It turns out that Super Bowl Sunday is actually a really good day to go to an afternoon performance at Carnegie Hall. When the concert lets out the streets are clear and many of the restaurants are not at all crowded; we were almost the only people on the train back out to Long Island. And none of the other passengers puked on the way! And here I was worried that the game would louse things up somehow. Having experienced the Long Island Rail Road Late Nite Post Party Local (stopping at: Puketon, Little Leering, Loud Dudes, Shrieking, Puketon Again and points east – the first four cars will NOT PLATFORM at Puketon) in the past, this felt like, as they said in the eighteenth century, Heav’n, and one didn’t even have to be killed by the Romans to ride the train.
There are reasons that this performance has been getting rave reviews elsewhere. It is not exuberant or massive in scope – this is not a getting-sucked-into-a-well-coordinated-tornado type operation. What does have is a restrained perfection of execution that allows all the details of the music to shine. There were a few not-so-shiny details, but these were mostly audience related. I mention this because I have to get it off my chest; I am a nicer person that I actually would wish to be, and I don’t often get to experience the urge to murder anyone. But THE WOMAN BEHIND ME FELL ASLEEP AND SNORED ALL THROUGH THEODORA’S FIRST ARIA. DOROTHEA RÖSCHMANN WAS DRAWING OUT THESE BEAUTIFUL HANDELIAN PHRASES AND THE JACKASS BEHIND ME WAS SNORING. It was unintentionally humorous, at one point: there is a section where the chorus sings of rest and repose, and the spaces in the music allowed the snores to filter through. Jesus H. Christ why are there not ushers with crossbows? I mean, falling asleep is one thing. That is your business. We have all been there. But snoring is an impalin’ offence, as far as I am concerned. There was also some clown who waited until the last notes of Frau R and David Daniels’s last duet were just still hanging in the air – and then he started hacking even before Bicket lowered the baton. HOLD IT IN. YOU CAN DO IT. HOLD IT IN.
But anyhow. The English Concert is definitely a period orchestra. The string players use the baroque-style bows; one can hear the lute; the flute that accompanies one of Theodora’s arias is of the baroque variety; the sound on the whole is not large. Occasionally one sees a great deal of activity (e.g. the first chair violinist’s elegantly executed solos) and not much output, volume wise. I can’t say I don’t prefer the brighter, fuller sound of modern instruments. But the balance of chorus, orchestra and soloists was excellent. The sound wasn’t big – there was not a lot of dynamic contrast – but as I said, it was detailed and engrossing; the choral singing had a delicacy and expressiveness was probably related to the fact that there weren’t actually very many of them. This quality of sound and scale allowed the soloists to give some very subtle and moving performances. None of the details got lost.
I appear to be stalking Kurt Streit. I saw him in December in Schubert’s Lazarus and here we were again in New York. I didn’t mind. I find I take more to his voice live than on DVD or CD. This music didn’t give him many high notes to negotiate, lucky for everyone. Although he sometimes hit the top notes of long runs kind of hard (e.g. in “from virtue springs each generous deed”) I have a lot of smiley faces in my notes in reference to him. The sound was such that at one point I got the sense that I would have to be further back and more toward the center of the hall to really get the full effect. (I was sitting towards the front of the orchestra level on the left hand side of the auditorium.) This was alive, expressive singing, and his English language accent was excellent. This is true of both him and Röschmann. Now and then she would land hard on a final consonant in a “must remember to vocalize that ‘d’!” kind of way, but I find this more endearing than otherwise.
Sarah Connolly is one of those singers who I know is good, but who I haven’t sought out as much as I might – my mistake. She was great in that DVD of Giulio Cesare and she was really wonderful here. Her Irene was straightforward and deeply felt – one of those performances that sounds simpler than it is. My favorite part was “as with rosy steps the morn,” where we hear the A section, the middle, and then the repeat comes and suddenly it’s softer, more delicate, and this beautiful drawing back of volume is not heartbreaking, but close. It’s masterful singing.
David Daniels seemed to need some time to warm up, but he was on his game by “kind heav’n, if virtue be thy care” at the end of Act I, and certainly by Act II’s “deeds of kindness.” His Act II duet with Röschmann (“to thee thou glorious son of worth / to thee, whose virtues suit thy birth”) was one of the highlights of the whole thing – those two voices seem made to sing together. The way the timbres mesh is startlingly beautiful.
Daniels has sung the role of Didymus before. We’ve got that DVD from Glyndbourne, for one thing. I don’t think that Dorothea Röschmann has been singing the role of Theodora for years (unless it’s been some kind of closely guarded secret, which strikes me as unlikely; besides, I would have heard about it) but she sounds like she has. The interpretation has her typical intense presence and depth of feeling. I have rarely heard her singing in English before, so this was a treat (as mentioned, her accent is nearly flawless – or if it wasn’t, I didn’t notice because I got distracted by the quality of the performance). I have not heard her live since last year, and during Theodora’s first aria “fond, flattering world adieu!” I had one of those moments where I was reminded again why I like her so much. The voice right then seemed to fill every note to brimming, and the way she shapes those phrases . . . I have a feeling of repeating things I have said before, but she inhabits the music so intensely, and communicates both how the whole aria/song/etc. fits together as well as the elusive little subtleties of each phrase — well, I could have KILLED that jerk behind me who was snoring. Röschmann’s singing has a combination of intense feeling and a kind of penetrating musical intelligence (and her characteristically distinct timbre) that is hard not to get lost in. I always enjoy the way she can let that velvety lyric voice swell and fill the space in the concert hall – e.g. “if I on wings could rise” or in Theodora’s Act III “when sunk in anguish and despair” (where Theodora is telling Irene and the other Christians how Didymus helped her escape). This is the part where 1) there were some beautiful soft low notes – not earthy, because that wouldn’t be right for this role, but still great and 2) I noted how completely she loses herself in the performance, snores and coughing from the audience be damned. My spouse calls it “Teutonic intensity.” (Me: “But Streit doesn’t do it.” Spouse: “there’s still something German about it.”)
Rather astonishingly, I hear that a reviewer in San Francisco called her a “rising star” ; the couple sitting next to me for Theodora knew about Daniels and Connolly, but didn’t know who Röschmann was – maybe she’s not as well known here in the US as she ought to be. Maybe this performance will help? The hall was miked to the nines, and they told us it was being recorded, so we can hope . . .