I'm supposed to be spending these languorous summer days planning lectures, and I am, mostly. But New York, eternal temptress, lured me out this past week to the Philharmonic's "Summertime Classics" series. As a side note, I was surprised both by the series' aggressively "accessible" marketing campaign, and by its apparent success: the average audience age seemed to have dropped by several decades from my usual NYPhil experiences, and also seemed more diverse in almost every conceivable way. Apparently, the series is the brainchild of some NYPhil higher-ups and the conductor who presided over all the events, Bramwell Tovey. I was wary of the label "conductor/host," but Tovey turned out to be not only a spirited conductor, but also overflowing with erudition which he seemed eager to share in a non-patronizing way. The catalyst for the series? Tovey's conducting of Webern's Symphony, Op. 21, back in 2001, which he decided to introduce with historical context and catchy anecdotes to intrigue and pacify the audience. I fear this may be a Terrible Indictment of New York audiences... but I didn't find the format offensive, and if this does work as a successful gambit, I'd love to feel less alone in the under-50 crowd on those (admittedly somewhat rare) occasions when the symphony does steal an evening of my free time away from the Met.
Meandering aside: Tuesday evening's concert was entitled, inexplicably, "La Dolce Vita," and offered, in addition to the contributions of the evening's promoted diva, Nicole Cabell, the overture to La Cenerentola, Manon Lescaut's Intermezzo, and ballet music from Gounod's Faust and Massenet's Le Cid. Well, seeing that line-up in the "special ticket offer" e-mail, I couldn't stay away! The Massenet was a new discovery for me, and a pleasant one: so ostentatiously Spanish-flavored as to seem almost whimsical at times, but certainly seductive (a 2002 performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons may be found here.) The Gounod I found lulling as always; I was too conscious of the context of Puccini's passion not to be depressed by it. Still, Maestro Tovey won my sympathy by his enthusiastic effusion about the dramatic punch packed by orchestral interludes in opera. And there was Rossini, and I claim that not smiling irrepressibly in response to La Cenerentola must be a sign of some deep malaise. (Here is a recent version from the Met, with the bonus of an introduction by Thomas Hampson.)
Netrebko/Villazon Boheme, which, as a cantankerous aside, I found depressingly uninspired as a whole. But she exuded a charm which I thought was sadly lacking elsewhere ("Quando m'en vo" and finale of Act II here.) It can be hard to show the fundamental goodness of Musetta alongside her flamboyant flirting in Act II, and I thought Cabell did a nice job with characterization, embracing the beauty and drama of the music. I also really liked Marcello, but then I found out in the credits that he was two people, singer and actor, which frankly enraged me. I digress... again. Back to the program!
I have to deliver my assessment with a double caveat: Ms. Cabell was miked (confusingly, to me; surely her schedule proves she can fill a house without amplification?) and I was recovering from an infection which left my hearing less than perfect. That being said, I thought the soprano exhibited lovely phrasing, a light touch, and warm and persuasive expression (not to mention a figure, and dresses, which wouldn't have looked out of place in a Bond film.) Cabell's contributions to the first half of the program were from the French repertoire, and in two very showy pieces, she showed a really creditable sensitivity and subtlety. From Charpentier's Louise, she sang "Depuis le jour" with all the calm, triumphant confidence of the love that believes it truly can conquer all, and perhaps already has. (It's among the selections on her much-awarded debut album.) "Je ris de me voir" was also beautifully done. Cabell's musicianship was confident enough that the technical challenges seemed a means rather than an end, depicting Marguerite's innocence, deeper than Louise's; she is truly untouched and trusting as she delights in the sensuality of these beautiful baubles.
While I am always delighted to find Mozart on an evening's program, "Dove Sono" was not a highlight of the evening for me. Here as elsewhere Cabell seemed to have a real feeling for the emotional resonance of the music, but she had more vibrato and a lighter sound than I'm used to for the Countess. She truly came into her own, though, in the Italian selections which finished off the evening. From Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore she gave "Prendi, per me sei libero." (A lovely compilation of interpretations of this lovely moment may be found on Taminophile's blog.) Her light, sweet soprano flowed with apparent effortlessness over that exquisite opening "Prendi," and continued to pour on the charm, with acting which might well have made many an audience member jealous of the imagined Nemorino. And that was all for the scheduled program, but the enthusiastically-applauded soprano was brought out by the conductor at the end for an ecstatically greeted encore: "O mio babbino caro." Predictable enough, but delivered without histrionics, letting the melody flow without neglecting the emotional context of Lauretta's plea. Altogether, a lovely evening, one that piqued my interest in Ms. Cabell, and hopefully piqued the interest of some of the other concert-goers in the operas from which her music sprang.