Saturday, February 25, 2006

Karita Mattila and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson stop by for Gurrelieder with James Levine

The Boston Symphony programmed three performances of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder conducted by music director James Levine and featuring a stellar cast of soloists and the never-disappointing Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

This was my first encounter with the work. I despise listening to recordings, and if I have a chance to experience a concert more than once, I allow my first time with the program (if I am unfamiliar with the work(s)) to be at the live performance. I attended my first on Thursday, February 23rd, and I will return tonight.

I didn't do my homework prior to Thursday's performance, nor did I attend the preconcert lecture. Even worse, I didn't even read the program notes. But all will be corrected tonight. Sometimes it's good to experience something without all of the context. Anyway, I'm going to focus on a few things here, things I picked up.

First, Karita Mattila is a stunningly beautiful woman. I refrain from using the term "opera hot"; she's just hot. She has a profound sexiness that suggests both intimacy and distance. That combination of warmth and reserve makes her irresistible. Decked in soft lilac and pearls, her fingertips capped by long red nails, her left forearm covered in pave diamonds, she was the picture of glamour. A kind of kitschy glamour, but a very Karita glamour, right down to the gold pumps and the four rings, including a thumb ring.

Johan Botha, meanwhile, sported a bold mullet. Yes, a mullet. I'll move on now.

Mattila and Botha were often barely audible during Part I. Mattila, especially, seemed to be marking. But why would she do that? More likely is that Levine wasn't careful (as he wasn't during the Tchaikovsky with Renee Fleming at Carnegie Hall) and allowed the singers to be covered. After all, this was a ridonkulously (my new favorite word) large orchestra--have you ever seen four harps!?--requiring an extension of the stage and the use of every square inch. The problems were definitely corrected in the second half.

Mattila (I'm not so interested in Botha, who is a fine singer but, I mean, he's got a mullet) sang gorgeously throughout, and her last bit, sung forte and then ultra-sweetly, was to die for. This was the text (in translation):

And when you awaken,
With you, there upon the couch,
clad in new beauty, you will see
a young a radiant bride.
So let us drain our goblets in a toast to him,
mighty, adorning Death:
for we go to the grave,
like a smile, dying,
in a rapturous kiss.

OK. Sounds good.

What can I say about Lorraine Hunt Lieberson? Critics have famously run out of glowing encomiums for her. I'll shamelessly try one. It's not just her voice. It's her presence. There's a certain calm, a quiet, that reminds me of the desert, where she makes her home. Majestic and, paradoxically, silent, she's what Earth would sound like if it had a voice. In the presence of Lieberson, one feels a sense of wonder. I think it's because every time we hear her, something from the profound depths, something beyond music and objects and time, tries to speak to us. Her voice is a vessel.

There's an orchestral interlude after Waldermar's (Botha's) final passage in Part I, which closes with the Wood-Dove's extended monologue (Lieberson). During the interlude, Lieberson quietly emerged, like a spirit, from stage left. Clothed in shades of taupe and brown, her short brown and dark blonde hair coiffed close to her head, her neck caressed by a strand of champagne pearls, she radiated peaceful beauty.

Her voice? It's a complex sound. It's not a gem-like sound. It's a sound of the earth, of mountains. The ocean. If Podles is a 1 on the nuance scale, Lieberson is a 10. She was born to be a storyteller, a quality that is, frankly, what great singing is all about. In her voice the Wood-Dove's refrain--"I flew far, sought for grief, and have found much!"--broke my heart.

The last thing I'll say about Gurrelieder is that it has a ridonkulously exciting finale, and here I give major props to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which truly shone. All soloists returned for the madly ecstatic ovations--the entire audience immediately rose just as the last chord faded--at the concert's conclusion. Many kisses were exchanged on stage. (Note: Lieberson is a one-cheek kisser, while Mattila plants a firm one on each.) Hm, musta been nice up there.

No comments: