Interlude at the side of the road: Luigi Cherubini

When Beethoven was asked to name the greatest living composer, his answer was Luigi Cherubini. When asked to name his favorite composer of operas, Beethoven’s answer was the same: Cherubini. Rarely performed, perhaps Cerubini’s music is due for reevaluation?

Before diving into his music, a few words about the man are needed. Cherubini was blessed with long life: Only four years younger than Mozart, Cherubini died 15 years after Beethoven. As his name suggests, Cherubini was Italian by birth, but lived most of his adult life in France. Ironically, Napoleon objected to his music as being “too French” as the Emperor preferred the Italian School. Nonetheless, Cherubini was installed in Vienna by Napoleon, where he met Beethoven. In later years, Cherubini was the headmaster of the Paris Conservatoire, where he was reknowned for his strict rules and dour demeanor, clashing with young Romantics such as Hector Berlioz.

Cherubini’s best known work is his opera Mèdeè (or Medea in its Italian version). The opera became a vehicle for the great Maria Callas and few have sought to follow in her footsteps, given the huge demands made of the lead soprano role. This fall, Medea makes its premiere at the leading opera house in the United States–the Metropolitan–225 years after its French premiere. Sondra Radvonovsky’s turn as the crazed sorceress is simply breathtaking–her performance alone, and the chance to see Medea live, make it THE must see opera event of the season.

Two orchestral parts, the overture and the prelude to the third act, reveal a bit about what Beethoven prized in Cherubini’s compositional technique–Dramatic orchestration, and repetitive motifs stand out, but fall well short of Beethoven’s mark in my estimation. Where Cherubini excells, however, is in vocal composition, which seems far more natural, while just as demanding as Beethoven’s. The best example of Cherubini’s talent for vocal composition is his Requiem in C. Not surprisingly, it featured at Beethoven’s funeral. Here is a brief playlist of some of these highlights:

If you can look beyond the mono recording, Maria Callas’ 1953 recording of Medea remains the benchmark. I, for one, will confess that the joys of old recordings are simply lost on me. Maybe on the right system, on vinyl with tube amplification–maybe. But certainly not streamed. Record companies take note: Radvonovsky (and her excellent Jason (Matthew Polenzani) and Neris (Ekaterian Gubanova)) would define the opera for the digital age.

The Firing of Anna Netrebko

You would think that writing a blog on music history would be a safe refuge from politics.  This week shattered any such illusion.  So let it be said here, plainly and with no ambiguity—Peter Gelb is a coward and a fraud.  He has overstayed his welcome and it is beyond time for him to go. 

Earlier this week, the Metropolitan Opera fired soprano Anna Netrebko, an artist that Mr. Gelb has singularly cultivated during his tenure as General Manager.  The “crime” for which Ms. Netrebko was fired is her refusal to issue a statement at the behest of Met management condemning the brutal dictator of Russia, Vladimir Putin.  Let’s state that more clearly:  Ms. Netrebko was fired because she refused to issue a political statement at the insistence of her employer.

It should be noted that Ms. Netrebko’s association with Mr. Putin is hardly a new development.  Indeed, Ms. Netrebko has repeatedly been photographed with Mr. Putin over the years.  When Mr. Putin imposed laws that stripped gay Russians of fundamental human rights, there was Ms. Netrebko smiling with Mr. Putin for photos.  The Met, and Mr. Gelb in particular, remained silent.  When Russia illegally invaded Ukraine in 2014, there was Ms. Netrebko posing with a Ukrainian separatist flag.   The Met, and Mr. Gelb in particular, remained silent.  As Mr. Putin ruthlessly jailed and assassinated his political enemies, crushed popular dissent to his rule, and heaped misery on millions—Ms. Netrebko’s support for Mr. Putin never waned and the Metropolitan Opera, and its General Manager Peter Gelb, was fine with that.

For nearly two decades, Mr. Gelb was more than willing to overlook Ms. Netrebko’s politics because he needed her to sell his vision of a New Met—one where the sopranos were glamorous, beautiful and, above all, thin.  Yet the supply of operatic sopranos with centerfold good looks were, 15 years ago let alone today, in very short supply.  Thus, year after year, Ms. Netrebko repeatedly graced the cover of the Met’s season brochure, appeared at opening night, and sung in gala performances: Over the last 15 years, no star has burned brighter on the Met’s stage and Mr. Gelb was very happy to use her stardom to sell tickets, whatever her politics may be. 

Ms. Netrebko is older now and a new generation of starlets have emerged on the Met stage.  She is therefore no longer indispensable to Mr. Gelb’s vision of a Met where every singer looks like a movie star.  In short, Ms. Netrebko is, at 50, on her way out even if her voice remains intact—in Mr. Gelb’s world, older women do not sell tickets.  This year, for example, Ms. Netrebko was consigned to the second run of Turandot—a far cry from her usual prime slots.

So now, after wringing out ever last drop of Ms. Netrebko’s fame, Mr. Gelb has suddenly decided that the company’s association with her must come to an end.  What did Ms. Netrebko do to deserve dismissal?  She publicly denounced the war in Ukraine without also condemning Mr. Putin personally.  In what can be seen as a “tepid denunciation”, Mr. Gelb cynically saw one last opportunity to use Ms. Netrebko’s fame to his advantage, allowing the Metropolitan Opera to become part of the conversation this week.  To be clear: Ms. Netrebko did not issue a statement supporting Mr. Putin; she was fired for issuing a statement that opposed his war.

This, in my view, continues a very dangerous trend of cancelling artists because of their political views.  Instead of playing to the Twitterati in hopes of becoming relevant to the conversation (or avoiding some negative PR later this spring), the Met should focus on one thing and one thing only—the music.  Not content with sacrificing Ms. Netrebko on the altar of public relations, Mr. Gelb added the proverbial cherry on top by replacing Ms. Netrebko in Turandot with Liudmyla Monastyrska, who instead of being introduced by name by the Met’s PR flunky, was identified instead as “a Ukrainian soprano.”  It is ironic that Ms. Monastyrska is, to put it delicately, exactly the picture of an operatic soprano that Mr. Gelb has sought to excise from the Met over his tenure.  Fortunately, Turandot is as an easy role for a soprano as can be found in the main Italian repertoire if recent reports of the state of Ms. Monastyrska’s voice are to be credited.

Turandot will be poorer this Spring for Ms. Netrebko’s absence, although it is possible that Mr. Gelb may sell a few more tickets in the process if his PR instincts are correct.  And that, in the end, sums up why Mr. Gelb has been an utter failure as General Manager.