A grab bag of elusive events that deserve attention
New York — The following is a grab bag of events that I did not want to have slip by without some acknowledgment. Each event seemed of sufficient interest - either a new artist was introduced, or I had a chance to reencounter a lovely production, or something similar - to have a few words written about it.
* Mira Zakai has a growing career in Europe, though she has virtually no profile in this country as yet. She's a rarity among today's singers - a genuine contralto. One had thought the species all but extinct until she came along.
I heard her on two occasions here - in a solo recital of Brahms and Schumann, and as the contralto soloist in a dreary performance of Bach's B-minor Mass by the New York Philharmonic under the stultifying baton of Erich Leinsdorf. She is also the sensitive soloist on Sir Georg Solti's recent re-recording of Mahler's Second Symphony (''Resurrection''), and is heard to great advantage.
In both live performances, the voice revealed itself an instrument of burnished beauty in the lower two-thirds, and problematic in the upper reaches. Kathleen Ferrier, whose recordings remind us continually what a true contralto should sound like, evinced the same problems. Ferrier's voice seemed to have no limits to its depths, and those low notes were full, unforced extensions of the natural voice, not some sort of specially manufactured or placed ''effect'' sound.
Miss Zakai's recital was a demanding one. She sang the ''Four Serious Songs'' and other songs of Brahms, as well as Schumann's ''Liederkreis'' - all interpretively demanding and the sort of programming that has, lamentably, gone out of favor these days. At her finest, Miss Zakai knows exactly how to meld her interpretive gifts to her vocal attributes and create hushed, or agonized, or tender, or sumptuous moments. She often turned her troubles up top into interpretive assets - a risky idea that often paid off.
Her piano accompanist was Mikael Eliasen, a player with heart, 10 splendid fingers, and an ear honed to the needs of both his singer and the music at hand. In all, Miss Zakai's recital stands out as one of the more rewarding events of this musical season.
* The Met has revived its runaway hit of two seasons back, ''Parade.'' The triple-bill is devoted to Erik Satie's ballet that lends the evening its title, then moves on to Francis Poulenc's ''Les Mamelles de Tiresias'' and Maurice Ravel's ''L'Enfant et les Sortileges.'' David Hockney designed the sets and costumes, and they rank as some of the most distinctive and attractive the Met owns.
The stars of the evening are Mr. Hockney and conductor Manuel Rosenthal, who once again conjures superb playing from the Met orchestra and puts forth the Ravel with exceptional mood and beauty. In that opera, the transition from the child's room to the garden is a magical transformation visually and musically. The Poulenc is done valiantly, but is too small-scale, too word-conscious an event for so large a house. In fact, EMI-Pathe of France has just reissued the classic 1954 recording of the Opera-Comique performance. It is the best way to experience this work, which belongs in a 1,200-seat theater.
* Chamber orchestras are not as big a tradition on this continent as they are overseas. The United States has two notable chamber ensembles - Los Angeles and St. Paul - but somehow people forget that in Ottawa the National Arts Centre Orchestra performs well regularly. They visited Carnegie Hall last month under the guest baton of Eduardo Mata. It was a distinguished evening.
Clearly this is a chamber orchestra on a level with London's Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field. The strings play with a lovely sheen, they all listen to each other and perform with the suppleness and attentiveness of a far smaller ensemble. It seems incomprehensible that this ensemble is not recorded regularly by one of the major record companies. There is a freshness and spontaneity to their playing one hears hardly at all in the overexposed English Chamber Orchestra.
The concert, for the record, included Stravinsky's ''Pulcinella,'' Ravel's ''Le Tombeau de Couperin,'' and Bizet's Symphony in C, all presented with care and affection by Mr. Mata.
* Why bother doing a stock opera in an unattractive production if the cast is not up to recognizable standard? The Met begs the question constantly in its revival of Verdi's ''Il Trovatore,'' to be seen here 11 times this year, and also on tour. The sets are truly unattractive; the production is listless. The singing afforded little more than routine competence at most points.
In his debut, baritone Giorgio Zancanaro offered the news value of the evening - an attractive voice (though not large enough for the house in this repertory) and a routine performance. Also noteworthy was tenor Ermanno Mauro's genuine high C at the end of Act III, where most tenors insist on a transposition downward. Otherwise, he was at best erratic. Teresa Zylis-Gara, possessor of a beautiful spinto voice, seems to be in vocal trouble.
Only Fiorenza Cossotto, the remarkable Italian mezzo, offered the sort of performance that makes one sit up and take notice. In her big scenes she reminds anew that there is nothing like the grand old school of Italian mezzo in these grand Verdi roles. Now that the style is on the wane, what will replace it?
* Recently I had occasion to be in Washington, D.C., so I dropped by the Washington Opera Society to see its production of Britten's ''The Turn of the Screw.'' The company performs its large works in the acoustically remarkable Opera House. These smaller works, however, take place in the 500-or-so-seat Terrace Theater - a rare chance to hear opera as an intimate experience.
The level of performance is high for a regional company, and augurs well for the two operas currently on view there - Mozart's ''The Abduction From the Seraglio,'' with Gerard Schwarz making his opera-conducting debut, and a double bill of Gilbert & Sullivan's ''Trial by Jury'' (starring John Reed, star of the erstwhile D'Oyly Carte Opera Company) and Offenbach's ''Monsieur Choufleuri.''
Britten's opera is curiously neglected on these shores, though I am not sure the production seen in Washington, borrowed from Geneva, is one to win that many friends. The Henry James novella on which the opera is based is probably familiar, as it was turned into a chilling movie with Deborah Kerr, called ''The Innocents.''
This new production sacrificed the necessary spooky British manor-house mood for a clean Victorian room with a retracting wall that revealed a terrace with granite balustrade. Visually it was stunning (sets and costumes by Jean-Claude Maret), and director Francois Rochais used the extra space to advantage. However , the uneasy sense of the supernatural was somehow leeched from the spectacle, and the tale of devilish child possession looses some impact.
The performances - from Susan Peterson (the Governess) and Barbara Hocher (Mrs. Grose); down through the excellent children, Laurence Pittenger and Ashley Leadbetter; to Dennis Bailey (Peter Quint) and Elizabeth Knighton (Miss Jessel) - were accomplished. The small orchestra played adeptly yet colorlessly under John Mauceri's baton.