Orpheus in the afterworld

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 22, 2008

Because it’s the surrounding orchestra on which Harbison focuses his Technicolor, for the poem to work the baritone must convince us he’s living Milosz’s labyrinthine emotional twists and mercurial turns. Popular Metropolitan Opera hunk Nathan Gunn never entered the world of the words. What should have been piercing was merely monotonous.

Without a pause, this long narrative is answered by Harbison’s glassily eerie and smeary setting of Louise Glück’s “Relic,” in the voice of the dead Eurydice: “Where would I be without my sorrow . . . this song/of all gifts the most lasting?//How would you like to die/while Orpheus was singing?” The muted trumpets at the end of this short movement sound like taps. Young Met mezzo Kate Lindsey, in radiant voice, seemed the embodiment of Glück’s Eurydice.

This leads directly into Rilke’s more hopeful “Be ahead of all parting,” one of his Sonette an Orpheus (in Stephen Mitchell’s translation). I found the vocal duet hard to hear and to absorb. The most remarkable passage is the postlude, an ambiguous and unsettling mixture of celebration and lament, apocalypse and withdrawal, gossamer pianissimo and gamelan-like insistence. It reminded me of the ambiguity of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” pitting sorrowful resignation against the ego’s refusal to be defeated by loss. Too bad there were only two Boston performances, but it will be done again July 18 at Tanglewood, coupled with the perhaps more appropriate Mahler Symphony No. 1.

The irony of this Das Lied von der Erde was that tenor Ben Heppner, who had to be replaced as Tristan in most of this season’s Met performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, at the last minute replaced South African tenor Johan Botha, who’d taken ill. Heppner made his BSO debut in 1994 singing this role under Levine, and he still does it with wonderful ebullience; but even given the heroic size of his voice, the orchestra drowned out his opening drinking song, as it did not in 1994. He was at his best conveying the exquisite delicacy of the third song, “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”), which depicts a Chinese pleasure garden reminiscent of Coleridge’s Xanadu. (Mahler sets German translations of six Chinese poems.) Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter made her BSO debut too in that 1994 Mahler. Her cool, light, high voice is not ideal for an Earth Mother, but she’s an intelligent, sensitive singer. Most mezzos are buried by Mahler’s wild description of horses racing in “Von der Schönheit” (“Of Beauty”), but Otter’s voice now seems frayed and scratchy in anything but the quietest passages, and her good rhythmic instincts weren’t enough to carry her through the profundities of Mahler’s long final farewell, “Der Abschied.” (Das Lied and the role of Dido in Les Troyens were originally planned for the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.) The truly great musicmaking was by John Ferrillo’s insinuating oboe.

One of the encores in Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomsic’s incandescent return to the Celebrity Series of Boston was Chopin’s melancholy Waltz in C-sharp minor, the same waltz Evgeny Kissin played as an encore to one of his recent Brahms-concerto concerts with Levine and the BSO. But Tomsic, playing it like Chopin, and like a waltz, brought some listeners close to tears. Her last BSO appearance was opening night of 2003, under Bernard Haitink, but she hasn’t yet played here for Levine. What’s he waiting for? She’s a vastly greater musician than Kissin, and deeper than almost any of Levine’s other pianists. Even at her most dazzling, as in her four breathless, buoyant Scarlatti sonatas, or in the most riveting virtuosic passages of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, she’s always serving the music. “She makes music do what it’s supposed to do,” a friend hearing her for the first time remarked in wonderment.

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