PERSPECTIVE – Opera orchestras, whose players are possibly the hardest-working instrumentalists in show biz, don’t often enjoy prestige among Beethoven and Brahms audiences, though when they step out of the orchestra pit and onto the stage, their performances can hit like a symphonic tsunami. The energy required to play five hours of Wagner is suddenly concentrated into a two-hour concert. Why, you might wonder, would this come as a surprise to mainstream music lovers?
Symphonic concerts by opera orchestras in New York, Milan, and Paris tend to happen when the respective theater schedules allow, which can make these events special occasions but also easy to miss. In the recording industry, the Filarmonica della Scala is confined mostly to opera-related music. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic have much overlapping personnel, but these respective identities are so differentiated that they might as well be separate organizations.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra didn’t sound like itself when the late James Levine used its Carnegie Hall season as a chance to offer modernist works by Elliott Carter and middle-of-the-road performances of standard repertoire. But now, Yannick Nézet-Séguin brings the orchestra’s distinctively operatic attitude to Carnegie Hall. Under Fabio Luisi, the Philharmonia Zurich — which is drawn from the Zurich Opera Orchestra — is exploring edges not necessarily heard from the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. More unexpected is the emergence of the Orchestre de l’Opera National de Paris as a Beethoven orchestra in its 2016 Beethoven symphony cycle on DVD under Philippe Jordan (Arthaus Musik 109249). We’ll start there.
Paris has a certain history with Beethoven, dating back to the advocacy of composer-conductor Hector Berlioz. But that history is spotty, which may have been an advantage for Jordan, who was Paris Opera music director from 2009 to 2021. With fewer preconceived notions of how the music should go, the players are less likely to compromise Jordan’s ideas. But in spots where Jordan wasn’t quite there with one symphony or another, you hear it, perhaps because there wasn’t, at least at that time, a strong point of reference in the minds of the players that could enliven routine moments.
The Eroica Symphony is one of the high points. No matter how heterogeneous the piece gets, it remains effortlessly knitted together with an extraordinary singing line that can’t help but be enabled by the players spending their working hours with singers. Particularly in the second-movement funeral march, which has more disparate moving parts than any other Beethoven symphonic movement, the composer’s ideas have an insightful sense of inevitable continuity, with buoyancy maintained by extra-firm treatment of Beethoven’s harmonic support system. Jordan has since moved on to Vienna, and even recorded the Beethoven nine with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. But the cohesive lyricism of the Paris recordings may be unique.
Similar interpretive intervention is heard in the Philharmonia Zurich recordings. Though Luisi tends to be a classicist, a centrist, somebody who keeps a firm hold of the structure, his Schubert Symphony No. 9 is uncharacteristically fearless. Extreme tempo changes set off structural modules within the movements that yield Mahlerian emotional depths in the second movement. Call it operatic theatricality. Or maybe Luisi and company know listeners don’t expect much out of Schubert played by an opera orchestra, so why not just forget tradition and do it their way?
The Filarmonica della Scala is a gem that’s only somewhat known to U.S. listeners. European radio broadcasts under Riccardo Chailly that I have been monitoring in recent years have offered one astonishment after another. Far, far from the suave, air-brushed recordings Chailly made in decades past with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the La Scala orchestra doesn’t seem to be conducted so much as unleashed. Beethoven’s rough-hewn personality is particularly unfiltered in the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4. The final movement of the predominantly sweet-tempered Mahler Symphony No. 1 is far more explosive than usual, clearly pointing forward to the end-of-the-world cataclysms of the composer’s Symphony No. 2. Just when you think the music can’t get any bigger or scarier, it does.
Lack of seasoning occasionally shows: The Mahler Fifth has some disastrous trills in the first movement. But for the most part, this and other La Scala Mahler performances suggest why the composer never wrote a genuine opera: With the engrossing inner narrative heard here, he didn’t need to. The difference often lies in the great and often aggressive personalities of the incidental solos, so much so in the first movement of the Mahler Symphony No. 4 that there’s a heart-in-mouth suspense as to what will happen next. The solos also take Stravinsky’s Firebird suite well out of the realm of an oft-told fairy tale and into a high-def cinematic dimension. You could almost forget that there’s a string section. And that’s not because the string section is in any way forgettable.
Under guest conductor Daniele Gatti, the kind of refined string sound he drew from the La Scala players in the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 clearly reflects his years at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Yes, the La Scala musicians can do that, too — as well as the solos that probe the music’s crucial subtext. In contrast, the same symphony under Gatti with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra — only months apart from the Milan performance — draws its power from the amassed monumentality of the orchestra, though with far less sense of individual dramatic incidents. The Bavarian players hear the final movement as a single narrative that drives by many different musical places, whereas at La Scala the musical development is a series of episodes (without seeming episodic), like individual operatic scenes.
The comfortable mainstream symphonic performances that established the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall were nowhere to be heard at the June 15-16 performances there under Nézet-Séguin. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique had terrifying power with the piercing aggression of the incidental solos; even the ensemble portions behaved like highly animated stage characters. The more generalized brute force often applied in this music in other performances had no place.
None of these instances are meant to suggest that we redraw the boundaries of musical ownership — which orchestra is entitled to what repertoire — even in one’s own mind. This is just another interpretive option that deserves more honor. When the tables are turned, with symphonic orchestras giving concert performances of great operas, new dimensions are also revealed, such as the prism-like clarity that the Cleveland Orchestra brought to Verdi’s Otello this spring. The highlight of my web-cast season was the Berlin Philharmonic simulcast of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, which was rescued from semi-obscurity and established as one of the composer’s greatest works by the orchestra’s innate sense of majesty.
Some performances, though, confound all theories. You can’t always hope that a symphony orchestra will capture the quieter, inner narrative of an opera in a concert performance. But the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal most certainly did so in a concert performance of Die Walküre, Act I, on Aug. 6 at Festival de Lanaudière outside of Montreal (as heard and seen on Medici TV). It had its fallible moments but, more significantly, wedded both symphonic and operatic worlds.
The same conductor (Nézet-Séguin) and principal singers (Christine Goerke and Brandon Jovanovich) performed the same music during the Met Orchestra’s June stint at Carnegie Hall. As in New York, Nézet Séguin delivered the symphonic sweep that concert performances are noted for plus details that chart the gradual telepathic recognition as the separated siblings Sieglinde and Siegmund come to recognize their mutual beginnings. But the dramatic presence and word-centric singing from Goerke — more vivid in Montreal than at Carnegie — kept the performance firmly rooted in theatrical drama. We can never accurately predict what qualities fine artists will bring to the table. Or when.