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From Wagner to Verdi: Lise Davidsen at Carnegie Hall and the Met Opera

Lise Davidsen, La Forza del Destino, Met Opera
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The Met's current revival of Verdi's La Forza Del Destino - which will be broadcast live in HD and on the radio this Saturday - has garnered both positive and negative reactions, mostly having to do with Mariusz Treliński's bleak modernist staging, as well as some uneven singing among the cast. But, I was mostly concerned with the collective assessment of soprano Lise Davidsen as Leonora, who is making her stage debut in the role. (She sang a concert version with Norwegian Opera last fall.) Verdict: a mixed bag over the opera's 4 1/2 hour length, but she is unassailable in her solos, particularly the show-stopping Act 4 aria, "Pace, pace, mio Dio." (You can hear the full performance here.)

Frankly, Davidsen can afford some tepid reviews considering the splash she's made since her Met debut five years ago in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. Since then, she's wowed New York audiences - including me - with her soaring, impossibly voluminous voice in roles such as Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss' Elektra, and the title role in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. The Times' Zachary Woolfe says of Davidsen: "There are vanishingly few artists in the world (today) singing with such generosity, sensitivity and visceral impact."

Tackling Italian opera for the first time at the Met, Davidsen is boldly stepping outside of her comfort zone, requiring a warmer, more fluid style than the meaty German repertoire in which she excels. And, while she isn't yet on par with the great Verdi divas of yesteryear, Davidsen manages to pack an emotional punch, having spent long hours developing the phrasing and fluid tone this music requires.

“I had to work harder to convince the houses that I could even do Verdi and the Italian repertoire,” Davidsen told the Times recently. “But vocally, I am quite ready.”

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The Vienna Philharmonic Plays Music of the Early 20th Century at Carnegie Hall

Franz Welser-Most with the Vienna Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, 3/2/24by Pete Matthews

In a world that's sometimes feels it's on the brink of chaos, it's comforting to know that some things can still be relied upon as winter turns to spring: buds appear on the trees, birds return from warmer climes, blossoms begin to poke through the pebbles. And the Vienna Philharmonic comes to Carnegie Hall.

For those who need a primer, the Vienna Philharmonic is one of the world's great cultural treasures, a living, breathing avatar of western classical music. From its founding in 1842, the Vienna Phil has either premiered or been closely associated with many of the boldest names in musical history, including Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, and Wagner. But, far from resting on its laurels, the Vienna Phil has maintained its reputation as one of the best - if not the best - performing orchestras in the world thanks to its unique sound and performance practice that balances precision and theatrical flair to ultimate effect. And while they still have a long ways to go to reach the gender parity of orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, this self-governing institution is creeping ever closer to becoming an ensemble built on merit rather than some outdated notion of "emotional unity." 

This past weekend, the Vienna Phil arrived in NYC - as they have each and every year since 1984 with the exception of 2020-21 - with music from the first three decades of the 20th century. With no principal conductor, they brought along with them one of their supposed favorites: fellow Austrian (and current Carnegie Perspectives artist) Franz Welser-Möst for the first time since 2017. Having recently announced his intention to curtail his conducting activities due to health issues, these concerts had a hint of wistfulness to them: Welser-Möst, 63, walked across the Carnegie stage much more gingerly than he has in the past.

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Boston Symphony Orchestra Brings Opera Back to Carnegie Hall

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Carnegie Hall, 1/30/24
by Pete Matthews

While I will always and forever cherish my summers seeing the Boston Symphony Orchestra up in their summer home at Tanglewood, it's always a treat (not to mention a convenience) to catch them here in NYC, where they've played Carnegie Hall just about every year since it opened in 1891. Some of those concerts have been among my most memorable experiences at Carnegie, such as Seiji Ozawa leading a 2001 performance of Berlioz' Requiem in tribute to the victims of 9/11, or the gargantuan forces assembled for Mahler's 8th symphony in James Levine's first appearance as Music Director in 2004.

The BSO returned to Carnegie this week with a pair of concerts under current Music Director Andris Nelsons that displayed an impressive breadth of repertoire. On Monday, they performed a colorful program that included Tania León's Pulitzer Prize-winning Stride, Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (with Seong Jin-Cho) and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I wasn't in the hall that night, but was able to hear the concert from the comfort of my couch thanks to WQXR's Carnegie Hall Live program; the Rite, in particular, was both deliberate and ferocious. (Soon, you'll be able to hear an archive broadcast of the concert here.)

I did, however, make it to last night's performance: an ambitious concert performance of Shostakovich's 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. (The performance was rescheduled from April 2021 due to COVID.) Under Nelsons, who grew up in Latvia (formerly part of the Soviet Union), the BSO has recently completed a decade-long survey of Shostakovich's symphonies (all recorded for Deutsche Grammophon), so it's only natural that they now turn to Shostakovich's one traditional opera. (His earlier absurdist experiment The Nose appeared at the Met for the first time in 2010.) Begun when Shostakovich was only 24, Lady Macbeth shows a remarkable command of orchestration, a bounty of colorful, expressive singing - and one helluva juicy story about a woman trapped in a sexless marriage who seeks out - and finds - sex with someone else. Which leads to all kinds of trouble.

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