Alice Tully Hall, making few concessions to age. “Pert Bert,” as she was affectionately called by Met standees in the fifties and sixties, never saw any reason to alter her approach to accommodate shifting tastes in vocal styles, and once again she delivered the goods on her own terms.

The reasons for her survival are not difficult to fathom: a naturally placed, brightly textured, unblemished high soprano; rigorous training from early youth; a disciplined lifestyle; and a fierce ambition that was always kept under control – Peters never pushed her voice in directions it didn’t want to go. The good musical habits paid off best in the Italian soubrette repertory, although she was also a stunning Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, a part where her pinpoint coloratura accuracy and tonal clarity earned big dividends. She has always looked terrific, too.

During this anniversary recital, there were a few tense moments in Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock” and Norina’s aria from Don Pasquale when the voice began to tire and unravel (an indisposition was announced). But Peters returned after intermission (in a different gown – ah, those were the days), sailed easily over the high C’s of Magda’s aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, and discovered much musical beauty in her Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninoff selections. A model of discretion and assistance, Warren Jones was the perfect colleague at the piano, adding his own attractive baritone to Peters’s perky rendition of a ragtime encore. An evening mainly for nostalgists perhaps, but also a salutary memento of an engaging singer and a hardy survivor.

Sometimes even the most powerful musical works, especially those written for the stage, can seem hopelessly feeble when ineffectively presented. Perhaps Mauricio Kagel’s Kidnapping in the Concert Hall is one of these unfortunate victims. The piece certainly failed to come off in Carnegie Hall, its second performance since the premiere in Amsterdam on November 7 with the same musicians: tenor Christoph Homberger, the Schoenberg Ensemble, and the Netherlands Chamber Choir conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw. Kagel sets up a whimsical situation where the conductor of a new work by a major composer arrives onstage to find most of the orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists missing – kidnapped, actually, and being held hostage in a rehearsal room. For the next hour, the conductor struggles to perform the score as best he can while the kidnapper communicates threats over the house telephone and one soloist – the tenor, who has managed to escape – wanders about offering mystical commentary on the predicament, which remains unresolved as the piece peters out.

It’s difficult to know exactly what Kagel wants us to take away from this surreal extravaganza. That all musical performance is ephemeral? Musicians are terribly vulnerable? Terrorism is bad for art? In any case, the watery music has little expressive urgency and even less theatrical impact compared to such earlier fun pieces as Prince Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig van, or Staatstheater. Perhaps it’s time for Kagel to move on and give the whole genre a rest. Kidnapping in the Concert Hall seems distinctly vieux jeu.

ten years ago, Cheryl Studer had the opera world at her feet, performing and recording everything from Rossini and Verdi to Wagner and Strauss; her recording of Salome is perhaps the most sheerly gorgeous account of this music on disc. But soon Studer came to the Met, where she proved a disappointment, performing mostly Italian roles in which she seemed distracted and unfocused. After a 1996 performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in Carnegie Hall that skirted vocal disaster, she returned to Europe and one began hearing even worse tales of woe.

Now a rehabilitated Studer is back at the Met, as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and the news is good. Despite some strain at the top, her soprano has regained much of its lustrous sheen and clarity, and she is singing the sort of role that best suits her temperament and musical instincts. I doubt if a native-speaking German could extract more nuance from the text or enunciate it with such point, while the aching phrases that end her affair with young Octavian are exquisitely shaped. Studer also moves easily and naturally over the stage, a gracious lady of the court who still lets us know just how deeply the private pain cuts. Let’s hope that this absorbing performance is only a taste of better things to come.

Divine Divas