Good Grief

Ode to joy: Claudio Abbado conducts the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

There were no complaints when the Berlin Philharmonic decided at the last minute to feature four Beethoven symphonies on the three programs that opened Carnegie Hall’s 111th season instead of the scheduled music by Wagner, Mahler, and Webern. Few composers have more to say to audiences in times of conflict, stress, and sorrow than Beethoven, and there were palpable signs that his music was weaving its familiar spell at the first concert, which included the Egmont Overture and Eroica Symphony. And there was much to contemplate: not only last month’s tragic events but also the recent loss of Isaac Stern, whose name became virtually synonymous with Carnegie Hall ever since he launched the drive that saved the building from demolition in 1960.

There were also concerns about Claudio Abbado, now in his farewell season as artistic director and principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and recovering from a serious bout of stomach cancer. Fortunately, all appears to be well on that score. Looking gaunt but vigorous, Abbado presided over his own patented brand of Beethoven, one that has lost none of its distinguishing traits: crystalline in texture, athletically fleet, and stylishly phrased. Nothing could be further from the sleekly groomed, minutely calibrated, but always German-rooted interpretations of his Berlin predecessor, Herbert von Karajan. Yet even those who find Abbado’s internationalized brand of Beethoven rather impersonal and lacking in character would have to admit that the orchestra’s commitment to its maestro’s approach was complete and fervently played.

Although Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was sidelined, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff sang five of the composer’s songs, which took on an extra measure of poignancy in this context. Seldom has the bittersweet resignation of “Ich Bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen” (I Am Lost to the World) hovered more quietly in the air or quivered with such otherworldly beauty. Quasthoff is one of today’s most eloquent singers of German song, and his inward-looking artistry was especially welcome on this emotion-laden occasion.

Mozart’s Idomeneo has become a repertory piece at the Met since it first arrived in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s grandly scaled production nineteen years ago, typical of that late director’s penchant for relocating operatic subjects dealing with Greek and Roman antiquity in the period in which they were composed. I still fail to grasp how the sight of ancient Cretans dressed as bewigged eighteenth-century courtiers brings us closer to Mozart’s noble opera seria, but never mind. At least the singers have never seemed bothered by the conceit, and the cast of the present revival is in most respects a strong one.

The title role is another wise choice for Plácido Domingo in this autumnal stage of his singing career. As a sorely beset Idomeneo cautiously adjudicating political and personal problems, the tenor almost seems to be rehearsing for the future as he gradually transforms himself into a discreet operatic administrator. After paring away the role’s tougher vocal challenges (the longer version of “Fuor Del Mar” and the extended final aria), Domingo handles what’s left with his customary good musical taste and shrewd vocal legerdemain. The best singing, however, comes from Susan Graham, whose passionate involvement with Idamante’s predicament is as convincing as her stunning technical command of the notes. Dawn Upshaw’s light soprano is sounding rather thin these days, and Ilia ideally requires a richer sound, while Carol Vaness, an over-the-top Elettra even if the audience loved every campy moment, tends to turn squally when the going gets tough. These are only minor distractions, though, more than smoothed over by James Levine as he conducts an opera that he clearly adores.

Berlin Philharmonic
Conducted by Claudio Abbado at Carnegie Hall.
The opera by Mozart, conducted by James Levine
at the Metropolitan Opera.

Good Grief