His Way
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His Way

Leonard Bernstein didn’t apply his protean talents to opera very often—but he made magic when he did.
By William R. Braun 

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Bernstein in rehearsal in Vienna, 1970, for “Beethoven’s 200th Anniversary Symphony”
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
“Through Leonard Bernstein, I LEARNED A TRUTHFULNESS OF INTERPRETATION which allows both the performers and the listeners to reach beyond the world of music to the realm of the spirit.”  —Christa Ludwig, In My Own Voice
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Bernstein in conversation with Franco Corelli, Turiddu in his 1970 Met performances of Cavalleria Rusticana
© Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
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ONE OF THE TRUE LARGER-THAN-LIFE PERSONALITIES  in American music, Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago this August. Bernstein forged unique relationships with symphony orchestras, with composition, with the piano and recordings and television, and with his fellow human beings. Thus it is unsurprising that his relationship with opera was unique as well. Opera was never the main trunk of his conducting repertoire, but it was not a mere sideline either. In the twenty-seven years since his death, Bernstein’s legacy has been recalibrated. But a look at the operas in his life—the ones he conducted and the ones he composed—touches on all the branches of his career.

Only three years after his last-minute debut with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein conducted the American premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes at Tanglewood, in the presence of the composer. But Britten’s music was to remain tangential in Bernstein’s repertoire. Perhaps there was an element of too close for comfort; both Bernstein and Britten (like Thomas Adès in our generation) managed to compose, conduct and play the piano without ever seeming less than masterful in any of these areas. Indeed, when Bernstein was in his late twenties and early thirties, his career might still have taken any number of turns. In 1944, his Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), his ballet Fancy Free and his musical On the Town all had their premieres. By 1950 he had already made his first recording with the New York Philharmonic. The piece was his own Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” which is virtually a piano concerto; Bernstein had been the soloist at its Boston Symphony premiere.

HE MADE HIS LA SCALA DEBUT with Cherubini’s Medea in 1953, and he returned in 1955 for Bellini’s Sonnambula. Both operas were mounted for Maria Callas, in the prime decade of her career. Bernstein never returned to this sort of repertoire in any meaningful way, but he understood the music. Recordings make it clear that Bernstein was an attentive partner to Callas and to tenor Cesare Valletti in the Bellini. The often rudimentary orchestral parts are consistently vital. He finds the full musical value in simple, intermittent pizzicato chords. There’s a distinctive combination of elegance with reliability; in fact, it’s quite a loving piece of work. 

Although he did not conduct any other staged operas until 1963, he ultimately came to opera in an all-encompassing way. Verdi’s Falstaff in 1964 gave him a flashy Met debut (“He plunged into the performance with a kind of bull-in-a-china-shop recklessness,” said one reviewer), an association with director Franco Zeffirelli, a Vienna State Opera debut in 1966 and his first studio recording of a complete opera. The studio Falstaff, recorded in Vienna in conjunction with the staged production, already has the special Bernstein stamp in ways both positive and otherwise. There is probably not a single accent mark in the score that is not honored by the conductor. There’s a sly and wholly appropriate catch-breath just before the final fugue, and Bernstein has a composer’s appreciation for the Falstaff–Ford duet in Act II, with every gradation of the changing power dynamic reflected in the orchestra. But there are also many grabs for attention in the conducting. Quickly’s music is drawn out to inscrutably ridiculous lengths. There’s a huge crescendo in place of Verdi’s pianissimo before the “Onore” monologue. The performance is prone to offering pummeling and relentless phrasing at the expense of color, and Bernstein’s “look at me” side is prominent in the harsh, unsmiling final fugue, an inhumane interpretation out of touch with Verdi’s offhand wisdom.

Bernstein’s Met career stumbled after his debut. He wanted to conduct the opening production in the new Lincoln Center house, an honor that went to Thomas Schippers, another young and talented American who had a better relationship with the evening’s composer, Samuel Barber, than Bernstein did. Bernstein conducted only the Cavelleria Rusticana half of the traditional double bill with Pagliacci for a new production in the 1969–70 season. A labor dispute had pushed the opening of the season from mid-September to the week after Christmas. Zeffirelli entreated Bernstein, on short notice, to replace Schippers, who was unavailable for the rescheduled dates, and Bernstein, engaged with a New York Philharmonic Fidelio using students from the Juilliard School, took over only one of the operas for the now-truncated five-performance run. He lobbied to have Cavalleria played second, which would have given him the final bow of the evening, but Zeffirelli’s heavy scenery could not be set up during a standard intermission. The conductor’s reviews for his equally heavy interpretation were negative. 

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Fedora Barbieri and Maria Callas in rehearsal with Bernstein for the 1953 La Scala production of Medea
Erio Piccagliani/Teatro alla Scala

BUT AT THE SAME TIME, Bernstein’s star was ascending in Vienna. A recording and a series of live performances of the most Viennese of operas, Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, gave him a triumph. Bernstein, an American and a Jew, was even offered the top musical post at the State Opera, where he would have held the position once held by his kindred spirit Gustav Mahler. Indeed, the studio Rosenkavalier, made in 1971, is a striking refurbishment of an opera easily taken for granted by the Viennese forces. (Bernstein re-bowed the string parts and reseated sections of the orchestra.) There are many fine touches: when the Marschallin talks about sand in the hourglass, the orchestra fairly melts. But the brilliance is in larger matters. The shape of Act II is cunningly centered on the moment after Ochs leaves Sophie and Octavian alone, when they must decide quickly what to do. The truly revelatory part of the interpretation is the twenty-minute sequence at the end of Act II; Ochs’s over-the-top sufferings after his minor wounding have never been so funny. Bernstein sees this as a parody of Fafner’s death and Siegfried’s funeral march from Wagner’s Ring. Strauss knew the Ring intimately as a conductor, and Bernstein’s demonstration that not everything in an opera should be taken at face value is masterful. 

Bernstein’s third Met engagement turned out to be both the culmination and the unexpected finale of his work in staged opera at the house. Like his near-contemporary Herbert von Karajan, he became interested solely in projects that could pay off in multiple areas. The 1972 Met Carmen offered a new production, the opening night of the season and a studio recording of the opera. He conducted only six performances in the house, none on the spring tour and no Saturday radio broadcast. But the recording was a big seller. Again, it contains elements that pull attention to the conductor. Knowing that, by 1972, it was already impossible to play the Prelude any faster for superficial excitement, Bernstein instead opts for possibly the most perversely slow performance on records, and his flat-footed toreador march might accompany footage of wounded toreros leaving the hospital. But the elements that are good are very fine indeed. The Act II scene of Carmen’s song with the castanets and José’s reaction to it, and the build-up to Zuniga’s unexpected entrance and José’s attempt to run off, are paragons of how these scenes should go. 

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Director/designer Franco Zeffirelli and Bernstein, collaborators on the Met’s 1970 Cavalleria Rusticana
© Santi Visalli/Getty Images

TWO OF BERNSTEIN'S later projects remain gems in the record catalogue. Beethoven’s Fidelio, again at the Vienna State Opera, was another typical package, involving live performances in the house and on tour, a live video recording and a studio recording. (Bernstein might have conducted Fidelio at the Met in 1976, but he bowed out when a possible studio recording with Met forces did not materialize.) The conductor was at his most interventionist. Sometimes this was for good, as when he reduced the orchestral forces to a tiny, singspiel chamber group for the early scenes before the full orchestra roared to life at Leonora’s “Abscheulicher!” Sometimes it was for ill, as when he joined the final G of the Leonora–Florestan duet to the first note of the Leonora Overture No. 3, interpolated during a scene change. After thereby calling attention to himself, and stopping the show with an astounding performance, he then pretends to be disgusted that the show has stopped. But he conquered Vienna—there is a large floral tribute on his music stand before he even starts the evening—and the video, after forty years, remains one of the greatest experiences in home opera-viewing.

If Bernstein had done nothing in opera but his live recording of Tristan und Isolde, he would still have written himself into the history books. He never conducted a Wagner opera in the theater, although he gave scorching performances of Act I of Die Walküre and an evening-long sequence from Götterdämmerung at the Philharmonic. The three acts of Tristan, again offered as live concerts, as television shows and on LP and CD, were done individually over a period of ten months in 1981. The recording had a rough ride critically, and it drifted out of circulation. Yet it is stunning, with the monumentally slow tempos and the full value given to measures of silence producing a physical effect on the body of the listener. We are altered in our perceptions, as the lovers are altered in theirs. 

Bernstein finds a single focal point in each of the acts, which is crucial when tempos are as slow as his. The choices are unconventional and utterly persuasive. In Act I, he drains away everything before Isolde signals Brangäne to get the potion (rather than choosing the obvious moment of the actual imbibing). In Act II, after a duet that portrays intimacy through the slow tempo, making each syllable an act of deepest communication, Bernstein pulls back even slower just before Brangäne’s warning, so that we can fully live with the lovers in the timeless spell before danger returns. In Act III, the slow tempo of Isolde’s final solo (here, contrary to Wagner’s marking) transforms the music into a final act of will. Exhausting string tremolos portray the effort, the striving and determination of the heroine. 

If Bernstein’s interpretation of Tristan could actually have been sustained by orchestra, singers, conductor and audience over a single evening (which could never have happened), it would have been perfect for the Bayreuth Festival, where an opera is the only thing that happens on a given day.

AS FOR BERNSTEIN'S OWN compositions, for years there was discussion about whether West Side Story and Candide are operas. There is now perhaps an easy answer, given that the former has been staged at the Salzburg Festival, starring Cecilia Bartoli, and the latter has been offered by Bernstein’s publisher in a “Scottish Opera version.” But Bernstein did compose the genuine article with his 1983–84 capstone, A Quiet Place. A Chekhovian study in family relationships, with a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth that closely tracked Bernstein’s own family life and incorporated his early one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti as a flashback, it did not originally find an audience. At a New York City Opera revival in 2010 (twenty years after the composer’s death), with a little distance on the no-longer-contemporary story, it started to reveal its wisdom.  Once again forging his own path, Bernstein had conducted only one run of performances—not in the U.S., but at the Vienna State Opera. spacer 

William R. Braun is a writer and pianist. 

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