The New Yorker, Feb. 27, 2006.
Concert life in New York has never been more vigorous than it is right now. Or so it seemed during a sustained delirium of musical events in late January and early February. The Berlin Philharmonic, under Simon Rattle, brought its dark-gold sound to Carnegie Hall, in four programs touching on four centuries; Mozart was celebrated on the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of his birth. Lincoln Center brought in John Eliot Gardiner to conduct Mozart Masses and symphonies, but it gave more attention to a not-at-all-dead composer, the impossibly vibrant Osvaldo Golijov, whose flamenco opera “Ainadamar” and pan-Iberian song cycle “Ayre” played to sold-out halls. The Juilliard School, in its annual Focus! Festival, presented six evenings of works written in 2005, including Donald Martino’s Fifth String Quartet, a valedictory tour de force in high-modern style (the composer died in December), and Mason Bates’s “Digital Loom,” for organ and electronics, which transformed the hall into something between a decaying cathedral and an East Berlin club. At one point, determined not to be defeated by the surfeit, I made an early exit from a fabulously murderous twentieth-century program by James Levine and the Met Orchestra—Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin,” Schoenberg’s “Erwartung,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”—to catch a program of Renaissance polyphony by the Hilliard Ensemble, in the Music Before 1800 series, at Corpus Christi Church. I don’t recommend going from blood-spattered Austrian atonality to unyielding Franco-Flemish counterpoint by way of a hellbent cab ride.
All this was meticulously planned by concert programmers, whose job is to disappear behind the charisma of performers, but who deserve to be celebrated on occasion. Two people in particular are playing crucial roles in New York music: Jane Moss, who is the vice-president for programming at Lincoln Center, and Ara Guzelimian, who is the artistic adviser of Carnegie. Each has a distinctive approach, but their tastes overlap enough to suggest a consensus on what intelligent programming should look like in the early twenty-first century. Both Moss and Guzelimian routinely celebrate living composers. They favor festivals and thematic series—or, in Carnegie’s parlance, “Perspectives”—so that a creative musician like Valery Gergiev or Ian Bostridge can offer a world view rather than a bunch of pieces. And they have embraced non-classical personalities: Carnegie has hosted Caetano Veloso and Youssou N’Dour, while Lincoln Center recently featured the remarkable indie-pop singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, whose stark religious song “Seven Swans” was strangely similar in psychic impact to the Nicolas Gombert Mass that Hilliard sang at Corpus Christi. The idea is not to dilute classical music with crossover novelties but to move it back into the thick of modern life. The old art will no longer hold itself aloof; instead, it will play a godfather role in the wider culture, able to assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past.
In the middle of this midwinter musical carnival, the Collegiate Chorale, a venerable New York institution now under the direction of Robert Bass, presented an all-Puccini program at Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t an official Carnegie event; the chorus rented the hall, hiring the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to provide accompaniments and the soprano Aprile Millo to supply diva ferocity. At first glance, the concept of a Puccini evening may seem less than fresh, given that the composer hardly lacks exposure in this town; “La Bohème” is, after all, the reigning box-office champion at the Metropolitan Opera, having received 1,178 performances since its local début, in 1900. (“We cannot believe that there is permanent success for an opera constructed as this one is,” the Times opined.) But the Collegiate Chorale accomplished something with Puccini that no one this season has so far managed to do with Mozart: it succeeded in putting an ultra-familiar composer in a novel light.
Thoughtful programming reveals something about musical works simply by juxtaposing them. The Collegiate Chorale put together Puccini’s first and last operatic thoughts: “Le Villi,” a brief gothic melodrama about a faithless lover haunted by his dead beloved, which Puccini wrote in 1883, at the age of twenty-four; and Act III of “Turandot,” the epic tale of an icy Chinese princess, which he was still working on at the time of his death, in 1924. “Le Villi” is hobbled by a rickety dénouement, but the first act is a wonder. It is pure Puccini, lush on the surface and economical in construction. Italianate lyricism, Wagnerian harmony, and French atmosphere merge as one. The orchestration is at once transparent and enveloping. Vocal lines evolve from a conversational monotone into electrifying lyric arcs. Franco Farina sang the male lead, while Millo was the maiden turned ghost, looking properly spooky in a black cape and Bono-style glasses; together they brought out the systematic ratcheting up of emotion and tension that defines Puccini’s strongest ensemble writing. The feeling is of a creative voice materializing out of nowhere, as if by divine command—which, indeed, is how the usually levelheaded Puccini said that he was summoned to write opera.
“Turandot” shows the composer facing his greatest challenge—dramatizing a heroine who, in contrast to the magnificently earthy characters of “La Bohème” and “Tosca,” is fundamentally inhuman. To convey Turandot’s awesome coldness, Puccini uses what he has learned from the modernisms of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He does not abandon his lyric gift, as billions who have hummed along to “Nessun dorma” can attest. The task of reconciling these extremes caused Puccini uncharacteristic agony. He died before he could write the finale, in which Turandot’s heart finally melts, and was unsure how to illustrate her last-minute transformation in musical terms. There is nothing in opera quite as heartbreaking as the preceding scene, which describes the death of the slave girl Liù, for the composer of heartbreak is dying, too; after a heavy-footed procession that echoes the “Spring Rounds” section of the “Rite of Spring,” ethereal clouds of choral sound that glance ahead to Messiaen (the Collegiate Chorale had been waiting for this moment, and made the most of it), and a high piccolo note shining through a fogbank of E-flat-minor strings, the Voice is gone.
The quandary of the ending, for which Puccini left a pile of sketches, one of them containing the famous remark “Then ‘Tristan,’ ” has bedevilled opera houses ever since Toscanini conducted the première, in 1926. Puccini’s colleague Franco Alfano fashioned a conclusion that hurried past the central dramatic challenge into an orgy of crude triumphalism. The Collegiate Chorale elected to use a far subtler completion that was prepared, in 2001, by the late Luciano Berio, whose high-tech, avant-garde façade always concealed a nostalgia for Romanticism. Berio’s effort is far more satisyfing than Alfano’s, not only because it is beautifully crafted but because it honors the fact of Puccini’s death; the new material begins with a shivery sequence of polytonal chords, suggesting a spirit gliding away, while also recalling the harsh sonorities with which the opera began. This version ought to replace Alfano’s at the Met and elsewhere. Still, there is no mistaking the loss of power that happens when Berio takes Puccini’s place.
There are amazingly few books about this most beloved of opera composers. The newest is William Berger’s “Puccini Without Excuses” (Vintage), which provides an easygoing introduction to the operas and also feistily defends them against the perennial sneers of intellectuals. Berger points out that Puccini, despite his popularity, creates discomfort in this hyper-stylized, ironic age, because he deals in direct emotion, avoids ideology and moralism, and often favors characters “of no major consequence,” except insofar as they mirror the audience. Puccini confounds opera directors who have no interest in ordinary people; he almost affronts the cool professionalism of the average young opera singer. Millo is valuable because she has no fear of raw emotion; she is not afraid to try the potentially ridiculous gesture that ends up making one’s hair stand on end. Singing Turandot with the Collegiate Chorale, she communicated everything with a tentative, wondering enunciation of the word “amore.”