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The Three Sopranos Who Banished Opera’s Winter Doldrums

A woman in a black sleeveless dress smiles during a performance with an orchestra

In recent years, the Met has closed its doors for a month toward the end of January sparking mid-winter blues among opera lovers. Last week Carnegie and Geffen Halls stepped up with the perfect antidote: an unusually interesting trio of sopranos encompassing Kristine Opolais, Golda Schultz and Lise Davidsen.

When out-of-town orchestras visit New York, they generally strive to present programs showing them at their best. Occasionally their evenings feature an opera in concert, sometimes a one-act work like Strauss’s Salome or Elektra or just a “bleeding chunk,” as the Boston Symphony Orchestra did in 2018 when it performed the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—Jonas Kaufmann’s first attempt at Tristan.

The opera featured during this year’s BSO visit to Carnegie Hall, however, was extraordinarily ambitious: Shostakovich’s 1934 four-act masterpiece Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was the latest chapter of the orchestra’s acclaimed cycle (led by Music Director Andris Nelsons), which has presented and recorded for Deutsche Grammophon all the composer’s symphonies and concertos. Lady Macbeth, derived from Nikolai Leskov’s infamous novella, revolves around Katarina, the wife of a provincial merchant who murders both her husband and father-in-law to escape her unhappy life. The husband’s body is discovered just before Katarina and her lover Sergei are to marry. On their way to prison in Siberia, Katarina discovers that Sergei has a new love whom she pushes into the Volga River. Then desperate Katarina jumps in after her, and both women perish under the waves.

For this tawdry tale, Shostakovich co-wrote the libretto with Alexander Preis and composed a towering score of biting, breathless intensity that features twenty-three singing roles and an enormous orchestra. The Boston instrumentalists who played in New York with virtuosic brilliance more than filled the Carnegie stage—eight brass players were situated on the auditorium floor to the right-front side of the audience.

When presenting an opera in concert, some organizations like Teatro Nuovo require the principal singers to memorize their parts and interact as if they were performing in an opera house with sets and costumes. Others (see: the English Concert’s recent Rodelinda) permit the principals to have their scores atop music stands while they engage in some discreet interaction.

But Boston’s Lady Macbeth, coordinated by Benjamin Richter, couldn’t make up its mind and came up short. Opolais as Katerina, Brenden Gunnell as Sergei and Günther Groissböck as father-in-law Boris performed from their scores. The remaining sixteen singers sang from memory and moved freely about a narrow strip in the front of the stage. The jarring difference between the principals and everyone else put a considerable damper on the work’s intended dramatic effect.

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Several of the potent supporting singers made particularly strong impressions. As the terrified Aksinya, Michelle Trainor’s high notes seared our ears, while slinky Maria Barakova’s sultry mezzo as Sonyetka seduced Sergei—and us. Goran Juriċ as the cynical Chief of Police dazzled in his rollicking scene, while Peter Hoare’s whiny Zinovy explained why Katarina persuaded Sergei to bludgeon him to death. Attempting comic relief, Alexander Kravets may have overdone the Shabby Peasant’s antics, while as both the Officer and Sentry, young Patrick Guetti unleashed a startlingly sonorous bass voice.

Gunnell as Sergei coped bravely with the punishingly high tessitura and convincingly delineated his character’s trajectory from pushover to cad. In a role often taken by aging basses, the virile Groissböck savored Boris’s villainy, spitting out his words with dangerous energy. However, his use of straight-tone grew wearying.

Singers perform in front of a stage crowded with orchestra members

Once one of the world’s leading sopranos, Opolais has seen her fortunes falter following her withdrawal from the Met’s Tosca in 2017. It was to have been conducted by Nelsons, her then-husband, but he also fled the Puccini. Her operatic appearances in 2023 consisted of just two outings as Verdi’s Aïda in Vilnius. Many in the audience were thus eager for the return of Opolais, who hadn’t performed locally since a poorly received Met Suor Angelica five years ago. She received a lusty ovation at the end, but her one-note, sad-sack Katarina rarely did justice to Shostakovich’s fascinating anti-heroine.

Firmly planted next to the conductor for nearly the entire opera, the Latvian soprano sang to the audience rather than to her fellow performers, perhaps to convey her character’s initial isolation. Though she rarely glanced at her score, she intrepidly turned its pages all evening. While she neatly embodied the unhappy housewife, Katarina’s transformation into a multi-casualty murderess failed to convince. Rather than exit with Barakova for their joint aquatic demise, Opolais confused everyone by steadfastly remaining on stage—presumably to garner the first applause.

While the middle of her voice retains some of its plush richness at moderate dynamics, the top was usually squally, the bottom hollow. Having loved her Madama Butterfly a decade ago at the Met, I found her decline dismaying and puzzled over what other roles might suit her these days. Her once-acclaimed Puccini roles apparently now behind her, Opolais’s website only lists more performances of Lady Macbeth this spring in Leipzig where her ex-husband’s other orchestra, the Gewandhaus, performs.

Last week’s other sopranos, both regulars at the Met, gave deeply satisfying performances of concert works, though Schultz’s first piece with the New York Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda is practically operatic. Mozart wrote many concert arias, some functioning as “insertion arias” a singer would use to replace a less appealing existing aria in an opera she was performing. However, Schultz seduced us with “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” in which an anonymous hero reassures his anxious beloved. The celebrated K. 505 was composed simply as a concert piece in 1787.

Mozart loved the soprano voice; he also was privately devoted to several sopranos! As his superb twenty-seven keyboard concerti attest, he also loved the piano, and the sublime K.505 uniquely joins those two passions with soprano and piano interweaving in an aria that follows a dramatic recitative for the soprano and orchestra alone. Schultz and pianist Francesco Piemontesi were oddly positioned at Geffen—he at the piano at the front edge of the stage, she considerably behind him between the first violins and the conductor. Though physically distanced, they achieved a sublime partnership as her crystalline high soprano soared with his echoing piano. Schultz also showed how the middle of her voice has grown fuller and more mellow in recent years.

After intermission, Noseda conducted Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the third of his “Wunderhorn” symphonies in which the final movement is the child-like song, “Das himmlische Leben.” Leonard Bernstein chose a boy soprano for his recording of the Fourth, but the song works best when an adult traces its delicate lines. Schultz’s fresh and joyful approach proved ideal for the sweetly joyous spirit. Noseda too used a light touch for this symphony, unlike the often heavy hand heard the next night at Carnegie Hall when Yannick Nćzet-Sćguin conducted his Met Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth.

Nćzet-Sćguin’s fussy touch with the work’s “Adagietto” may have been familiar from Bradley Cooper’s unfortunate Bernstein biopic Maestro, for which the busy conductor was musical advisor. While the Met Orchestra’s slow, ethereal “Adagietto” proved ravishing, it felt out of place surrounded by the Met Music Director’s near-melodramatic interpretation of the Fifth’s opening and closing movements.

Happily, Davidsen in her Carnegie Hall debut made the evening special with her first U.S. performance of Wagner’s Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme, more commonly known as the Wesendonck Lieder. Though originally composed for just voice and piano, Davidsen performed them in Felix Mottl’s orchestration.

A woman in a blue dress sings while a conductor conducts

Though many listeners prize Davidsen for the grandly enveloping scope of her soprano, her performance of the Wesendonck was most notable for its quiet subtlety in which her pearly pianos rose to the balcony as easily as her mighty fortes. The five songs are settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the young wife of a rich Wagner patron. The exact nature of the married composer’s relationship with his poet is unclear, but theirs was a passionate connection that flowered not only in these songs but also in Tristan und Isolde, his towering work about forbidden love

Two of the songs, “Im Treibhaus” and “Traüme” contain themes that appear in Tristan, and I know I wasn’t the only audience member at Carnegie longing to hear Davidsen as Isolde. But the soprano has been exceptionally careful about diving into the Wagner hochdrammaticher sopran repertoire she clearly seems destined for. Other than several smaller Ring roles, she’s only sung Elisabeth in Tannhauser and Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Impatient fans quietly fume because instead of Wagner, she has instead added Puccini’s Giorgetta and Tosca, along with Verdi’s Elisabetta di Valois. Leonora in the latter‘s La Forza del Destino arrives at the Met later this month.

After her gentle, haunting Wesendonck, Davidsen and Nézet-Séguin nearly blew the top off of Carnegie Hall with the unbridled joy of “Dich teure halle” from Tannhaüser, her calling-card encore and a rousing end to this soprano mini-festival!

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