From Scandinavia to Italy, Cleveland Orchestra closes season in colorful travelogue

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 23, 2019

Grieg: Morning Mood, The Death of Åse, and At the Wedding from Peer Gynt, Op. 23
Sibelius: Kaiutar, No. 4 from Six Songs, Op. 72
Sibelius: Illale, No. 6 from Seven Songs, Op. 17
Sibelius: Aus banger Brust, No. 4 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Svarta rosor, No. 1 from Six Songs, Op. 36
Sibelius: Kom nu hit, död!, No. 1 from Two Songs for Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night, Op. 60
Sibelius: Im Feld ein Mädchen singt, No. 3 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Die stille Stadt, No. 5 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Var det en dröm?, No. 4 from Five Songs, Op. 37
Strauss: Aus Italien, Op. 16

Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra closed the 2018-19 season in an alluring program, with all selections stemming from the late 19th-century (and in to the early 20th), connected by Romantic fascinations from awe-inspiring destinations to drama and poetry. Beginning the evening were selections from Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt. Welser-Möst culled his own suite of three excerpts rather than opting for either of the two suites the composer later produced. The selections were performed in reverse order of appearance in the source material, opening with the familiar Morning Mood (which serves as the prelude to Act 4). Silvery flutes beckoned the morning, with the songful theme passed around the woodwinds before appearing in the strings. Welser-Möst’s brisk tempo ensured matters were never sentimentalized. Lush and mournful strings made The Death of Åse the emotional crux, easily a precursor to Barber’s Adagio. At the Wedding (which opens the complete work) was given with vigor and joyous abandon. A more languorous theme was very finely played in turn by the principal winds while Wesley Collins’ offstage viola radiated folksy charm.

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Simon Keenlyside and Franz Welser-Möst, photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

On the heels of his lieder recital a few days prior, Simon Keenlyside returned for the evening’s centerpiece and highpoint – a helping of eight of the seldom-performed songs of Sibelius. The songs at hand were variously in Finnish, Swedish, or German, and in some cases orchestrated by Sibelius himself, others by contemporaries. Keenlyside brought out the lyrical qualities of the Swedish language in Kaiutar, with an orchestration that encouraged its fantastical, fairy-tale atmosphere. Crepuscular strings made Illale a true gem, and the next selection turned to German in a setting of Richard Dehmel’s Aus banger Brust. Dehmel’s poetry served as text for the likes of Strauss and Schoenberg, and Sibelius proved no less adept with the work’s acerbic dissonances and moving solo passages from concertmaster Peter Otto in faithful service of the text. Svarta rosor, a comparatively better-known quantity, was of robust lyricism and grand emotions, nearly operatic with an unforgiving close to boot.

Unlike the others all originally scored for voice and piano, Kom nu hit, död! came from a set of two Swedish settings of Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night for voice and guitar, given a rather gloomy reading at present. The richness of Im Feld ein Mädchen singt could easily have been mistaken for Strauss, while Die stille Stadt – another Dehmel setting – maintained a remarkably surreal atmosphere, enhanced by ethereal sounds from the glockenspiel, harp, and high strings. The last selection, Var det en dröm?, displayed again Keenlyside’s keen ability to seamlessly switch languages, and brought matters to a passionate, satisfying close, feeling almost as if these eight otherwise disparate songs were conceived as a unified cycle.

Strauss’ Aus Italien drew inspiration from an Italian journey undertaken by the composer as an impressionable youth, and became the first entry in his great series of tone poems. It’s an immature work to be sure, yet many Straussian hallmarks are already firmly in place, setting the stage for the musical revolutions that would soon be flowing from his pen. This was certainly apparent in the opening Auf der Campagne which could only have been written by Strauss, with elemental beginnings burgeoning into material larger than life. Brassy passages were of arresting vigor, although otherwise matters in performance weren’t entirely polished, sounding as if some extra rehearsal time was needed – no doubt, I suspect, ironed out by the Saturday performance.

Rather than the single-movement architecture of the successive tone poems, Aus Italien was conceived far less cohesively as four distinct portraits. In Roms Ruinen followed suit, generally lighter fare of Italianate charm interspersed with more solemn moments in awe of the eponymous ruins. Strauss’ idiomatic orchestral effects certainly began to crystallize in Am Strande von Sorrent, a coloristic painting of the sun-drenched coast of Sorrento. The closing Neapolitanisches Volksleben marked the work as a foreigner’s less than reliable view of Italy in that Strauss mistook a popular tune of the day for bone fide Neapolitan folk music (I was somewhat reminded of the All’Italiana movement from the Busoni piano concerto heard earlier this season – though there the composer was no foreigner, it too juxtaposed Italianate folk melodies in the context of an otherwise very Teutonic musical language). In any case, matters were nonetheless of an infectious joie de vivre, banal yet so colorfully orchestrated. The orchestra’s committed playing heightened one’s interest: ultimately the rewards were mixed, though the players on stage made as strong a case as they could in this vintage work displaying the budding composer’s incipient genius.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra in Aus Italien
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Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra score another operatic success in Ariadne auf Naxos

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 13, 2019

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60

Tamara Wilson, soprano (Ariadne/Diva)
Andreas Schager, tenor (Bacchus/Tenor)
Daniela Fally, soprano (Zerbinetta)
Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano (Composer)
Wolfgang Brendel, speaking role (Major-Domo)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone (Music Master)
Jonas Hacker, tenor (Dance Master)
Julie Mathevet, soprano (Naiad)
Daryl Freedman, mezzo-soprano (Dryad)
Ying Fang, soprano (Echo)
Ludwig Mittelhammer, baritone (Harlequin)
James Kryshak, tenor (Scaramuccio)
Anthony Schneider, bass (Trufffaldino)
Miles Mykkanen, tenor (Brighella)

Frederic Wake-Walker, director
Alexander V. Nichols, lighting, projection, and set design
Dominic Robertson & Lottie Bowater, collage, animation, and video content design
Jason Southgate, costume design
Mallory Pace, hair and makeup design

In what has become an essential part of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Severance Hall season, music director Franz Welser-Möst led his ensemble in a staged opera production, this season turning attention towards Richard Strauss in Ariadne auf Naxos. A wholly unique work in the operatic canon, Ariadne is preceded by a prologue wherein a cast of characters plan and prepare an evening’s musical program, debating whether it should be serious art or comedic entertainment, and what follows is the resultant product – effectively, an opera with an opera. The new production was designed by Frederic Wake-Walker, who made much of Severance’s small stage and deftly incorporated motifs of the hall into his design.

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The ensemble of Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Welser-Möst eschewed the usual conductor entrance, with the prologue opening practically in medias res with conductor and orchestra in casual dress as perhaps in the middle of a rehearsal: the musicians thus became characters themselves. The instrumental introduction evidenced the finely-tuned Strauss playing of this ensemble. Strauss scored it for the rather modest force of about 35, although owing to the composer’s mastery of orchestration it often sounded as much more. While the scoring was thinner in the winds – particularly given what one might expect for Strauss – it was fleshed out by three keyboard instruments (piano, harmonium, celeste), and the clear textures allowed for the solos of the Cleveland principals to be rendered in sharper focus – notable were passages from the flute, clarinet, oboe, cello, and concertmaster Peter Otto.

As the Major Domo, Wolfgang Brendel was both imposing and avuncular in his spoken role (the character purportedly being tone deaf), explaining to the Composer that the latter’s opera would coincide with a performance by a comedy troupe, setting up the prologue’s central conflict. Dressed in the glam of a rock star, Kate Lindsey brought enormous vigor and defiance to the firebrand Composer, scored for mezzo to portray his youth, which involved an artistic idealism he hardly wanted to yield to comedians. As the Prima Donna (and slated to play title role in the Composer’s opera), soprano Tamara Wilson captured the essence of the stereotypical diva (and incidentally, Wilson is to reprise the role with Welser-Möst at La Scala later this season). When it was announced an inflexibly scheduled fireworks display would necessitate the opera and the comedy to be performed simultaneously, the singers and the comics exchanged ideas in a humorous mashup of the comical and the serious.

After the prologue’s minimalist staging, Severance Hall underwent a miraculous transformation to host the opera proper. The orchestra was lowered down to the pit, and a curtain draped around the stage’s perimeter served as a canvas for a nearly continuous stream of video projection. In adoration of the production’s venue, patterns reflective of the Severance ceiling were displayed on the curtain, and Ariadne’s dress would invoke the same pattern. While I was impressed with the production being truly made for Cleveland, perhaps the sight lines of the hall could have further been considered during design – particularly in the prologue, some of the action was obscured from my vantage point on the side of the balcony.

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Daniela Fally (Zerbinetta) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Following another finely-played orchestral prelude, the celestial voices of the three nymphs were heard from above, reaching out to Wilson now refashioned as Ariadne. In a nod towards (somewhat) contemporaneous comedy, the comedians were costumed as the four Marx Brothers (is there any evidence that Strauss ever saw a Marx Brothers film?!). Additionally, clips from various comedies were projected, including scenes of Charlie Chaplin during the Harlequin’s aria, Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen. Ludwig Mittelhammer gave a deeply lyrical and affecting reading of the Harlequin, and during his excellent pre-concert lecture, Prof. Bryan Gilliam observed that the aria in question bears a more than passing resemblance to the first movement theme from Mozart’s piano sonata K331 – a composer who Strauss profoundly admired.

The second half’s centerpiece, Zerbinetta’s extensive Großmächtige Prinzessin, saw Daniela Fally – donning a flapper dress – shining brilliantly in this coloratura tour de force. The ensemble piece Töne, töne, süße Stimme, given by the nymphs in concert with Ariadne, was of sublime beauty as well as another musical homage – in this case, to Schubert (the Wiegenlied, D498). Tenor Andreas Schager entered as Bacchus, stretching to the extremities of his vocal range with great power but always lyrical first and foremost. A transcendent transformation occurred on stage with the darkened hall becoming filled with light as Ariadne gave thought to life with Bacchus outside her cave on the titular Naxos, perhaps alluding to the quest for enlightenment in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Bacchus and Ariadne closed with a duet of luscious lyricism: in the wake of the earlier debates of high art vs. populism, the sublime firmly had the final word.

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Tamara Wilson (Ariadne) and Andreas Schager (Bacchus) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.