NEW YORK — Thoughout the grueling last two years, audiences have remained vociferous in hailing both the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra players and their music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. When, after a three-month hiatus from his Met duties, the dynamic Canadian maestro reappeared with his forces for the traditional post-season Carnegie Hall concerts June 15 and 16, the crowds were poised to cheer with gusto. And fortunately the orchestra’s energized, often dazzling playing more than merited the accolades.
Both nights deployed huge numbers, with — to cite just one example — June 15’s Wagnerian portion swelling the harps onstage from two to five. Richard Strauss’ youthful Don Juan (1888) remains one of his most compelling tone poems, without the note-spinning of some later efforts. Nézet-Séguin launched headlong into the richly orchestrated work, with Strauss (son of a horn player) giving the brass section a taxing but spirited workout. Concertmaster David Chan also shone in his solo, and oboe principal Nathan Hughes rose to lyrical eloquence. This orchestra first played Don Juan in 1908 — when the name Richard Strauss evoked mainly scandal — and had done so in Carnegie as recently as 2016. But this was a thrilling traversal.
So was the follow-up, Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), first heard under John Adams at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2014 and recently done by the New York Philharmonic. The roughly 12-minute piece plays with an old meaning of “sinfonia” as “hurdy-gurdy,” an antique instrument with wheezing drones. It traces a satisfying arc, interlooping sections of intriguing, unorthodox instrumental textures, incorporating harmonicas and synthesizer. Mazzoli mounted the stage to a deserved ovation. Nézet-Séguin has brought to the Met stage — as conductor and administrator — several contemporary scores, and bids fair to do the same with the Carnegie concerts, and with a wider stylistic range than those (like Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen) favored under James Levine, who built the orchestra into a vehicle also primed for nonoperatic fare.
But opera figured in both programs. The first concert ended with the first act of Die Walküre. Despite a jest by Nézet-Séguin to the audience, concert presentations of Ring operas are hardly an innovation: Carnegie heard its first Act One Walküre concert in 1926. This one, if not the last word in interpretive depth, proved splendidly and propulsively played, the orchestra sounding rich and on fire through storms, godly leitmotifs, and romantic outbursts alike.
The singing, while it had its virtues, was not on the same exalted level. Nézet-Séguin’s soloists were three fine American singers in their 50s. The finest work came from tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund, a role he has sung with success in San Francisco. The Met has underused this international-class tenor, using him mainly as Don José in Carmen, and — though he’s also sung Lohengrin and Walther with major companies — this was his first Wagner assignment for the Met. It should not be his last. The voice is not a huge Heldentenor but sounds particularly beautiful in midrange and has the focus to cut through the orchestra. Without the circusy exaggeration popularized by Lauritz Melchior, Jovanovich was able to dispatch the long-held cries of “Wälse! Wälse!” thrillingly. The role sits in baritenor territory and — unlike what I heard in San Francisco in 2018 — here Jovanovich sometimes produced a kind of gargling sound in its very lower reaches. But he inhabited every utterance and phrase with full dramatic assurance; dressed in a tuxedo, he successfully projected the tortured loner finally meeting his romantic (if incestuous) destiny.
In terms of making a concert reading fully dramatic, he found an apt partner in Christine Goerke. The soprano has demonstrated in Boston Symphony concert performances of Brünnhilde (at Tanglewood) and Elektra (on the Carnegie stage) her remarkable ability to render grandiose operatic characters relatable in human terms through stance, gesture, and facial expression. Not every skilled operatic actor can work this magic in concert. Here she confronted for the first time the music of Brünnhilde’s mortal half-sister, Sieglinde, the character whose profound but all-too-human marital unhappiness pulls Wagner’s tetralogy out of the realm of gods, giants, and gnomes into our normal world.
In the way she entered and left the stage, held her hands and body, and listened to her partners’ words, Goerke gave us the sympathetic character absolutely fully drawn. Vocally things were less sure. There’s nothing in Sieglinde’s range that exceeds Goerke’s grasp in principle, and indeed some stretches of Erda-like contralto richness at the bottom indicated that this singer’s shape-shifting, three-decade career promises some interesting developments to come. Similarly, after she had sung herself in — by the refulgent climax of “Du bist der Lenz” and in the act’s exultant finale — she sounded quite glorious. But previously, in fact from her opening “Ein fremder Mann,” flatness of pitch was an issue, and one didn’t know what kind of vocal production to expect from phrase to phrase. New assignment nerves, perhaps? Next season at the Met under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, Goerke returns to one of her best Wagnerian parts, Lohengrin‘s Ortrud; no reason she shouldn’t be able to work Sieglinde’s similarly “central” tessitura into her voice.
Eric Owens first made his mark in Wagner’s Ring cycle as a wrenching Alberich, later evolving into a noble Wotan. Here he had the lower-set role of Hunding, potentially a scene-stealer even in the face of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s burgeoning love. Owens, scorebound throughout, stole no scenes. By comparison with his vocally lackluster Porgy and Philippe II this season, he was in even and fully audible vocal form. Owens is always a scrupulous musician, and everything was measured, on pitch, and correct. Yet he invested Hunding’s threatening utterances with little menace; his colleagues seemed facially and with body language to be living and reacting to every line of dialogue, but Owens projected little interpretive energy. The Philadelphia bass-baritone is kind of an icon, and justly so; I’ve seen him terrify audiences (in Le grand macabre), make them smile (in Doctor Atomic), and move them to tears (in Lost in the Stars). It’s concerning that this gifted, intelligent performer has in recent years grown so emotionally occluded in his stage work.
The next night was another triumph for the orchestra — and something of a revelation: In Hector Berlioz, previously not in his Met repertory at all, Nézet-Séguin seems to have found a near-ideal field for his talents. Berlioz’s unorthodox scoring and frequent mix of the ludic and the tragic brought out his own antic enthusiasm. He began with the romping, lavishly orchestrated Le Corsaire overture, an early (1844) work the composer revised before starting work on Les Troyens in the subsequent decade. Both the string and brass sections showed top form.
Next came three bracing selections from Les Troyens à Carthage. Joyce DiDonato made her only appearance with the Met Orchestra this season: The crowd showed rapt silence for (and then vociferous approval of) her intense, searching performance. Like Goerke and Jovanovich, DiDonato fully understands the art of concert opera. With keen declamation and eloquent gestures, she enacted both Didon’s proud greeting of and tribute to her people, before her fateful meeting with Énée; and then her rage, thirst for revenge, and eventual resignation after the destiny-compelled hero deserts her. Here, the Carnegie program failed us, because it omitted the wonderful and crucial recitatives before each selection, “Nous avons vu finir” and “Dieux immortels! il part!” Too bad, as they balance the fully cantabile portions that follow, “Chers Tyriens” (here with chorus omitted) and the haunting “Adieu, fière cité,” and the mezzo-soprano gave them full value.
With glowing demi-teints, she aced what seems to me emotionally the key transitional line of the later scene — typically, for this composer, at once reaching back to Gluck stylistically and prefiguring the more conversational word setting of Ravel and Poulenc: “S’il reste dans son âme quelque chose d’humain, peut-être il pleurera sur mon affreux destin.” The intervening orchestral “Royal Hunt and Storm” largely worked its almost proto-cinematic magic, though the horn calls lacked some of the needed mystery. DiDonato’s soft singing retains its immaculate tonal finish. Not all listeners enjoy the habit she’s adopted in the last, post-Maria Stuarda decade of using a more wiry sound to finesse high-decibel climactic passages. But here she always stayed on pitch and phrased with expert musicianship, only occasionally yielding to semi-parlando delivery when the text warranted it — as with the almost peremptory “Vénus! rends-moi ton fils!,” insightfully delivered as a command by one well used to commanding.
One hopes this was a down payment on (rather than a substitute for) staged Met performances of Troyens with Nézet-Séguin and DiDonato. The company has a very fine production that was opened memorably by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose voice was also not of massive scale. And both Jovanovich and Michael Spyres (with whom DiDonato recorded the opera under John Nelson) are accomplished Éneés. Plus, the company owns very workable (if admittedly expensive to mount) stagings of La damnation de Faust and Benevenuto Cellini, both seemingly fertile possibilities for Nézet-Séguin, especially with Spyres on hand.
After intermission came the Symphonie fantastique, which the Met Orchestra first played in 1896. Overfamiliar the work may be, but this was an electric performance, opulent in tone but never stinting the sheer weirdness of some of Berlioz’s effects, like the third movement’s haunting shepherds calls (onstage English horn in dialogue with offstage oboe). For the encore, one expected another slice of orchestral Berlioz. But when DiDonato came back onstage, the mind filled with thoughts of Marguerite or Béatrice’s famous arias, or maybe “La mort d’Ophélie” or “Le spectre de la rose,” all of which she’s mastered. Instead, she gave a stop-time performance of one of her iconic encores, Strauss’ muted Lied “Morgen” — beautifully done by the singer and, until a kind of fade-out in the final moments, concertmaster Benjamin Bowman. The wistfully hopeful song, to a text by John Henry Mackay, a Scottish expat in Berlin, seemed aptly like a benediction for the whole season.