17 February 2017

CD REVIEW: Violin victoriousVENEZIA 1700 (Thibault Noally, violin; Les Accents; Aparté AP128) and POLYCHROME (Tobias Feldmann, violin; Boris Kusnezow, piano; Alpha Classics ALPHA 253)

CD REVIEW: Violin Victorious - VENEZIA 1700 (Aparté AP128) and POLYCHROME (Alpha Classics ALPHA 253)[1] TOMASO ALBINONI (1671 – 1751), FRANCESCO ANTONIO BONPORTI (1672 – 1749), ANTONIO CALDARA (1671 – 1736), EVARISTO FELICE DALL’ABACO (1675 – 1742), GIUSEPPE TORELLI (1658 – 1709), and ANTONIO VIVALDI (1678 – 1741): Venezia 1700 – Chamber Works for Violin and ContinuoLes Accents (Thibault Noally, violin and director; Claire Sottovia, violin; Elisa Joglar, cello; Mathieu Dupouy, harpsichord; Romain Falik, theorbo and Baroque guitar) [Recorded in L’Église luthérienne de Bon Secours, Paris, France, 29 September – 2 October 2015; Aparté AP128; 1 CD, 68:38; Available from Aparté, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] SERGEY PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953), MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937), and RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Polychrome – Violin SonatasTobias Feldmann, violin; Boris Kusnezow, piano [Recorded in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany, 8 – 10 March 2016; Alpha Classics ALPHA 253; 1 CD, 66:52; Available from Alpha Classics/Outhere Music, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Few if any actions have been more significant not only to traditional Western music but also to cultures throughout the world than those that transpired in luthiers’ workshops in northern Italy in the first decades of the Sixteenth Century, when these visionary craftsmen adapted ancient and recent Arabic, Asian, and European instruments into a new creature christened as the violin. From the benches of masters working in Brescia, Cremona, and Venice, this marvel in wood traveled to every corner of the globe, establishing an enduring presence in the lives of people of all social stations, accompanying peasants’ celebrations and the festive occasions of kings. Music being no less subject to Newtonian logic than physics, it is only natural that, presented with the uncharted sound world of a new instrument, composers’ equal and opposite reaction was to explore the violin’s capabilities, creating music tasked with exploiting every sound that can be cajoled from its strings. Doing just that, the violin was by the turn of the Seventeenth Century firmly entrenched by its earliest generations of composers and players as the melodic anchor of the burgeoning musical institutions that remain at the core of Western Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century. Exploring vastly different epochs in the history of music for the violin and thereby epitomizing the instrument’s broad stylistic flexibility, new releases from Aparté and Alpha, both of which were intelligently planned and beautifully recorded, offer dissimilar but equally distinguished views of the violin’s evolution. Moreover, these discs demonstrate the prodigious talents of a new generation of violinists, personified on these releases by Thibault Noally and Tobias Feldmann. Even when the music is not new, these discs divulge, today’s most gifted violinists continue to propel the advancement of the instrument.

Here turning his attention to Venetian music mostly from the first quarter of the Eighteenth Century, Noally and his ensemble Les Accents—violinist Claire Sottovia, Baroque cellist Elisa Joglar, harpsichordist Mathieu Dupouy, and Romain Falik on theorbo and Baroque guitar—offer a stunningly virtuosic and fabulously animated survey of pieces by some of Italy’s leading Baroque masters. Little Tribeca’s exceptional sound engineering allows Giuseppe Torelli’s Sonata in E minor for violin and continuo (GieT 60) to make a near-overwhelming impression in its first appearance on disc. Noally alternately exclaims and sighs in his limning of melodic lines, responding with an actor’s intuition to the music’s emotional intricacies. This integration of musicality with open-hearted expressivity is also integral to Noally’s approach to Francesco Antonio Bonporti’s 1712 Invenzione in C minor for violin and continuo. The violinist’s phrasing in the opening Lamentevole movement recalls Maria Callas’s long-breathed singing of bel canto cavatine, followed by a vivacious performance of the allegro Balletto that mimics the contrasting brilliance of Callas’s delivery of up-tempo cabalette. Marked comodo assai by the composer, the subsequent Aria is played hypnotically, Noally’s strings ‘singing’ with evenness and beauty of tone still rare in performances featuring period instruments and techniques. The concluding allegro non presto Fantasia explodes from the violinist’s bow, the complex figurations rippling from his fingers like firecrackers.

A pioneer who paved the way to success at the Habsburg court in Vienna for later Italian-born composers including Antonio Salieri, Antonio Caldara possessed one of the finest musical minds of the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries but has only recently begun to reclaim the esteem to which the fruits of his genius entitle him. Among the most satisfying of those fruits is his 1699 Ciaconna in B♭ major for two violins and continuo (Opus 2, No. 12), a piece in which Caldara’s faculty for interweaving writing for a pair of instruments rivals Bach’s and Mozart’s achievements in their respective Double Concerto (BWV 1043) and Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra (K. 364/320d). Noally and Sottovia braid their timbres with the organic rapport of snowflakes melting into one another. As they perform it, the Ciaconna is an intimate but impassioned dialogue upon which the scintillatingly-realized continuo discreetly comments. Also dating from 1699, Caldara’s Sonata in C minor for two violins and continuo (Opus 2, No. 7) is another work that exemplifies the merit of the composer’s oeuvre. The largo Preludio with which the Sonata opens is a starkly emotive piece in the playing of which the violinists accentuate the bold harmonic progressions employed by Caldara as a sentimental device. The thematic relationships in the andante Allemanda and allegro Corrente are pointedly but not excessively emphasized, heightening appreciation of the intelligence of Caldara’s musical designs. To the Tempo di Sarabanda, assigned the practical tempo non tanto allegro, Noally and Sottovia devote the focused energy of a geyser, their playing surging through the surface of the music and submerging the lilting sarabande rhythm in a flood of crisp exchanges between two insightful, ideally-matched virtuosi.

Joining the Sonata by Torelli, with whom its composer may have studied, in here being committed to disc for the first time, Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco’s 1716 Sonata in G minor for violin and continuo (Opus 4, No. 12) is revealed by Noally’s performance to be a work of substance and temperament equal to the composer’s better-known concerti. Spending time in France during the course of his career and eventually exiled in Munich, where he died in 1742, Dall’Abaco absorbed elements of the musical trends prevalent north of the Alps in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, fusing these with the examples of Torelli, Vivaldi, and Corelli. Italian models unquestionably exerted the strongest stylistic influence on the present Sonata, but the structure of the Largo that launches its journey, seductively performed by Noally and Les Accents, hints that the composer’s musical cosmopolitanism was already taking shape. The key of Tartini’s ‘trillo del diavolo’ sonata, alleged by the composer to have been written in 1713 but commonly attributed by modern scholarship to the 1740s, G minor had diabolical connotations in the Baroque era, and passages of demonic difficulty make Dall’Abaco’s Sonata a fiendish test for even very fleet-fingered fiddlers. Noally rockets through the Presto e spiccato movement as though the neck of his violin were covered with thorns. Perfectly judging its un poco vivace tempo, he offers a reading of the Passagaglio that both bustles with the music’s innate power and maintains the courtly sophistication of the dance. This is also true of Noally’s presentation of the allegro assai Giga: ribaldry and romance join hands in the wondrous whirlwind of sound that jigs from Noally’s violin.

Regrettably still known to many modern listeners for a popular piece that he did not write rather than for his own high-quality compositions, Tomaso Albinoni is represented on Venezia 1700 by his 1708 Sonata in G minor for violin and continuo (Opus 4, No. 5). A work of inventiveness not unworthy of comparison with the innovations of Bach and Telemann, the Sonata receives from Noally and Les Accents a performance of tremendous concentration and pinpoint accuracy. Utilizing alternating slow and fast movements, Albinoni created a sonata that exhibits comprehensive knowledge of both the musical forms of his age and their artistic possibilities. Noally imbues the first Adagio with the aura of an operatic prelude. The Allegro that follows brims with vitality that inspires the soloist and his continuo colleagues to playing of unbridled technical prowess. The second Adagio could be said to be the calm before the storm. As played by Les Accents, its sentiments seethe until released like a summer thunderstorm in the Presto that ends the Sonata. Noally’s playing flashes like lightning in the dark atmosphere of the minor-key music, and in every illuminating electrical discharge Albinoni’s creativity gleams.

Himself a violinist of wide-reaching fame, Antonio Vivaldi bequeathed to posterity some of the Eighteenth Century’s most enduringly popular music for violin. Igor Stravinsky’s infamous charge that Vivaldi essentially wrote the same concerto hundreds of times is a rare instance of shortsightedness on the part of the astute composer. To be sure, Vivaldi’s style of string writing was so consistent that virtually any of his pieces can be almost immediately identified as the work of Vivaldi, but their similarities do not obscure the wealth of diversity that his works contain. The Sonata in B♭ major for violin and continuo (RV 759) is typical of Vivaldi’s writing for the violin, its challenging passages for the solo instrument bolstered by supportive continuo, made doubly so in this performance by the marvelously cooperative playing by Les Accents. The subtleties of the Sonata’s sequence of dance movements that follow the opening largo Preludio, sumptuously bowed by Noally, are managed with finesse by both composer and violinist. The allegro Allemanda quickens the pulse, and the largo Sarabanda enraptures the heart. Noally and Les Accents relocate the allegro Corrente from the formal salons of France to the uninhibited piazze of Venice, highlighting the refinement of the Sonata’s internal architecture by executing every bar of the score with zeal.

Devised as set of increasingly-frenzied variations on the frequently-quoted Iberian folk tune ‘La Follia,’ Vivaldi’s 1705 Sonata in D minor for two violins and continuo (Opus 1, No. 12) was during its composer’s lifetime—and continues to be—one of the best-known musical products of the early Eighteenth Century. Sometimes judged by scholars to be inferior in ingenuity to Arcangelo Corelli’s work on the same subject, Vivaldi’s Sonata is nonetheless exhilarating when played well, and it is certainly played well in this performance. Even considering that each listener’s ears hear music with different goals and desires, it is difficult to imagine any listener objecting to recognition of this performance as the single most viscerally thrilling account of the Sonata ever recorded. The abandon with which Noally and Sottovia deliver their parts, attacking and parrying with the litheness of champion fencers, is breathtaking but always meticulously control. The ‘madness’ of their spontaneous-sounding recreations of Vivaldi’s quicksilver variations of the familiar theme mirror the well-planned turbulence of an El Greco canvas. So fresh is Les Accents’ performance of this music that this might be mistaken for a world-première recording. Only the finest artists can convince the listener as completely as Noally and Les Accents do with Venezia 1700 that the old adage applies as much to music as to people: age is only a number.

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Leaping across two centuries of musical history from Venice at the dawn of the Eighteenth Century to the last decades of the Nineteenth and first decades of the Twentieth Centuries transports the listener to the artistic environment of Polychrome, Alpha’s magical disc featuring young German violinist Tobias Feldmann and Moscow-born pianist Boris Kusnezow in edgy but polished performances of music by Ravel, Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. With Feldmann coaxing sounds of rounded beauty from the 1769 instrument by Neapolitan maker Nicolò Gagliano at his disposal, there is nothing metallic about the music making on Polychrome. The collaboration between the young violinist and pianist evokes great artistic partnerships of past generations, not least the musical relationship of Henryk Szeryng and Ingrid Haebler that produced memorable recordings of Mozart and Beethoven sonatas. Like that of those notable forebears, the communication between Feldmann and Kusnezow extends far beyond correct pitches and rhythmic synchronicity, reaching emotional depths that identify these artists as interpreters of great promise—promise eloquently fulfilled by the performances on this disc. Like Noally, Feldmann enriches the violin’s present and future by affectionately leading the listener into lesser-known niches of the instrument’s past.

Often accurately but misleadingly identified as his Sonate posthume, Maurice Ravel’s 1897 Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor (M. 12) is a score with which the composer honed his little-used talent for writing chamber music. A fastidious worker whose compositional process was often slow, Ravel at any point in his career was capable of infusing his music with elements that looked to the past and the future at once. Through-composed, the Sonata presents unique challenges of timing and ensemble to violinist and pianist. The apparent joy and camaraderie with which Feldmann and Kusnezow meet these challenges is one of Polychrome’s principal delights. Not surprisingly in music by Ravel, the Sonata straddles a tonal fault line, treading upon shifting harmonic sands. Musicians who do not listen to one another can easily go wrong in this music, but Feldmann and Kusnezow prevail with the kind of unshakable concentration that is all the more commendable for being wholly inconspicuous. Feldmann ‘reads’ Ravel’s writing for the violin as though it were as natural as speech, and his performance of the Sonata radiates a confident synthesis of the indomitable sunniness of youth and the meaningful shadows of experience.

Sergey Prokofiev’s 1944 Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major (Opus 94A) should be in the repertories of far more violinists, particularly good ones; violinists of the ilk of Prokofiev’s friend and champion David Oistrakh, at whose instigation the composer, living in virtual exile in Perm, metamorphosed a flute sonata written in 1942 into the present Sonata for violin. Prokofiev’s music can be as prickly as Ravel’s, but Feldmann and Kusnezow dig into this Sonata without hesitation, fully prepared to brave its snares. In the opening Moderato movement, the Classically-conceived discourse between violin and piano is conducted in tones of rapt intensity, the moods of the music flowing from the musicians’ fingers to the listener’s psyche. The breathless Scherzo introduces an ambivalence that complicates interpretation of the music. First impressions can be deceptive in Prokofiev’s music, but Feldmann and Kusnezow do not beleaguer their performance of the Sonata with self-righteous aural treatises on the metaphysical properties of the music. They play the Scherzo with a sense of fun that dispels the mists of doubt that enshroud the music. There is no doubt about the sincerity of the men’s respect for the music’s elegant solemnity, perhaps a reflection on the turmoil of the time in which the piece was written, in the Andante movement. The Allegro con brio finale fizzes with virtuosic flights of fancy for the violin and tricky passages for the piano. This is some of Prokofiev’s most extroverted, barnstorming music, and Feldmann and Kusnezow respond with dazzling virtuosity. Charlie Daniels and his fiendish fiddling intimated that ‘the devil went down to Georgia’: Feldmann and Prokofiev suggest that the infernal one had a musical hideout in the Urals, too.

Composed in 1887, Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E♭ major (Opus 18/TrV 151) is, like Ravel’s Sonate posthume, an early work, a product of its creator’s early twenties, but hallmarks of Strauss the composer of Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Die Frau ohne Schatten are already present, especially in the unique melodic voice that emerges from the Sonata. The first movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, inhabits the worlds of Strauss’s tone poems and early Lieder, and Feldmann and Kusnezow prove to be expert exponents of Strauss’s lush, late Romantic harmonies. The andante cantabile Improvisation is major Strauss on a minor scale: even at this early stage of his career, the wistfulness that reached its zenith in the Vier letzte Lieder was part of the composer’s artistic identity. Bringing to mind the long lines of ‘Befreit’ and ‘Zueignung,’ two of Strauss’s most beautiful and moving Lieder, the Improvisation is played by Feldmann and Kusnezow with the grace of a dove borne aloft by gentle breezes. Beginning at andante and transitioning to allegro, the Sonata’s finale is, like the closing movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata, a whirring banter between violin and piano. Feldmann and Kusnezow fire volleys of sound at one another with good-natured bellicosity, ending the Sonata with a pyrotechnics display that never threatens to outshine the pair’s glowing musicality.

The past century has witnessed a variety of trends in violin playing, ranging from the showmanship of Fritz Kreisler and sensitivity of Arthur Grumiaux to the stylistic versatility of Joshua Bell. At its core, though, the trend that has defined violin playing since the perfection of the instrument’s design is that of the pressure of a bow’s hair and human fingertips upon four strings and the reverberation of small wooden cylinders within a larger wooden torso. Almost anyone with patience can eventually accomplish the feat of making inoffensive sounds with a violin, but the production of pleasing sounds is not what makes a violinist’s work valuable. A violinist’s artistic merit is—or should be—determined by his sounds’ collective capacity to serve composers and listeners as a mediator, a catalyst for actions and reactions. By this measure, the actions of Thibault Noally and Tobias Feldmann and the reactions of their colleagues on Venezia 1700 and Polychrome qualify them as violinists with historically-significant virtues.

13 February 2017

CD REVIEW: Antonio Salieri — LA SCUOLA DE’ GELOSI (F. Lombardi Mazzulli, E. D’Aguanno, R. Mameli, F. Sacchi, M. Storti, F. Götz, P. Vogel; deutsche harmonia mundi 88985332282)

IN REVIEW: Antonio Salieri - LA SCUOLA DE' GELOSI (deutsche harmonia mundi 88985332282)ANTONIO SALIERI (1750 – 1825): La scuola de’ gelosiFrancesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Contessa), Emanuele D’Aguanno (Conte), Roberta Mameli (Ernestina), Federico Sacchi (Blasio), Milena Storti (Carlotta), Florian Götz (Lumaca), Patrick Vogel (Tenente); l’arte del mondo; Werner Ehrhardt, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Erholungshaus Leverkusen, Leverkusen, Germany, 17 – 20 December 2015; deutsche harmonia mundi 88985332282; 3 CDs, 161:14; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Before the dawning of the age of televised talent searches and real-time competitions, artists’ paths to recognition often wound through desolate landscapes of obscurity and indifference. An aspiring composer born in Legnago in the Veneto in 1750 did not have the luxury of posting samples of his work on Vimeo and YouTube and waiting for the world to watch and listen. For one precocious boy born in Legnago in 1750, the journey to widespread acclaim was arduous and even tragic but brief. Exposed by his violinist brother and his native town’s organist to the storied legacies of Giuseppe Tartini and Padre Martini, the young Antonio Salieri at the dawn of adolescence was first orphaned and then passed from the care of a Padovani friar to a Venetian aristocrat. Adopted as a foster son and disciple by composer Florian Leopold Gassmann, Salieri found himself at the age of fifteen in the musical Mecca of Habsburg Europe, Vienna, where his work would be received with enthusiasm for a half-century. It was therefore as a well-established, widely-esteemed master of Italian-influenced Viennese Classicism that Salieri composed one of his finest scores, La scuola de’ gelosi, for the 1778 Venetian Carnevale. The opera’s première in Teatro San Moisè on 27 December 1778, was one of the most complete successes of the first half of Salieri’s life, a triumph eventually repeated throughout Europe. It is a triumph recreated on l’arte del mondo’s deutsche harmonia mundi traversal of the score. Recorded during concert performances in Erholungshaus Leverkusen, this Scuola de’ gelosi is indeed educational. So much effort has been expended in the past two centuries on cataloging the ways in which Salieri was not Mozart that far too little attention has been granted to the extraordinary ways in which he was Salieri. La scuola de’ gelosi represents Salieri at his best, and this recording of the opera enables Twenty-First-Century listeners to establish or deepen a meaningful acquaintance not with the malevolent, mendacious Salieri of myth but with the real Salieri and one of the most appealing products of his prodigious talents.

A setting of a witty libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, court poet at Dresden and most known to modern observers for having adapted Metastasio’s text of La clemenza di Tito for Mozart, La scuola de’ gelosi must have seemed the zenith of modernity to Venetian audiences in 1778—and perhaps even more so to the Viennese, accustomed to the formalities of Maria Theresa’s reign, when the opera was first performed in the Habsburg capital in 1783. As played by l’arte del mondo and conducted by Werner Ehrhardt, the score retains a delightful ability to surprise. It cannot be claimed that Salieri was consistently Mozart’s equal as an orchestrator or a composer of operatic ensembles, but his work merits considerably greater respect than that afforded a mere craftsman. Conducting with a sure grasp of the opera’s carefully-planned rhythmic flow, Ehrhardt provides a solidly musical foundation upon which the many virtues of Salieri’s score are subsequently built. No composer active in the second half of the Eighteenth Century possessed theatrical flair superior to Mozart’s, but this performance of La scuola de’ gelosi confirms that the miraculous Salzburger could and undoubtedly did learn much from his Italian colleague. Much of the writing for orchestra in La scuola de’ gelosi recalls the finest efforts of both Haydns and the mature Mozart, and l’arte del mondo’s instrumentalists play every bar of their parts with concentration and virtuosity. Massimiliano Toni’s fortepiano continuo is cleverly enlivened with allusions to Mozart’s famous alla Turca Piano Sonata in A major (K. 331), perhaps composed as early as 1778 but most plausibly in 1783 and not published until 1784, contemporaneous with the first Vienna production of La scuola de’ gelosi. Propelled by this musical current, the performance engagingly circumnavigates Salieri’s score, providing the listener with alluring vistas of every musical port of call. Energetically paced by Ehrhardt and effervescently played by l’arte del mondo, this performance not only delights but also both legitimizes the esteem that Salieri enjoyed among his contemporaries and confirms the breadth of the influence that his music exerted on his own and future generations.

One of the unexpected surprises that La scuola de’ gelosi has in store for listeners is the gift for vivid musical characterization that the opera discloses. As in most aspects of his artistry, Salieri’s skill at creating musical portraiture is commonly deemed secondary to Mozart’s, but the denizens of La scuola de’ gelosi are worthy comrades of the finest of Mozart’s operatic personages. Each of the rôles in La scuola de’ gelosi possesses unique charms, and the wonderfully entertaining music for il Tenente is sung with keen intuition by tenor Patrick Vogel. Salieri’s ensemble writing in the Act One terzetto in which il Tenente spars with the Contessa and Conte makes no demands on the singer that are not well within Vogel’s technical compass, and he launches ‘La guerra s’incomincia, che diavolo ho da far?’ with unaffected humor. He then sings the aria ‘Ah, non siate ognor sì facili’ with vocal and dramatic immediacy. In Act Two, Vogel voices il Tenente’s aria ‘Chi vuol nella femmina trovar fedeltà’ brilliantly, the voice shimmering with a broad spectrum of colors. Singing with great flair, Vogel is always present in the drama, reveling in the bounty of Salieri’s musical ingenuity and establishing himself as a first-rate exponent of the composer’s idiom.

Bumbling charismatically without excessive bluster or buffoonery, baritone Florian Götz graces this performance of La scuola de’ gelosi with an ebullient, genuinely funny Lumaca. The character’s aria in Act One, ‘Una donna che affetto non sente,’ is sung with panache and expert comedic timing, every syllable of the text enunciated with obvious knowledge of both its literal meaning and its implications within the opera’s cumulative context. In Act Two, Götz delivers the aria ‘Lumaca, giudizio! Amor è un bel vizio’ with an ideal blend of poetry and pomposity. In his every appearance, the baritone’s vocal acting is no less astute in recitatives and ensembles than in arias. The range of Lumaca’s music poses few challenges for Götz, but a few instances of roughness and compromised intonation in his singing serve as reminders that, despite the ease with which he inhabits the rôle, this is not easy music.

Responding spiritedly to Götz’s Lumaca, mezzo-soprano Milena Storti is a fount of period-appropriate musical effervescence as the quick-thinking Carlotta. Bringing to Salieri’s music a voice of excellent quality over which she wields near-perfect control, Storti is a gifted artist whose restrained approach to comedy is so much more enjoyable than the efforts of singers who view comic rôles as a license to overdo buffo silliness. Though its sentiments are anything but silly, Storti maintains an entrancing lightness in Carlotta’s Act One aria ‘Gelosia d’amore è figlia,’ judiciously allowing the text to do the heavy lifting of fulfilling both the aria’s straightforward and its ironic purposes. The mezzo-soprano’s account of ‘Il cor nel seno balzar mi sento’ in Act Two pulses with honest emotion, the singer finding the character’s heart beating within the music and exposing it to the listener. As portrayed by Storti, Carlotta is no Carmen in Classical garb, hiding from Don José amidst minuets and periwigs. With a voice as attractive as her mind is sharp, Storti’s Carlotta is a lady of class and cunning who sings accordingly.

The Blasio of bass Federico Sacchi is a mercurial, silver-tongued fellow with much in common with Mozart’s Figaro and Don Alfonso. When he bellows, he does so with authority that not even the opera’s aristocratic couple can ignore, but there is sweetness in him, too—a trait used by Sacchi to give Blasio a nucleus of humanity that ultimately proves quite touching. Bursting into the Act One Introduzione with a statement of ‘Zitto! Alcun sentir mi parve’ that immediately captures both the listener’s and the other characters’ attention, Sacchi’s voice vaults through the music. The duettino with Ernestina draws from him a deluge of flawlessly-inflected comic singing, the sonorous mock-seriousness of his ‘Al gran Can di Tartaria’ fruitfully tapping the vein of zaniness in the score. Sacchi sings Blasio’s aria ‘Fate buona compagnia, trattenete il signor Conte’ strongly, and he articulates ‘Con mille smanie al core attendo qui mia moglie’ in the rollicking Act One finale—an ensemble that surely served as a model for similar scenes in Mozart’s mature operas—with hilariously overwrought intensity. Blasio’s aria in Act Two, ‘Adagio...allor potrei...è moglie, io son marito,’ is a gift to a talented basso buffo, a piece that presages Rossini’s writing for the Fach. Sacchi performs the aria with the brio of an accomplished Don Magnifico or Mustafà. Singers all too often succumb to the lure of resorting to over-emoting in comic rôles, exploiting rather than exploring the music, but in this performance Sacchi actually sings Blasio’s music; and very well, moreover, a few bumpy bars detracting nothing from his winsome portrayal.

The wily Ernestina emerges with abundant charm and musical finesse from the mind and throat of soprano Roberta Mameli, a singer whose expertise in Baroque and early Classical repertories render her an exceptionally well-qualified applicant to Salieri’s Scuola. From her first line of recitative, Mameli handles Salieri’s music with dexterity and dulcet tone. In the Act One duettino with Blasio, her Ernestina utters ‘Perdonate: amor è audace’ with beguiling demureness, and the joy that her singing of the aria ‘Se verrete a me vicino con le belle, con le buone’ evinces is infectious. Likewise, Mameli voices ‘Queste donne sussiegate che disprezzano gli amanti’ in Act Two with passion and precision. Musically and dramatically, the apogee of her performance is her account of Ernestina’s Act Two cavatina, ‘Cattivo sego, sposine amabili,’ one of the finest numbers in the score. In every scene in which Ernestina appears, however, Mameli delves deeply into the character’s motivations, seeking in the text causes for Salieri’s musical effects. Ever a wise singer who makes well-informed decisions about repertory, Mameli finds in Ernestina a rôle that might have been composed specially for her and sings her with insightful focus.

Taking no prisoners in his good-natured but uncompromising siege on the Count’s music, tenor Emanuele D’Aguanno gives unexpected depth and importance to a character who could all too easily be played as an arrogant, dim-witted fop. A noted master of bel canto, D’Aguanno traces the elegant line of the Conte’s Act One cavatina, ‘A me par che il mondo sia di ragazze d’ogni sorte,’ with natural grace. In the terzetto with the Contessa and il Tenente, the tenor’s voicing of ‘Eh via, saggia Penelope, non siate sì feroce’ emits a charge of satirical electricity: one can almost see the Conte rolling his eyes in bemused annoyance. In the aria ‘Chi può vedere oppresso un idolo d’amor,’ D’Aguanno’s technical prowess is put to use with astonishing fluidity. Here, too, in music through which otherwise capable singers might stammer, D’Aguanno’s bel canto training yields a performance of wondrous confidence. This alone heightens the nobility of the singer’s portrayal of the Conte. Joining with his Contessa in the Act Two duettino, this Conte delivers ‘Quel visino è da ritratto’ with the futile virility of a wasp trapped in honey. The aria ‘Più sereni quegli occhi volgete’ is sung with unapologetic romanticism, D’Aguanno again making magic with his negotiation of the vocal line. D’Aguanno is an expressive, communicative singer who deserves greater global recognition, and his performance on this recording is a compelling exhibition of his abilities.

A spiritual kinswoman of Beaumarchais’s, Mozart’s, and Rossini’s Rosina, Mazzolà’s and Salieri’s Contessa is a figure of intelligence and integrity. There is never any doubt that she is the headmistress of La scuola de’ gelosi, her emotional journey shaping the course of the opera in ways that clearly stoked Salieri’s imagination. Depicting the Contessa as an evocatively feminine force with an iron core, soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli reigns over this performance, her singing radiantly beautiful in cantilena and excitingly fleet in fiorature. Her rapt phrasing of the Act One cavatina ‘Ah, non è ver che in seno amor germogli amore’ is sustained with superb breath control, and she dispatches ‘Ridete pur, ridete, caro il mio bel Narciso’ in the terzetto with the Conte and il Tenente with a disarming giggle in the voice. All traces of mirth are suppressed in her heated performance of the aria ‘Gelosia, dispetto e sdegno lacerando il cor mi vanno,’ the contrasts among her pure vowels and sharp but unexaggerated consonants lifting the text off of the page and transforming it into audible thought. The Act Two duettino with the Conte discloses a more minxish facet of the Contessa’s personality, and the soprano rises to the occasion with an understated ‘Siete amabile e giocondo, ogni bella a voi l’attesta’ in which an almost ferocious competitiveness undulates beyond the serene façade. In the ingenious quintetto with the Conte, Blasio, Ernestina, and il Tenente, Lombardi Mazzulli leads her colleagues in a fabulous display of intricate vocal interplay, her voice always distinguishable from Mameli’s and shimmering with a golden hue at the top of the stave. The aria ‘Ah, sia già de’ miei sospiri sazio il fato e sazio il Ciel’ is sung with heart-warming lyricism that indelibly embodies the singer’s concept of her rôle. Impressive as Lombardi Mazzulli’s undaunted meeting of the punishing demands of the Contessa’s florid music invariably is, she impresses most with the untarnished beauty of her vocalism and the sincerity of her acting. In opera, simplicity is rarely the easiest but is often the best choice. For Lombardi Mazzulli, the simplicity of learning music and singing it as its composer intended it to be sung is not a choice but an organic component of her technique. There is no doubt that, when composing La scuola de’ gelosi, Salieri’s sympathies were dominated by the Contessa. When hearing this performance of the opera, Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing ensures that the Contessa wins listeners’ affection just as handily.

In the four-century history of opera, there have been a handful of composers whose work steered the genre’s development from its earliest Italian roots to the complex, many-branched organism that today spreads its canopy over the musical topography. Among those branches, composers with vastly different qualifications have created scores that meandered in and out of the international repertory. A particular wonder of the first seventeen years of the new century is the reappraisal that has been granted to a number of scores that in their infancy were rightly or wrongly deemed inadequate or insignificant. Still awaiting rediscovery are many operas that were welcomed with enthusiasm when first performed but have subsequently been supplanted by pieces that achieved greater popularity. In many cases, first impressions are as important in opera as on any of life’s other stages: a forgotten opera may have only one opportunity to plead its case before the discerning jury of today’s listeners. With this recording, distinguished by fantastic performances by cast, conductor, and orchestra, Antonio Salieri’s La scuola de’ gelosi makes an argument that could not fail to persuade even the most prejudiced juror to acquit the score of charges of musical inferiority. It is tempting to suggest that, without Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte, La scuola de’ gelosi might never have been forced from its place of prominence among the most revered operas from the second half of the Eighteenth Century, but one of the most profound lessons imparted by this school is that, without La scuola de’ gelosi, Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte may never have reached the stage.

30 January 2017

CD REVIEW: Franco Faccio — AMLETO (A. Richardson, A. L. Hamza, J. Hubbard, C. Worra, S. De Vine, M. Curran, J. González, J. Beruan; Opera Southwest 888295410748)

IN REVIEW: Francesco Antonio Faccio - AMLETO (Opera Southwest 888295410748)FRANCESCO ANTONIO FACCIO (1840 – 1891): AmletoAlex Richardson (Amleto), Abla Lynn Hamza (Ofelia), Joseph Hubbard (Orazio), Caroline Worra (Geltrude), Shannon De Vine (Claudio), Matthew Curran (Polonio, Primo becchino), Paul Bower (Marcello, Un sacerdote), Javier González (Laerte), Jeffrey Beruan (Lo spettro, Luciano), Jonathan Charles Tay (Un araldo, Il re Gonzaga), Heather Youngquist (La regina); Chorus and Orchestra of Opera Southwest; Anthony Barrese, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at Opera Southwest, Albuquerque Journal Theatre, National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, 26 and 31 October and 2 November 2014; Opera Southwest 888295410748; 2 CDs, 149:36; Available from Opera Southwest and major music retailers]

It is irrefutably true that artists are no less subject than any other men to John Donne’s oft-quoted assertion that ‘no man is an island,’ but plentiful are the opportunities for drowning in the tumultuous seas that separate creative geniuses from the nearest neighboring shores. Fond as modern society is of attaching labels to every possible entity, a sobriquet like ‘the Czech Mozart’ is as damaging as it is flattering to the modern reputation of the Eighteenth-Century composer Josef Mysliveček, heightening interest but also suggesting a discernible element of conventionality. In a sense, promoting Franco Faccio’s Shakespeare-derived opera Amleto as the ‘missing link between Verdi and verismo’ places this forsaken score in a context that emphasizes its significance in the evolution of Italian opera in the Nineteenth Century but undermines its merits as a destination in its own right. With a libretto by Arrigo Boito, the composer of the still-under-appreciated Mefistofele and Nerone whose libretti for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff qualify him for the title of Italy’s most gifted operatic adaptor of Shakespeare, Amleto first recreated something rotten in Denmark on the stage of Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice on 30 May 1865, with Mario Tiberini, Verdi’s first Don Alvaro in the revised version of La forza del destino that continues to be preferred today, in the title rôle. Neither a rousing success nor the dismal failure that its subsequent neglect might suggest it to have been, Amleto can be said to have suffered a variation of the fate endured by its protagonist: misrepresented, misunderstood, ignored, and dismissed, Faccio’s most accomplished score now seeks in today’s reappraisal the retribution that it deserves.

Born in Verona in 1840, two months before Tchaikovsky was born four thousand kilometers away in today’s Udmurt Republic, Francesco Antonio Faccio honed his gifts at the Milan Conservatory, where his studies brought him into contact with Boito. The friendship that developed between them was both productive and potentially injurious: their barbed and very public criticism of the Italian musical establishment earned them the ire of Verdi, the undisputed sovereign of that establishment. Fortunately for Faccio, Verdi was capable of graciousness and seeing talent despite triviality, eventually facilitating the younger man’s appointment as conductor at Teatro alla Scala and advocating for Faccio’s conducting of the first performances and momentous productions of Verdi’s own later operas. Faccio was only twenty-five years old when Amleto was premièred in Genoa and not yet thirty-one when his revision of the score was first heard at La Scala in 1871. Though Faccio was to live for another two decades [ironically, Verdi, bastion of the ‘old guard’ against which Faccio and Boito railed, outlived his younger Veronese colleague by ten years], this is where Amleto’s journey stalled until the Twenty-First Century. Dramatically, Boito’s libretto for Amleto is in no way inferior to his Shakespeare libretti for Verdi. Musically, Faccio’s score is the equal or superior of many of the pieces that have been resurrected in recent years, including Filippo Marchetti’s Ruy Blas, the title rôle in which was created in 1869 by the first Amleto, Mario Tiberini. Faccio’s mastery of orchestration is sometimes more striking than his skill as a melodist, but Amleto is a work that profusely rewards the listener’s curiosity.

Recorded during critically-acclaimed performances at Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest, this release provides Amleto and its creator with a substantial measure of the vengeance to which the opera’s neglect entitles them. Like Shakespeare’s play, which is gripping when read but can be overwhelming in performance, it is apparent that Faccio’s opera is better suited to the stage than to the studio. Even at their most bountiful, noises from stage and audience in this recording are not bothersome, the extraneous sounds contributing to the performance’s palpable atmosphere—a trait invaluable to both Hamlet and Amleto. Also crucial in the creation of the atmosphere that the opera needs are the efforts of the Opera Southwest Chorus and Orchestra. The orchestra’s playing luxuriates in the richness of Faccio’s part writing, the few mistakes that remind the listener that this recording documents live performances indicating the difficulty of the music. Orchestral textures are for the most part ideal, and balance of ensemble is thoughtfully managed, especially in the grand public scenes. Faccio’s choral writing prefigures passages that Verdi would create in Act Two of Aida and the opening scene of Otello, and the choral singing in this performance is one of Opera Southwest’s foremost achievements. The choristers consistently deliver energetic accounts of their music, often giving the performance the dramatic force of Greek tragedy, and their efforts are unerringly musical. With this recording, Opera Southwest’s personnel provide further evidence of the fantastic work being done by America’s regional opera companies, work often superior to the efforts of larger companies in and beyond the United States.

That resurrecting Amleto was not merely a project but a personal crusade for composer and conductor Anthony Barrese is audible in every second of this recording. Having prepared the critical edition of Faccio’s score, now receiving attention throughout the world, he conducts the performance on these discs as though his life, as well as the opera’s fortunes, depended on it. In Barrese’s hands, an electric ambience is engendered via the opera’s opening pages that permeates the performance, the dramatic tension maintained until the final chord of Faccio’s score. Musical gestures are always at the service of the narrative, the conductor facilitating a reading in which the climaxes of every scene are fully realized but organically fused within the opera’s overall structure. The chosen tempi keep the opera moving without pushing any of the performers on stage or in the pit beyond the limits of comfort or good taste. Unlike the endeavors of many proponents for overlooked repertory, Barrese’s pacing of Amleto does not attempt to force the listener to accept the opera as a rediscovered masterpiece: rather, Faccio’s music is performed with equal measures of passion and precision, and the listener is invited to draw his own conclusions. It is impossible to know how Mendelssohn’s conducting of the Bach Passions sounded, but, as it was guided by the affections of rediscovery and dauntless advocacy, it can be surmised that, in spirit, it must have resembled Barrese’s conducting of Amleto.

Heard as both the Araldo and Il Re Gonzaga, tenor Jonathan Charles Tay exemplifies the meticulous casting that was enacted in filling the roster for Opera Southwest’s production with singers qualified to make the most positive of impressions with their handling of Faccio’s music. In the second part of Act Two, Tay sings ‘Vieni, compagna, un tiepido orezzo verspertin fa carolar le mammole nel placido giardin’ with total immersion in the drama, the singer’s vocal colorations reflecting the subtleties of the text. Similarly, tenor Javier González injects a rigid spine into Laerte, a figure too often inert in performances of Hamlet, voicing ‘Sovra il desco inebriato piovan canti, incenso e fiori’ in Act One with steady tone and sure dramatic instincts. These gentlemen’s performances are complemented by the strong, sonorous vocalism of bass Matthew Curran as the Primo Becchino and Polonio. In the latter rôle, this imaginative singer is a credible father to González’s Laerte and the fragile Ofelia, even his most pompous political passages softened by paternal tenderness. The insightful wisdom of his ‘To thine own self be true’ speech notwithstanding, the loss when Shakespeare’s Hamlet erroneously slays Polonius is rarely deeply felt, but Curran makes the character truly amusing in his self-importance and genuinely sympathetic in his vestiges of humanity, not least by sculpting ‘Quand’ei qui giunga, a lui verrà mia figlia’ in Act Two with dignity and distinguished tone.

In addition to honorably aiding Faccio as Opera Southwest’s chorus master, baritone Paul Bower sings the composer’s music for Marcello and Un Sacerdote with vigor and well-projected tone, setting a fine example for the choristers under his direction. Joining the chorus in following that example, soprano Heather Youngquist contributes singing of excellent quality as La Regina in the traveling troupe’s play—the play that is the thing in which Hamlet contrives to ‘catch the conscience of the king.’

One of the most fascinating aspects of Amleto is the manner in which Faccio endowed characters that function in Shakespeare as little more than stock figures who set the moods of scenes or advance literary conceits with innovative, interesting, and skillfully-written music. It is therefore strange to observe how comparatively few opportunities for musical expression Faccio provided for Orazio, Shakespeare’s Horatio and one of Hamlet’s most consequential figures. [In the First Folio edition of Hamlet, Horatio speaks 292 lines, fewer than several characters but 122 more than Ophelia!] In this performance of Amleto, bass Joseph Hubbard grants Orazio the stature of his Shakespearean counterpart. Singing with imperturbable concentration, Hubbard precisely gauges the gravity of each note and word of his part, attaining the difficult balance between urgency and levity. Faccio’s Orazio is basically a conventional operatic secondo uomo, but Hubbard’s Orazio is a man with his own identity, in Amleto’s service but never in his shadow.

Bass Jeffrey Beruan is a singer whose performances often inspire that most frustrating of operatic questions: why are so many companies casting less-qualified vocalists for appropriate rôles when an artist of Beruan’s caliber is available? Interpreting Luciano and the pivotal part of Lo Spettro in this performance of Amleto, the bass exhibits his considerable strengths in singing of thrilling impact. In the second part of Act One, Beruan’s articulation of the ghost’s ‘Tu dêi saper ch’io son l’anima lesa del morto padre tuo’ is chilling, the effect on the listener as great as that on Amleto. Equally potent is his voicing of ‘Ma intorno io sento come un olir di soffio mattutino,’ his enunciation of text as imposing as his musical prowess. ‘Figliuol, dal cieco furiar rimanti’ in Act Three is conveyed with galvanizing conviction. In certain passages, the range of the ghost’s music challenges Beruan, taking him into territories both above and below the stave in which intonational security momentarily falters. Occasionally, too, the singer’s declamation is slightly more emphatic than the music necessitates, and the raw force expended takes a toll on tonal quality. Still, Beruan’s performance is shaped by an earnest response to the score, and he haunts this Amleto with artistry of a high order.

The villainous Claudius is the point at which all of Hamlet subplots intersect. Guilty of both fratricide and regicide, in addition to having married his murdered brother’s wife, Claudius is the quarry of Hamlet’s messy, meandering quest for revenge. Portrayed by baritone Shannon De Vine, Faccio’s and Boito’s Claudio is an usurper who is both conniving and cowardly, not the equal of Verdi’s and Boito’s Iago but a plausible catalyst for Amleto’s neuroses. In Act One, De Vine assumes an imperious stance in ‘Di giulivi clamori sorga un tuon per le splendide sale,’ the baritone cloaking the character’s treachery in smooth vocal acting. The baritone sings ‘Libiam! La lagrima sul ciglio spunti’ with bravado, manifesting a sweeping contrast with the burgeoning nervousness that grips Claudio during the play within a play in Act Two. The near-manic sentiments of ‘O nera colpa! Orribilmente inflitta entro l’occhio dell’anima!’ in the first part of Act Three are imparted by De Vine with resonant certitude. De Vine’s reading of ‘S’empian le coppe di prezioso vino’ in the second part of Act Four trembles with the conflicting emotions of a man who senses that the game is up. Dramatically, De Vine is a Claudio worthy of the Globe: musically, he speaks Faccio’s musical language with compelling fluency.

In Ambroise Thomas’s operatic incarnation of Hamlet, it is the titular prince’s mother Gertrude who claims much of the best music, particularly in her duets with Claudius and Hamlet and the arioso ‘Dans sons regards plus sombre.’ Faccio’s Geltrude enjoys a similar caliber of music, and she receives from soprano Caroline Worra a portrayal of visceral immediacy apt for the character and musical poise befitting a queen. To the mother’s tense dealings with her son and the wife’s increasingly troubled discourses with her husband Worra brings emotional directness and singing of white-hot charisma. In the scene with Claudio and Polonio in the first part of Act Three, the soprano excels as a mistress of dramatic utterance allied with undeviating adherence to exalted musical values. Worra’s voicing of ‘Ah! che alfine all’empio scherno mi ribello, o snaturato!’ reverberates with feeling. The singer’s easy command of the tessitura of Geltrude’s music is wonderful, and the scope of Worra’s artistry is revealed by the extent to which she exerts a prodigious histrionic presence even in the context of an audio recording.

Ophelia is among the Bard’s most one-dimensional heroines, her function in Hamlet being largely that of a witness to other characters’ machinations. Great actresses have managed to make her more than a static figure who strikes poses akin to Sir John Everett Millais’s famous depiction of the drowned Ophelia, but, whether the score before her bears the name of Faccio or Thomas upon its cover, the soprano portraying Ophelia faces a problematic task when seeking to infuse the character with anything resembling unaffected verisimilitude. From the first notes of her entrance music, soprano Abla Lynn Hamza strives admirably to create an engaging Ofelia, phrasing the lovely ‘Dubita pur che brillino degl’astri le carole’ artfully and rising to the fortissimo top C with assurance. In Act Two, Hamza’s account of ‘Signor, da gran tempo - tenevo nel cor di rendervi questa - memoria d’amor’ exudes femininity, but this is no shrinking-violet Ofelia: rather than being lost in the character’s delicacy, this soprano embraces it, making it an integral but not the defining element of her interpretation. Unsurprisingly, the pinnacle of Faccio’s writing for Ofelia is her mad scene in the second part of Act Three. Here, Hamza’s thoughtfulness produces a traversal of ‘La bara involta d’un drappo nero move alla volta del cimitero’ that transcends oft-parodied operatic insanity. Hamza’s Ofelia persuasively and movingly relinquishes her grip on rationality, but the singer’s grasp on the music remains firm. When this Ofelia sings ‘Ahimè! chi piange? è il salice, che piange, e piange tanto che l’acqua del suo pianto formò questo ruscel,’ she seems to have already entered a state beyond mortality. Hamza’s technique meets the strenuous demands of Faccio’s music without resorting to trickery, and her vocal confidence markedly enhances her kaleidoscopic portrait of Ofelia.

The title rôle in Hamlet is among the greatest creations in theatre and literature, the tormented Danish prince having captivated audiences throughout the world in an extraordinary array of portrayals in different styles, methods, and languages. On stage and screen, he has been hearty and handsome, narcissistic and near-demented, idealistic and idiosyncratic, and, as brought to life in Opera Southwest’s production of Faccio’s Amleto by tenor Alex Richardson, he is awkward and disenfranchised, an adolescent catapulted into adulthood by events with which he seems scantily equipped to cope. That he is fully cognizant of his uncle’s misdeed and his mother’s complicity is never in question, and the evolution of Richardson’s Amleto is guided by his journey from brooding indignation to unhesitant brutality. That transformation is initiated in Act One with the tenor’s agitated statememt of ‘Ah si dissolva quest’abbietta forma di duolo e colpe! si dissolva in nulla.’ He reveals a wholly different facet of Amleto’s psyche with his reverent but robust ‘Gran Dio!... misericordia!... Vegliate su di me, santi del cielo!’ in the opening act’s second part. The ambivalence of Amleto’s monologue ‘Essere! o non essere!’—the equivalent of Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be’—is heightened by a restless cello obbligato and shifting tempi, but Richardson’s verbal fluidity and solid top A and B♭ confirm that this Amleto’s resolve is ‘to be.’ There is stinging irony in his singing of ‘Fatti monachella. Sì fatti monachella,’ and in the second part of Act Two the tenor’s performance misses none of the pointed meaning of ‘Osserva, Orazio, su quella fronte non vedi un funebre strano pallor?’ In Amleto’s scene with his mother, uncle, and Polonio in the first part of Act Three, it is obvious that the desire for vengeance has become an all-consuming obsession in which distinctions of right and wrong and good and evil are obscured. Richardson sings ‘Che rubi e insudici troni e corone’ powerfully, followed by an account of ‘Celesti spirti! O lugubre spettro del padre morto’ in which the singer’s voice is as resilient as the character’s mind is anguished.

Another of Hamlet’s most familiar scenes is that in which the prince ponders the transience of life whilst the gravediggers go about their work, and Richardson phrases ‘Ahimè! Povero Yorick! Me ’l rammento io pure’ in Faccio’s setting with an abiding aura of poetic wonder. Richardson’s vocalism is at its most refined in the opera’s final scene, but he is an Amleto who is more rugged than cerebral, one who actively rejoices in the pursuit of retaliation for his father’s murder. Like Alvaro in Verdi’s La forza del destino, Faccio’s Amleto needs both force and finesse, and Richardson, here an expressive but never ‘soft’ singer, approaches the rôle with commendable straightforwardness, avoiding the trap of over-acting. Faccio’s music wages war against the tenor’s upper register, but Richardson never surrenders, conquering the composer’s writing with corpuscular sturdiness that recalls Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Though greater expressive nuance and dynamic shading would be welcome, Richardson genuinely sings music that many tenors would likely be inclined to shout, and he is a bold, heroic Amleto.

‘The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge,’ Shakespeare wrote in Act Three of Hamlet, and, thunderously projecting its voice via this recording, Faccio’s Amleto at last enjoys the satisfaction of reprisal. The score’s virtues are many, and it is intriguing to consider what a triumph an ensemble like La Scala’s celebrated 1962 ‘night of seven stars’ cast for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots might have scored with Franco Corelli as Amleto, Dame Joan Sutherland as Ofelia, Giulietta Simionato as Geltrude, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Claudio, and Giorgio Tozzi as Orazio. It is not unrealistic to conjecture that Carlo Bergonzi would have been an Amleto of Shakespearean depth, and what dramatic infernos might Renata Scotto and Maria Callas have kindled in Ofelia’s and Geltrude’s music? That Amleto inspires such musing is a testament to the quality of Faccio’s score and to the probing performance that it receives from Opera Southwest on this recording. This Amleto is a brilliant vindication of the eminence of the music and its composer that, echoing Shakespeare’s words in Henry IV, Part One, is ‘like a comet of revenge, a prophet to the fall of all [their] foes!’

20 January 2017

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Bridging the genre gap—what Madama Butterfly can learn from Mrs. Brown

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Sixties Soul, Still Going Strong - PETER NOONE of Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone [Photo by the author - Carlos Alvarez Studio Theatre, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, San Antonio, Texas; 20 March 2016]Sixties Soul still going strong: Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone in performance in the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, San Antonio, Texas, on 20 March 2016
[Photo by the author]

There is an oft-cited quip suggesting that, if you can remember the 1960s, you were not there. Now, a half-century after Motown drove across the continent and the British Invasion reclaimed the colonies, there are less-jovial connotations to that quaint maxim. Illness and injury are continually decimating both the memories and the mortalities of those who witnessed and participated in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, and too many of those who, like me, were born in the less-interesting decades that followed have never queried the sources of musical munificence in their own homes about the sounds and experiences that defined an era. If our grandparents, the courageous women and men who selflessly abandoned their everyday lives and battled not for the status quo but for preservation of the freedom for there to be a status quo, were the Greatest Generation, then our parents, the children of the turbulent but tremendously tuneful Sixties, are surely the Grooviest Generation. The photos of their haute couture and piled-high coiffures amuse us now, but follow George Jackson’s and Bob Seger’s advice, take any of those old records off the shelf, and there arises from the scratch of stylus on vinyl an atmosphere shaped by far more than words and lyrics. Better still, return to the source: hear an artist like Peter Noone, still playing in excess of 130 gigs each year with undimmed enthusiasm and professionalism, and the subtle and substantial changes in music of all genres are plainly, painfully apparent. Ours is a brave new world that has lost both its bravery and its novelty, especially in the exalted realm of Classical Music. There are ears that will ever respond more readily to Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII than to Herman’s Hermits’ ‘I’m Henry VIII, I Am,’ but there are many questions that gnaw at the core of Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century that might find no better answers than those proposed by still-swinging Sixties showmanship.

That this undoubtedly seems an unlikely theme for Voix des Arts necessitates a brief stint in the confessional. I principally write about Classical Music because this is my comfort zone. During my youth in the last millennium, I studied violin [no Arthur Grumiaux, to be sure], piano [no Artur Schnabel], and voice [no Caruso, Gigli, or even Poggi]. Regardless of whether I seriously considered a career as a professional musician, it is impossible to ascertain whether I possessed less ambition or talent. Despite having studied it in some depth, I love music. Loving music, I lead a double life, my Clark Kent guise boring the Classically-inclined public with my Tolstoy-length, excessively-detailed reviews by day and then, by night, donning my cape—a glow stick, actually—and transforming into a freeway-burning follower of Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone. [There comes a time, fellow travelers, when what one claims to be one’s parents predilections should and must be acknowledged as one’s own.] With today’s incarnation of the Hermits, comprised of master musicians Vance Brescia, Dave Ferrara, Rich Spina, and Billy Sullivan, Noone tours in the United States and abroad, appearing in as many different kinds of venues as there are towns to build them. Friday evening might find me critiquing a performance of Carmen; Saturday evening, singing along with ‘Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat.’ Rather than complicating my focus on the former, I find that the latter markedly sharpens my perspectives on all music.

I have during my time in the trenches met a few ‘serious’ singers, and, rightly or [mostly] wrongly, have even considered a few among them friends. For me, opera is life—not a means of making a living but life itself. I try to convey this in my writing and to apply this passion to my analyses of performances and recordings. Whether the work at hand is a Bach partita, a Bellini opera, a Brahms symphony, or a Bacharach song, a musician’s endeavor deserves attention from the critic at least as great as the effort expended in the performance. A performance of two hours’ duration, prepared over many more hours, seldom merits being assessed—or, more accurately, dismissed—in a single sentence, and, in those cases in which this is warranted, there is no complaint that cannot be stated civilly. My credo, unimpeded by editorial limitations, is profoundly simple: be thorough, honest, and courteous; and, if there is nothing positive to be said, say nothing at all. Complementing my great appreciation for his music and his unwavering commitment to making it at the highest level is my recognition of Noone’s embodiment of the critical tenets of my philosophy. He falls ill, experiences disappointments and losses, has aches and pains, and faces days when the voice wants rest, but audiences who discern this in his performances are far more perceptive than I. There are no cancellations, no complaints, and no excuses: the priority is the quality of the ticket buyer’s experience, not cosseting the artist’s ego.

As an opera lover [barely] under the age of forty, I am fascinated and admittedly mystified by tales of opera-going of generations past. Reflecting on the passing of Roberta Peters, a gracious lady rightly acclaimed as one of America’s most gifted and giving singers, I find it almost impossible in the context of today’s Classical Music environment to fathom an era in which singers like Peters, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Renata Tebaldi received their fans like friends. In a classic case of diving in at the deep end, my first exposure to professionally-produced opera was the Franco Zeffirelli production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera, a 1997 performance with Denyce Graves in the title role and Plácido Domingo as Don José. To her credit, Graves was a throwback to the divas of bygone days, amiably holding court with her admirers at the stage door. In this aspect of the operatic experience, the going has for the most part been downhill from that auspicious start.

Many keystrokes are expended in discussions of the struggles that opera and Classical Music face, especially in the United States. With funding imperiled on virtually every front, financing opera is a challenge of epic proportions, one that companies must meet with intelligence and innovation. Fundraising is a necessity, but it is also a significant current in the tsunamis of arrogance and elitism that have drowned opera in America in recent seasons. Yes, opera has almost always been and will likely always be perceived as an elitist art form, not without justification, but the language and stylistic barriers that frighten potential new audiences are made still more off-putting by the disconnect between stage and seats. The interaction that caused a boy from North Carolina to feel that Denyce Graves cared about whether he enjoyed her performance is now so often lacking. Graves is as charismatic a lady in the MET parking garage as she is on the MET stage, but many of today’s younger singers are also kind, insightful, approachable people—and there, dear readers, is the rub. Of what use is approachability when one can never be approached?

To be sure, ours is a world unlike the one inhabited by Sutherland and Tebaldi; unlike even the one in which I first attended a performance at the MET, for that matter. Security is a paramount concern. Artists’ safety is an inviolable right, but it is not often than an enthusiastic child is denied the opportunity to greet an idolized performer after a show because of security concerns. No, there is a private reception for donors, an invited-guests-only function, some sort of ‘Average Folks are not welcome’ event that adds another layer of bricks to the wall separating Art from Public. This is understandable and unavoidable but undeniably disheartening. I have often wondered whether I would have been so keen to return to the opera had Denyce Graves not taken five minutes from her life—five minutes to which my ticket emphatically did not entitle me—to say, ‘Thanks for coming to the show, kid. I’m glad that you enjoyed it and proud to have been part of your first night at the opera.’ For me, the obsession was already growing, but what about the child who now has no opportunity to utter awe-induced nonsense to the Figaro, Papageno, or Rodolfo who has won her heart?

When Peter Noone performs, it is the Herman persona that sent teeming crowds into frenzies in the 1960s who takes the stage. When he greets newly-won and decades-loyal fans in post-performance autograph lines that sometimes seem interminable, it is an amalgamation of Herman and Peter Noone who remembers names, inquires about absent spouses and children, and carries on witty banter worthy of Benny Hill. There of course are private receptions, backstage meetings for a fortunate few, and closed-door concessions to the pockets that pay venues’ bills, but Noone’s dedication to converting every creature in a seat into a fan is why, fifty years after he charmed Ed Sullivan and the youth of America, I remember as many Herman’s Hermits lyrics as da Ponte and Hofmannsthal libretti. Artistic responsibility is a two-way street. Perhaps I was not the most eager of attendees the first time that I heard Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone in concert, but I immediately sensed the abiding cognizance of responsibility for my enjoyment that Noone and the musicians with whom he surrounded himself exuded. I therefore felt a similar responsibility to switch off my prejudices and let the music minister to me on its own terms. I have felt that in the opera house, too, but the toil is greater. How many potential opera lovers and benefactors never deem it worth the effort to make the kinds of connections that open minds, hearts, and checkbooks?

However greatly we have come to rely upon social media and technology for communication, there is so much more to meaningfully enjoying, promoting, and supporting art than liking Facebook pages and following Twitter accounts. Art is an exchange, a sharing of ideas from which no one can be excluded if art is to remain viable. That opera has become a commodity that is bought and sold on a closed but visible market is abundantly apparent. Such is progress, and, if managed properly, opera and its future can benefit from it. No one would admit more quickly than Noone that singing ‘Leaning on the Lamp Post’ is not as strenuous an undertaking as performing Isolde’s Liebestod, but no one is more aware than Noone that selling ‘Leaning on the Lamp Post’ is as vital to the success of a Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone as the emotional and musical power of a soprano’s Liebestod is to the effectiveness of a performance of Tristan und Isolde. In an unpoetically commercial sense, the essence of artistry is the sales pitch. As pivotal in the effort to preserve opera as in that to keep music from the 1960s playing is convincing consumers to buy something that they know that they do not need.

What can Madama Butterfly learn from Mrs. Brown? One might think that the view from high atop the hill overlooking Nagasaki’s harbor is ideal for peering over the horizon into the future of opera, but that view is too often obstructed by reflections of the dizzying misfortunes to which opera in the Twenty-First Century, like Cio-Cio San, is susceptible. Still, Herman would remind us that ‘it ain’t no good to pine.’ I fear for the survival of opera not because of the quality or validity of the music or the aptitude of young singers but because the pressures of sustaining a career in too many instances no longer allow singers to be the kind of crusaders for opera that Peters, Sutherland, and Tebaldi were, garnering as much veneration after the curtain fell as when on stage. It is upon veneration of singers and singing that the perseverance of opera depends. Opera could learn much from Peter Noone about the elusive art of maintaining uncompromising seriousness in one’s artistry without forgetting that the surest method of earning a listener’s respect is to sincerely and palpably reciprocate it.

15 January 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georges Bizet — CARMEN (S. Piques Eddy, D. Vania, D. Pershall, M. Whittington, J. Martinson, S. Foley Davis, D. Hartmann, S. MacLeod, J. Wright, T. Federle; Greensboro Opera, 13 January 2017)

IN REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY in the title rôle (left) and tenor DINYAR VANIA as Don José (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Georges Bizet's CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1876): CarmenSandra Piques Eddy (Carmen), Dinyar Vania (Don José), Melinda Whittington (Micaëla), David Pershall (Escamillo), Joann Martinson (Frasquita), Stephanie Foley Davis (Mercédès), Donald Hartmann (Zuniga), Scott MacLeod (Le Dancaïre), Jacob Ryan Wright (Le Remendado), Ted Federle (Moralès); Members of Greensboro Youth Chorus, Greensboro Opera Chorus; Greensboro Opera Orchestra; Ted Taylor, conductor [David Holley, Stage Director; James Bumgardner, Chorus Master; Franco Colavecchia, Scenic Designer; Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer and Technical Director; Susan Memmott Allred, Costume Designer; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 13 January 2017]

Few premières in the history of opera have triggered more extensive hyperbole, theorizing, analysis, and sheer Romantic yarning than the first performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Introduced to the discerning Parisian audience at the famed Opéra-Comique on 3 March 1875, Carmen suffered a difficult birth that left the score and its sensitive composer battered and bruised. Many accounts would have modern observers believe that the opera’s première was an unmitigated fiasco that undermined Bizet’s spiritual and physical health and sent him to an early grave. Indeed, it was just less than three months after Carmen’s opening that Bizet died, a misfortune allegedly supernaturally foreseen by the first Carmen during the Act Three card reading scene. It should be noted that this premonition transpired during the thirty-third performance of the opera. Scandal is often the most productive tool of propaganda, and first-night audiences and critics still accustomed to the formulae of Auber, Halévy, Meyerbeer, and Gounod were undoubtedly scandalized by the myriad of musical and dramatic innovations in Bizet’s setting of Henri Meilhac’s and Ludovic Halévy’s adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s like-named novella. Regardless of contemporary critical reaction to the opera, Carmen having amassed thirty-three performances at the Opéra-Comique within ninety days of the première is representative of the kind of ‘failure’ to which many creative artists might aspire. Still, Bizet was disappointed by the reception that Carmen received from the musical community, and that disappointment surely took a toll on his precarious health. Had the delicate young composer, not yet thirty-seven years old at the time of his death, witnessed Greensboro Opera’s January 2017 production of his beloved opera, perhaps he might have taken strength from the endearment that his score inspired. If there was uncertainty about Carmen’s merits in 1875, there was none about the enduring magnestism of Bizet’s magnum opus or the complete success of Greensboro Opera’s performance of it.

Mérimée’s Carmen is hardly Fifty Shades of Grey, but the novella is a work of stark brutality—starker and more brutal than Bizet’s Carmen reflects, in fact, the composer and his librettists having intentionally blunted the edges of the principal characterizations. Don José in particular is far more sympathetic in Bizet’s Carmen than in Mérimée’s, in the context of which he is a homicidal bandit even before encountering Carmen. Brought to the stage under the guidance of Greensboro Opera’s Artistic Director David Holley, Greensboro’s operatic savior, this production of Carmen beautifully and creatively eschewed modern trends in directorial enterprise by evocatively recreating Carmen’s Andalucía. First seen at Chautauqua Opera, Franco Colavecchia’s sets filled the UNCG Auditorium stage with the essence of Spain, their earth tones providing a vivid but unobtrusive backdrop for the coruscating passions of the opera’s drama. Likewise, Susan Memmott Allred’s costumes, designed for Utah Opera, exuded the sabor picante of Sevilla without subjecting the cast to an evening of discomfort or embarrassment. ​The scenic representation of Lillas Pastia’s tavern at the start of Act Two was markedly enhanced by a picturesque paso doble choreographed by Michael Job and splendidly danced by Maria-Elena Surprenant and D. Jerome Wells. A singer himself, Holley is reliably attentive to the physiological demands of singing and conceives his stagings with this in mind. His Carmen, thoughtfully illuminated by Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs, exuded compendious acquaintance with Bizet’s score, understanding of the opera’s dramatic and historical contexts, and an abiding sense of responsibility for supporting his cast. The product of that responsibility was a performance notable for deftness and effectiveness of ensemble and its fidelity to the composer’s music and librettists’ words.

Presiding in the orchestra pit was Texas-born conductor Ted Taylor, a member of the faculty of Yale University’s esteemed School of Music who is recognized as one of America’s finest collaborators with singers, whether on the podium or at the keyboard. Challenged by a rehearsal period disrupted by the effects of a winter storm, Taylor and the Greensboro Opera Orchestra delivered a performance of Bizet’s score that immediately established and unerringly maintained the momentum that a performance must possess in order for the opera’s tragic narrative to engage the listener. Taylor’s choices of tempi and command of rubato, judiciously employed, were consistently commendable, the organic course of the drama—one of Bizet’s greatest achievements and one for which he does not receive sufficient credit—propelled but never pushed. It was largely owing to Taylor’s handling of the score that the performance conveyed the humor, inventiveness, and grandeur of Bizet’s music.

String playing in the opera’s raucous Prélude was unsettled, and instances of ragged ensemble noticeably but harmlessly recurred elsewhere in the performance. To an extent, Carmen falls victim to the curse of popularity: exceptionally popular works often tend to be deemed far easier than they actually are, and the strings’ efforts were unfailingly committed even when the results were less praiseworthy that the concentration. There was no lack of spirit in the orchestra’s performance of the first Entr’acte, its rhythms tautly executed by Taylor and the musicians. The superb wind playing in the exquisitely beautiful second Entr’acte drew audible murmurs of appreciation from the audience, and, conjuring an atmosphere of tranquility, the piece ably served as a distinctly-contrasted backdrop to the ire that boils in the act’s final minutes. Likewise, the horn obbligato in Micaëla’s Act Three aria was played by principal hornist Abigail Pack with excellent intonation and artful phrasing. The third Entr’acte, an Aragonaise that would not be out of place in Manuel Penella’s El gato montés, received from Taylor and the orchestra a buoyant reading. In opera, passion and perfection are not always wholly compatible, but this performance exhibited that an earnest abundance of the former compensates for a marginal lack of the latter.

Impeccably prepared by their director, Ann K. Doyle, members of Greensboro Youth Chorus proved themselves to be consummate professionals despite the dates on their birth certificates. They sang the Chœur des gamins, ‘Avec la garde montante, nous arrivons, nous voilà,’ charmingly and contributed boisterously to the scene outside of the plaza de toros at the start of Act Four. Their adult counterparts, drilled by chorus master James Bumgardner, sang fantastically whether portraying soldiers, cigarette girls, or townspeople. The gentlemen’s performance of the soldiers’ ‘Sur la place chacun passe, chacun vient, chacun va’ was sonorous, and the ladies’ account of the Chœur des cigarières, ‘Dans l’air, nous suivons des yeux la fumée, la fumée,’ was captivating. In the finales of Acts Two and Three, the choral singing was thrilling. The difficult rhythms in Act Four defeat many choristers but not this group: here and elsewhere in this Carmen, they sang better than the choruses of some of the world’s most famous opera companies.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY as Carmen (right) and tenor DINYAR VANIA as Don José (left) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]Les amants condamnés: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen (right) and tenor Dinyar Vania as Don José (left) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, January 2017
[Photo © by Greensboro Opera]

The Moralès of baritone Ted Federle, a graduate of both the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, seized his opportunities to make a positive impression in Act One, launching ‘À la porte du corps de garde’ with firm, resonant tone. Cheeky insinuations oozed from his dulcet voicing of ‘Regardez donc cette petite qui semble vouloir nous parler,’ and the boyish glee of his ‘Non, ma charmante, il n’est pas là’ in response to Micaëla’s query about Don José’s whereabouts left no doubt concerning Moralès’s willingness—no, eagerness—to substitute for José in whichever activities Micaëla had in mind. A suggestion of wistfulness blended with licentiousness in Federle’s delivery of ‘L’oiseau s’envole, on s’en console,’ adding a pang of loneliness to his obvious longing for female companionship. French vowels suited Federle’s lovely lyric voice, and he wore Moralès’s uniform handsomely.

The smugglers Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado were entrusted to a pair of wonderful singers whose curricula vitarum also contain North Carolina connections, baritone and High Point University faculty member Scott MacLeod and tenor Jacob Ryan Wright, another UNCG alumnus and scholar at the UNCSA A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute. Bravely singing despite battling influenza, MacLeod reaffirmed his artistic integrity by singing not just capably but excellently. He may well have collapsed offstage in illness-exasperated exhaustion, but when on stage he radiated energy and good vocal health. In the Act Two scene chez Lillas Pastia, he voiced ‘Pas trop mauvaises les nouvelles, et nous pouvons encore faire quelques beaux coups!’ wittily. In the sparkling Quintet and throughout Act Three, both he and Wright satisfied musically and convinced dramatically. Wright’s reedy tenor and MacLeod’s flexible baritone intertwined attractively, and they made most winsome partners in crime.

One of the foremost accomplishments of Sir Rudolf Bing’s storied two-decade tenure as General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera was the cultivation of a true company of well-trained singers for supporting rôles who could be called upon to step into larger assignments when circumstances so dictated. A rôle like Zuniga in Carmen could therefore be entrusted to singers of the caliber of Osie Hawkins, Norman Scott, and Morley Meredith, a now-extinct boon to MET performances resurrected in Greensboro with the casting of bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as the dragoons’ licentious lieutenant. In his Act One exchange with José, ‘C’est bien là, n’est-ce pas, dans ce grand bâtiment, que travaillent les cigarières,’ Hartmann goaded his distracted colleague, and with ‘Ce qui t’occupe, ami, je le sais bien: une jeune fille charmante, qu’on appelle Micaëla, jupe bleue et natte tombante’ he amusingly provoked José into confessing that his thoughts were occupied by Micaëla. Ordering José to bind Carmen’s hands and conduct her to prison after her fight in the cigarette factory, Hartmann’s singing of ‘C’est dommage, c’est grand dommage, car elle est gentille vraiment!’ was delightful, his Zuniga never more in his element than when personifying hypocrisy. Admonishing Carmen in Act Two for choosing José, a mere soldier, rather than an officer—himself, that is—with ‘Le choix n’est pas heureux; c’est se mésallier de prendre le soldat quand on a l’officier,’ this natural comedian and not the projected supertitle earned the audience’s laughter. Later, acquiescing at gunpoint to Carmen and her cohorts, he bade the performance adieu with his trademark spot-on timing and saturnine timbre. Stating that Hartmann sang well is like saying that oceans are deep, but his Zuniga was a burst of sunlight in Carmen’s smoky world, ever a cad but never a clown.

Singing Mercédès and Frasquita, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis, one of central North Carolina’s musical treasures, and native North Dakotan soprano and highly respected local pedagogue Joann Martinson infused Act Two with a potent dose of gypsy grit, reveling in their lines in the Quintet and finale. Both ladies sang dashingly in Act Three, not least in the card-reading Trio, in which their refrains of ‘Mêlons! Coupons! Rien, c’est cela! Trois cartes ici... Quatre là!’ first established the playful mood of the scene and later sought to reclaim it after Carmen’s fateful turn with the cards. Martinson’s radiant top B♭s and Cs in ensembles were matched by Foley Davis’s excursions into her dark-chocolate lower register. One of the most emotionally-charged details of the production was Frasquita’s and Mercédès’s final farewell to Carmen in Act Four: having seen Don José lurking in the crowd, her friends intuited that Carmen’s death knell was sounding, and their desperate pleas for her to flee quickly transformed into heartfelt goodbyes. Both Martinson and Foley Davis are significant talents, and their performances significantly boosted the already-high benchmark of this Carmen.

An alumna of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, by the campus of which institution Greensboro Opera’s Carmen was hosted, soprano Melinda Whittington treated the near-capacity audience to a portrayal of the innocent Micaëla that delved further into the character’s psyche than most conventional operatic ingénue interpretations manage or attempt to do. Deflecting Moralès’s flirtation in the Act One scene in which she seeks José among the soldiers on duty, this Micaëla was polite to a fault, clinging to her serene decorum as a defense against impropriety. Having located her martial swain, Whittington sang ‘Oui, je parlerai; ce que l'on m'a donné je vous le donnerai’ in the duet with José gorgeously, her projection a model of proper placement of French vowels in the mask. The sweetness with which she uttered ‘Un baiser pour son fils! José, je vous le rends, comme je l'ai promis’ was touching, the intimacy of the sentiment imparted with absolute sincerity. Though in a purely musical sense it is perhaps the single finest number in the score, rarely is Micaëla’s aria in Act Three, ‘Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante,’ the zenith of a performance of Carmen, but Whittington’s traversal of the aria, crowned with a phenomenal top B, deservedly received the most enthusiastic ovation of the evening. Unusually, the soprano’s plea for José to return to the arms of his dying mother in the Act Three finale seemed even to briefly move Carmen. Whittington voiced ‘Moi, je viens te chercher’ without artifice, ascending to a perfectly-controlled climactic top B♭. By insightfully depicting Micaëla as a smart, resilient young woman whose purity is a conscious choice rather than a byproduct of prudishness, Whittington raised the stakes in this Carmen. Often, why Don José’s head is so easily turned by Carmen is all too apparent, but the tragedy in this performance was intensified by the woman he discarded singing so beautifully and poignantly.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Escamillo (center) in Greensboro Opera's production of Georges Bizet's CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]Bravo, toréro: Baritone David Pershall as Escamillo (center) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, January 2017
[Photo © by Greensboro Opera]

Debonair baritone David Pershall brought to the arrogant, self-assured toreador Escamillo precisely the vocal and histrionic panache that the rôle requires. Already a seasoned artist among whose leading ladies in theatres throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Opera and Wiener Staatsoper, are luminaries such as Nelly Miricioiu and Anna Netrebko, Pershall gave Escamillo—a character who, when sung by unimaginative vocalists, can all too easily devolve into a cipher in sequins—a bravado-driven presence. His entrance in Act Two, heralded by the chorus, is one of the most memorable in opera, and Pershall’s confident, ringing performance of the famous Chanson du toréro, ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre,’ was unforgettable. The baritone’s impactful top Fs electrified the auditorium more reliably than the power grid, and his top G in the Act Three duet with José, initiated with a smugly ironic ‘Quelques lignes plus bas et tout était fini,’ wielded a force like Krakatoa’s. In the Act Four scene before the bullfight, Pershall’s singing throbbed with swagger and raw masculinity, but there was also genuine tenderness in his conversation with Carmen. There was a loving heart beneath the proud exterior. This, as with Whittington’s Micaëla, sharpened appreciation of both the character and the artist portraying him. In Spanish culture, great matadors have often been among the most popular celebrities, and Pershall enriched Greensboro Opera’s Carmen with an Escamillo worthy of the front pages of El mundo and El país.

Expanding his presence in the operatic activities of the Piedmont regions of North Carolina and Virginia, where he has been heard in recent months as Alfredo in Opera Roanoke’s production of Verdi’s La traviata and Cavaradossi in Piedmont Opera’s Tosca, tenor Dinyar Vania brought to Greensboro Opera’s Carmen an interpretation of Don José in which honor and brutality were in near-constant conflict. In his discourse with Zuniga in Act One, Vania’s José articulated ‘Mon officier, je n’en sais rien, et m’occupe assez peu de ces galanteries’ with humility. The change in the volatile young man’s demeanor after his first meeting with Carmen was therefore all the more pronounced. The wonder that flooded the tenor’s voice and expression as he sang ‘Quels regards! Quelle effronterie! Cette fleur-là m’a fait l’effet d’une balle qui m’arrivait!’ after receiving the flower from Carmen was the first glimpse of infatuation. His reverie broken by Micaëla’s arrival, Vania’s José could only partially focus on his girlfriend and her news of his mother. Still, in their duet, Vania sang ‘Parle-moi de ma mère!’ yearningly, the sinewy strength of the voice softened by expansive phrasing. In the act’s final minutes, convinced to aid Carmen in her escape at the expense of his own freedom, Vania’s increasingly white-hot vocalism divulged that obsession had taken root.

First heard in Act Two from afar, Vania voiced ‘Halte là! Qui va là? Dragon d'Alcala!’ as José approached Lillas Pastia’s tavern with the elation of a virile young soldier en route to a rendezvous with his lover. The subsequent duet with Carmen magnified the tension already beginning to fracture their relationship, mirrored in vocalism of bronzed brawn. Vania’s performance of José’s andantino aria ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’—not designated as an aria in Bizet’s manuscript, incidentally—was impassioned but impressively restrained, the ascent to its notorious top B♭ handled with finesse and astonishing ease. Throughout the performance, Vania’s upper register was deployed with unforced vigor, the evenness of timbre and support from bottom to top recalling the best singing of Mario del Monaco. In both the Act Two finale and the opening of Act Three, Vania made José’s desperation palpable. He answered the bullfighter’s affable irony with full-throated threats in the duet with Escamillo, the hospitality of his initial ‘Je connais votre nom, soyez le bienvenu; mais vraiment, camarade, vous pouviez y rester’ replaced with hostility when he realized that he was Carmen’s cast-off paramour to whom Escamillo referred. Here, too, Vania’s top B♭ was exhilarating.

Verdi is justly credited with having created one of opera’s most novel scenes with the ‘Miserere’ that follows Leonora’s aria in Act Four of Il trovatore. No less novel is the final scene of Carmen, in which the protagonists’ final struggle transpires in counterpoint with the offstage exclamations of the crowd observing the bullfight. Reacting to Carmen’s declaration of being oblivious to José’s anger, Vania sang ‘Je ne menace pas, j’implore, je supplie; notre passé, Carmen, je l’oublie’ with eloquence, his José clearly believing in that moment that his intention was to win back Carmen’s heart instead of plunging his dagger into it. The moment of his psychotic break and murder of the object of his desire was shockingly visceral. There were no screams and stock gestures, but so visceral was the strike of his blade that the blow lifted Carmen off the stage like a doll. The Otello-like ‘Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!’ was the anguished cry of an irreparably broken man, sung rather than shouted. Bringing to his rôle a voice of dimensions virtually ideal for the music, Vania sang with animalistic fervor, but it was the flawed humanity of his performance that made his not just a well-sung but a deeply affecting Don José.

The array of different voice types that have graced the world’s stages in the title rôle of Carmen is mind-boggling. From the earthy mezzo-sopranos of Gladys Swarthout and Risë Stevens and the Gallic sopranos of Emma Calvé and Zélie de Lussan to the Wagnerian voices of Lilli Lehmann, Olive Fremstad, and Régine Crespin and utterly unique talents like Geraldine Farrar, Florence Easton, Maria Jeritza, Rosa Ponselle, and Lily Djanel, Carmen has appealed to artists of diverse Fächer and schools of singing. Bruna Castagna, Fedora Barbieri, and Giulietta Simionato, three of the greatest legitimate Verdi mezzo-sopranos of the Twentieth Century, were acclaimed Carmens, and Bizet’s eponymous gypsy was an early Auckland rôle for pre-Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, before the start of her international career. Carmen was created by Célestine Galli-Marié, a high mezzo-soprano whose surname, like that of Cornélie Falcon, became synonymous with a Fach comprised of rôles for which she was acclaimed, most notably the name parts in Thomas’s Mignon and Offenbach’s Fantasio, and this succinctly demonstrates the singularity of Carmen’s music: so unique was the voice of the singer for whom the part was written that, not unlike the character herself, she fomented her own mythology.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY as the title heroine in Greensboro Opera's production of Georges Bizet's CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]Oui, elle est gentille vraiment: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as the title heroine in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, January 2017
[Photo © by Greensboro Opera]

Among the ranks of notable Carmens, it was Teresa Berganza’s portrayal that was brought to mind by the feisty Carmen of mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy. Her singing of her first recitative in Act One [the Guiraud recitatives were utilized], ‘Quand je vous aimerai,’ introduced a Carmen who teased without malice: her barbs were made for eliciting reactions, not for drawing blood. Piques Eddy purred and growled ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser,’ the well-known Habanera, her F♯s and Gs at the top of the stave secure and the quality of the voice as superlative at piano as at forte. Jockeying for dominance in the melodrama with José and Zuniga, she dispatched ‘Tralalalala, coupe-moi, brûle-moi, je ne te dirai rien’ insouciantly but with an iron grip on its effects on her audience. The seductive Séguedille, ‘Près des remparts de Séville,’ was in Piques Eddy’s performance like the piping of a snake charmer: deaf men might well have been hypnotized by the serpentine lilt of this siren’s song.

Transported to Lillas Pastia’s tavern in Act Two, the beguilingly beautiful mezzo-soprano intoned the Chanson bohème, ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient avec un éclat métallique,’ with feline grace. Joining her comrades in the Quintet, this Carmen was unquestionably sincere in her statement of ‘Mes amis, je serais fort aise de partir avec vous ce soir’ despite their good-natured mocking. Taunting José in their duet upon his arrival at the tavern, Piques Eddy made Carmen’s contemplation of José’s flower aria a marvel of shifting emotions, seeming to sense that she was already in over her head. Their quarrel interrupted by Zuniga’s unwitting arrival, this quick-thinking Carmen silenced Don José and then dealt with Zuniga with a slyly dangerous ‘Bel officier! bel officier, l’amour vous joue en ce moment un assez vilain tour.’ There was no doubting that the core tenet of Piques Eddy’s Carmen’s philosophy was ‘La liberté,’ and her singing in the Act Two finale was a rousing paean to the freedom of her bohemian lifestyle.

It was in Act Three that Piques Eddy’s Carmen was subtlest. She sought refuge from her torment in ensembles, subjugating her individuality to the relative safety of community. In the Trio with Frasquita and Mercédès, she voiced ‘Carreau, pique...la mort! J’ai bien lu...moi d’abord’ with abandon, and her brief musing on the unchangeability of destiny, a passage that could almost have been extracted from an opera by Händel, was wrenching. After bitterly mocking José in the act’s finale and demanding that he return with Micaëla to his native village and his dying mother’s bedside, Piques Eddy’s Carmen broke down in tears as José fled. Precisely which emotions assailed her can only be conjectured, but the singer gave the character a vulnerability that she often lacks, the gypsy’s soul as upended in that awful moment as the soldier’s.

In progression, Act Four presented tableaux of Carmen in each of the consequential relationships that define her existence in the opera. First entering by Escamillo’s side and then greeting the anxious Frasquita and Mercédès, she symbolically reconciled present and past, already cognizant of what fate had in store for her. The expressive dignity with which Piques Eddy voiced ‘L’on m’avait avertie que tu n’étais pas loin, que tu devais venir; l’on m’avait même dit de craindre pour ma vie mais je suis brave et n'ai pas voulu fuir’ was remarkable, the character’s poise and the singer’s personality indivisible. She fired ‘Carmen jamais n’a menti’ at José with the unstoppable fury of a landslide. She could speak only the truth when a lie might have spared her, but Piques Eddy was a Carmen for whom the inescapable slavery of living dishonestly was a sentence worse than death. Like her colleagues, she sang extraordinarily well, but hers ultimately was not a performance in which the notes were the emphasis. When she was on the UNCG Auditorium stage, she was Carmen, and the notes came not from her throat but from her heart.

That Bizet’s Carmen is one of opera’s finest scores cannot be denied even by those who do not appreciate or enjoy it. In its ebullient scenes, there are hints of Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, and Saint-Saëns and Ravel hide in the sophisticatedly Gallic melodies of the opera’s most lyrical passages. Wagner is there, tiptoeing through the motivic writing, and Tchaikovsky peeks from the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, the voice that emerges most clearly is no one’s but Bizet’s. Often, though, it is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to discern during performances why Carmen’s popularity never wanes. At her core, Carmen is not as complicated as is often suggested: she lives to love and loves to live, and some productions stand in her way. Its musical standards higher than those achieved by many companies with far deeper pockets, Greensboro Opera’s Carmen encouraged unfeigned characterizations, not abstract concepts. Carmen’s magic does not require complex spells and exotic potions. Allow Bizet’s characters to sing the music that he composed for them without impediments, and they work their magic. In Greensboro, how it worked!

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY as Carmen and tenor DINYAR VANIA as Don José in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen and tenor Dinyar Vania as Don José in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, January 2017
[Photo © by Greensboro Opera]