24 May 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Wagner — GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG (N. Stemme, D. Brenna, M. Citro, R. McKinny, E. Halfvarson, G. Hawkins, J. Barton; Washington National Opera, 22 May 2016)

IN PERFORMANCE: a scene from FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO's production of Richard Wagner's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG at Washington National Opera, with bass-baritone ERIC HALFVARSON as Hagen (center), May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Götterdämmerung, WWV 86DNina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Daniel Brenna (Siegfried), Melissa Citro (Gutrune), Ryan McKinny (Gunther), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Jamie Barton (Waltraute, Zweite Norn), Lindsay Ammann (Erste Norn), Marcy Stonikas (Dritte Norn), Jacqueline Echols (Woglinde), Catherine Martin (Wellgunde), Renée Tatum (Floßhilde); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Philippe Auguin, conductor [Francesca Zambello, Director; Michael Yeargan, Set Designer; Catherine Zuber, Costume Designer; Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer; S. Katy Tucker and Jan Hartley, Projection Designers; Denni Sayers, Movement Director; Washington National Opera, Opera House, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., USA; Sunday, 22 May 2016]

When in the wee hours of 18 August 1876, the curtain fell on the world première of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, inaugurating the composer’s custom-built Bayreuther Festspielhaus with the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen, much of the world slumbered in blissful ignorance of the extraordinary ways in which the course of operatic history had been altered. Like the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 that upset the flow of the Mississippi River, Wagner’s Ring was a seismic jolt to the composition and performance of opera, the aftershocks of which remain perspective-permuting in the Twenty-First Century. Especially among Teutonic composers, it became necessary in the final quarter of the Nineteenth Century to declare an allegiance, either espousing or rejecting the lessons of Wagner’s concept of music drama. Upon listening closely to their music, however, one often finds that Wagner’s detractors were as strongly influenced by his work as his disciples: flattery may be the highest form of compliment, but concerted reactionary efforts are perhaps a truer gauge of the consequence of an artistic entity. Whether composers of subsequent generations revered or reviled Wagner, their endeavors were shaped by his example. The characters and situations in Götterdämmerung continue to assume new identities and diverse forms in works for the stage. Siegfried at odds with his social surroundings is a direct ancestor of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Berg’s Wozzeck, Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, Martinů’s Manolios, Glass’s Galileo and Gandhi, and Adès’s Prospero, just as Brünnhilde as the instrument of redemption is the spiritual godmother of Strauss’s Färberin, Puccini’s Liù, Berg’s Gräfin Geschwitz, and Poulenc’s Madame Lidoine. The necessity of meeting the opera’s Herculean musical demands notwithstanding, a wholly successful performance of Götterdämmerung is distinguished from a merely proficient one by the intelligibility with which Wagner’s characters and their fates stimulate the audience’s emotions. The culmination of a decade of preparation, the Götterdämmerung that closed the third and final of Washington National Opera’s Rings was a performance in which more than four hours of music seemed like only a few minutes. Mere proficiency in this score is dismayingly rare, but Götterdämmerungs such as this one, an afternoon that found every participant at her or his best, are justifiably legendary.

Staging Wagner’s Ring is an opera company’s Denali, Everest, K2, and Kilimanjaro condensed into one epic, four-part undertaking. Thankfully, Wagner’s confounding tetralogy claims fewer lives than the icy slopes of its geological counterparts, but its heights are similarly treacherous—and, in a practical sense, it pulverizes lungs as mercilessly as those peaks’ oxygen-depleted atmospheres. As Bayreuth productions by Wagner progeny and Metropolitan Opera outings supervised by Herbert von Karajan and Robert Lepage attest, controversy is as traditional a component of Der Ring as the Valkyries’ much-parodied horned helmets. Acclaimed director Francesca Zambello is a Wagnerian of proven vision and resourcefulness whose gift for peeling away layers of accumulated grime—and the grunge of controversy—in order to reveal scores’ purest essences has never been more eloquently evident than in this Götterdämmerung. Refined through outings of the constituent operas in San Francisco and Washington, Zambello’s Ring is emblematic of the ways in which the technological marvels of the modern age can be used to highlight the timelessness of Wagner’s musical and dramatic conceits, here heightened by an ecological subtext that movingly examines the disastrous ways in which human greed destroys not only lives but the earth that sustains them. Sharpened by Michael Yeargan’s abstract but starkly beautiful set designs, Mark McCullough’s often ingenious lighting designs, and the alternately menacing and mesmerizing projections by S. Katy Tucker and Jan Hartley, the focus of Zambello’s examination of Götterdämmerung’s emotional foundation was centered on the multitude of ramifications of betrayal. The Norns are betrayed by their fraying cables, Gunther by his own lust for prestige, Hagen by his utter inability to fathom true heroism, the Rhinemaidens by the sickening ruin of their riparian home, and Gutrune by her desperate need for love. Like Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Brünnhilde betrays both Siegfried and herself by revealing his vulnerability to Hagen. Her concept furthered by Catherine Zuber’s vibrant, evocative costumes, Anne Ford-Coates’s hair and makeup designs, and Denni Sayers’s movement direction, which combined to give each character credible specificity, Zambello germinated the seeds of coexisting humanity and conservationism that Wagner deposited into the rich soil of Götterdämmerung. In this production, the opera was not so much a tale of metaphysical redemption as of physical renewal, its defining images being those of the Gibichung women tossing refuse extricated from the waters of the Rhine and, even more significantly, their men’s guns onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre and a radiant young girl, a reborn Erda, planting a sapling as Brünnhilde disappears into the flames. Like Leonard Foglia’s production of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, Zambello’s Götterdämmerung utilized Kennedy Center’s technical wizardry not to mire the composer’s score in the quicksand of invented effects but to free it to exert its own magic.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Director FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO, soprano NINA STEMME (Brünnhilde), and conductor PHILIPPE AUGUIN duing curtain calls for Washington National Opera's performance of Richard Wagner's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG, 22 May 2016 [Photo by the author]Near Capitol Hill, nicht auf dem Grünen Hügel: (from left to right) Director Francesca Zambello, soprano Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), and conductor Philippe Auguin during curtain calls for Washington National Opera’s performance of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, 22 May 2016 [Photo by the author]

From the first notes of the Vorspiel, it was apparent that the musicians of the Washington National Opera Orchestra were prepared, practiced, and poised to offer an account of Wagner’s score that would rival the best Ring performances of established Wagner centers from Bayreuth and Vienna to New York and Seattle. How proud WNO’s late Music Director Emeritus Heinz Fricke would have been of the sounds that emerged from the pit during the course of this Götterdämmerung! Under the baton of the company’s current Music Director, French conductor Philippe Auguin, the performance, virtually ideal of pacing and precision, possessed the sense of occasion that a performance of Götterdämmerung must have: it is a long score, after all, and, without compelling, consistent momentum, sounds it. Meticulously heeding Wagner’s dynamic markings, Auguin led the orchestra in an exhilarating display of their instruments’ capabilities, the playing consistently equal to that of the best orchestras in the world and often markedly superior to the work of most opera house orchestras. The brasses and woodwinds were incredible, and the percussion jolted the body like electricity in moments of greatest intensity. When the harps emerged from the din, it was with dramatically-charged purity of sound. The Norns, Waltraute, and the Rhinemaidens offered genuine narratives, but Auguin’s conducting of their scenes was so nuanced as to make these pages of the score seem newly written. The clarity and linear thrust of Auguin’s approach brought to mind the underrated Wagner conducting of the Belgian André Cluytens, and the WNO Orchestra fully realized his every intention. Götterdämmerung demands nothing less than it received from Auguin and the WNO musicians, but hearing the score brought to life with such wealths of emotion and virtuosity was nothing short of revelatory.

Encountered in the primordial environment of the opera’s opening scene, here placed amidst a jumble of gargantuan power cables in the bowels of American infrastructure, the Norns were in this production neither coldly symbolic nor shrewish harbingers of universal cataclysm. Like the Rheintöchter in the opening pages of Das Rheingold (and later in Götterdämmerung, as well), there was a gratifying sense of girlishness in the earnestness with which the Norns performed their fateful work, but there was no mistaking the prescience and significance of their utterances, particularly when they were voiced so strongly. As the Erste Norn, contralto Lindsay Ammann—the strikingly thoughtful and sonorously-sung Suzuki in North Carolina Opera’s Autumn 2015 Madama Butterfly—introduced herself with a statement of ‘Welch Lieht leuchtet dort?’ that resounded through the auditorium. She was joined by the Zweite Norn of acclaimed mezzo-soprano and 2015 Richard Tucker Award recipient Jamie Barton, her singing of ‘Dämmert der Tag schon auf?’ meriting comparison with the Wagner singing of Oralia Domínguez and Lili Chookasian. When to their company was added the voice of soprano Marcy Stonikas, to be heard as Turandot in Atlanta Opera’s 2016 – 2017 Season, in the Dritte Norn’s ‘Loges Heer lodert feurig um den Fels,’ the trinity claimed a rightful place at the core of the drama. Stonikas wielded a formidable top G, but all three ladies were completely and reliably in control of the tessitura of their music. Individually and collectively, Ammann, Barton, and Stonikas were rare Norns whose forebodings were as entrancingly attractive as they were dramatically portentous.

IN PERFORMANCE: a scene from FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO's production of Richard Wagner's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Auf den Seilen: (from left to right) Soprano Marcy Stonikas, contralto Lindsay Ammann, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Die Nornen in Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Auguin led the orchestra in sinuous, unabashedly erotic accounts of the Sonnenaufgang and Voller Tag, Wagner’s depictions of sunrise and ‘complete day,’ that were an aptly impassioned introduction to the momentous dawn duet and the powerhouse vocal actors who sang it. Fresh from a triumphant portrayal of the title rôle in the Metropolitan Opera’s incarnation of the much-lauded Patrice Chéreau production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, the final performance of which was only two weeks ago [her first Washington Brünnhilde was sung in the third Cycle’s Die Walküre on 18 May], Swedish soprano Nina Stemme enriched Washington National Opera’s Götterdämmerung with a Brünnhilde of deftly-contrasted strength and subtlety, her interpretation of the Valkyrie still coming to terms with womanhood by turns galvanizing and deeply touching. When this Brünnhilde sang ‘Zu neuen Taten, teuer Helde,’ her excitement was both amorous and palpably psychological. Her ‘O heilige Götter!’ was monumental, and Stemme’s expansive, seemingly indefatigable voice made easy going of the repeated top A♭s and rising line to top B♭s. Her glorious top C at the duet’s end was neither forced nor frantic: she simply had the note and launched it into the auditorium with security, certain intonation, and amplitude that Donner at his most tempestuous could only envy. Having earned praise for his MET début as Alwa in Alban Berg’s Lulu earlier this season, American tenor Daniel Brenna was an able partner for Stemme, his Siegfried matching her Brünnhilde with firm tone, excellent pitch, and engaging youthfulness. Singing ‘Mehr gabst du Wunderfrau, als ich zu wahren weiss’ with abandon, Brenna immediately revealed his Siegfried to be a good-natured, fun-loving man-child who was as awed as he was enticed by his conquest. Giving Brünnhilde Alberich’s ring as a token of his devotion, Brenna’s Siegfried phrased ‘Lass’ ich, Liebste, dich hier in der Lohe heiliger Hut’ with iron-cored tenderness. As sung by Stemme and Brenna, Brünnhilde and Siegfried were believable lovers rather than two-dimensional marionettes being manipulated by the unseen hands of destiny.

Stewarding the transition to Act One, Auguin paced Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt slowly but with close attention to the story that it tells, not just masking a scene change but genuinely following the progress of Siegfried’s journey. When the curtain rose on the act’s first scene, the Gibichung Hall that emerged was a sleek Bauhaus edifice of steel and glass, its angular lines and garish animal prints in conflict with the landscape that it forcibly dominated. In the person of tall, handsome bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, the same could be said of Gunther: he seemed restless and uncomfortable among the trappings of his forebears’ accomplishments. As he voiced ‘Nun hör, Hagen, sage mir, Held,’ though, the singer’s comfort in the rôle’s music was absolute, and McKinny traversed the full range of his part without an iota of stress not required by the drama. One of America’s most admired and experienced Wagnerians, bass Eric Halfvarson was envious evil personified as Hagen, one of the nastiest characters in opera, but he gave Wagner’s music its due even when snarling malevolently. Halfvarson sang—ja, actually sang—‘Dieh echt gennanten acht’ ich zu neiden mich du!’ and ‘Siegfried, der Wälsungen Sproß: der ist der stärkste Held’ chillingly, little challenged by the top Fs. Lithe, seductive, and as beautiful as a platinum-locked Yvonne De Carlo, soprano Melissa Citro was a Gutrune who sang as alluringly as she looked. Her ‘Welche Tat schuf er so tapfer, daß als herrlichster Held er genannt?’ was the shy query of a demure young woman starved of affection. The inhabitants of Die Halle der Gibichungen am Rhein are grave liabilities in many performances of Götterdämmerung, but Washington National Opera populated the ancestral home with a current generation of top quality.

IN PERFORMANCE: a scene from FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO's production of Richard Wagner's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Der Bösewicht und seine Opfer: Bass-baritone Eric Halfvarson as Hagen (left) and soprano Melissa Citro as Gutrune (right) as Gutrune in Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

In Scene Two, Hagen’s rousing ‘Heil! Heil! Siegfried, teurer Held!’ was dispatched with ringing insinuation by Halfvarson and answered by a fresh-toned ‘Wer ist Gibichs Sohn?’ from Brenna’s endearingly befuddled Siegfried, those garish animal prints proving too great a temptation for the inquisitive young hero’s curiosity. McKinny’s stirringly masculine singing of Gunther’s ‘Begrüße froh, o Held, die Halle meines Vaters’ lent his welcoming of Siegfried sincerity that was eerily undermined by Halfvarson’s reptilian delivery of Hagen’s pointed ‘Doch des Nibelungenhortes nennt die Märe dich Herrn?’ There was nothing duplicitous in Citro’s elated enunciation of Gutrune’s ‘Willkommen, Gast, in Gibichs Haus!’ or her character’s attraction to the assertively virile Siegfried. Having fallen victim to Hagen’s poison and rashly proposed to Gutrune, Siegfried all too eagerly swore a blood oath with Gunther, the tenor’s voice gleaming in his broadly-phrased articulation of ‘Blühenden Lebens labendes Blut träufelt ich in den Trank.’ Brenna and McKinny sang ‘Treue trink’ ich dem Freund!’ thrillingly, their voices combining like lightning and thunder. Siegfried and Gunther having set off on their quest to fraudulently win Brünnhilde for the Gibichung’s bride, Halfvarson transformed Hagen’s watch into a monologue of startling dramatic potency, declaiming ‘Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht, wahre den Hof’ with secure, oily tone and the intensity of a Shakespearean villain.

Auguin shaped the orchestral interlude that ushered in the seminal third scene with vehemence that uncannily exposed the poignant sadness, anxiety, and bitterness that suffuse the music. Stemme wove a fragile thread of uncertainty into her voicing of Brünnhilde’s ‘Altgewohntes Geräusch raunt meinem Ohr die Ferne,’ her descent to C4 like an expression of doubt and fear of which she was ashamed. Greeting her sister Waltraute, Stemme’s Brünnhilde was suddenly, tellingly metamorphosed from the battle-worn Valkyrie stripped of her dignity into a woman brimming with optimism and new life. Trading the Norn’s industrial garb for Waltraute’s aerial warrior’s attire, Jamie Barton voiced ‘Brünnhilde! Schwester! Schläfst oder wachst du?’ with hesitant trepidation, her lovely top G igniting the atmosphere atop Brünnhilde’s rock as illuminatingly as Loge’s fire. Obviously greatly affected by their reunion, the sisters questioned one another meaningfully, Stemme’s quicksilver ‘Kommst du zu mir? Bist du so kühn, magst ohne Grauen Brünnhild’ bieten den Gruß?’ followed by Barton’s pained ‘Teilen den Taumel, der dich Törin erfaßt?’​ ​and ‘Höre mit Sinn, was ich dir Sage!’ The mezzo-soprano’s climactic top G again filled the auditorium with glowing sound. That neither sister was unfailingly audible when her music took her to the bottom of the stave was clearly more Wagner’s doing than the singers’ or conductor’s. Brünnhilde’s ‘Welch banger Träume Mären meldest du Traurige mir!’ inspired Stemme to an outpouring of golden tone that seemed to burst from the hearts of both the character and the artist portraying her. Brünnhilde’s unwavering fidelity to Siegfried was expressed by a ringing top A, scorned by Waltraute with a contemptuous ‘Wehe! Wehe! Weh dir, Schwester! Walhalls Göttern Weh!’ in which Barton unleashed her own resplendent top A♭ and A.​ ​The raw emotion of Brünnhilde’s dismissal of her sister erupted in Stemme’s volcanic singing of ‘Blitzend Gewölk, vom Wild getragen, stürme dahin,’ the words hurled out with the stinging ferocity of the fallen Valkyrie’s perceived injury.

Greeting the Tarnhelm-clad figure ​she​ both rightly and wrongly identifie​d​ as the returning Siegfried with a tremendous top A and B♭, Stemme’s Brünnhilde cowered in fear as she grasped that the form before her was not that of Siegfried as she knew him. Horror propelled Stemme’s performance of ‘Verrat! – Wer drang zu mir?’ As Brünnhilde’s domestic bliss unraveled, the soprano’s singing took on an element of indignant defiance, her upper register used like a weapon against Notung’s blows. Impersonating Gunther without resorting to schoolyard mimicry or silly attempts at changing the voice, Brenna traversed Siegfried’s ‘Brünnhild’! Ein Freier kam, den dein Feuer nicht geschreckt’ with burgeoning anger and frustration, his sparring with Brünnhilde prompting particularly forceful singing and aptly chauvinistic behavior. Stemme capped ‘Wotan! Ergrimmter, grausamer Gott!’ with a mighty top A bettered only by her top B in ‘Stärker als Stahl macht mich der Ring: nie—raubst du ihn mir!’ Here and throughout the performance, Stemme sang with astounding tonal sheen and dramatic intensity. Watching her Brünnhilde struggle against Siegfried’s rough handling, it was virtually impossible to believe that she was braving the vocal tortures of Strauss’s Elektra as recently as two weeks ago. If this is how one sings Brünnhilde almost immediately after singing another of the most repertory’s most difficult rôles for soprano, all Brünnhildes should study Stemme’s example.

IN PERFORMANCE: a scene from FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO's production of Richard Wagner's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Der Tatort: (from left to right) Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Gunther, bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, and tenor Daniel Brenna as Siegfried in Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Washington National Opera, May 2016 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

After a playing of the Vorspiel to Act Two that crackled with growing tension and accompanied a disquietingly amusing scene in which the channel-surfing Hagen attempted to initiate contact with Gutrune that was anything but brotherly, baritone Gordon Hawkins literally arose from the abyss to intone Alberich’s ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?’ Each repetition of the phrase grew more sinister, and Halfvarson growled Hagen’s reply, ‘Ich höre dich, schlimmer Albe,’ drowsily but with venomous irony. With a son of such moral emptiness, Alberich’s treachery was easily enacted, but Hawkins’s performance exuded complementary malfeasance and musicality. Driving ‘Den goldnen Ring, den Reif gilt’s zu erringen!’ into Hagen’s psyche like a dagger’s blade, this Alberich was a conniver, not a mindless thug whose sole train of thought was bound for violence. Hawkins delivered ‘Sei treu, Hagen, mein Sohn! Trauter Helde!—Sei treu! Sei treu!—Treu!’ with tone that both evoked the decay of death and grippingly conveyed the eternal magnetism of revenge. A Hagen such as Halfvarson could only have been the son of an Alberich such as Hawkins, whose vocalism was all the more effective as the sound of corruption and iniquity because it was so appealing.

Joining his false bride and brother-in-law, Brenna’s Siegfried bounded through the act’s second scene with the vigor of a rutting stag, singing ‘Hoiho, Hagen! Müder Mann! Siehst du mich kommen?’ brashly. The subterfuge of Halfvarson’s ‘Hei! Siegfried! Geschwinder Helde!’ was unmistakable, but the scene’s musical laurels ultimately belonged to Citro’s Gutrune, the soprano’s voice ringing out gorgeously in ‘Freia grüße dich zu aller Frauen Ehre!’ and ‘Siegfried! Mächtigster Mann!’ Her top As sliced through orchestral textures like laser beams. The subsequent scene was dominated by Halfvarson, who declaimed Hagen’s summoning of the vassals, ‘Hoiho! Hoihohoho! Ihr Gibichsmannen, machet euch auf,’ hair-raisingly, and his management of the droning Cs at the top of stave and trills in his exchanges with the chorus was masterful. Trained by Steve Gathman, the gentlemen of the Washington National Opera Chorus sang magnificently, hurtling ‘Was tost das Horn?’ into the house. The tenors undauntedly conquered the grueling range of their music, including the top C that Wagner demonically demanded of them.

In the act’s final scene, one of the most riveting scenes in the Ring, the choristers earned admiration anew for their roof-raising performance of ‘Heil dir, Gunther! Heil dir und deiner Braut! Willkommen!’ Providing soaring accounts of ‘Brünnhild’, die hehrste Frau, bring’ ich euch her zum Rhein’ and ‘Gegrüßt sei, teurer Held; gegrüßt, holde Schwester,’ McKinny confirmed how markedly a superlative Gunther can increase enjoyment of a performance of Götterdämmerung. After Brünnhilde’s distraught entrance, Brenna’s articulation of Siegfried’s ‘Was müht Brünnhildes Blick?’ was the model of brawny simple-mindedness, and Halfvarson’s emphatic singing ensured that Hagen’s critically important ‘Jetzt merket klug, was die Frau euch klagt!’ found its target, foreshadowing the tragedy that would befall Siegfried. The urgency with which Stemme communicated Brünnhilde’s anger and despair, epitomized by her exclamation of ‘Nahmst du von mir den Ring, durch den ihr dir vermählt,’ was dazzling. Neither the concentrated expressivity of ‘Ha! Dieser war es, der mir den Ring entriß’ nor the trills on ‘Er zwang mir Lust und Liebe ab’ disconcerted this Brünnhilde, and, appalled by Brenna’s insouciant voicing of Siegfried’s ‘Achtest du so der eignen Ehre,’ Stemme lobbed ‘Du listiger Held, sieh, wie du lügst! Wie auf dein Schwert du schlecht dich berufst!’ like a spear aimed at the wayward man’s heart. Brünnhilde’s repetition of Siegfried’s ‘Helle Wehr! Heilige Waffe! Hilf meinem ewigen Eide!’ took Stemme to a fantastic top B♭, which seemed to trigger the bewildered zeal of Brenna’s singing of ‘Gunther, wehr deinem Weibe, das schamlos Schande dir lügt!’ Left to contemplate the events set in motion by Hagen’s chicanery, Brünnhilde and Gunther reluctantly but unequivocally endorsed the Nibelung’s plot to murder Siegfried in ostensible retribution for his wrong-doing. The sheer enormity of Stemme’s top B♭ in ‘Welches Unholds List liegt hier verhohlen?’ erased any doubts of the totality of Brünnhilde’s complicity in the scheme to punish Siegfried’s infidelity. Reveling in the impending realization of his ambitions, Halfvarson’s Hagen could barely contain his glee in ‘Vertraue mir, betrogne Frau! Wer dich verriet, das räche ich.’ The invigorating masculinity that McKinny brought to ‘O Schmach! O Schande! Wehe mir, dem jammervollsten Manne!’ transcended the self-pity that renders many Gunthers spineless snivelers, further refining the baritone’s interpretation of the much-maligned rôle. Closely collaborating with Auguin, this trio of committed artists brought the curtain down on Act Two with a furious display of exceptional singing and fiery but unexaggerated acting.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano NINA STEMME (Brünnhilde, center left) and tenor DANIEL BRENNA (Siegried, center right) during curtain calls for FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO's production of Richard Wagner's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG at Washington National Opera, 22 May 2016 [Photo by the author]Der letzte Kuss: Soprano Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde, center left) and tenor Daniel Brenna (Siegfried, center right) during curtain calls for Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Washington National Opera, 22 May 2016 [Photo by the author]

In the opening scene of Act Three, the Rheintöchter toiled to counteract the pollution that crippled their habitat, the majestic river reduced by human carelessness to a toxic trickle that no longer responded to the warming rays of the sun. Singing ‘Frau Sonne sendet lichte Strahlen’ with exquisite, well-blended tones, the ladies moved with the sinuous agility of their aqueous home. Glamorous soprano Jacqueline Echols, North Carolina Opera’s cosmopolitan Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème and heartbreaking Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata, offered a clarion voicing of Woglinde’s ‘Ich höre sein Horn,’ seconded by mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin’s elegant singing of Wellgunde’s ‘Der Helde naht.’ Reprising a part for which she has garnered acclaim in MET Rings, mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum chanted Floßhilde’s ‘Laßt uns beraten!’ engrossingly. The Siegfried who resisted the charms and ignored the wisdom of such Rheintöchter was a true fool, and Brenna portrayed him with utterly unaffected sincerity and spry sexuality, his sunny crooning of ‘Ein Albe führte mich irr, daß ich die Fährte verlor’ having the charisma of unspoiled adolescence.

The relative peace of the Rhine’s sullied banks disturbed by the sounds of hunting horns and Halfvarson’s bellowing ‘Hoiho,’ Brenna responded with his own trumpeted ‘Hoiho! Hoiho! Hoihe!’ The exposed top C with which Wagner punctuated Siegfried’s cries was, like the character’s seldom-heard top C in Act Two, an unnecessary risk that Brenna did not take, and the wisdom of his choice was verified by the reserve of strength that he maintained until the last note of his part. He relayed his tales from Siegfried’s adventure-seeking life before Götterdämmerung with ardor in his finely-phrased ‘Mime hieß ein mürrischer Zwerg.’ Brenna’s Siegfried met his end as he grasped his life, unapologetically and with naïve confidence. Though his singing of ‘Brünnhilde, heilige Braut! Wach auf! Öffne dein Auge!’ was not as accomplished, musically or dramatically, as all that came before it, the tenor made Siegfried’s death bizarrely spontaneous, eliciting an unexpectedly vivid emotional response from the audience. Perhaps Auguin and the orchestra were captivated by the hero’s harrowing passing, too: their adrenalized but somber performance of the Trauermusik threatened to unseat Kennedy Center from its foundations and send the enthralled audience on a fluvial journey of their own.

At the start of the third scene, Citro proved to be a rare Gutrune capable of truly commanding the stage, her depiction of the character’s debilitating doubt and apprehension rippling through her splendidly-sung ‘War das sein Horn?’ Halfvarson’s blaring of Hagen’s ‘Der bleiche Held, nicht blast er es mehr’ goaded Citro to an explosive vocalization of ‘Siegfried—Siegfried eschlagen!’ that was capped with a brilliant top C♭. Hagen’s ‘Ja den! Ich hab’ ihn erschlagen’ and Brünnhilde’s ‘Schweigt eures Jammers jauchzenden Schwall’ were polarized statements of claimed victory and swelling truculence. The blood of both the man that she knew as her husband and her brother now staining Hagen’s hands, the breadth of Gutrune’s sorrow and rage cascaded from Citro’s singing of ‘Verfluchter Hagen, daß du das Gift mir rietest.’ One of Zambello’s boldest and most inspired innovations was the reconciliation between Gutrune and Brünnhilde: each seeming to accept the legitimacy of the other’s grief, Gutrune carried out the grim preparation of Siegfried’s funeral pyre before ceding the privilege of following him into a hero’s death to Brünnhilde. The image of Gutrune and Brünnhilde embracing in a final gesture of understanding and mutual comforting was hauntingly beautiful.

After battling page after page of the most vocally and psychologically demanding music in opera, Brünnhilde faces in Act Three’s fifth and final scene music which not only resolves both Götterdämmerung and Der Ring des Nibelungen as a whole but also crowns a tripartite explication of humanity through the eyes of a single woman. That her immolation was the apotheosis of Stemme’s portrayal of Brünnhilde was apparent from the first notes of her unfaltering ‘Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort am Rande der Rheins zuhauf!’ Throughout the scene, her voice, on inimitably assured form from her opening phrase in the dawn duet, was distilled into a sound of penetrating purity. If a passage was sung loudly, it was because its sentiments must reach the vaunted halls of Walhalla. If a top note was accentuated, it was because the word that it carried demanded to be heard. The soprano’s steely ‘Wie Sonne lauter strahlt mir sein Licht’ gave way to a tranquilly cathartic ‘Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!’ in which Stemme in those few notes burned through the haze that hangs over Götterdämmerung. The flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre flickered in her singing of ‘Mein Erbe nun nehm’ ich zu eigen,’ and there was a surprising gentleness in her ‘Fliegt heim, ihr Raben,’ the loving daughter sensitive to the import of this final acknowledgement of her father’s presence. At last reclaiming Brünnhilde’s identity as the fearless Valkyrie, Stemme unfurled the full might of her voice in ‘Grane, mein Roß, sei mir gegrüßt,’ her top B♭s and Bs perfectly supported and projected with a staggering absence of effort. Never has a soprano made singing the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde seem easy, but Stemme’s performance, blending elements of Flagstad’s femininity, Traubel’s grandeur, Harshaw’s dependability, Varnay’s dedication, Mödl’s intelligence, Nilsson’s unflappability, and Jones’s indomitability, was distinguished by a serenity that heralded her not merely as a remarkable Brünnhilde but, for this listener, as a definitive one.

The ardor with which the perceived paucity of truly great singers is lamented might erroneously lure the casual observer into believing that the first sixteen years of the Twenty-First Century have delivered opera into a wasteland in which occasional encounters with mediocrity are construed as oases of genius. For an operaphile who has not yet reached the age of forty, it can be wearying to hear only that there are now no Flagstads, Melchiors, or Hotters. It is difficult to imagine that any of the Wagnerian adventurers who spent Sunday afternoon together at Kennedy Center listened to the breathtaking Götterdämmerung wrought by Washington National Opera with longing for singers of the past occupying their thoughts. No, there were no Flagstads, Melchiors, or Hotters, but Francesca Zambello and Philippe Auguin presided over a production and a performance in which great voices wielded by imaginative artists set Kennedy Center’s Opera House ablaze with a Götterdämmerung that sprang to life upon the stage but achieved immortality in the hearts and memories of those who witnessed it.

09 May 2016

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert — SCHWANENGESANG, D.957 (Hermann Prey, baritone; DECCA 480 8171 and James Rutherford, baritone; BIS Records BIS-2180)

IN REVIEW: Franz Schubert - SCHWANENGESANG (DECCA 480 8171 and BIS Records BIS-2180)FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Schwanengesang, D.957— [1] with Goethe Lieder by Schubert and Lieder by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949); Hermann Prey, baritone; Walter Klien, piano (Schwanengesang); Karl Engel, piano (Goethe and Strauss Lieder) [Recorded in Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 13 – 15 April 1963 (Schwanengesang) and DECCA Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 4 – 7 June 1963 (Strauss Lieder) and 14 – 18 February 1964 (Goethe Lieder); DECCA 480 8171; 1 CD, 78:52; Available from Amazon (USA – mp3 only), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers] and [2] with four miscellaneous Schubert Lieder; James Rutherford, baritone; Eugene Asti, piano [Recorded in Potton Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk, UK, in January 2015; BIS Records BIS-2180; 1 SACD, 69:48; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

At least since the inceptions of artistic endeavors and observers’ responses to them, there has been an insatiable interest, sometimes well-intentioned and at other times unjustifiably perverse, in perusing, contemplating, and analyzing artists’ final works. Since the advent of Freudian psychology, this interest has been intensified into an often misguided desire to interpret artists’ last creations as symbolism-laden, portentous metaphysical statements about life, death, and the people and places encountered along the way. It is beyond dispute that the death of Franz Schubert on 19 November 1828, before he reached his thirty-second birthday, was a blow to music of no less impact than the similarly early demises of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bellini, and Chopin, but what stories do his last compositions tell? A generation ago, it might have been suggested that, except as a composer of Lieder, Schubert’s youthful promise was never fully realized: his chamber music, liturgical works, and writing for piano remained in the shadows of Beethoven and Haydn, his operas were unsuccessful, and his most ambitious undertaking as a symphonist was left unfinished. These shortsighted assessments now mostly abandoned, Schubert is recognized as the genius that his music confirms that he was. With this recognition inevitably comes the impetus to scrutinize the collection of the late Lieder published in 1829 as Schwanengesang (D.957) for the cryptic confidences of an artist aware of his own imminent extinction. In a sense, Schubert is as apt a prototype for the Artist as Melancholic Loner paradigm as Tchaikovsky: the sentimental arcs of the Austrian’s earlier, bonafide Lieder cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, give modern psychoanalysts sufficient fodder for tomes of Traumdeutung. Settings of texts by Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Rellstab, and Johann Gabriel Seidl rather than a single poet’s verses as was the case in Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, the Lieder that comprise Schwanengesang were almost certainly not intended to constitute a cycle in the traditional manner, instead likely falling victim to a publisher’s action that was equal parts simple convenience and Romanticized marketing ploy. Hearing these songs performed by baritones of different generations and nationalities, Hermann Prey on DECCA and James Rutherford on BIS, offers fascinating insights into the complex but often over-complicated microcosms of Schwanengesang. Where these very different performances, recorded a half-century apart, intersect is in their participants’ commendable refusals to indulge in anachronistic emotional dissection of Schubert’s music; there and in the joy of hearing the composer’s songs sung so capably and meaningfully. Put down your pens, armchair psychologists, and merely listen for a while!

Born in Berlin in 1929, Prey was the rare singer who was from the start of his career a Lieder interpreter of the first order. As voice aficionados opine, there are great natural instruments and great singers, but few are the great artists whose work encompasses both important voices and the skills to use them properly. Portraying the eponymous protagonist of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in the opera house, performing Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on the concert stage, or singing Lieder in the recital hall, Prey was a great artist in whose singing voice and technique achieved equal levels of reliable excellence. Making its first appearance on compact disc in DECCA/Universal’s Most Wanted Recitals! series, Prey’s 1963 reading of Schwanengesang, recorded in Vienna’s storied Sofiensaal, is one of the most worthy recipients of Víctor Suzán Reed’s near-miraculous remastering. Among many studio recordings, including performances of Schwanengesang accompanied by Philippe Bianconi on Denon, Leonard Hokanson on Deutsche Grammophon, and Gerald Moore on Philips, none comes closer to faithfully reproducing on disc the rounded beauty and haunting overtones of Prey’s voice as it sounded in the theatre. [I heard him as Der Musiklehrer in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos near the end of his career, when, past the age of sixty, he mastered every note and word of the part with an ease that singers half his age—myself included—should have envied.] In such an aural setting, the many virtues and the few vices of this disc are stunningly apparent.

Without strong-arming the music in a conscious effort to metamorphose the songs into a younger sibling for Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, Prey and pianist Walter Klien, a renowned interpreter of Schubert’s piano music, build a Schwanengesang with a cumulative narrative that is considerably more effectively linear—or cyclical, as it were—than many readings that force the issue manage to engender. Recorded here in his mid-thirties, it is not surprising that Prey was on superb vocal form. Though he vocalizes splendidly, this is noticeably a young man’s Schwanengesang, in the course of which somber emotions, presumably foreign to a man in the early prime of his life, sometimes prompt over-singing. Prey was too sensitive and sensible an artist to wholly abandon musicality, but there are passages in which he seems to be purposefully emulating singers with larger voices. This introduces a suggestion that Prey, not yet having fully discerned how to be Prey, was fashioning his performance after the model of a singer like Hans Hotter. In the fourteen canonical Lieder of Schwanengesang [Prey and Klien embrace tradition by closing with ‘Die Taubenpost’ but exclude ‘Herbst,’ adopted by Rutherford and Asti as a part of the de facto cycle], Klien’s straightforward pianism, animated and subtly nuanced, provides Prey with generally beneficial support. The very different tests of the first three songs of Schwanengesang, ‘Liebesbotschaft,’ ‘Kriegers Ahnung,’ and ‘Frühlingssehnsucht,’ are negotiated with boundless vocal fortitude, the tremendous quality of Prey’s voice immediately apparent. For those acquainted with the baritone’s later work, especially his subsequent recordings of Schwanengesang, the too-emphatic approach, disjointed phrasing, and straying intonation that intrude into Prey’s singing in these songs may be surprising, but these undoubtedly are the follies of youth, not of indifferent artistry. Prey voices the familiar ‘Ständchen’ elegantly, and the sinewy sturdiness of the voice is an obvious strength in ‘Aufenthalt,’ here sung with greater power than poetry. There are glimpses of vulnerability in his account of ‘In der Ferne,’ the words sagaciously pointed. The performances of both ‘Abschied’ and ‘Der Atlas’ are characterized by firm, resonant singing that sporadically overwhelms the intricacies of Schubert’s vocal lines.

The Prey familiar from his later, probing performances of Winterreise emerges in his singing of ‘Ihr Bild.’ Here, the true artist’s verbal acuity and keen intelligence outweigh the young singer’s inclination to focus primarily on vocalizing impressively. In ‘Das Fischermädchen,’ too, Prey adheres to a dedication to extracting meaning from the manner in which Schubert manipulated text within the cadences of his music. Very different musically and dramatically, ‘Die Stadt’ and ‘Am Meer’ are sung with intensity that highlights the kinship between the songs. The same can be said of Prey’s handling of ‘Der Doppelgänger’ and ‘Die Taubenpost.’ The first of these, one of Schubert’s most unnervingly sublime inspirations, receives from Prey a performance of startling vehemence, the narrator’s confusion transformed into the singer’s vivid discontent. For this singer, ‘Die Taubenpost’ is less dismaying than disquieting, the song’s sentiments viewed through the prism of a young man’s worldview rather than that of a weary wanderer. Boldly, intermittently bruisingly sung, this Schwanengesang is not a concerted leave-taking but an extended act of resistance.

Slightly less than a year after recording Schwanengesang in Vienna, Prey joined with pianist Karl Engel in London to record several of Schubert’s Lieder with texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The passing of a year did not measurably alter the young baritone’s gifts as a Lieder interpreter, but the ruddy health of the voice is perhaps even more astonishing in his singing of these seven songs than in the previous year’s Schwanengesang. Prey’s singing of ‘Heidenröslein’ (D.257), ‘An die Entfernte’ (D.765), and ‘Rastlose Liebe’ (D.138) radiates confidence and imagination, thereafter perpetuated but cleverly adapted to the differing requirements of ‘Erster Verlust’ (D.226) and ‘An Schwager Kronos’ (D.369). Listeners in search of examples of the verbal and musical acumen that made Prey one of the most effective Papagenos in the two-century performance history of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte can find a pair of them in ‘Schäfers Klagelied’ (D.121) and ‘Willkommen und Abschied’ (D.767) on this disc.

Committed to vinyl in London in 1963, with Engel at the keyboard, the three Lieder by Richard Strauss on this disc also here make their CD début, and they are especially welcome, as even now performances of Strauss Lieder by lower voices are less frequent than the continuing popularity and artistic merit of Strauss’s song literature dictate that they should be. Prey sings ‘Ich trage meine Minne’ (Op. 32, No. 1) commandingly, basking in the composer’s late-Romantic idiom. ‘Befreit’ (Op. 39, No. 4), one of Strauss’s most familiar songs and a mainstay of virtually every soprano’s recital repertory, is imaginatively phrased by the baritone, the challenging range of the vocal line troubling him little. Prey’s singing of the spirited ‘Bruder Liederlich’ (Op. 41b, No. 4) has the broad good humor and playfulness of an university glee club’s singing of bawdy madrigals. Singing early or late Schubert or Strauss, this artist offers performances in which even their imperfections captivate. That Prey was one of the most important Lieder singers of the Twentieth Century can hardly be questioned, but it is wonderful to have this empirical verification of the legitimacy of his lionization.

Since taking the top prize in Seattle Opera’s first International Wagner Competition in 2006, the Norwich-born Rutherford has expanded his Wagnerian credentials with acclaimed portrayals of Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde, Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and, most recently, Wotan in Der Ring des Nibelungen. Like Prey, whose Metropolitan Opera début was in the lighter Wagner rôle of Wolfram in Tannhäuser in 1960 and whose Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger was a much-loved component of MET and Bayreuth productions, the British baritone is as comfortable in recital as in opera and concert. Also like Prey, he and his Schwanengesang pianist, Eugene Asti, bring to their musical partnership credentials that qualify them individually and jointly as proven dynamos of Lieder repertory, this ideally-produced BIS recording celebrating fifteen years of collaboration on Schubert Lieder. Having recorded Schubert’s pseudo-cycle when he was nearly a decade older than Prey was at the time of the DECCA recording, Rutherford brings to his performance a greater depth of pessimism, the narrative voice that emerges from his energetic but eloquent interactions with Asti’s accompaniment weighted and worn by unfulfilled longing. Rutherford’s voice is heavier and darker than Prey’s, but his is the lighter Schwanengesang, one in which events occur and are faced rather than confronted and defied. The performance of the opening ‘Liebesbotschaft’ sets the tone for the cycle as a whole: the pianist’s crystalline execution of rhythmic figurations enhances the singer’s realizations of Schubert’s remarkably intuitive amalgamations of words and music. Ironically, Rutherford, with a more robust timbre than Prey had at his disposal, delves further into the delicate recesses of the music, the size of the voice only rarely impeding his examination of small details of the songs. He sings ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ sonorously, the soul of Wotan flickering to life in the Lied’s expressive gravity. ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ and ‘Ständchen’ are molded by baritone and pianist with musical and emotional elasticity, Rutherford wielding a degree of flexibility admirable for a singer of his Fach. The bristling force of this pair’s traversal of ‘Aufenthalt’ never damages the song’s underlying gentleness. As it is performed here, the inclusion of ‘Herbst’ (D.945) is an organic extension of the spiritual voyage without which Schwanengesang seems reduced. Rutherford mines the disparities between ‘In der Ferne’ and ‘Abschied’ for their psychological consequence and refines this raw ore into a brilliant ingot of priceless beauty. Though the voice is occasionally unwieldy and unfocused, virtually unavoidable aspects of scaling a larger voice to the dimensions of ‘smaller’ music, Rutherford’s pitch is laudably certain.

Propelled by Asti’s resilient playing, this is a performance of ‘Der Atlas’ in which the singer sounds as though bearing the weight of the world upon his shoulders should be but a minor burden. The pain of ‘Ihr Bild’ emanates from the grim colorations of Rutherford’s tones without upsetting the balance of his vocal registers. By uniformly transposing the Lieder that comprise Schwanengesang down by a minor third, Rutherford and Asti preserve the relationships among the songs’ keys as originally conceived by Schubert, whether or not they were composed with any conscious associations. This strategy sometimes makes the tessitura of Schwanengesang more challenging for the baritone than it could otherwise be, but Rutherford copes heroically. His voicing of ‘Das Fischermädchen’ is distinguished by glimmers of optimism that ripple along the surface of the line. The feelings that flood the baritone’s voice in ‘Die Stadt’ and ‘Am Meer’ are explored but not exaggerated. Whereas Prey’s interpretation of ‘Der Doppelgänger’ was shaped by an almost violent fervor, the urgency of Rutherford’s reading is drawn from a crushingly inward recognition of failure. ‘Die Taubenpost’ is likely the last Lied that Schubert completed, and it is here performed with a touching sense of finality. Beyond its superlative musical qualities, this disc makes one of the most convincing cases yet recorded for regarding and performing Schwanengesang as a cycle, the seeds of complementary ideas blossoming in the warmth of Rutherford’s and Asti’s nurturing.

Rutherford and Asti supplement their Schwanengesang with performances of four paragons from Schubert’s extensive Lieder catalogue. The baritone works earnestly to evince a measure of freshness in the familiar ‘Die Forelle’ (D.550), and his diaphanous management of the song’s distinctive rhythms is delightful. Asti’s playing infuses ‘Auf der Bruck’ (D.853) and ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ (D.583) with musical integrity that is anything but common, and Rutherford’s vocalism soars on the zephyr of his accompanist’s exertions. ‘An die Musik’ (D.547) is an ideal summation of the prevailing sensibilities of this disc: reveling in their collaboration, Rutherford and Asti deliver a grand ode to Schubert’s music.

Those who look to Schwanengesang for answers about what made Schubert’s genius unique often ask the wrong questions. Fascinating as facets of the creative process invariably are, the circumstances that engendered the composition of the Lieder later assembled and published as Schwanengesang are surely less important that the songs themselves. Is a presentiment of death at the heart of the songs? Was Schwanengesang, in part or in whole, Schubert’s deliberate farewell to the Art of Song? Though they are products of very different eras in the history of recorded Classical Music, these performances of Schwanengesang concentrate not on ephemeral concerns but on tangible musical standards. Their toils separated by fifty-two years, Hermann Prey and James Rutherford exhibit why Schubert’s swan song still sings so magically to those ears willing to hear it on its own terms.

07 May 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / May 2016: Francesco Cavalli — SOSPIRI D’AMORE (Giulia Semenzato, soprano; Raffaele Pe, countertenor; Glossa GCD 920940)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / April 2016: Francesco Cavalli - SOSPIRI D'AMORE (Glossa GCD 920940)PIER FRANCESCO CAVALLI (1602 – 1676): Sospiri d’amore – Venetian Opera Duets and Arias, 1644 – 1666—Giulia Semenzato, soprano; Raffaele Pe, countertenor; La Venexiana; Claudio Cavina, conductor [Recorded in Teatro alle Vigne, Lodi, Italy, in December 2015; Glossa GCD 920940; 1 CD, 60:07; Available from Glossa, ClassicsOnlineHD, jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]

Collaborations among artists are the most structurally substantial cornerstones upon which Classical Music is built. Whether contributing to the creation or the performance of music, artistic relationships define the pasts, presents, and futures of all genres of Classical Music, the exchanges of ideas spurred by the creative impulses producing both great masterpieces of Western music and legendary performances of them. Händel and Senesino, Mozart and Da Ponte, Rossini and Colbran, Bellini and Romani, and Verdi and Boito are the sorts of artistic unions that have yielded history-altering works, but no less vital to the development of musical traditions are the collaborations among fellow musicians. As the Bible suggests and Abraham Lincoln reminded, houses divided against themselves cannot stand: from a musical perspective, how long can any musical ensemble whose members do not have at least a respectful rapport endure? United in celebration of the musical genius of Pier Francesco Cavalli, soprano Giulia Semenzato and countertenor Raffaele Pe construct during the sixty minutes of Sospiri d’amore an edifice as gratifyingly solid as the still-strong marvels of ancient Rome. The combatants in this musical Colosseo, situated by Glossa’s engineering in a ingratiatingly natural acoustic, are more delicate than Rome’s legendary gladiators and fearsome beasts, but opening one’s ears and heart to their contests reveals that the musical weapons that they wield are just as penetrating as polished blades and gnashing teeth.

Under the direction of Claudio Cavina, himself a much-admired altus, the musicians of La Venexiana fully embrace the spirit of collaboration that exists between Semenzato and Pe. Though details of his career are more documented than those of many of his contemporaries, Cavalli’s musical world nonetheless remains enigmatic in some crucial ways. Born in the commune of Crema in the Italian region of Lombardia on 14 February 1602, Cavalli received from Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, and a handful of other, less-familiar innovators the first fruits of a concerted effort at achieving through song a renaissance of stylized Hellenic drama. From these fruits, Cavalli extracted an essence that was distilled into opera in the form in which it passed through the hands of guardians like Agostino Steffani into the company of geniuses of the ilk of Georg Friedrich Händel and thus into every subsequent generation of composers, performers, and observers. Cavalli is no less significant to the development of opera than Monteverdi, Händel, Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner; more so, in fact, for without Cavalli’s clear differentiations of recitatives, ariosos, arias, and ensembles, the roads to Tamerlano, Così fan tutte, Falstaff, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg would have been considerably more difficult to navigate. Questions about instrumentation and the precise constitution of the continuo in Cavalli’s operas likely will never be answered with certainty or finality, but the solutions proposed on this disc by La Venexiana’s players—Efix Puleo and Daniela Godio on violin, Luca Moretti on viola, Antonio Papetti on cello, Alberto Lo Gatto on violone, Chiara Granata on triple harp, Gabriele Palomba and Diego Cantalupi on theorbo, and Luca Oberti on harpsichord—compellingly evoke the grandeur of Cavalli’s mature style whilst also ideally preserving the emotional intimacy of his finest music. Cavina’s alert, wonderfully ‘vocal’ pacing and the entrancing battery of sounds produced by the musicians combine in each selection—each of the cleverly-contrasted but complementary sighs, that is—on Sospiri d’amore to create an atmosphere in which the singers are not forced to resort to over-emoting in order to convey the nuances of the text to the listener. Cavalli’s voice here emerges as clearly as those of his modern-day interpreters, and he is sounding astonishingly fresh and modern these 340 years after his earthly voice fell silent.

Establishing himself as a presence as vital to Glossa’s catalogue of recordings of vocal music as Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi were to the efforts of EMI/Angel and DECCA/London in the 1950s, Raffaele Pe follows his superb performance as the Evangelista on Glossa’s recording of Gaetano Veneziano’s Passione secondo Giovanni [reviewed here] with passionate, poignant accounts of music by Cavalli on Sospiri d’amore. From the first bar of ‘Corone ed honori’ from the 1653 opera Il Ciro, Pe’s wholly organic affinity for this repertory is apparent. Admirably sure of intonation throughout the full range of his music on this disc, from ruby-hued tones in chest resonance to refulgently full-throated falsetto, Pe’s confident handling of Cavalli’s vocal lines yields exquisite results, the immediacy of his singing revealing to the modern listener the communicative power that exerted such a profound influence both on Cavalli’s contemporaries and on future generations of composers. Similarly, ‘Io misero fui Rege’ from Scipione Affricano (1664) receives from Pe a performance of unstinting commitment to music and text, the singer’s exemplary diction, reliant upon clear but unexaggerated elocution of vowels, highlighting the skill with which Cavalli replicated the natural cadences of speech. Whether in the opera house, on the concert stage, or in the recording studio, Pe is an artist who sings to rather than at the listener, transforming every alert observer of a performance into a participant, and the textual clarity, emotional directness, and tonal beauty with which he sings Cavalli’s music on this disc marginalizes the distance between the Seventeenth and Twenty-First Centuries. Pe here reminds the listener that singers whose work equates period-appropriate performance standards with pedantry disserve themselves, composers, poets, and audiences.

Soprano Giulia Semenzato proves in her singing of three of Cavalli’s most inspired arias to be an interpreter of the composer’s music fully worthy of partnering Pe. In her traversals of the markedly different ‘Lassa, che fò’ and ‘Vanne intrepido o mio bene’ from the too-seldom-performed Statira, principessa di Persia (1656—a full century before the birth of Mozart, it is worth noting, despite the rapid pace at which Cavalli’s vocal writing propels opera out of the Seventeenth Century and into the Eighteenth), Semenzato’s phrasing is as well-considered as her tones are focused and confidently projected. The first of the two numbers from Statira exemplifies the skill with which Cavalli could instigate a psychological avalanche without burying a character beneath blizzards of unnecessary notes and emotive wailing. Like her countertenor colleague, Semenzato’s singing exudes comfort with the idiom, and the soprano meets no challenges that overextend her resources. As sung by Semenzato, ‘Alpi gelate’ from Pompeo Magno (1666) is as potent as a soliloquy by any of Shakespeare’s great heroines, the vocal line scaling extraordinary heights of expression. With engagements at many of Europe’s leading opera houses, including La Scala, to her credit, the soprano is a musical storyteller whose artistry belies her youth. Like Pe’s singing, her way with Cavalli’s music illustrates her flair for enlivening music that many singers foolishly dismiss as antiquated.

Pe’s and Semenzato’s accounts of their arias are wonderful, but the duets are the lifeblood of Sospiri d’amore. Even expert singers with seemingly compatible sensibilities do not always prove to be well-matched duet partners. No concerns about the cooperation between Semenzato and Pe and the symbiosis that they achieve deter from enjoyment of this disc. The subtle but animated mingling of voices in ‘O luci belle’ from Eritrea (1652) at once discloses the communicative impact that this duo’s endeavors are capable of deploying. The singers’ contrasted timbres facilitate exploration of the dramatic impetus at the heart of each duet, not least in ‘Qui cadè al tuo piè’ from Orimonte (1650), in which the interaction between the voices propels both thematic development and deepening feelings. Semenzato and Pe create fully human characters, not dulcet-voiced ciphers.

It was as Delio in Spoleto Festival USA’s 2015 modern première production of Cavalli’s 1652 score Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona that Pe confirmed his stature as one of the fledgling millennium’s most thoughtful and accomplished young countertenors, his portrayal of the libidinous young man combining sensitive singing of star quality with heroic machismo—frequently frustrated, albeit—in the best tradition of Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli. Melding their voices like sunlight and stained glass, he and Semenzato conjure in the studio much of the magic in their singing of ‘Né meste più’ that he and soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli created upon the Charleston stage. Cavalli’s unsurpassed gift for enveloping even inimical sentiments in music of unmistakable sensuality elevates ‘L’aspetto feroce’ from Muzio Scevola (1665) and ‘D’Amor non si quereli’ from Ormindo (1644) into the company of the celebrated ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo’ in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the text and, less certainly, the music of which are now commonly attributed to a 1641 Bologna staging of Benedetto Ferrari’s Il pastor regio. [The operatic Poppea having been first crowned in 1643, some scholars theorize that the opera’s closing duet was composed by Cavalli, but no concrete evidence to substantiate (or refute) this has thus far been discovered.] Certainly, Semenzato and Pe sing both numbers with the flexibility, technical accomplishment, and unabashed opulence that Monteverdi’s—or, in this context, Ferrari’s—Poppea and Nerone demand.

The dialogue for Clori and Lidio from L’Egisto (1643), ‘Hor che l’Aurora,’ is a splendid example of a form that Cavalli perfected, fusing the allegorical discourses among archetypes of the sort found more than a half-century later in Händel’s Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno with starkly real circumstances of people of flesh and blood. The gap separating Cavalli’s Clori and Lidio from Mozart’s Pamina and Tamino, Beethoven’s Leonore and Florestan, Verdi’s Aida and Radamès, Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Siegfried, and Puccini’s Minnie and Johnson is startlingly narrow, the later composers having crafted their own individual styles of giving life to characters’ high-stakes conversations from the raw materials of Cavalli’s dialogues. Semenzato and Pe enact the dialogue for Clori and Lidio with intelligently-phrased intensity that uncannily preserves and transcends the formality of the music’s construction. Their singing of ‘Io chiudo nel core’ from Il rapimento di Elena (1659) indeed seems to emanate directly from the hearts of both artists, the concentrated passion of their singing surpassed only by its unspoiled beauty. The slightly mysterious aura of Ormindo’s ‘Sì, sì, che questa notte’ is an ideal setting for Semenzato’s and Pe’s understated brilliance: using Cavalli’s pointed melodic lines as their canvas, they spread the colors of their voices over a ravishing musical panorama of the jagged, jarring topography of humanity.

In today’s complicated, sometimes disheartening Classical recording industry, a disc’s success often depends upon its ability to justify its existence. In these performances by Giulia Semenzato and Raffaele Pe, any piece on Sospiri d’amore can be cited as an irrefutable raison d’être for this absorbing disc, but the prevailing triumph of Sospiri d’amore is the wondrous, often deeply moving synergy among singers, musicians, and music that, owing to performances of this quality, is as alive today as when it was first performed more than three centuries ago.

03 May 2016

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: The finest Art — Remembering a Lady whose stage was family, Daisy Belle Bradley Newsome (1920 – 2016)

IN MEMORIAM: Daisy Belle Bradley Newsome, 1920 - 2016

Daisy Belle Bradley Newsome
3 November 1920 – 1 May 2016

My grandmother was not a world-renowned singer, a prima ballerina, or a celebrated painter, but there is no question that Daisy Belle Bradley Newsome was a great artist. In the rôles of daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, and friend, her virtuosity was remarkable, as unforgettable in its way as Callas’s Norma and Fonteyn’s Giselle. She spoke her mind and expressed her opinions, but she loved and accepted unconditionally, and she personified the qualities that lend the heroines of Mozart, the protagonists of Austen, and the sentiments of Dickinson their enduring value and appeal.

In an age in which individuality is prized far above loyalty, even after fifteen years of widowhood she proudly signed herself as Mrs. Robert Newsome, a tribute to the husband of sixty-three years whose memory she cherished. She always carried a purse not as a vehicle for makeup or a mobile phone but because someone might need a Kleenex or a comb—or food might need to be smuggled out of a restaurant. She knew her part in every production, whether a son’s wedding or grocery shopping, and played it with grace and contentment that rooted her character not in complacency but in unwavering faith and commitment to family.

It was in her mastery of the art of living fully but humbly that my grandmother excelled most astoundingly. Wherever she resided, she never pretended to be anything but a child of rural Virginia who was said to have been named after her beloved Daddy’s favorite cow. Her siblings called her Belle, and that is what she was: a true Southern belle of the kind now irreversibly endangered, a lady who wore hats and gloves to church and always knew what to say and when and how to say it. I am immeasurably blessed to have had in my life four grandparents who were afraid of neither living nor dying, their honor in the former nobly transitioned into uncompromised dignity in the latter.

In the nine-and-a-half decades of her life, my grandmother likely never attended the opera or ballet or bought a recording of a symphony or string quartet, but she lived what so many artists can only feign, making music, motion, and beauty of everyday things too simple to be taught and too monumental to be imitated.

18 April 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Internationally-acclaimed countertenor BRIAN ASAWA, 1966 – 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Countertenor BRIAN ASAWA, 1966 – 2016 [Photo by Todd Tyler, © by Brian Asawa]BRIAN ASAWA

1 October 1966 – 18 April 2016

There is no aspect of writing about the Performing Arts that I find more difficult than memorializing artists of importance to me, especially when I am fortunate enough to value them as much for their humanity off the stage as for their musical accomplishments. The news of the passing of renowned countertenor Brian Asawa at the age of forty-nine is therefore as unnerving as it was unexpected. One of the most gifted singers in his Fach whose passion for furthering the art of countertenor singing and nurturing the burgeoning careers of young artists recently led him into the arena of artist management, Asawa’s vocalism was virtually inseparable from his personality. To hear him sing was to know his soul, and to know his soul was to cherish his artistry, whether or not countertenors occupy a place of affection in one’s own heart.

In 1991, Asawa was the first countertenor to garner an Adler Fellowship to San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program and to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. His fellow Merola participants in 1991 included artists of the calibre of Robert Breault, William Burden, Steven Condy, Earle Patriarco, and Daniel Sumegi, and he shared the laurels in the MET National Council Auditions with such luminaries as Elizabeth Futral, Paul Groves, and Kenneth Tarver. Following triumphant débuts with San Francisco Opera and the Mozart Bicentennial celebration at Lincoln Center, he received a career grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation and became the first countertenor to take the top prize in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. Asawa made his formal MET début on 18 February 1994, providing the silvery Voice of Apollo in Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. The following year, he recorded a performance of the rôle of Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream under Sir Colin Davis’s baton that has never been surpassed. Asawa returned to the MET in 1999 and 2000 for eight performances of Tolomeo in Händel’s Giulio Cesare.

In the course of his career, Asawa appeared in many of the world’s greatest opera houses, carving new paths along the trail blazed by Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, but the cavernous spaces of opera houses were too impersonal for the poetic intimacy of his artistry. Espousing repertory spanning almost half a millennium, ranging from the typical countertenor territory of Elizabethan lute songs to Ned Rorem’s Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century art songs, Asawa’s recordings expanded the horizons of what countertenor voices can do. In addition to his Oberon on the Philips label, his Farnace in the DECCA recording of Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto is a performance of astonishing musical and histrionic power, one in which he sometimes outshone the high-wattage singing of Cecilia Bartoli and Natalie Dessay.

Asawa could be prickly, but the affection that his colleagues have for him is evidence of the inexhaustible commitment that he had for whatever task he undertook. In his funeral oration for Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Grillparzer wrote that until the moment of his death the great composer ‘preserved a human heart for all men, a father's heart for his own people, the whole world.’ The musical children who treasured his paternal heart and the artistry that it enshrined understood that Asawa’s was a spirit that was easily wounded, not from weakness but from strength of integrity and perceptiveness.

I had the pleasure of making Asawa’s acquaintance during the planning of his most recent recording, Spirits of the Air, a beautiful disc on which he collaborated with mezzo-soprano Diana Tash in performances of music by Marco da Gagliano, Monteverdi, Purcell, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Händel. I found a message still in my inbox in which, in the context of an exchange about the disc’s repertory, he wrote to me, ‘Thank you for loving this music enough to support us coloring outside [of] the lines.’ This is precisely the sentiment that explains why Asawa was an artist of great significance: he loved music enough to follow wherever it led.