Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Think Again

December 14, 2008

Lorin Maazel, Deborah Polaski and the New York Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

Sometimes, it’s all about your expectations. Saturday’s a good example where two performances left me with very different impressions – each quite in contrast to what I thought they might. On the good news side was the New York Philharmonic’s last of four concert performances of Strauss’ Elektra. While I love Strauss, I do not love the orchestra’s music director Lorin Maazel and my prior experiences with him have been highly variable. The cast was first rate and very experienced in these roles including Deborah Polaski as Elektra, Jane Henschel as her mother Clytemnestra, and Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis. But despite my reservations, it was a barn-burning performance from Maazel and the orchestra. Both detailed and urgent, the performance was mesmerizing, holding the audience rapt for the single act work. Polaski may not be the warmest voice, but like Waltraud Meier’s amazing Isolde from Friday night, there is a lot to be said for knowing a role so well that it feels lived in. Polaski is searing with rage throughout. Schwanewilms and Henschel matched her intensity creating a rich and wonderful evening.

Felicity Palmer as the Countess
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

Earlier in the afternoon, however, the Metropolitan Opera had a much harder time selling a work that may have looked better on paper. It was the final performance in the current run of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades under the baton of Seiji Ozawa making his first appearance at the Met in over a decade. At the center of this painfully dull production was a wellloved, but struggling Ben Heppner. He’s been plagued with health problems all year and after missing the majority of performances of Tristan in the spring here in New York, he successfully made all of his appearances as Ghermann. However, his absence may have been preferable under the circumstances. On Saturday he was again cracking and faltering throughout, though the audience did get a “please excuse my illness” announcement at the start of the second act. Set against this was Maria Guleghina who seems a bit vocally heavy and extreme for the role of Lisa. Nothing here ignited in any way and the dark, dull black and white production from Elijah Mushinsky only exacerbated these problems. There were a few bright spots though. Felicity Palmer continues to be a strong asset for this house (indeed, houses everywhere) and her Countess was chilling. Mark Delavan is always a pleasure to hear, and Saturday was no exception. Seiji Ozawa led the Met orchestra in a really beautiful performance, but the odds were against him with the cast on stage.

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