Snakebite

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 3, 2010

At least the singing didn't disappoint. In the title role, Chinese soprano Ying Huang's refined, well-focused voice seemed tireless. A movie-star beauty, she didn't have much else by way of character. Her lover was the tight-voiced but unflagging high tenor Peter Tantsits, who looked like an aimless refugee from The Mikado, a wand'ring minstrel, complete with ponytail. The self-righteous abbot who sees through Madame White's human exterior, was persuasively embodied by resonant Chinese bass Dong-Jian Gong, whose practiced English diction overcame the limitations of his heavy accent.

The audience favorite was male soprano Michael Maniaci (who returns in May with Boston Baroque) as White Snake's former lover now reincarnated as her devoted female servant. In his green-snake dress, he looked more like Divine than a Chinese spirit. His pompous utterances were embarrassing, but his fascinating voice brought down the house.

In October, Madame White Snake goes to the Beijing Music Festival, its co-commissioner. Whatever you make of the opera, you have to applaud Opera Boston's cross-cultural effort. Has any local opera company offered a major world premiere since Sarah Caldwell staged Robert DiDomenica's 12-tone version of Jean Genet's The Balcony in 1990? It's about time.

What's more, Opera Boston has just announced an inspired 2010–2011 season: Beethoven's Fidelio; Donizetti's forgotten Maria Padilla, with soprano Barbara Quintiliani — evidently a sensation in its revival at the last Wexford Festival; and Hindemith's profound murder mystery, Cardillac, with baritone Sanford Sylvan as the goldsmith who'll do anything to hang onto his masterpieces. And in other local news, Emmanuel Music has finally announced the result of its long search for a full-time music director to replace the late Craig Smith: tenor and conductor Ryan Turner, a soloist and long-time member of the Emmanuel Chorus.

Beethoven must be smiling from behind the big oval at the top of the Symphony Hall proscenium inscribed with his name. Last fall, BSO assistant conductor Julian Kuerti and two guest conductors replaced ailing James Levine in a complete cycle of Beeethoven symphonies. Last month, Levine returned to lead four of them in one weekend. The very next week, the Celebrity Series of Boston presented the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra ("the oldest civic orchestra in the world") under its chief conductor, Ricardo Chailly, in still more Beethoven, another Seventh Symphony and the Emperor Concerto, plus a sonata movement (the Vivacissimamente happy ending of Les adieux) and a rarely performed overture (Prometheus) as encores.

I couldn't wait to hear the elegant and profound Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire in the Emperor. But like his friend Martha Argerich, he's a frequent canceler — this time, tendinitis forced him to bow out of this concert as well as the one three days later at Carnegie Hall. Instead, we got the Canadian virtuoso Louis Lortie, whose virtues are almost diametrically opposed to Freire's: speed and bravura rather than poetic insight and ravishing tone. Mainly loud, Lortie played the twinkling quiet section of the first movement so quietly, it seemed an affectation. With a lively contribution from Chailly and the orchestra, the Emperor survived, but Freire was sorely missed. The symphony was more satisfying. The Gewandhaus sounds rougher than the BSO, and the woodwinds aren't nearly as glamorous. But Chailly's gutsy energy, nuanced dynamics (shifting on a dime from very loud to very soft — like Levine, he separates the first and second violins), strong sense of direction, and Italianate singing line made this Seventh exhilarating and fun. The many young players seemed to be having a ball, and the spirited finale's youthful panache was irresistible.

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