From 18th-century instruments to modern voices; Surprises mostly pleasant of a concertgoer's week
New York — The life of a concertgoer is fraught with surprises (mostly pleasant), and I'd like to share a few of the more recent ones with you this week.
After a day that included 21/2 acts (all I could bear) of a grimly routine ''Carmen'' at the City Opera, and an alert, vibrant (but occasionally untidy) Tchaikovsky Fifth with the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of its new principal conductor, Giuseppe Patane, at Carnegie Hall, the last thing I wanted to do (I thought) was sit through an evening of Vivaldi (so often performed to make him sound like the original Muzak) in the same concert hall.
But I was pleasantly surprised. There is no sound quite like the one I Musici makes. Most of the instruments date from the 18th century. The members of the group play with commitment, unanimity of approach, and a rich, plummy tone expertly controlled to suit the period in question. Pina Carmirelli was the featured soloist, and the command of her playing easily outdistanced the occasional stiffness of execution. Massimo Paris made some exceptionally beautiful sounds on his viola d'amore. In short, I Musici offered the sort of magical playing the group has built its career on - on stage and on records. Eva Marton
The Metropolitan Opera has not been especially enterprising in regularly bringing us the best names in the world of opera. Usually the house relies on a few singers - some well beyond their prime - to keep happy those audience members whom assistant manager Joan Ingpen has less-than-flatteringly referred to as ''canary fanciers.'' The surprise in this case was the soprano at the Met whosang the title role of Ponchielli's ''La Gioconda'' in the grand manner once rightfully considered the norm (now a welcome oddity). Eva Marton, whose Empress was the hit of last season's revival of Strauss' ''Die Frau Ohne Schatten,'' revealed a blazing temperament, as well as a voice fully able to do justice to this larger-than-life woman who loves, loathes, protects, and fights on a tempestuously large scale.
There is nothing subtle about this opera, but it affords six singers showy chances to emote vocally to the rafters. Miss Marton's performance - the first Gioconda of her career - had a few blemishes hardly worth mentioning. In an age when diminutive singing and acting are encouraged even at so large a house as the Met, Miss Marton is welcome, as the ovation that greeted her singing demonstrated. It was the sort of vociferous acclaim reserved for the special few that reach the hearts of opera lovers.
Placido Domingo was the ardent if small-scaled Enzo - nice to have a singer of his stature to partner Miss Marton; Cornell MacNeil, the white-voiced, shouty Barnaba. Bianca Berini (Cieca), Bruna Baglioni (Laura), and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Alvise) all showed various deficiencies.
Two more surprises in the evening. As if to make up for his excesses in ''Rosenkavalier,'' director Bruce Donnell has eliminated most of the oddities John Dexter had encrusted onto an already large and silly plot (reviewed in this column on Sept. 29). Conductor Patane whipped the evening into frenzies of passion and excitement without shirking the frankly lyrical passages. Leontyne Price
Because I was in Baltimore that night I missed the ''Live From Lincoln Center'' telecast with the New York Philharmonic and Leontyne Price as guest soloist. But I caught up with the repeat and am compelled to make a few comments.
Miss Price obviously possesses one of the great voices of the century, but of late she can be a mannered, eccentric singer. Last season at the Met, she happily turned the clock back some 20 years vocally, and stopped a ''Trovatore'' cold for well over two minutes of ovations after a ravishingly sung ''D'amor sull'ali rosee,'' while making mincemeat of the role itself. Thus the idea of hearing her sing the mighTy ''Come scoglio'' from Mozart's ''Cosi fan tutte,'' the ''Willow Song'' and ''Ave Maria'' from Verdi's ''Otello,'' and especially the final scene from Strauss' ''Salome'' augured not well at all.
But the Mozart was a pleasant surprise. While not quintessentially Viennese, it was quintessentially Pricean the way one remembers it. The Verdi was touching. And the ''Salome,'' after a particularly rough beginning, was a marvel of expressiveness, clear German enunciation, and shimmering tones (with volatile accompaniment from Zubin Mehta). It's not music ideally suited to this still-youthful voice, yet she made it all her own. At her best, as on this evening, she is a national vocal treasure. Baltimore Symphony
The Baltimore Symphony concert that opened that city's new concert hall featured the triumphant return to two-hand playing of pianist Leon Fleisher (reviewed in this column on Sept. 22).
But the taped PBS broadcast version of the concert on Sept. 25 was a sad surprise. No announcement was made that the order of works on TV was not that heard in the concert itself. The tremendous and emotional outburst and standing ovation that greeted Mr. Fleisher at his appeArancE were cut to almost nothing, and his appareance was tagged onto the end of the show. Tony Randall's emceeing of the program was brittle and out of place. A tedious feature on the acoustical tuning of the hall filled too much time. Mr. Randall's interview with Mr. Fleisher went nowhere.
How sad the local Maryland TV producers did not try to capture a concert (as is done so successfully in ''Live From Lincoln Center''), rather than try to make a glossy package for general consumption. City Opera
A mediocre new production of Gluck's ''Alceste'' (to be discussed in a later column), and the grim ''Carmen'' already touched on in this article, would seem to augur less than well for the City Opera this season.
But I am surprised and encouraged by some things I've seen there. The ''Hamlet'' (reviewed in this column on Sept. 29) was an overall success and a triumph for Sherrill Milnes. The revival of Mozart's ''The Magic Flute'' offered an honest, unfussy, candid approach to the opera. Andrew Porter's new translation abounds in dialogue that clears up so much of the usually confusing plot. The Beni Montresor sets are deliciously fairy-tale in flavor. Jay Lesenger has newl9 staeed the work with a simplicity unencumbered by pretentious philosophy.
Elizabeth Hynes's Pamina represented her very finest work - ardent, tasteful, pretty of voice, and expressive of demeanor. Alan Titus's Papageno, while perhaps a bit too delicately acted for so large a space, was disarming and ingenuous. Rita Shane was the reliable Queen of the Night, Vinson Cole a robust, rather too Verdian Tamino, and Richard Cross a woolly, imprecise Sarastro. Charles Wendelken-Wilson was the adequate maestro.
Carol Vaness shocked her first-night ''Traviata'' audience by walking off in mid-aria Act I. Yet her second stab at the role found her fundamentally suited to this most difficult-to-cast part. The voice has the presence, range, and facility to toss off the coloratura of the first act, yet ride the orchestra in the larger climaxes of the rest of the opera. At her best, her singing was sumptuous, even, and surprisingly expressive for one normally so impassive.
Her nervousness seemed to get the best of her, however, and in all the important climaxes she came to grief. When she sorts it all out, her Violetta should be the best around, since no one who has sung the part of late at the City Opera or the Met has really possessed the vocal essentials to meet the challenges of this demanding Verdi role.
Jon Garrison, the Alfredo, began strongly but tired quickly; William Stone made more of Germont Sr. than he did last year; Judith Christin made more of Flora than one even thought was there! In the pit, Bruce Ferden led a graceful performance that allowed some breadth and flow in an opera too often merely cajoled into some sort of desperate submission.