Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, reminded us how much we will miss the baton of the ailing James Levine this season at the Metropolitan Opera. Given the competition across Lincoln Center Plaza, Wednesday’s opening-night program, dominated by operatic standards, invited a comparison in which Gilbert shows poorly.
Gilbert made his career conducting middle-of-the-program repertoire, that is, new music that must be sandwiched in between standards to prevent the audience from arriving late or leaving early. Last night’s opening of the Philharmonic season was devoted exclusively to low-risk crowd-pleasers, with American music represented by Samuel Barber, the most accessible of twentieth-century composers. The rest of the program was devoted to Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.
“Listening to this impassioned, despotic music, painted upon the depths of darkness, riven by dreams, it seems like the vertiginous imaginings of opium,” wrote the poet Charles Baudelaire on first hearing Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser in 1861; if he had watched last night’s telecast, the author of the Flowers of Evil would have wondered what he had seen in the work back then. Gilbert’s pedestrian version of the opera’s overture called to mind an actor replicating a magician’s stage act without being aware that his actions were supposed to be magic tricks. Wagner’s musical magic may creak and wheeze, but Gilbert wholly lacked the nuance of gesture and timing that can still make it captivating. It was the least interesting rendition of the work this reviewer can remember.
Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s play, set the the standard for post-romantic decadence. In orchestral excerpts from the work, Gilbert gave us something more akin to suburban family dysfunction. Strauss’ music undulates and seduces; in Gilbert’s interpretation it tromped about in sensible shoes. Perversion, alas, never was quite so commonplace. The evening brightened, though, when Deborah Voigt, one of our great dramatic sopranos, joined the Philharmonic for the opera’s final scene. Voigt is not only an exceptional singer but a canny musician who knows how to lead an orchestra with her voice. Her concluding performance was worth the wait many times over.