A Busy Saturday in NYC: Metropolitan Opera’s “Maria Stuarda” and New York Philharmonic in Brahms and Sibelius

I had a busy musical Saturday, attending an afternoon performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at the Metropolitan Opera and an evening performance by the New York Philharmonic.
The Metropolitan was broadcasting the Donizetti opera live to movie theaters worldwide in high definition video, so one had to put up with the cameras-in-motion that can occasionally be distracting in the house. On the plus-side, perhaps, is that the performers, conscious of being broadcast, may be stepping up their game a bit, at least in terms of the acting. At any event, I found the performance of an opera new to me to be enthralling.
Donizetti enlisted a young student, Giuseppe Bardari, to adapt Friedrich Schiller’s play in Italian translation, in which the author imagined an in-person confrontation between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her imprisoned cousin, Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland, before Elizabeth made the final decision to sign a death warrant for Mary, who continued to dispute the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s monarchy on the ground that Elizabeth was a bastard because Mary’s Roman Catholic Church refused to recognize as legitimate Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Putting aside any reservations due to the historical inaccuracies, one can enjoy Donizetti’s opera, presented by the Met in the historically authentic two-act version, as a well-written music drama, through-composed with brilliant orchestration and great arias for the two queens. Maurizio Benini conducted a lively performance, with sterling contributions from the Met’s chorus and orchestra.
Elza van den Heever, who sang Queen Elizabeth, was brilliant in projecting the regal presence of the domineering monarch who demands strict loyalty from her courtiers. Joyce DiDonato was equally brilliant at portraying Mary, the stubborn and self-righteous queen who resents the idea of bowing before her “illegitimate” cousin. Maria Zifchak was touching as Mary’s loyal lady-in-waiting.
Most of the press attention about this production has gone to the women, but I thought the men were also excellent. Matthew Polenzani takes the most important male role, the conflicted Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, who has loyalties and emotional feelings for both queens. Matthew Rose as George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, had his most touching moments in the second scene of Act II when he serves as confessor to Mary in her hour of torment before her execution.
But most impressive to me was young Joshua Hopkins, the Canadian baritone whose work I so enjoyed a few years ago in the New York City Opera’s presentation of Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place.” Here he was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, and he truly inhabited and magnified the role, making something splendid out of it. He has really blossomed as an artist, and I look forward to hearing him again. He made a fine recording of English-language art songs for a Canadian record label a while back – which was my introduction to him – and I treasure that recording, but he has clearly grown as an interpreter since then, so I hope he gets the opportunity to record some more.
My evening at the Philharmonic was somewhat less pleasing, showing off the weaknesses and strengths of the late Maazel regime at that orchestra in connection with Lorin Maazel’s return as a guest conductor. One feature of those years was that Philharmonic programs were generally made up of works that the orchestra had played in recent years, and this program followed true to form: Brahms’s 2nd Piano Concerto, last played just two years ago, and Sibelius’s 2nd Symphony, last played by the orchestra during the summer of 2010.

Another feature of Maazel’s programs was that they tended to focus on mainstream repertory works with little in the way of novelty or modernity, and this was once again true to form. This concert could have been given almost a century ago (the NYP’s predecessor, the NY Symphony, played the NY premiere of the Sibelius in 1914), when it would have been considered relatively “modern”, but today it’s old hat.

But my main problem is not so much with the programing, as I’m always happy to hear these two piece well-played, but with the performances.

I’ve frequently found Lorin Maazel’s approach to the mainstream repertory classics to be unsatisfactory because I rarely find his tempi appropriate and I frequently find his highly “interventionist” conducting to be a detrimental distraction. The first movement of the Brahms was afflicted with stodgy tempi and exaggerated tempo modifications at transitional moments. The second movement, by contrast, seemed too business-like, missing the romance in Brahms’s music, and the finale, probably the best of the three movements in this performance, still struck me as hauled about too much as far as the tempi went. Things were better when Yefim Bronfman, the esteemed Brahmsian, was playing the solo part. (I last hear him play Brahms just recently, at Carnegie Hall, when he joined the Emerson Quartet for the Piano Quintet, one of Brahms’s greatest chamber works.) He seemed to have some moderating impact on Maazel’s distortionist tendencies, but there are long stretches of this concerto when things are solely in the conductor’s hands – unfortunately, on this occasion.

I had similar qualms in the Sibelius symphony. The first movement is supposed to be a fast movement, according to Sibelius’s indications — Allegretto – Poco allegro – Tranquillo, ma poco a poco ravvivando il tempo all allegro – but I found the tempi too moderate much of the time, and – another Maazel trademark – too many gaps in momentum when the music seemed to come to a complete halt. What the great masters of this symphony achieved was to keep the momentum going through this episodic movement. Go back to landmark recordings by Koussevitzky, Toscanini and Bernstein (the NY Philharmonic recording for Columbia) to hear this. The second movement, by contrast, sounded much too fast at the beginning, certainly faster than an andante, although it eventually settled down when the woodwinds entered after the plucked introduction in the lower strings. The third movement scherzo struck me as just about right, but the finale again seemed too slow, especially the final pages of the score, when everything struck me as too much “in slow motion.” Maazel seemed determined to make the concluding pages very majestic, but the result struck me as loud and over-insistent.

This is not to take away anything from the members of the orchestra, who were obviously giving Maazel what he wanted and followed him where he led. The orchestra has been playing spectacularly well under his successor, Alan Gilbert, and the discipline and beauty of their work was much in evidence last night. I wish it were to better purpose. I love Sibelius’s music, and I hope Gilbert will play more of it. Indeed, I hope he will do something really daring and present the composer’s early set of tone poems, The Lemminkainen Suite, which rarely receives a complete concert performance but would be worth the effort and would sound incredible with the current New York Philharmonic.

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