By Susan Brodie
NEW YORK – Carnegie Hall presented an exciting brace of concerts with the long-absent Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano, with two high-profile soloists. The ageless, miraculous Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, back at Carnegie for the first time in nine years, packed the house on Oct. 20 for Verdi, Prokofiev, and Respighi (the concert is available to view here). The following evening attracted a different audience, with the phenomenal Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan in the U.S. premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino’s 2014 retelling of the Orpheus myth, provocatively paired with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.
It’s hard to believe that this series marked Pappano’s Carnegie Hall debut. The London-born conductor lived in the U.S. from his teen years, studying music and beginning his musical career as a rehearsal pianist for the New York City Opera. He served as Daniel Barenboim’s assistant at Bayreuth and made his conducting debut in 1987 at Den Norske Opera, where he became music director in 1990. In his illustrious career he has led several opera houses, and since 2002 he has been music director at the Royal Opera House in London. In 2005 he became music director of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Italy’s oldest orchestra devoted to symphonic repertoire (founded in 1908).
Hannigan, who makes her home in Amsterdam, is less well known in the U.S. than she deserves. Contemporary music is her specialty, though her operatic roles also include Mozart (Donna Anna) and Debussy (Mélisande) as well as Berg’s Lulu and Agnès in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Physically fearless as an actress, she has also been expanding her activities into conducting. A good showcase for her multi-talents is Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. But neither conducting nor athletic skills were in evidence Saturday night when she strode onto Carnegie’s stage in a pale swirling gown and diva hairdo, the picture of Eurydice, though she was to give voice to Orpheus.
Salvatore Sciarrino is at age 70 among Italy’s most prominent composers as well as a probing writer. He is largely self-taught, though his formal studies included work in electronic music at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. His musical style is searching and enigmatic, intellectually grounded but sensuous. He creates a distinctive sound palette by using unusual instrumental techniques, like bowing a violin with the wood of the bow instead of the hair, or blowing into a wind or brass instrument without creating a fully resonant sound. Only larger-scale sounds deploy more conventional techniques to swell the sonorities.
For La nuova Euridice secondo Rilke (The New Eurydice according to Rilke), Sciarrino adapted a text from Rainer Maria Rilke’s retelling of the Orpheus myth that pivots around the moment when Orpheus, after defying death to fetch his bride from the underworld, disobeys the order to not look at Eurydice as he leads her back to the living. The title honors the woman, but the focus is on the man who confronts the terror of death and the existential contradiction of a return from the dead. As Sciarrino writes, “It wasn’t by chance that Clemente Alessandrino [the second-century Greek saint and scholar] called Christ ‘Our Orpheus,'” referencing Christianity’s primary belief in resurrection. The uncertainty that she will indeed follow is almost incidental, but of course it is the crux of the story.
Hannigan was called on to use unusual vocal means (a specialty of hers) as she stammered out the text, a coolly detached yet charged description of Orpheus leading Eurydice through the underworld on their fraught journey. The stuttering, speech-like recitative, much like German expressionist Sprechgesang, repeating words and syllables, was underscored with fragmentary, hallucinatory instrumental sounds. The vocal line emerged as one voice from the chattering mass of the orchestra, with registers and sonorities reflecting both the language contours and the emotions of the text.
Orpheus’ mission became a ghost tale, his fear and disorientation contrasting with Eurydice’s calm, almost indifferent presence. When he finally turns to look, the crucial moment passes in an instant, as Eurydice slips back into the underworld to take root, the fleeting possibility evaporating as if it had never existed. A shorter, second section contemplates music as the medium for feelings. Here Hannigan’s light soprano, freed from the almost guttural semi-recitative in her lower register, soared in lyrical outbursts. I found the piece mesmerizing, but reports from the balcony suggested that the emotions projected with difficulty.
Before the concert Pappano addressed the audience from the podium to explain the links between the two pieces, but purely on a the basis of their respective sounds, the pairing of Mahler’s massive Sixth Symphony with something as fragile as Sciarrino’s work was jarring.
As promised by Pappano, the Mahler teemed with chaotic emotion, like La nuova Euridice, but it felt bombastic. The opening march-like Allegro energico (Vehement, but vigorous) seemed especially heavy and thick after the almost spectral Sciarrino. The swooning “Alma” theme felt hurried rather than rhapsodic. The heaviness was particularly marked since in this performance the lead-footed Scherzo followed the ponderous first movement, contrary to the order printed in the program (Mahler had originally ordered the movements as played on this concert, though he switched the order of the middle movements in subsequent performances and printed editions). The more lyrical Andante came as a relief, though it lacked Viennese lilt, and the peasant dance middle section wanted suppleness.
The fragmented opening measures of the final movement recalled the searching confusion of the Sciarrino, but ultimately the symphony seemed too much a blunt instrument next to La nuova Euridice, and the orchestra sounded like a different ensemble. While it’s always a thrill to hear Mahler live, and while both pieces were in some senses philosophically compatible, I would have preferred to hear the new work twice, framed perhaps by excerpts from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice or another similarly scaled work more in keeping with the Orpheus theme.