Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Lest We Forget

May 17, 2010

Pierre Boulez, Deborah Polaski, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Photo: mine 2010

A final footnote to the Metropolitan Opera’s 09/10 season occurred on Sunday with a bit of a consolation prize. One of the biggest successes of last season was an import of the spectacular production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead by Patrice Chéreau that had previously appeared to acclaim in several locations in Europe. The Met had gone to great trouble to bring the production largely intact to its stage, but failed to persuade the original conductor, Pierre Boulez, to travel to New York for the run and to make his debut with the company. It all worked out for the best, though, in that Esa-Pekka Salonen was recruited as Boulez’ replacement to great fanfare. But, Boulez did finally make his company debut after all this season in a concert Sunday with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. And while it certainly wasn’t the equivalent of hearing him lead this world class orchestra in the pit, it was a great show and a sad reminder of what this particular company had missed out on by not getting a commitment for his services at some earlier point in his long and illustrious career.

The program began with Bartók’s music for the ballet The Wooden Prince. Bartók isn’t best remembered for ballet music and this is far from the tradition established by the likes of Tchaikovsky. It’s an often dark piece with Bartók’s usual folk music-inspired infusions. Boulez brought out the most modern details in the piece in a sound from the orchestra that was big and very warm. That the Met Orchestra is one of the world’s best is no surprise, but hearing them on stage in this context (where they appear three times a season) is always a refreshing reminder of their power. The ballet’s plot concerns a love between a prince and princess which is thwarted by a jealous fairy who sends a wooden replica of the prince to the princess in his stead. The princess falls for the facsimile at first, but everything has a happy ending. Boulez understands restraint in the context of big and dramatic gestures, a lesson still lost more often than not on younger generations of conductors.

Given these themes about illusions of love, Boulez couldn’t have selected a more appropriate 20th-century counterpart than he did with a concert version of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. This 12-tone monodrama for soprano and orchestra deals with a young woman who has gone to meet her lover. When he doesn’t arrive, she wanders the forest looking for him and eventually becomes convinced she has found his dead body. The soloist was Deborah Polaski who sounded perfectly respectable here if a little detached in the first half of the work. Boulez and the orchestra again gave a fantastically detailed and caring performance of a piece almost too dense to easily consider in its brief 30 minutes. It was more than enough, though, to convey the contradictions and riddles of perception inherent in the work. The Met Orchestra’s time with Boulez was all too brief overall, and while it was sad to think about all the music that could have been made between them, it was wonderful to have this.

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