Sumer is icumin in (apologies to the medieval cuckoo), and the regular music season in Manhattan is drawing to a close. Soon it will be time for would-be festive excursions and popsy diversions. On Sunday, however, Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra mustered a last series gasp at Lincoln Center. It was a good gasp.

Botstein isn’t the world’s most sensitive podium virtuoso. He tends towards pedantry. His ad-hoc band isn’t celebrated for suavity. It tends to make a mighty noise. Still, one must be grateful for discerning repertory choices and high ideals.

The catch-all title on this occasion was “From Russia with Mozart”. The programme mustered a matched pair of operatic rarities: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri (1897) and Alexander Dargomizhsky’s The Stone Guest (1869). Both favour poetic texts by Pushkin, and both filter baroque impulses through romantic sensibilities.

Mozart and Salieri stands as a precursor of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. The plot toys with the deadly rivalry between an innocent progressive and a guilt- ridden conservative. The score toys cleverly with Mozart quotations and, even more cleverly, with Mozart imitations. Even so, the stylistic language gushes Russian platitudes. Leonid Zakhozhaev brought sprightly charm and a sturdy tenor to the effusions of Mozart. The bass Andrei Antonov (replacing Richard Paul Fink without explanation) exulted in the torturous, ultimately murderous monologues of Salieri.

In The Stone Guest, Dargomizhsky recounts the demise of Don Giovanni when the statue of his vaunted victim comes to dinner. (Cesar Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov polished the product after the composer’s death.) Mozart’s elegant accents inevitably lose something in tough translation. It hardly matters. The strong ensemble at Avery Fisher Hall included Zakhozhaev as the almost-tragic anti- hero, Antonov as Leporello (a colourful role created by Chaliapin), Marina Shaguch as noble Donna Anna, Stephanie Novacek as lusty Laura and Daniel Okulitch as the singing statue. Botstein held the disparities of both operas together with scholarly zeal. ★★★★☆
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