This Is Not My Beautiful House
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: 7 Songs
Sergei Rachmaninoff: 6 Songs
Gustav Mahler: Rueckert Lieder
Manuel De Falla: Siete canciones populares espanolas
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
James Levine (piano)
With great expectations last Friday, my companion and I arranged to meet other friends at Carnegie Hall for the much anticipated recital of Russian mezzo Olga Borodina, fast becoming a fan favorite up the street at the Metropolitan Opera. Madame has achieved demidiva status by now and so I expected a huge crowd for this glittering event. When we arrived, however, we were greeted by a hastily scrawled slip of paper unceremoniously tacked up over the gigantic poster out front announcing that the recital had been postponed for a week. The eager music lovers left in the lurch wandered about 57th Street in a collective daze, the wind let out of the evening’s sails. It was reported through the week that Ms. Borodina was suffering from allergies and rumored that one of the irritants to which Madame is allergic is poor ticket sales, the hope being that another week would generate the proper buzz. Making more specific dinner plans than last week just in case, we set out once again to savor the Olga experience. I theorized that the many empty seats that we encountered upon arriving were less the result of lack of public interest than of Carnegie’s liberal and forthright return policy (rare in modern theatrics) which allowed any and all of last week’s patrons to send in their tickets for a full refund even though the concert was not cancelled, only postponed.
Like most opera singers, Ms. Borodina feels the need to present a recital of lieder once she has achieved a certain level on the boards. However, again like most singers in her specialized profession, she is woefully untrained to do so. The art of the song is a totally different one from that of the big stage; just because she has large lungs doesn’t mean that she can play the trumpet. Certainly the voice is very round, able to reach the upper balcony with ease, but its owner must have some idea of the subtleties of the lied before attempting to present an entire evening of this rarified type. Ms. Borodina’s voice is actually a little heavy for my taste, and I find its bulk to be rather an impediment to the proper expression of emotion, but I realize that this is a personal perception and am willing to overlook it in favor of a more catholic view that her instrument is generally pleasing (with the caveat that her delicate condition caused her to blow her nose quite often during the proceedings). But her lack of sensitivity to the intricate beauties of her repertoire was simply inexcusable.
This recital seemed cursed from the outset. In the very first song, two different cellular telephone incidents marred the proceedings. In the second, a loud crash emanated from one of the back rows as someone’s possessions unceremoniously hit the floor. The cell phone dilemma haunted the entire evening, becoming so frequent after a while (this is a very different crowd from a normal Carnegie orchestral following) that each new ring would provoke an audible collective response of noise rage which only made the experience worse. Irritation led to petulance which resulted ultimately in a shouting match which could only throw Ms. Borodina even farther from the center of her performance. After intermission, the phones started up again immediately, little Hundings calling out to Siegmund to forget his pleasures and face his disturbing Destiny. Between her medical troubles and these barbaric assaults, it is little wonder that Borodina was off her game.
However, a more elemental problem was operating this night. This was not the opera house and this singer was just plain lost. Very tentative in the Tchaikovsky, she never expressed the overwhelming emotions of these songs and really didn’t even attempt to do so except in the final one Again, as before, I am alone, producing a pale imitation of sincere feeling (lightyears away from Ewa Podles or Galina Vishnevskaya). I assumed that her gingerly approach was related to her allergies, but she threw caution to the winds in the Rachmaninoff set, giving free reign to her gigantic instrument. Unfortunately, what emerged was more a bellow than a declamation and, even if we chalk up the cracked and tainted tones to her allergies, the finished product was less moving than irritating. James Levine provided steady accompaniment throughout, but was caught in an artistic dilemma; this was one of those rare evenings wherein the pianist was much more emotional than the singer.
At least in the Russian repertoire, Ms. Borodina was on familiar tundra. When she attempted to sing Mahler, the results were disastrous. Her German diction is pitiable and her conception of these normally lovely songs of Friedrich Rueckert misguided in the extreme. The very first lied (they can be sung in any order), Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft is a marvel of delicacy, inspired by Japanese poetry (Rueckert was a professor of Oriental languages and literature). In this version, however, the fleeting perception of the scent of the lime with its corresponding déjà vu quality was steamrolled by a fusillade of unnecessary sound. There was no sense throughout of the emotional center of these poignant pieces and any idea of sliding thoughtfully from one note to the next (especially important in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen) plainly out of the question. The choice of ending with the more bombastic Um Mitternacht was probably the right one, the performer (or her coaches) hoping to end the set on a show of strength, but my companion, Eusebius to my Florestan, remarked as we fled the hall, that this reading was most reminiscent of opening day at Yankee Stadium. As a journalist, I apologize to my readers for not staying for the De Falla, but, as a music lover, I had had enough.
John McCormack started out his career on the operatic stage. Fired by a passionate desire to be the best, he retired from the boards at a very early age once he had heard Enrico Caruso. Instead, he reinvented the lieder recital and, in the process, dazzled millions (he was really the first legitimate recording artist) with his thoughtful, sensitive and deeply felt programs of gentle songs from the classical and popular repertoire. It is rare for an opera singer to make the transition expertly. Jessye Norman has done it; so has Thomas Hampson. However, they are the exceptions. By all accounts, Olga Borodina is an exciting force at the Metropolitan Opera. My only advise to her is don’t quit your day job.
Frederick L. Kirshnit