Perhaps some will say, a better way would be to also have Plácido Domingo, Leo Nucci, Anna Netrebko, and Thomas Hampson, among others, and sure enough, they appear as well. Actually, the mix of performers — from the most famous names to those of aspiring stars — makes the almost four hours two-disc set of the recorded gala distinguishable from the usual gala fare strictly limited to only the most well-established of performers. Nonetheless, Deutsche Grammophon could not resist giving the set the oddly-phrased subtitle of “A Benefit Gala with Opera World Stars.”
In terms of quality, the four hours steer a very erratic course. A listless Rienzi overture opens the evening, with Zubin Mehta the first of many conductors to pick up the baton in a sort of “conductor relay race” to the podium. The editing makes it impossible to tell if the performers are presented in their true order of appearance. Antonio Pappano has the baton next in the DVD, with Plácido Domingo signing “Winterstürme.” The great tenor is not quite warmed up, but the audience is grateful for his presence anyway. For the next several selections on disc one, the gala slowly slides into effortful mediocrity, with a not very impressive Nadia Krasteva lighting no fires in “Stride la vampa,” and the cellists seen behind her appearing to be a nod away from falling asleep at their instruments. Bertrand de Billy leads a truly unfortunate Hoffmann sextet, with intonation differences reaching Schoenbergian proportions. Two selections from Così pass unmemorably in the staid professionalism of Michael Schade and Barabara Frittoli, although Angelika Kirchshlager tries to liven things up. An unquestionably elegant tenor, Ramón Vargas simply doesn’t have the tenor juice to make a chestnut like Giordano’s “Amor ti vieta” really ring out, though he is in good form later for Roméo’s “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!.”
The first glimpse of gala greatness comes when Soile Isokoski appears, with the fresh choice of Agathe’s aria from Freischtuz. With pure tone and security of intonation, this singer, who can be an unprepossessing presence, shows what true artistry can do. Thomas Quastoff also offers an unorthodox selection, from Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau, but the pleasure in hearing this rare but quite appealing aria is qualified by concern over the baritone’s difficulty with staying in tune, especially in his lower range. Waltraud Meier almost matches Isokoski’s success with an inspired “Mild und leise,” and there are very professional turns by Leo Nucci, Thomas Hampson and Diana Damrau, who closes the first disc. Of the lesser known names on disc one, the best impression is made by tenor Saimir Pirgu, who gets one of the very few Puccini selections of the night, taking on Rinuccio’s aria from Gianni Schicchi. He just needs to secure his very top notes to have a chance at reaching “Opera World Star” status.
Disc two starts off with Vargas and then an ensemble from Die Frau ohne Schatten that rivals the earlier Hoffmann selection for dismaying group intonation. This continues to be a problem with duets from Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer (“O sink herneider”) and Angela Denoke and Stephen Gould (from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt). The dependable Ferrucio Furlanetto brings his King Philippe — yes, in French — to the stage. It is a great piece, but at 10 mostly somber minutes, perhaps not the best gala choice. Johan Botha seems to be a Vienna favorite, as the response to his secure but unaffecting “In fernem Land” is much more energetic than his performance. That same audience — supposedly sophisticated — interrupts Anna Netrebko’s Manon showpiece twice with applause, in the same places where audiences always do. The rest of the disc two gathers steam, with Natalie Dessay, Piotr Bezcala, and Simon Keenlyside providing real star power.
Leo Nucci leads the not unexpected finale of the closing ensemble from Falstaff, after a brief speech from the guest of honor (who also opens the program with some words). Interestingly, the preceding two selections, at least as seen on the DVD, seem to throw a dark shadow on Holender’s perspective as he leaves this major position. First we have Loge teasing the Gods as they lose their power without the golden apples in Das Rhiengold, and then Keenlyside’s Macbeth, saying farewell to “Pietà, rispetto, onore.” Intention or coincidence? Only Holender can say.
Although as seen on DVD the gala evening cannot be called a huge success, this recording has value as a document of the state of today’s “World Opera Stars” and as a place to catch a handful of very fine performances — with “rispetto” and “onore” most deservedly going to Soile Isokoski.