For two evenings at Carnegie Hall, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a tremendous display of power. After a turbulent season, in which concerns beyond the music sometimes diverted attention from the stage, these back-to-back concerts served as a reminder of the orchestra’s pre-eminence in theatrical material.
Each concert combined excerpts from an opera with a programmatic piece, an inherently dramatic form that portrays a story or character using instrumental forces. Wednesday’s performance combined Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan” with Act I of Wagner’s “Die Walküre”, and Thursday’s all-Berlioz program placed arias and an interlude from “Les Troyens” alongside ” Fantastic Symphony”, a revolutionary work that looks more like a musical drama than a symphony.
The opening with “Don Juan” felt like a statement of intent. Here, world-class musicians tackled a symphonic poem of bravery that established the 25-year-old Strauss’ modernist bona fides. The orchestra flaunted the depth and breadth of its tone in the opening motif, an upward swinging phrase dripping with swagger. The horns covered themselves in glory, and concertmaster David Chan and oboist Nathan Hughes contributed well-done solos. At one point, the sound of the set became so frantic that it became shrill. At the end, the crowd screamed.
The opera had arrived in the concert hall, and it was going to make a glorious noise.
It is Nézet-Séguin the extrovert, who deploys the opera orchestra like an instrument of fate, keeping the volume from base to mezzo forte. The orchestra appears as an external force that acts on the characters rather than a force that sympathetically expresses their innermost feelings. The best opera directors, however, know when a script calls for one or the other.
In this perspective, the end of “Don Juan” reveals a weakness: Nézet-Séguin is more effective in the big moments than in the small ones. Strauss gives his swashbuckling Don Juan a poetic, even philosophical ending, but with Nézet-Séguin he kind of dropped dead.
You could hear Nézet-Séguin working the dynamic accents in real time at Carnegie. Wagner constructed the twilight setting of Act I of “Die Walküre” from soft, amber instruments – cellos, bassoons, clarinets, horns. Nézet-Séguin, however, focused less on humor and more on heady, soaring romance. It certainly sounded as if the fateful union of Siegmund and Sieglinde was blessed by their father, Wotan, king of the gods: Nézet-Séguin invoked the divine — that is, awesome — playing of the musicians.
Christine Goerke (Sieglinde) and Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund), both Wagner veterans, are not singers to be kicked off a stage. Goerke, who sang Brünnhilde, easily navigated Sieglinde’s music with her dramatic soprano, reaching the climaxes instead of being carried away by them.
Jovanovich had the most grueling part. The writing for Siegmund constantly pushes a tenor into a muscular sound at the top of the staff, and Jovanovich’s base notes paid the price, taking on a gritty gurgling sound. The middle and top of his voice remained manly, beautiful and tense, and his narration traversed a remarkable series of emotions – vulnerable, proud, gentle, dismissive, morally upright – before finding transcendence.
Eric Owens, glued to his score, could not suppress the nobility of his bass-baritone as brutal Hunding; instead, he channeled the character’s villainy with a stubborn and suspicious manner.
After ‘Die Walküre’, Nézet-Séguin insisted that the cello section be applauded — a touching acknowledgment of the leading role it played. He also teased members of the public as they made their way up the aisles to leave: ‘We have an encore scheduled,’ he said, stopping people in their tracks – ‘it’s called tomorrow night’s concert .”
At the start of the following evening, the lively quality of the strings of Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire” Overture indicated that a very different concert was in preparation.
Nézet-Séguin took care to calm the orchestra for the two arias by Joyce DiDonato taken from Berlioz’s “Troyens”. DiDonato’s mezzo-soprano isn’t typical for the role of Dido – full, rich, expansive – but she defied expectations, honing her light, shimmering timbre to a blade for the scene that culminates in “Farewell, proud city “. Shaken and debased after Aeneas abandons her, Dido fantasizes about killing the Trojans, but ultimately she accepts her fate, recalling sensual memories of her time with the Quest Hero. DiDonato cast a spell, ending the aria on a sonorous thread, his Dido a shell of herself – but what an exquisite shell it was.
There was fun, too: Nézet-Séguin bounced happily over the cheery bits of “Le Corsaire” and dug deep into the twisted, macabre finale of “Symphonie Fantastique,” with its cackling ghouls and sulphurous tune.
After raising hell, Nézet-Séguin pivoted again, welcoming DiDonato onstage for an encore, Strauss’ “Morgen.” As he quieted the orchestra to a whisper, DiDonato and concertmaster Benjamin Bowman intertwined their silver tones. This time, Nézet-Séguin has found the right balance.