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The By Rote Festival

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/17/2003 -  
Richard Wagner: from Goetterdaemmerung
Richard Strauss: from Salome; Don Juan

Jane Eaglen (soprano)
New York Philharmonic
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

Mention the name Jane Eaglen in this town and be prepared for a passionate response. The Times extolled her as the new Flagstad, hyperbolically predicting a golden age of singing after her first performance as Isolde. The phrases of praise came so thick and fast that a certain skepticism seemed prudent. Upon investigation, it seems that most patrons of the Metropolitan do not share the view of their media-anointed arbiters of taste and I have not found one fan ready to christen Ms. Eaglen the Teutonic version of prima donna assoluta. Rather, opera-goers see her more as an effortless voice and therein hangs a tale. While it is remarkable in itself to sing so seamlessly, her very lack of laryngeal perspiration lends itself to a colorless, unemotional portrayal of the Wagnerian heroines (or so say her frequent listeners). Eaglen has previously professed no interest in having works created for her by contemporary composers (although this stance has softened some with a commission for next season for Bright Sheng), preferring instead to sing roles that she can manage so well that she claims to be able to sing Isolde and then immediately sing her again without pause. Her severest critics on Lincoln Center Plaza say that she is just here to take the money and run (a feat rather hard to imagine in her particular case).

It seemed logical to assume that the truth could be found somewhere in the middle and so I decided to listen to her without prejudice at an event far removed from the scrims and costumes of the opera. As a concert artist with the New York Philharmonic, she could be judged strictly on her own merits. Away from the exaggerated drama, both onstage and in the crowd, the question was could she click without the claque?

Actually, no. Although it must be said that there is a certain impressiveness in her strong voice, any sense of vocal power (as opposed to sheer bulk) is subsumed by her disconcertingly lazy manner. Considering the extreme emotional nature of her material (on this night, for example, the Immolation Scene), there is a surreal sense of aridity, as if content and context were not legitimate factors in the presentation of a musical event. What was left was only the notes: strong enough to be heard over an onstage ensemble, but in and of themselves irrelevant to our aesthetic lives. It would have seemed virtually impossible to make such passionate ebbs and flows dull, but this singer can do just that. The New York Philharmonic, under the steady hand of Zubin Mehta, played as well as could be expected, oddly matching their soloist’s caution and coldness with a gingerly approach of their own. No voices or strings were harmed in the making of this concert.

The only pleasant surprise was the Philharmonic crowd. Such a meaningless reading deserved only the slightest of smatterings of applause and this was the general reaction this night. No prolonged American style standing ovations, just polite acknowledgement. Why do we come to the opera or concert hall if not for the thrills, chills and spills? It was strange to compare the exaggerated reactions of armchair conductors discussing Eaglen with the end product itself. Basically, the argument is one of conservation: why does she waste her natural gift on such hollow presentations? She is saving her voice perhaps, but at what price for her listeners? Is she simply an object lesson in ecology gone mad? It is a sad state of affairs when the conundrum is more interesting than the artist herself. There seems little reason to hear Jane Eaglen ever again.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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