Not One False Note

High on my list of musical phenomena I thought I’d never see is the current craze for countertenors. But here they are: David Daniels, Andreas Scholl, Brian Asawa, Daniel Taylor, David Walker, Bejun Mehta – the list goes on. All are in their thirties or younger, appearing in operas and on recordings the world over, adored by vocal connoisseurs who a generation ago would have only worshiped at the altars of Callas and Tebaldi. In my youth, the high-pitched, distinctly feminine sound of falsettists, as countertenors were once incorrectly called, seemed exotic if not weird, and they often made audiences feel uncomfortable. Back in the sixties, I once heard titters greet the legendary Alfred Deller, who, some unkind souls whispered, sported a prominent black mustache just to prove that he really was a man.

Now ears have adjusted, no one is laughing, and audiences can’t seem to hear enough of these vocal paragons. Expectations ran especially high not long ago when the popular German countertenor Andreas Scholl was scheduled to make his New York recital debut at the Frick Collection. The tickets were gone in a second, and when Scholl canceled at the last moment because of back problems, the folks at the Frick wasted no time in replacing him with Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor – not, perhaps, a singer with so starry a name as Scholl’s, but I saw no empty seats. Taylor, after all, has sung opera at the Met and Glyndebourne, appeared widely with early- and contemporary-music ensembles, and has a legion of recordings to his credit.

Today’s countertenors hardly restrict themselves to “old music” when they give recitals, but Taylor’s program with lutenist Sylvain Bergeron was devoted to English lute songs and folk ballads by Dowland, Campion, Jones, and the ubiquitous Anonymous. No problem; this is music of infinite charm and variety, and the audience hung on every note. The first and last selections were sung unaccompanied, as if to demonstrate, without instrumental distractions, a voice of unblemished tonal purity, precise intonation, and subtle command of vocal coloration. Having set the parameters, Taylor then sang songs that ran a gamut of emotions, from playful lovemaking to utter despair. All his expressive gestures sounded easy, natural, and effective, as they would from any singer who is comfortable with his voice and in complete command of what it can do. How wonderful to welcome countertenors into this elite vocal pantheon, and especially Taylor, who is definitely among the very best.

When first seen in 1975, the City Opera’s production of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) seemed like cutting-edge stuff, a multimedia affair in which films, slides, smoke, and even a mirror or two replaced conventional sets. Director Frank Corsaro and film animator Ronald Chase pioneered this approach and made imaginative theatrical capital from it for a while, but the technique never really caught on with others. If it still suits this hallucinatory opera, a Freudian tale about a widower with an unhealthy obsession for a dancer who looks exactly like his dead wife, perhaps that’s because the cinematic plot strongly resembles Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And not so coincidentally, Korngold – only 24 in 1920 when he wrote this heady post-Wagnerian blend of Strauss, Puccini, and Lehár – went on to compose some of Hollywood’s most extravagant film scores of the thirties and forties.

The recent revival was a strong one, thanks to the most effective cast the City Opera has yet fielded for this tricky piece. Of course, Korngold asks for the impossible. Paul, the husband, should be a sweet-toned but tireless tenor with a strong top and ample reserves of declamatory power, while Marietta/Marie must be a drop-dead-gorgeous creature with a luscious, soaring soprano and no inhibitions about burning up the stage with her seductive dances. John Horton Murray and Lauren Flanigan may not be ideal in terms of vocal allure, and both took an act to warm up, but they had the basics well in hand and tore into their parts with gleeful conviction; Flanigan was especially nuanced and resourceful in a role that suits her to the ground. Mel Ulrich’s honeyed baritone relished Pierrot’s delicious Act II serenade, and City Opera orchestra, vastly improved this season, played the complex score with flashes of real virtuosity under George Manahan’s direction.

For no special reason that I can think of, Czech music takes over Lincoln Center between now and early June, a thirteen-part series of musical and theatrical events, films, and a symposium. Perhaps the spring weather has inspired the occasion. Few composers captured the vernal freshness of their native countryside more eloquently than that great triumvirate of Smetana, Dvorák, and Janácek, and the optimistic, life-enhancing qualities of their music seem particularly welcome at this time of year. Two tempting highlights of this mini-festival include the London Symphony Orchestra led by Sir Colin Davis, which presents four orchestral and choral concerts this week at Avery Fisher Hall, and, on May 31 and June 1 and 2, Deborah Warner’s staging of Janácek’s haunting song cycle Diary of One Who Vanished, with tenor Ian Bostridge.

It fell to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to set the tone with a nourishing program that went back as far as Jan Dismas Zelenka (a trio sonata composed around 1715) and forward to Bohuslav Martinu (Madrigals for Violin and Viola from 1947). In between came Dvorák’s D-minor Serenade (1878) and Janácek’s Piano Concertino (1925). Aside from its stimulating stylistic variety, this thoughtfully chosen, expertly played concert gave more than a few hints of what makes Czech music unique – even Zelenka, a composer admired by Bach, departs from Baroque conventions with his unusual metric groupings and asymmetrical rhythms. Of course, that quality is even more pronounced in the familiar scores by Janácek and Dvorák, who in very different ways consciously accented their voices to reflect the musical traditions of their homeland. Such unself-conscious nationalism has long gone out of style – a pity, considering the rich legacy left by these composers.

Daniel Taylor, Countertenor
Recital at the Frick Collection.
Die tote Stadt
City Opera presentation of the Korngold opera.
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
All-Czech program, at Alice Tully Hall.

Not One False Note