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Lots of great singing outside the opera house

For die-hard opera fans, “Charpentier” means Gustave, whose 1900 “Louise” was the “Amélie” of its day––a hymn to Parisian love, last seen hereabouts in City Opera stagings featuring Arlene Saunders and Beverly Sills.

Is Emily Pulley ripe for another?

These days, “Charpentier” usually means Marc-Antoine, the 17th century baroque composer all but forced into obscurity by the machinations of the most evil Jean Baptiste Lully, one of the most evil queens in music history. (Search for pleasant recollections of Lully as a person alongside those of Jerome Robbins.) The ex-pat early music star William Christie, no stranger to musical wars himself, has done much to re-establish Charpentier’s status even in France.

On February 5, Christie brought two of the composer’s operas to Alice Tully: “Les Arts Florissants,” after which Christie’s utterly accomplished forces take their name, and “La descente d’Orphée aux enfers.” I must confess that, despite the excellence of the music-making and casual/elegant cleverness of the semi-staging, I found “Les Arts Florissants,”––a worshipful paean to Lous XIV––a little hard to digest philosophically. “La descente d’Orphée aux enfers” made quite a deep impression––one of the most compressed and moving versions of the quintessentially operatic Orpheus legends I’ve ever experienced.

Much credit goes to the affecting hero of Britsh tenor Paul Agnew, who through pinpoint control of dynamic shading achieves ravishing effects from an essentially unravishing instrument. All of Christie’s singers were in fact very good, standouts being the dignified soprano Sophie Daneman, the lovely bright voice and presence of Sunhae Im, and the very fetching young high tenor Cyril Auvity. Christie’s visits here are always highly welcome.

Meanwhile, the Philharmonic presented Haydn’s stirring “Die Schöpfung” (“The Creation”). The orchestral writing is full of delights and what must have been shocks in 1798––the huge C major chord blasting out at the choral proclamation, “Let there be light” retains its status as one of music’s all-time sonic coups. Plus many of the arias, choruses, and ensembles are lovely. The Philharmonic rounded up a terrific trio of vocal soloists for the five roles: three Archangels, plus Adam and Eve (the baritone and soprano can do double duty). Heard February 6, Bruce Ford and Thomas Quasthoff were pretty much ideal in their difficult assignments. The Texan tenor may not have an especially personal timbre, but it’s a fine, clear timbre nontheless, and he is musically and technically its complete master. Ford receives his full due in Britain, but for some reason not here. More Ford, please.

Quasthoff was quite astoundingly good, with that (seemingly) effortless projection and focus so rare in today’s singing and excellent tone, phrasing and declamation. He is––and I mean this purely in relation to his artistry––that rare kind of performer that one can take almost anyone to hear with confidence that admiration will result.

The same might well have been said of Barbara Bonney not so long ago, but time is particularly hard on lyric sopranos ( except, seemingly, the great Helen Donath) and though Bonney still produces some genuinely ravishing singing, her line is not quite so well drawn as once upon a time. She inflated the tone and scooped in the middle, and here and there smudged the cadenzas of her arias; still, overall, a classy job.

The players’approach may not be stylistically what one expects these days in this repertory, but the sound they collectively make proved pretty exciting even though Lorin Maazel did not seem particularly attuned to Haydn’s sound world or the sublimity ( as opposed to grandiosity) of the piece. Nothing but praise however for Joseph Flummerfelt’s always fine New York Choral Artists, who really distinguished themselves on this occasion by the blended strength and purity of their work.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s visit to Carnegie Hall witnessed the latest chapter in the decades-long love affair of that superb assemblage with Pierre Boulez, the now 79-year old erstwhile bad boy of classical music. Boulez clashed with New York’s Philharmonic and its conservative patrons when he led it in the 1970s, both in his temperament and his repertory. Maybe that was a pairing never meant to be: but what an astonishing conductor he remains.

The translucent, superbly measured playing February 12 in both the extant Adagio movement from Mahler’s incomplete Tenth Symphony and the Second Act of Wagner’s “Parsifal” was a wonder. The singing, while highly capable, proved less transcendant. Thomas Moser was (as ever) musical, reliable, slightly dry, and not overly involving in the duties of the title hero; he did produce some gleaming tone for the magical lines when Parsifal reclaims the sacred spear (if puzzled, go ask Mel Gibson’s dad for commentary).

Michelle de Young managed Kundry’s tricky line with handsome, somewhat anonymous tone and little emotional resonance This statuesque mezzo’s artistry is definitely improving, and perhaps her staged performances with Boulez at Bayreuth this summer will get her to dig deeper into Kundry’s bottomless well of self-contempt and frustration.

The only fully engaging and engaged vocal performance was that of the Klingsor, Eike Wilm Schulte; it’s rare that this often hectored villain gets voiced with such ideal clarity and pitch. Schulte’s career got a late start and he’s much in demand; it would be nice to hear him back at the Met soon.

Another orchestra and conductor pairing that should make New Yorkers envious is that of newly installed music director Christoph Eschenbach at the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Things are going very well indeed in Verizon Hall. They’ve just embarked on Eschenbach’s first big conceptual project, a series of orchestral and chamber concerts entitled “Mahler’s Influence.” February 19 witnessed the warmly welcomed Orchestra ( and Verizon Hall) debut of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as a deeply satisfying soloist in Mahler’s nonpareil Third. She crafted her phrases with sovereign musicality and deep expressiveness; her ravishingly voiced final line, the repeated, “Ach, komm und erbarme dich über mich!” [“Oh, come and have mercy on me!”] was worth the price of admission.

Much of the Orchestra’s work was quite stunning, and Eschenbach seemed to nail the tricky pacing and emotional journey of the crucial first movement. Especially given the truly stellar work achieved by the trombones, timpani and celli right off the bat, the persistent intonational flubs by the horns limited the possibilties of the (still worthwhile) evening. The remaining vocal highlights in Eschenbach’s promising series include Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony with Melanie Diener and Dietrich Henschel (February 26-28), song recitals March 7 (at Carnegie Hall) and March 8 (Philadelp­hia’s Perelman) with the suave-voiced Matthias Goerne accompanied by Eschenbach at the piano, and another series of orchestral concerts with Goerne as soloist in Mahler’s “Rückert Lieder” (March 11-13).

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes for Playbill, Time Out New York, and Opera News, among

other venues.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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