01 November 2014

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, & Erich Wolfgang Korngold – VIOLIN SONATAS & CONCERTO (Nigel Armstrong, violin; Yarlung Records 65007)

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, & Erich Wolfgang Korngold - VIOLIN CONCERTO & SONATAS (Yarlung Records 65007)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005; BÉLA BARTÓK (1881 – 1945): Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117, BB 124; and ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD (1897 – 1957): Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35—Nigel Armstrong, violin; The Colburn Orchestra; Sir Neville Marriner, conductor [Recorded in performance in Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, California, USA, on 13 February 2011 (Korngold) and at the Brain and Creativity Institute’s Cammilleri Hall, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 21 – 23 October 2013 (Bach, Bartók); Yarlung Records 65007; 1 CD, 67:29; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Few decisions are more important to the career of a young artist than those that determine repertory for the recording that will introduce him to listeners not yet fortunate enough to have heard him in concert or recital. Despite the existence of far more masterful compositions for the violin than musicians talented and conscientious enough to play them, it often seems that young fiddlers confine their fledgling musical adventures to a dishearteningly small handful of pieces. Recording the violin concerti of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky can establish or solidify a young violinist’s reputation but also invites comparisons with the work of the greatest artists of the past. What could be more dispiriting for a violinist at the start of his career than to be subjected to the kind of scrutiny that concedes excellence whilst lamenting that details of his technique or interpretation are markedly inferior to those of this or that long-dead player? It seems counterintuitive to criticize the high level of technical accomplishment among today’s concert violinists, but the strangely damaging fact is that there are too many virtuosi; too many technical wizards who can whirl through the intricacies of any of the great canonical concerti with panache but without exploring the nuances of the music or making a credible argument on its behalf. In the first years of an exceptionally promising career, young violinist Nigel Armstrong exudes the confidence of a violinist who is not only a master technician but also has unique interpretive insights that he is eager to share with audiences. Choosing Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for unaccompanied violin, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto for this disc, expertly produced, mastered, and engineered for Yarlung Records by Bob Attiyeh, Jacob Horowitz, Steve Hoffman, and Randy and Linda Bellous, Mr. Armstrong made decisions that qualify him as an uncommonly versatile musician and provide the listener with an unexpectedly challenging initiation into the enchanting sphere of a fantastic young violinist’s artistry.

Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin was commissioned in November 1943 by Sir Yehudi Menuhin, who seems to have premièred the piece in New York on 26 November 1944. [In his autobiography, Unfinished Journey, Menuhin notes the November 1944 date as that of the première of the Sonata. In the New York Times obituary for Bartók published on 27 September 1945, a day after the composer’s death, it is stated that the Sonata had not yet been performed, however.] Composed in 1944 in New York and in Asheville, North Carolina, where he was undergoing treatment for the leukemia that would prematurely end his life, the Sonata for Solo Violin is a tremendously demanding work that requires incredible concentration from the player. Though not a true chaconne in the Baroque sense, the Tempo di ciaccona opening movement is the most noticeably Hungarian of the Sonata’s four movements. Both in its rhythmic patterns and distinct harmonies, the first movement inhabits the domain of Bartók’s beloved Hungarian folk music. Mr. Armstrong displays total poise in his negotiations of the unconventional rhythms, deriving the full melodic impact from the composer’s disjointed phrases. The three-voice fugue in the second movement, marked Risoluto, non troppo vivo by Bartók, draws from Mr. Armstrong playing of uncompromising virtuosity, each subject delineated with impressive clarity. The lyricism of the adagio Melodia movement shimmers in the warm glow of Mr. Armstrong’s tone, and he manages to devote considerable eloquence to his elucidation of the melodic lines without indulging in exaggerated sentimentality. The extravagant difficulty of the passagework in the Presto final movement, devised by Bartók using quarter-tones, is conquered with youthful exuberance by Mr. Armstrong. His command of double-stops, wide intervals, and harmonics is unfailingly accurate—especially so considering that his performance of the Sonata was recorded in a single take. Bartók’s music is not easy going for either the violinist or the listener, but Mr. Armstrong reveals much beauty where many violinists have found only collisions of notes.

Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major was composed sometime between 1703 and the publication of the collection of Partitas and Sonatas for unaccompanied violin in 1720. Whether the C-major Sonata and its companions were composed for performance by noted violinists of Bach’s time or by himself or his sons remains unknown, but the quality and inventiveness of Bach’s music is beyond doubt. Bach’s use of double counterpoint in the C-major Sonata is compelling, and the level of understanding of the instrument exhibited by the score is remarkable. In the opening Adagio, Mr. Armstrong plays with feeling that remains within boundaries of good taste, and his performance of the subsequent Fuga movement, its principal subject derived from a chorale popular in Bach’s time, indicates a thorough familiarity with the composer’s contrapuntal writing. The contemplative, almost desolate simplicity of the Largo movement is expressively rendered, with Mr. Armstrong’s unerring intonation contributing powerfully to the prevailing sentiment of the music. The closing Allegro assai movement represents Bach at his most playful, the doubts of the third movement brushed aside by the unfettered joy of music-making. As in the final movement of the Bartók Sonata, Mr. Armstrong draws inspiration from the music, playing Bach’s undulating phrases with individuality but obvious attention to the historical context of the music.

In his performance of Korngold’s Violin Concerto, Mr. Armstrong is joined by the Colburn Orchestra and Sir Neville Marriner. Here, unfortunately, the excellently-balanced, natural sound achieved by Yarlung’s technical team allows a great deal of audience noise to intrude into the listener’s enjoyment of the superb performance. Composed in Los Angeles in 1945 and dedicated to his mentor’s widow, Alma Mahler, Korngold’s score employs themes from several of his successful film scores. The Concerto was premièred by Jascha Heifetz and the St. Louis Symphony in 1947, and the composer wrote that the music was conceived for an artist like Caruso rather than a virtuoso like Paganini: he had particular praise for Heifetz, in whose playing he believed that the finesse of the former and the technical largesse of the latter were combined. He might have expressed the same sentiments about Mr. Armstrong. The opening Moderato nobile movement is shaped by precisely the quality that the composer’s marking requests: nobility. Bolstered by the generally fine playing of the young orchestral musicians and the reliably intelligent leadership of Maestro Marriner, Mr. Armstrong elucidates the broadly tuneful strands of Korngold’s late-Romantic writing. This is nowhere more apt than in the Romanze: here, violinist, orchestra, and conductor collaborate on a reading of concentrated intensity, the moody beauty of the music magnificently highlighted. After the Caruso-like effusions of the Romanze, the Allegro assai vivace final movement conjures the pyrotechnical displays of Paganini, and Mr. Armstrong proves no less capable of delivering thrills in extroverted passages. As with the Bartók and Bach Sonatas, he has clearly allowed himself time to truly understand Korngold’s compositional idiom, and even in the company of very good recorded performances of Korngold’s Concerto—including Heifetz’s own—his traversal of the music is competitive.

What impresses most in the playing of Nigel Armstrong on this disc is not his technique, for it is to be hoped that any young violinist offered the opportunity to make a recording is an admirable technician. Mr. Armstrong leaves no doubt about the validity of his credentials as a musician, but the foremost joy of this disc is the inception of a recording career for an artist whose heart, soul, and intellect are as engaged by his playing as his fingers. There are many youngsters who can play the violin music of Bartók, Bach, and Korngold, but Mr. Armstrong is not another technically-proficient but spiritless product of a conservatory education. In the performances on this disc, he reveals himself to be an ingenious artist with much of value to say through music.

27 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar – SEA PICTURES and THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (S. Connolly, S. Skelton, D. Soar; Chandos CHSA 5140(2))

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar - SEA PICTURES & THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (CHSA 5140(2))SIR EDWARD ELGAR (1857 – 1934): Sea Pictures, Op. 37 and The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; David Soar, bass; BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis, conductor [Recorded at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, Greater London, UK, 3 – 5 April 2014; Chandos CHSA 5140(2); 2 CD, 124:47; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Intrusions of politics into musical matters are nothing new. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the career of Sir Edward Elgar was complicated by machinations resulting from official and unofficial opposition to his Catholicism. Though he was knighted in 1904 and appointed to the illustrious Order of Merit in 1911, it was not until 1924 that, less than a month before his sixty-seventh birthday, he was named Master of the King’s Music, succeeding Sir Walter Parratt, who had been in musical service to the Crown since the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign and was at least as accomplished on the chessboard as at the organ. Though Elgar was undoubtedly the foremost British composer of his generation and, indeed, one of the finest musical geniuses ever produced by the British Isles, his working-class ancestry and lack of a conservatory education engendered insecurities about his importance as a composer and, to a greater extent, the legitimacy of his place in musical society. Whatever cabals and intrigues might ultimately have cost him personally and professionally, few of Elgar’s works were subjected to more debilitating and ideologically nonsensical meddling than his 1900 masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius. The Anglican establishment in Britain, particularly the Deans of Gloucester and Peterborough Cathedrals, proved hostile to the dogmatic elements of the text by Cardinal Newman, himself an Anglican convert to Catholicism. The first performance of The Dream of Gerontius at the Birmingham Festival on 3 October 1900, conducted by Hans Richter, who also led the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876, was one of the most conspicuous near-disasters in music history: inadequately rehearsed and perhaps somewhat resistant to the formidable demands of Elgar’s music, the choristers sang poorly, and two of the soloists were out of sorts. When The Dream of Gerontius received its German première a year later, however, the score won Elgar the admiration of Richard Strauss and began a conquest of churches and concert halls that unfurled the glories of the music throughout the world, eventually overcoming even the textual alterations to which Elgar was forced to submit in Britain. More than a century after its Chicago première introduced The Dream of Gerontius to the United States, it remains an infrequent visitor on American shores. Both for those who love the score and those who, like the audience in Birmingham in October 1900, have not heard the music adequately performed, this new recording from Chandos is an unexpected gift. Here, in these opulent performances of The Dream of Gerontius and Sea Pictures, are manifestations of the indefatigable love for music that is the defining ethos of Elgar as a man and an artist.

In Sir Andrew Davis, these recordings of The Dream of Gerontius and Sea Pictures have as accomplished and justifiably-acclaimed an interpreter of Elgar’s music as could have been engaged to lead these performances. With lovingly idiomatic recordings of the Enigma Variations, Falstaff, The Music Makers, The Crown of India, and The Starlight Express to his credit, as well as a previous recording of The Dream of Gerontius with Philip Langridge in the title rôle, Maestro Davis has a proven affinity for pacing Elgar’s scores, a talent recognized by Britain’s Elgar Society with the awarding of the Elgar Medal to him earlier in 2014. The unselfconscious clarity of his conducting of this performance of The Dream of Gerontius is superb, combining the innate authority of Sargent, Barbirolli, and Boult with a measure of the unique insightfulness of Britten. Without over-accentuating any of the instrumental parts, Maestro Davis encourages the BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians to playing that leaves no detail of Elgar’s imaginative orchestrations unrealized. Though the composer’s part-writing was quite original, there are suggestions of Wagnerian models in the music for the brasses and woodwinds in The Dream of Gerontius, and Maestro Davis explores the weight of these passages without attempting to make the score a Parsifal in miniature. The episodic Prelude, offered in both its original and freestanding concert forms, is thoughtfully played, and a particular success of Maestro Davis’s conducting is his attention to phrasing each motif in the Prelude with foresight of how it subsequently appears in the score. The wind players, percussionists, and organist distinguish themselves with unusually accurate playing of their difficult parts, but all of the BBC Symphony personnel play capably, collaborating with Maestro Davis in an ideally-scaled reading that pays homage to both the traditional Romanticism and the sometimes surprising modernity of Elgar’s score. Maestro Davis’s tempi tread the precarious path between the equally-ruinous ravines of treating The Dream of Gerontius like a sacred opera and approaching the score as a bloodless oratorio or bloated cantata. The peculiar symmetry of the work’s two parts is emphasized, and both Maestro Davis and his orchestra fulfill their duties with distinction that goes far beyond mere professionalism.

Like their orchestral colleagues, the singers of the BBC Symphony Chorus are in familiar territory in the music of Elgar, but their singing in this performance confirms that this familiarity has kindled fondness rather than boredom. In Part One, the gravitas of the Assistants’ singing of ‘Kyrie eleïson,’ ‘Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, o Lord,’ and ‘Rescue him, o Lord, in this his evil hour’ is profoundly moving, and the sheer exaltation of their delivery of ‘Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels’ is stirring. In Part Two, the choristers’ voicing of the Demons’ ‘Low-born clods of brute earth’ and ‘The mind bold and independent’ crackles with contempt, the merciless mocking of human aspirations to righteousness in ‘What’s a saint? / One whose breath / Doth the air taint / Before his death; / Ha! Ha! / A bundle of bones / Which fools adore / When life is o’er’ hurled out with glee and the suitably devilish fugal passages handled with aplomb. When fiendish voices give way to the Choir of Angelicals, comprised solely of ladies’ voices, the radiant but slightly impersonal utterances of ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ and ‘Glory to Him, who evermore / By truth and justice reigns’ contrast poignantly with the penitent, deeply personal entreaties of ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge,’ ‘Come back, o Lord,’ and ‘Bring us not, Lord, very low’ by the Souls in Purgatory. The first-rate engineering of the recording enables Elgar’s antiphonal writing to make its full effect, and the choristers are placed in an acoustical space that replicates the sonic profile of a well-built concert hall. Elgar’s desired positioning of the semi-chorus near the front of the stage in performance is suggested by the recording, and the sharp definition of the sound complements the chorus’s dazzling articulation of contrapuntal music. The participation of the BBC Symphony Chorus in a recording of any work engenders expectations of fine singing, but such expectations are lavishly exceeded by the choral singing in this performance of The Dream of Gerontius.

Though the respective ranges of the music for the Priest and the Angel of the Agony inhabit slightly different regions of the male voice, both parts were sung in the first performance by Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene, whose rôles at Covent Garden were the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the duc de Vérone in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, both bass parts. The Priest and the Angel of the Agony have occasionally been assigned to different singers in performances of The Dream of Gerontius, but tradition has mostly followed the example of the Birmingham première. In this recording, both parts are sung by Nottinghamshire-born bass David Soar, who débuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Masetto in Don Giovanni and returned to New York in September 2014 to sing Colline in La bohème. As the Priest in Part One of The Dream of Gerontius, Mr. Soar’s sonorous singing of ‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo’ is keenly reflective, his enunciation of the Latin text sensitive but pointed. The Angel of the Agony’s ‘Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee’ in Part Two draws from Mr. Soar robustly muscular singing. Mr. Soar’s tonal production is smoother than John Shirley-Quirk’s, and his timbre is lighter than Gwynne Howell’s, but his singing in this performance combines aspects of the former’s incisive utilization of text and uncompromising solemnity of declamation with the latter’s vocal opulence. He is memorable as both the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, brief as their interjections are, but even his dramatic persuasiveness is secondary to the attractiveness of his singing.

Were singing the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius not challenge enough, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly opens the first disc of this recording with an imposing performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, premièred by contralto Dame Clara Butt—costumed as a mermaid!—in 1899. The Sea Pictures discography is dominated by Dame Janet Baker, but Ms. Connolly also recorded a potent performance of the songs with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2006. In this recording, she and Maestro Davis create a haunting atmosphere, redolent of the sea and perceptive of the parallels between humanity and maritime nature. In ‘Sea Slumber-Song,’ Ms. Connolly’s quiet singing radiates maternal affection, and her evocation of peace within the tempest in ‘In Haven (Capri)’ is limpidly serene. The imagery of the sea as the medium of connection with the divine in ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ is eloquently elucidated by the singer’s vocal confidence and perfect diction. The mystery of ‘Where Corals Lie’ draws both singer and listener into the text, and Ms. Connolly reacts with singing that avoids ponderousness. The grandiloquence of her traversal of ‘The Swimmer,’ recalling not only Baker but Kathleen Ferrier before her, is magnificent, but the voice moves through the music with delicacy and flashes of humor. The brilliance and unflappable security of her top A in the song’s final phrase are eerily reminiscent of the singing of the young Christa Ludwig.

The Angel in The Dream of Gerontius was first sung by Marie Brema, a versatile singer whose Wagner repertory included Ortrud in Lohengrin, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, Fricka in Das Rheingold, the Walküre and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes, and Kundry in Parsifal. In addition to her substantial achievements in music by Monteverdi, Bach, Händel, Mozart and bel canto, Ms. Connolly has shown in recent seasons that she is a bar-raising interpreter of Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss repertory, as well. She proves in this recording that she is also an eminent portrayer of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius. Her singing of ‘My work is done’ conveys a palpable sense of relief, and her answer to Gerontius’s Faustian quest for comprehension beyond his capacity, ‘You cannot now cherish a wish which ought not to be wish’d,’ is affectionate rather than arrogant. In Ms. Connolly’s performance, ‘It is because then thou didst fear, that now thou dost not fear’ movingly expresses the Angel’s faith in the redemptive capacity of humility. The Angel’s description of Christ’s time on earth is reverently voiced, and the affecting melodic lines of ‘Thy judgment now is near,’ ‘Praise to His name,’ ‘O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe, consumed, yet quicken’d, by the glance of God,’ and ‘Softly and gently, dearly-ransom’d soul, in my most loving arms I now enfold thee’ are phrased with subtlety and sung with flawless intonation. The pinnacle of Ms. Connolly’s performance is her uplifting assurance of Gerontius that ‘swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, and I will come and wake thee on the morrow.’ Like Mr. Soar’s performance, the tremendous empathy of her portrayal of the Angel is enhanced immeasurably by the simple beauty of her singing.

Bolstered by the expressivity of Maestro Davis’s shaping of the performance, Australian tenor Stuart Skelton gives a performance of Gerontius’s music of vocal elasticity rare for a singer whose acclaimed operatic portrayals include Siegmund in Die Walküre and the Drum Major in Berg’s Wozzeck. In truth, it is to a voice like Mr. Skelton’s that Gerontius’s music is best suited, but few are the singers who can combine vocal heft with flexibility and tonal allure as adroitly as Mr. Skelton does in this performance. In Part One, he immediately introduces the listener to a devout but uncertain Gerontius, his singing of ‘Jesu, Maria – I am near to death’ disclosing faith tested by fear. The potency of his phrasing of ‘Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man’ is perpetuated in his singing of ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus.’ The exhaustion and trepidation in his voicing of ‘I can no more; for now it comes again’ and ‘Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep’ are broadly imparted without seeming melodramatic, and this Gerontius’s death is both moving and cathartic—the death of a man like those said in Luke 20:36 to be ‘equal to angels and…sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.’ In Part Two, there is an audible air of rejuvenation in Mr. Skelton’s singing of ‘I went to sleep; and now I am refresh’d’ that persists in his assured delivery of ‘It is a member of that family’ and ‘I ever had believed.’ The unsettling anxiety of ‘But hark! upon my sense comes a fierce hubbub’ is answered by the contemplative composure of ‘I see not those false spirits’ and ‘But hark! a grand, mysterious harmony.’ The sobriety of Mr. Skelton’s singing of ‘I go before my Judge’ is juxtaposed with the compelling power with which he proclaims ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep there let me be.’ Mr. Skelton has the vocal resources to evince fervor without shouting, and he observes Elgar’s parlando markings without losing tonal focus. He reaches the part’s top B♭ easily, and his performance as a whole is notable for the scarcity of strain. Gerontius is a strenuous part, one of the most daunting tenor rôles in the concert repertory, and Mr. Skelton sings Elgar’s music with near-total success.

Like the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, Sir Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is a work that need not appeal to a listener’s spiritual ideology in order to engage his humanity on an esoteric level. Both Sea Pictures and The Dream of Gerontius are great music, and it is rare to hear either work performed with the expertise that the artists achieve on these Chandos discs. Indeed, especially in America, it is rare to hear these works at all. Hopefully, listeners throughout the world will hear Sarah Connolly’s hypnotic Sea Pictures and this inspiring Dream of Gerontius and say to the directors of their local musical institutions and choral societies, ‘Listen to what we are missing!’

26 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Pietro Mascagni – CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA (M. Callas, G. di Stefano, R. Panerai, A. M. Canali, E. Ticozzi; Warner Classics 0825646340903)

CD REVIEW: Pietro Mascagni - CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA (Warner Classics 0825646340903)PIETRO MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945): Cavalleria rusticana—Maria Callas (Santuzza), Giuseppe di Stefano (Turiddu), Rolando Panerai (Alfio), Anna Maria Canali (Lola), Ebe Ticozzi (Mamma Lucia); Coro ed Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano; Tullio Serafin, conductor [Recorded in Basilica di Sant’Eufemia, Milan, Italy, 16 – 25 June and 3 – 4 August 1953; Warner Classics 0825646340903; 1 CD, 78:03; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

I recently eavesdropped on a conversation between a pair of twenty-something opera patrons about the continuing legacy of Maria Callas. ‘What’s the big deal about Callas, anyway?’ one of the young men asked his companion, nearly prompting me to insert myself, uninvited, into their exchange, but it is a valid question: what is the big deal about Callas? Why, thirty-seven years after her death, does she consistently remain one of the best-selling Classical recording artists? Why is she dismissed by some listeners as a deeply-flawed singer but spoken of in hushed tones by others—indeed, in some cases by the same individuals—as an incomparable artist? Why is she nearly all voice instructors’ example of how not to sing and so many singers’ idol and inspiration? I never lived in a world with Callas in it, having been born five months after her death on 16 September 1977, but since first hearing her legendary recordings of Tosca, Norma, and Il barbiere di Siviglia, I have never again lived in a world without Callas. La Divina herself said that the curious listener seeking answers to questions about who she was as an artist could find them in her recordings. Hearing her 1953 recording of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in Warner Classics new ‘Callas Remastered’ series proves her right: in seventy-eight minutes, the young Callas—not yet thirty at the time of the Milan recording sessions—takes the listener on a journey through virtually every emotion that a human might feel, not in an opera but in a lifetime. Remarkably, however, nothing in Callas’s performance comes from any source other than Mascagni’s score. Perhaps she was an imperfect vocalist, but she was indisputably one of the most insightful, sincere, and compleat musicians ever to stand before an audience or a microphone and sing. In this recording, she is as startling, breathtaking, and, yes, relevant a Santuzza as has ever been recorded. What’s the big deal about Maria Callas? After sixty-one years, her Santuzza responds palpably and as mere words never could.

The 1953 recording sessions, in which Callas is reported to have substituted for an unidentified mezzo-soprano whose upper register deserted her during her traversal of Santuzza’s music, were produced by Dino Olivieri, a noted composer and conductor in his own right, and engineered by Osvaldo Varesco under the auspices of La Scala. In the years since the first release of the recording, many sources have erroneously reported that Callas never sang Santuzza on stage, but she portrayed Mascagni’s Sicilian peasant girl in a student production in Athens in 1939 and reprised the rôle for Greek National Opera in 1944. The sound quality achieved by La Scala’s recording team in the Basilica di Sant’Eufemia did not reach the level of excellence of Callas’s recordings overseen by Walter Legge, but the 24-bit, 96 kHz remastering by Abbey Road Studios now released in Warner Classics’ new ‘Callas Remastered’ series gives this performance an immediacy not heard in its previous incarnations on CD. Spatial effects, including Turiddu’s offstage singing of the Siciliana, are managed more organically than in many later recordings, and scores of instrumental details, particularly harp arpeggios, emerge with incredible clarity. The bells actually sound like those of a provincial village church and are placed in the soundscape with realistic perspective, and the organ is audible in the ‘Regina Cœli’ and the celebrated Intermezzo without being over-prominent. The cracking of Alfio’s whip sounds amusingly like the firing of a cap pistol, but the overall fidelity to Mascagni’s instructions and the naturalness with which they were enacted for the microphones are laudable. The voices have tremendous presence without seeming artificially balanced. Occasional instances of distortion and peaking remain, mostly in large ensembles or when soloists are singing at the tops of their ranges, but attempting to even out these frequencies would likely have robbed the recording of much of its sonic impact. That impact is extraordinarily imposing: heard in such drastically bettered sound, this performance, whatever the true circumstances of its genesis may have been, can be enjoyed without reservations. No longer must any aspect of this recording’s musical and dramatic prowess be taken on faith.

With so much of Mascagni’s orchestration restored to discernibility, the inherent nobility and bel canto grace of Tullio Serafin’s pacing of Cavalleria rusticana is immediately apparent and unchanging throughout the performance. The opera’s histrionic tempestuousness and violence are not shortchanged, however: in Maestro Serafin’s hands, Cavalleria rusticana is the tale of essentially decent people forced by circumstance into deadly confrontation—decidedly rustic chivalry, as the title would have it, but chivalry nonetheless. The conductor shapes the Prelude as though it were music by Bellini or the young Verdi, phrasing the expansive melodic lines with elegance. Throughout the performance, Maestro Serafin’s tempi are ideal for both music and singers, and both his conducting and the musical execution as a whole display an instinctive use of portamento now all but vanished from opera. His speeds are rarely as slow as those adopted by the composer in his 1938 Hague performance and 1940 studio recording, but he wholly avoids the tendency shown by many conductors to rush emotionally-charged passages and wallow unabashedly in the Intermezzo. From a Twenty-First-Century perspective, Maestro Serafin’s very slow tempo for ‘Turiddu mi tolse, mi tolse l’onore’ in Santuzza’s duet with Alfio—marked largo by Mascagni—initially seems misjudged but is fully justified by the intensity of the singing. Under the direction of Chorus Master Vittore Veneziani, the La Scala choristers sing resonantly. Many aficionados of choral singing might cavil at the manner in which individual voices stand out in this performance, but this convincingly conjures an atmosphere of villagers communicating through song. Alongside their choral colleagues, La Scala’s orchestral musicians accompanied both the first recording of selections from Cavalleria rusticana and the opera’s first complete recording. The music was in their minds and hearts, and they responded in 1953 with red-blooded potency to Maestro Serafin’s leadership. The woodwinds are typically Italianate in tone, but the playing by all sections of the orchestra is conscientious and commendably sure of intonation. Above all, Maestro Serafin and the La Scala forces create a performance that truly seems to be not a studio run-through of an opera but, as Leoncavallo put it in the Prologo of Pagliacci, ‘uno squarcio di vita.’

Neither Ebe Ticozzi as Mamma Lucia nor Anna Maria Canali as Lola is a notably polished vocalist, but both ladies sing with commitment. Ms. Ticozzi evinces genuine sympathy for Santuzza in Mamma Lucia’s exchanges with her before the church, and her abiding love for Turiddu is always apparent, not least in her heartbreakingly simple singing of ‘Perchè parli così figlio mio?’ after Turiddu entreats her to care for Santuzza in his absence as though she were her own daughter. Ms. Canali sings Lola’s ‘stornello,’ ‘Fior di giaggiolo gli angeli belli stanno a mille in cielo,’ charmingly, rising to the top G with assurance, and she is among the few recorded Lolas who makes the abrupt end of her song upon her encounter with Turiddu and Santuzza dramatically portentous.

Rolando Panerai, who recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday, is an Alfio whose singing of his entrance aria, ‘Il cavallo scalpita, i sonagli squillano,’ establishes the character’s persona rather than being, as it has often been for many baritones, an embarrassing circumvention of vocal shortcomings. Mr. Panerai possesses the top Fs and F♯ that defeat many Alfios, and he portrays a man who is rugged and jealous but basically good-humored. At the start of the duet with Santuzza, there is audible shock in his voicing of the line ‘Che avete detto,’ and the threat of his ‘Se voi mentite, vo’ schiantarvi il core’ is not overplayed. There is no questioning the determination of his ‘Infami loro, ad essi non perdono, ad essi non perdono vendetta avrò,’ though, and the intent of the irony of his singing of ‘A voi tutti salute’ in the final scene, again rising to a ringing, secure top F, is unmistakable. If not quite a gentleman, Mr. Panerai’s Alfio is not a thug, and both his dramatic restraint and firm, wonderfully machismo vocalism contribute fantastically to the cumulative value of the recording.

Hearing recordings made in the last fifteen years of his career suggests that Giuseppe di Stefano was anything but a subtle singer. The famously cantankerous Sir Rudolf Bing wrote that the tenor’s diminuendo on the top C in ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure’ in Gounod’s Faust was the most beautiful sound he heard during his storied career at the Metropolitan Opera, however, and early recordings reveal an often ravishingly beautiful voice over which the singer wielded imperfect but still impressive control. He was on splendid form at the time of this recording, and his singing of Turiddu’s Siciliana, ‘O Lola, bianca come fior di spino,’ is one of the best performances of this deceptively tricky piece in the discography. The impetuosity of Mr. di Stefano’s singing in the duet with Santuzza is telling, the ennui in his voicing of ‘Tu qui Santuzza?’ disclosing the extent of Turridu’s exasperation. The cruelty with which he sings ‘Bada, Santuzza, schiavo non sono di questa vana tua gelosia’ strikes Santuzza more stingingly than Turiddu’s fists might have done, and his dismissal of his cast-off lover is heartless but impeccably vocalized. Mr. di Stefano’s singing of the Brindisi, ‘Viva il vino spumeggiante,’ is suitably light-hearted, but seriousness creeps in even before Alfio’s entrance. Mr. di Stefano manages to make Turiddu’s confession sound less self-indulgent than it has often seemed both on records and on stage, and his ‘Mamma, mamma, quel vino è generoso’ is shaped more by the effects of wine than whining. His entreaty of his mother to care for Santuzza should he fall in his duel with Alfio resounds with sincerity. Throughout the performance, Mr. di Stefano’s ascents to top A and B♭ are steady and on pitch, but there is already a worrying openness to the tone that bears witness to the problems with which he contended later in his career. Still, his fortissimo top B♭ on ‘s’io non tornassi fate da madre a Santa’ in the final scene is phenomenal. Mr. di Stefano had a number of bad days in recording studios, but those that produced this portrayal of Turiddu were not among them. In truth, the rôle was slightly heavy for his lyric natural instrument, but he held nothing back in either his singing or his acting of the part.

Some critics have found Ms. Callas’s Santuzza an uneven performance. If that is the case, her unevenness is other singers’ perfection. Though she had not sung the rôle for nearly a decade at the time of this recording and thereafter would only occasionally sing ‘Voi lo sapete’ in recital, the imagination and resourcefulness that she exhibits in her singing of Santuzza music are sensational. She becomes Santuzza, displaying not only mastery of the music but absolute comprehension of its construction, in a way that only Giulietta Simionato truly rivals on recordings. From her sheepish singing of ‘Dite, mamma Lucia’ at her entrance, Ms. Callas’s Santuzza is a conflicted woman whose prevailingly uncomplicated worldview is shattered by Turiddu’s betrayal. Leading the Easter hymn ‘Inneggiamo il Signor non è morto,’ she pours her soul into the music, her top B launched to heaven at the piece’s close. Her singing of ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’ is profoundly expressive without being over-sentimentalized: few if any other Santuzzas have more meaningfully observed Mascagni’s marking of ‘mestamente con simplicità’ or produced the top As with greater dramatic impetus. Ms. Callas’s tranquility in ‘Battimi, insultami, t’amo e perdono ma è troppo forte l’angoscia mia’ in the duet with Turiddu is plaintive, and she again honors the composer by taking his indication of ‘con dolore’ in ‘La tua Santuzza piange e t’implora come cacciarla così tu puoi, la tua Santuzza?’ at face value, infusing her performance with devastating sadness. She joins Mr. di Stefano on the unison top As and B♭ with total security, and the steadiness of her ascent to the option top B♭ in the largo passage beginning with ‘Turiddu mi tolse, mi tolse l’onore’ heightens the intensity of the duet with Alfio. The desolation of her exclamations of ‘infame io son,’ realizing that her actions will almost certainly precipitate Turiddu’s demise, is engrossing. In the final scene, Ms. Callas makes the top B♭ on ‘Oh! madre mia!’ the cry of a broken soul. Throughout the performance, she is in superb voice, but the sublimity of her performance is in her manner of inseparably allying music and text. It seems slightly absurd to praise a singer for singing what is on the pages of the score before her, but few singers past or present have trusted composers’ ingenuity as undeviatingly as Ms. Callas did in every rôle that she sang. She did not always sing as steadily or as beautifully as in this recording, but her Santuzza is a marvel. In truth, though, it is not her Santuzza: it is Mascagni’s, presented with greater faithfulness than even he might ever have expected.

More than sixty years after the voice of Maria Callas was first recorded, years during which her recordings have never gone out of print, why are her complete opera recordings now being remastered and reissued by Warner Classics? The simple answer is that the least impressive of her recordings deserves to be heard in sound that enables the listener to perceive some degree of the infrangible concentration that guided her singing even when the voice was at its most fallible. The remastering of this Cavalleria rusticana gives a wondrous performance of the opera a technical foundation nearly worthy of it. Callas is certainly not the sole reason to cherish this recording, but it is to her perennial appeal that gratitude for this reissue is owed. So, what is the big deal about Callas? She once said, ‘I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my rôles; but I am not the devil, either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged.’ Whether she soared or struggled vocally, she was always a serious artist. That is a big deal, and Warner Classics’ ‘Callas Remastered’ series grants listeners who never heard Callas in an opera house or concert hall the opportunity to judge for themselves—with every benefit of advances in recording technology—how this woman changed opera one performance at a time.

22 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – MANON LESCAUT (A. M. Martínez, A. Bocelli, J. Arrey, M. Peña, M. Muraro, M. Battistelli; DECCA 478 7490)

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - MANON LESCAUT (DECCA 478 7490)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Manon LescautAna María Martínez (Manon Lescaut), Andrea Bocelli (Des Grieux), Javier Arrey (Lescaut), Matthew Peña (Edmondo), Mariam Battistelli (Musico), Maurizio Muraro (Geronte), Germán Olvera (Sergente, Oste), Valentino Buzza (Lampionaio), Francesco Salvadori (Comandante), David Astorga (Maestro di ballo); Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana; Plácido Domingo, conductor [Recorded in Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, Valencia, Spain, on 24, 25, 28, 29 January and 1, 3 – 5 February 2014; DECCA 478 7490; 2 CD, 118:33; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

When Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut premièred at the Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1893, the thirty-four-year-old composer tasted the intoxicating wine of success that his previous operas, Le Villi and Edgar, had not managed to fully fortify. Puccini’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, had justifiable reservations about a new operatic adaptation of Abbé Prévost’s L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut in the wake of the tremendous success of Jules Massenet’s Manon less than a decade earlier, but Puccini persisted. The gestation of the libretto of Manon Lescaut was extraordinarily difficult: by the time that Puccini’s score was ready for rehearsal, no fewer than seven pairs of hands had wielded the pen that produced the libretto, including those of the composer, Ricordi himself, and the eventual librettists of La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. The result was an uneven but compelling storyline that examined Prévost’s characters from angles more straightforwardly romantic than those viewed from the pages of Massenet’s Manon. Musically, Manon Lescaut represents Puccini at the beginning of a creative journey that led to the great Twentieth-Century masterpieces La fanciulla del West and Turandot. Though Puccini’s harmonic language was already advanced in comparison with the scores of his contemporaries, Manon Lescaut remains substantially rooted in the Nineteenth Century, the broad efforts at levity in Act One and the amorous effusions of Manon and des Grieux redolent of the atmospheres of Verdi’s Falstaff and Otello. The unmistakable voice of Puccini is heard in every scene of Manon Lescaut, however, and his music for the young lovers at the center of the drama is a gift to talented singers with the ability to act with their voices without overdoing the sentimental theatrics.

Plácido Domingo’s endeavors as a conductor have been inconsistent. Not surprisingly, he has mostly proved a ‘singers’ conductor,’ but even his attention to singers’ needs has not been reliably beneficial. In Act One of this performance of Manon Lescaut, there are a number of passages in which Maestro Domingo’s tempi drag, challenging the singers and stalling the opera’s fast-moving drama. In both ‘Tra voi, belle’ and ‘Donna non vidi mai,’ the pacing expands the vocal lines nearly beyond the soloist’s capacity to sustain them, but in the opera’s subsequent three Acts Maestro Domingo achieves a steady progression of tempi that ably serve both composer and singers. He supports his Manon and des Grieux in scaling the heights of passion in their duets without controverting the organic flow of the music. After his prosaic account of Act One, Maestro Domingo provides impactful momentum, his uninhibited highlighting of Puccini’s shimmering Romanticism seconded by the committed playing of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. Puccini’s gifts for orchestration are already in evidence in the score of Manon Lescaut, and the Valencia players accept every challenge in the music with exuberance, not least in the wonderful Intermezzo that depicts the journey to Le Havre. The forceful singing of the Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana also contributes excellently to the cumulative effectiveness of the performance. The choristers’ singing is perfectly scaled to each of their lines, and they are convincing whether impersonating students, posh Parisians, or scolding townspeople of Le Havre.

In the Act Two Madrigale, ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte erri, o Clori,’ its melody adapted from the ‘Agnus dei’ from Puccini’s 1884 Messa a quattro voci, mezzo-soprano Mariam Battistelli is a firm-voiced, winningly musical Musico with a darkly opaque timbre. Likewise, tenor David Astorga is a Maestro di ballo who truly dances in his singing of ‘Vi prego, signorina, un po’ elevato il busto.’ In Act Three, tenor Valentino Buzza is a resonant Lampionaio, lighting his lamps with a swaggering account of ‘…e Kate rispose al Re,’ in which he makes easy going of his pair of top Gs. Baritone Germán Olvera takes on two rôles, the Oste in Act One and the Sergente in Acts Two and Three, and excels in both of them. Baritone Francesco Salvadori is a gruff but genial presence as the Comandante who takes pity on des Grieux’s desperation in Act Three.

Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro portrays a Geronte who is a quintessential ‘dirty old man’ with an element of menace. The genteel humor of his voicing of ‘Questa notte, amico, qui poserò’ and ‘Dunque vostra sorella il velo cingerà’ in Act One does not completely disguise the character’s lechery, but the biting irony of his delivery of ‘Affè, madamigella, or comprendo il perchè di nostr’attesa!’ in Act Two also discloses a vulnerability that suggests that Manon was more to this Geronte than a roué’s trophy. Mr. Muraro credibly portrays a morally decrepit man without resorting to vocal distortion or silliness, and his singing is unfailingly resilient.

Edmondo begins the opera with ‘Ave, sera gentile, che discendi col tuo corteo di zeffiri e di stelle,’ and Matthew Peña sails through the music’s four G♯s and top A with disarming ease. The tenor’s good-natured provocation of des Grieux in ‘A noi, t’unisci, amico, e ridi’ is charming, and his admiration of the newly-arrived Manon in ‘Chi non darebbe a quella donnina bella il gentile saluto del benvenuto?’ is suitably enthusiastic. Mr. Peña’s comic falsetto is delightful, and his singing of ‘La tua ventura ci rassicura,’ its vocal line again hammering the singer’s passaggio, is accomplished. In a sense, Edmondo’s ‘Vecchietto amabile, incipriato Pluton sei tu!’ light-heartedly foreshadows the catalyst of the tragedy to come, and Mr. Peña sings it with unmistakable insinuation.

Baritone Javier Arrey is an understated Lescaut whose love for his sister never seems truly subjugated by pride. The high tessitura of Lescaut’s music is established immediately, the second note after his entrance in ‘Ehi! l’oste! Cavalier, siete un modello di squisitezza’ being a top F. Mr. Arrey manages his altitudinous music with comfort and pizzazz. He is spared neither by ‘Des Grieux, (qual già Geronte)’ in Act Two nor ‘Perduta è la partita!’ in Act Three, but Mr. Arrey responds to every rise in dramatic temperature—invariably conveyed by Puccini with ascending vocal lines—with clean, colorful singing.

Some operaphiles will never accept Andrea Bocelli as a ‘serious’ tenor. His previous DECCA recordings of Puccini’s Rodolfo in La bohème and Cavaradossi in Tosca revealed that he has much to offer the listener willing to set aside prejudices, but his career as a popular ‘crossover’ singer brands him as a fraud in the opinions of many self-professed opera lovers. The quality of Mr. Bocelli’s singing in this recording of Manon Lescaut makes this especially unfortunate. At des Grieux’s entrance with ‘L’amor? l’amor!? Questa tragedia, ovver commedia, io non conosco,’ it is immediately apparent that Mr. Bocelli is in good voice, his negotiation of the rise to top A unhesitating. The tessitura of his aria ‘Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde’ centers in the passaggio, where a dilettante or inadequately-trained tenor might be expected to falter, but Mr. Bocelli exhibits consummate mastery of Puccini’s vocal lines. His breathless wonder upon seeing Manon for the first time, expressed in ‘Dio, quanto è bella,’ is endearing, and his voicing of ‘Perdonate al dir mio’ is ingratiatingly awestruck. Mr. Bocelli sings ‘Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!’ idiomatically, rising to the pair of top B♭s with rapture. ‘Oh come gravi le vostre parole,’ his subsequent duet with Manon, is ardently-phrased by the tenor, the frequent ascents to top A and the top B♭ in unison with Manon secure and produced with a more covered sound than in many of his previous performances of music by Puccini. The Act Two duet with Manon, ‘Taci…tu il cor mi frangi,’ again taking him to top A♭, B♭, and another climactic top B♭ in unison with Manon, is sung with sonorous concentration. He captures the angst of ‘Ah! Manon, mi tradisce il tuo folle pensier’ without pushing his voice, and he makes of the optional top B in the scene with Manon and Lescaut an unforgettable exclamation of passion. His cries of ‘O Manon! O mia Manon!’ at the end of the act are harrowing. Mr. Bocelli movingly depicts des Grieux’s heartbreak in Act Three—here, too, often requiring excursions to the top of the range—with anguished but controlled singing of ‘Dietro al destino mi traggo livido’ and ‘Manon, disperato è il prego!’ He joins with Manon in a stimulating performance of ‘Ah! guardami e vedi com’io soggiaccio a questa angoscia amara,’ their unison top B♭ soaring, and Mr. Bocelli triumphs in the high lines of ‘Ah! non v’avvicinate!’ The depths of emotion with which he infuses his singing in Act Four are astonishing. In ‘Tutta su me ti posa,’ his andante mosso ‘Manon, senti, amor mio,’ and the heartrending andante espressivo con moto ‘Vedi, son io che piango,’ the sting of des Grieux’s despair contrasts with the beauty of Mr. Bocelli’s singing. He honors Puccini’s request of singing con passione infinita in ‘Un funesto delirio ti percuote, t’offende’ without sacrificing proper placement of his tone. There are instances of the open, slightly hollow sound that undermines Mr. Bocelli’s singing in the middle of his range, but he does some of the best singing of his recorded career on these discs. It is disappointing to think that anyone who loves Puccini’s operas would miss the opportunity to hear this performance because of suspicion of Mr. Bocelli’s credentials: vocally, this is a fine portrayal of des Grieux by any standard, and the singer’s genuine Italian magnetism is seductive.

Cesira Ferrani, Puccini’s first Manon, also created Mimì in La bohème, and the parallels between the rôles are made unusually noticeable by Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez’s freshly feminine but strong-willed singing as Manon on this recording. From her first entrance and her shy voicing of ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo,’ introducing the familiar motif that will recur throughout the opera, Ms. Martínez creates a character who is no passive ingénue. After relating that she is destined for convent, her resolute voicing of ‘Il mio fato si chiama: Voler del padre mio’ leaves no doubt that this Manon is not taking holy vows by choice. Her singing in the duet with des Grieux, ‘Vedete? Io son fedele alla parola mia,’ is bewitching, especially in the andante amoroso, ‘La queta casetta risonava di mie folli risate.’ Few singers make it clearer that Manon’s arrival in Paris is both an escape and a confinement. In Act Two, Ms. Martínez offers a gorgeous, expressively-phrased ‘In quelle trine morbide,’ encountering no trouble with the aria’s pair of top B♭s. Then, in her duet with Lescaut, ‘Per me tu lotti, per me, vile, che ti lasciai,’ she seems to rejoice in the rising vocal line cresting on an exposed top C, and her resolution of the passage with a harmonically unexpected high G♯ is jubilant. She also triumphs in the coloratura, trills, and top B and C in ‘Lodi aurate, mormorate’ and ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella.’ After des Grieux’s entrance, her ‘Tu, tu, amore? Tu?!’ and ‘La dolce amica d’un tempo aspetta la tua vendetta’ are alternately despairing and hopeful. Her top C on ‘Addio!’ in Act Three is emotionally wrenching, and she is heartbreaking in her exchange with des Grieux, ‘Des Grieux, fra poco lungi sarò.’ Many sopranos fail in Act Four by overdoing the pathos. Ms. Martínez avoids this trap, giving her Manon reserves of tranquility that, as in Mimì’s death scene in La bohème, support her as her strength fades. She and Mr. Bocelli rocket to the unison top C in ‘Sei tu che piangi?’ with the agony of lovers who know that their final goodbye is at hand. In Manon’s largo aria ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata…in landa desolata,’ a piece that can seem self-indulgent and embarrassingly bathetic, Ms. Martínez shows her mettle as a tragic actress, making Manon’s death scene a reluctant but cathartic surrender rather than a flood of tantrums and fake tears. The timbre of Ms. Martínez’s natural instrument is one of amber and dark rum, but she sings Puccini’s vocal lines with lightness of tone and approach. In a few passages, there are discomfort and untidiness, but perfection in a rôle like Manon Lescaut is often indicative of detachment. Ms. Martínez is as involved a Manon as has yet been recorded, and the confidence of her singing is a joy to hear.

One of the few positive traits of preconceptions is that they can be overcome. In thoughtful performances of his operas, the still-prevalent notion that Puccini was a composer of second-rate, over-sentimentalized trifles is obliterated. When she sings with musical and dramatic acuity and fidelity to Puccini’s score, audiences will laugh with Manon Lescaut in the opera’s first half and cry with her in the second in spite of themselves. Ana María Martínez is a Manon Lescaut who inspires smiles and tears, and she has in Andrea Bocelli a des Grieux who never lets her down. She will only be betrayed by those who, mistaking this recording for an egotistical enterprise by a famous ‘popular’ singer rather than a legitimate artistic endeavor, dismiss this engaging Manon Lescaut unheard.

19 October 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – NABUCCO (G. Hawkins, B. Harris, A. Gangestad, B. Arreola, O. Rafało; Opera Carolina – 18 October 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: Brenda Harris as Abigaille, Gordon Hawkins in the title rôle, and Ola Rafało as Fenena in Opera Carolina's production of Giuseppe Verdi's NABUCCO [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]Mio furor, non più costretto: soprano Brenda Harris as Abigaille (center left), baritone Gordon Hawkins as Nabucco (center), and mezzo-soprano Ola Rafało as Fenena (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): NabuccoGordon Hawkins (Nabucco), Brenda Harris (Abigaille), Andrew Gangestad (Zaccaria), Brian Arreola (Ismaele), Ola Rafało (Fenena), Kelly Hutchinson (Anna), Kenneth Overton (High Priest of Baal), Martin Schreiner (Abdallo); Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Michael Baumgarten, Director of Production and Lighting Designer; Bernard Uzan, Director; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; Saturday, 18 October 2014]

Though the true significance of the opera in the Risorgimento’s struggles to achieve and maintain Italian unification and independence in the Nineteenth Century was for decades greatly exaggerated, Nabucco is a work of a composer, a genre, and a nation at a history-altering crossroads. Premièred at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1842, the score brought Verdi the triumphant success at which his earlier operas hinted but had not fully realized. In a broad sense, it is one of the composer’s most formulaic operas, the progression of choral set pieces with arias, cabalettas, and ensembles representing the conventions that Verdi was to play so significant a part in uprooting. Musically, Nabucco is a close relative of Donizetti’s 1836 opera Belisario, its dramatic and musical identities still adhering to bel canto idioms but also offering provocative glimpses of the later masterpieces Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino, and Don Carlos. Verdi’s own correspondence suggests that the throbbing vein of patriotism that enlivens Nabucco was, on the composer’s part, decidedly more situational than political, but the contemporary context into which the opera was born undoubtedly contributed to the success of the score both at and after its first performance. However much they had revolution on their minds, the first-night audience for Nabucco cannot have failed to have also recognized Verdi’s fledgling musical genius. To the Twenty-First-Century observer, Verdi’s music is the foremost reason for revisiting Nabucco, but, in geopolitical terms, the opera is also a sad reminder of how little real progress has been made in relationships among cultures and religions since the tyrannical reign of Nebuchadnezzar and the bloody birth pangs of modern Italy.

Opera Carolina’s production by Michael Baumgarten and Bernard Uzan mostly evoked aptly pre-Christian scenes of Jerusalem and Babylon, the vibrant earthen tones of Nabucco and his court contrasting markedly with the pristine blues and whites of the Hebrews, reflected also in the fancifully Biblical costumes by Malabar. Projections filled the space at the rear of the stage, mostly credibly but glaringly anachronistically when displaying Twentieth-Century photographs. The images of centuries of Jewish suffering and victims of the Nazi Holocaust, the Stars of David emblazoned on their garments, shown during ‘Va, pensiero’ were poignant but needlessly exploitative: in an otherwise traditional, period-appropriate production, what had these projections to do with Verdi’s opera? The enslaved Hebrews of Nabucco have their own oppression and death sentences with which to contend, and imposing the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald upon Verdi’s settings seemed a cheap extrapolation rather than a legitimate artistic connection. Likewise, the pantomime execution of a Hebrew slave was unnecessary and, considering recent events in the Middle East, particularly uncomfortable. These efforts at increasing the opera’s relevance to a modern audience in actuality had the opposite effect. Mr. Baumgarten’s lighting largely kept the focus on the personal dramas that play out before the backdrop of societal and religious upheaval, but the damage was done: images of terrified children and starving prisoners in concentration camps distracted from Verdi’s music.

Conducted by Opera Carolina’s General Director and Principal Conductor, James Meena, the musicians of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra distinguished themselves with commendably well-rehearsed playing that captured a pronounced element of the Italianate morbidezza that was second nature to Verdi. The opera’s Overture and the Marcia funebre in Act Four were robustly played, and Maestro Meena led both the instrumentalists and the Opera Carolina Chorus in performances that meaningfully contrasted the actions of the ‘good’ Hebrews with those of the ‘bad’ Babylonians. In the chorus that opens Part One, ‘Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti,’ the choristers improved quickly after a slightly uncertain start by the tenors, their singing of the sotto voce ‘Il Dio d'Israello si cela per tema’ accurately tuned and appropriately reverent. The choristers’ account of the Levites’ chorus in Act Two, ‘Che si vuol,’ was strong and sonorous, particularly in the presto section, ‘O maledetto non ha fratelli.’ It is the celebrated chorus of Hebrew slaves in Act Three, ‘Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate,’ that lures many people to a performance of Nabucco, of course, and the Opera Carolina Chorus’s singing of it justified its attraction. The division of the voices into six-part harmony after the unison opening had the force of the explosive C-major chord that indicates the creation of light in Haydn’s Schöpfung. Opera Carolina did not perpetuate the tradition of encoring ‘Va, pensiero.’ They should have done so: the choir’s performance merited a repetition but, strangely, was lukewarmly received by the audience. Both the orchestral playing and the choral singing made favorable impressions on the whole, and Maestro Meena acquitted himself with his accustomed professionalism and welcome avoidance of gestures derived from sources other than Verdi’s score.

Supporting rôles were taken with distinction by attentive singers with fine voices that could not always be heard over the sometimes raucous din of Verdi’s orchestrations. Tenor Martin Schreiner brought a bright, penetrating timbre to Abdallo’s music, particularly in ‘Donna regal! deh fuggi!’ in the Act Two finale. Baritone Kenneth Overton was a stalwart Gran Sacerdote, his ‘Gloria ad Abigaille! Morte egli Ebrei!’ in Act Two exclaimed with the charge of a thunderbolt and a brilliant top E. In Act Three, his collusion with Abigaille was rousingly portrayed in his singing of ‘Eccelsa donna, che d’Assiria il fato reggi.’ Soprano Kelly Hutchinson made much of little as Anna, sounding as though she might have been called upon to sing Abigaille if necessary. The ease with which she ascended to her top As and Bs in the Act One finale was phenomenal, and her singing of ‘Deh fratelli, perdonate!’ in Act Two was impassioned. Her negotiations of the tricky lines taking her to top B♭ in the opera’s final scene were very impressive, and her voice exhibited both beauty and athleticism.

Mezzo-soprano Ola Rafało and tenor Brian Arreola made an appealing pair of unfortunate lovers as Fenena and Ismaele. Critical as their actions are to the plot, Verdi gave them surprisingly few solo lines. Nevertheless, a weak Fenena or Ismaele can undermine the success of a performance of Nabucco. From her first entrance, Ms. Rafało grasped every musical and histrionic opportunity given to Fenena, allying her firm, plush tones to acting of girlish subtlety. In the trio with Abigaille and Ismaele in Act One, ‘Io t'amava! il regno, il cuore,’ she sang splendidly, phrasing ‘Ah! già t'invoco, già ti sento’ with excellent comprehension of Verdi’s style. Her account of the cantabile Preghiera in Act Four, ‘Oh dischiuso è il firmamento,’ was superb, crowned with a well-placed top A in the cadenza. Mr. Arreola’s Ismaele was a similarly credible, confidently-sung characterization. The rôle’s tessitura centers punishingly in the passaggio from the start of Ismaele’s andante cantabile lines in the Act One trio, ‘Misera! o come più bella,’ and Mr. Arreola coped manfully with the top A in the phrase ‘il mio petto a te la strada.’ Later in the trio, Verdi asked him to begin ‘Ah no! la vita io t'abbandono’ on top G, and Mr. Arreola answered ringingly. His voicing of ‘Per amor di Dio vivente dall'anatema cessate!’ in Act Two was phrased with finesse, and his lines in ensembles were delivered with stirring panache. It seemed more than usually regrettable that Verdi did not give Ismaele a proper aria, whether or not it might have jeopardized the opera’s dramatic momentum. Both Ms. Rafało and Mr. Arreola were assets to the performance, and their depiction of lovers imperiled by cultural differences was rightly at the center of the drama.

IN PERFORMANCE: mezzo-soprano Ola Rafało as Fenena (left) and tenor Brian Arreola as Ismaele (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Verdi's NABUCCO [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]Misera! o come più bella: mezzo-soprano Ola Rafało as Fenena (left) and tenor Brian Arreola as Ismaele (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]

Andrew Gangestad’s Zaccaria was by turns implacable, somewhat sinister, and quietly comforting. He rose to the top E in his opening recitative, ‘Sperate, o figli! Iddio del suo poter diè segno,’ with authority, and the bass’s phrasing in the cavatina, ‘D'Egitto là su i lidi,’ was suave. A climactic top note was cracked and nearly lost, but Mr. Gangestad recovered to give a burly account of his cabaletta, ‘Comme notte a sol fulgente.’ He anchored ensembles solidly, and his line ‘Chi il passo agl'empi apriva’ in the Act One finale was sung with the force of a whip. ‘Tu sul labbro,’ Zaccaria’s andante Preghiera in Act Two was sung with due gravitas, and the andante mosso Profezia in Act Three, ‘Del futuro nel bujo discerno,’ was exclaimed with gusto, the top F♯s troublesome but managed. His comforting of Fenena in Act Four, ‘Va: la palma del martirio, va, conquista, o giovinetta,’ was affecting, and there was an indication of compassion for Abigaille in the opera’s final scene. Despite the variety in Mr. Gangestad’s acting, there was very little in his singing. The same flinty tones, strongest in the middle octave of the voice, served for all of Zaccaria’s moods. As a result, the character was more antagonistic than pastoral, and when his face displayed tenderness the voice did not respond in kind.

Interestingly, in the years since the rôle was created by the future Signora Verdi, Giuseppina Strepponi, almost none of the most successful Abigailles on stage or on records—Maria Callas, Elena Souliotis, Margherita Roberti, Pauline Tinsley, Marisa Galvany, Rita Hunter, Ghena Dimitrova—have been Italian. The notable exceptions are Anita Cerquetti, whose brief career was crowned with a rousing impersonation of the wayward princess pretender in the Netherlands in 1960, and Renata Scotto, whose recorded Abigaille with Riccardo Muti was perhaps ill-advised but is nonetheless exciting. Most importantly, though, Scotto reminded listeners of the Italianate qualities so often missing from portrayals of the part. She is a wild, willful character whose least-belligerent passages are hardly demure, but Abigaille is a musical cousin of Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, and even in fallible vocal estate Scotto restored a discernible lode of Italian bel canto to a rôle typically more evocative of the less-glorious tradition of ‘can belto.’ The lessons of Callas’s formidable musical accuracy, Solioutis’s abandon, Tinsley’s and Hunter’s resilience, Galvany’s fearlessness, Dimitrova’s raw strength, Cerquetti’s indomitable energy, and Scotto’s genuine Italian slancio clearly were learned and fully absorbed by American soprano Brenda Harris, who gave Opera Carolina an Abigaille comparable with the best in the world, past and present. Hers was not an Abigaille of unstinting vocal steel but one from whose emotional insecurity and dramatic instability the galvanizing outbursts arose organically, like the spews of steam from geothermals. At her entrance with ‘Guerreri, è preso il tempio’ in the Act One trio with Fenena and Ismaele, it was apparent that this Abigaille was a woman deeply wounded by unrequited love. In the lento ‘Prode guerrier! d’amore conosci tu sol l’armi,’ Ms. Harris gave evidence of her bel canto credentials. Then taking the wide intervals ascending to F♯, G, A, and B and the coloratura flourishes on ‘di mia vendetta il fulmine su voi sospeso è già’ in stride, she showed barely-containable contempt for Fenena and still-potent affection for Ismaele, stroking his arm lovingly in ‘Io t’amava! il regno, il cuore,’ her top Cs secure and dramatically cogent. She launched the Act One finale with a brash ‘Viva Nabucco,’ and her voicing of the ascending scales on repetitions of ‘cadrà’ were electrifying. Her recitative at the start of Act Two, ‘Ben io t'invenni, o fatal scritto,’ was imaginatively uttered, the rise to top B♭ on ‘Oh inqui tutti, e più folli ancor!’ and the fearsome two-octave descent from C6 to C4 on ‘o fatal sdegno’ not merely endured but truly conquered. The exquisite andante cantabile aria ‘Anch'io dischiuso un giorno ebbi alla gioia il core,’ its melodic lines not unlike those of ‘Casta diva’ in Bellini's Norma, was artfully phrased, and the lightness of touch that Ms. Harris brought to the section starting with ‘piange va all'altrui pianto,’ the music so like that for the title character in Giovanna d'Arco, was refreshing. Her singing of the notorious cabaletta ‘Salgo già del trono aurato’ was fiery but controlled. She not only mastered the coloratura and top Cs, including the traditional interpolated C at the cabaletta’s end, but also offered genuine trills. Her singing of ‘Ma del popolo di Belo non fia spento lo splendor’ in the Act Two finale was similarly exuberant. The duet with Nabucco in Act Three inspired Ms. Harris to even more refined singing, the eruption of coloratura on ‘Tale ti rendo, o misero, il foglio menzogner!’ that took her to top B♭ delivered with pinpoint precision. Her voicing of ‘Oh dell'ambita gloria giorno tu sei venuto!’ and ‘Di morte è suono per gli Ebrei che tu dannasti!’ was goading, but in ‘Deh perdona, deh perdona ad un padre che delira’ there were fleeting signs of pity for Nabucco that softened the edge of Abigaille’s treachery. In the opera’s final scene, Ms. Harris devoted the best of her artistry to her account of Abigaille’s death, singing the andante moderato ‘Su me morente esanime discenda il tuo perdono!’ with profoundly moving simplicity and poise. Understandably, Ms. Harris’s singing occasionally sounded slightly cautious, but she was as persuasive and vocally accomplished an Abigaille as could be heard anywhere in the world today and a worthy successor to the handful of great Abigailles of the past.

Baritone Gordon Hawkins is one of America’s least-heralded important singers. Ever an instrument of malleable but unbreakable bronze, his voice is now polished to a bright, shining surface that rests upon a column of powerful, ably-projected tone. As Nabucco in this performance, he was a figure who ferocity was as piercing as his madness was touching. A man with an imposing physique, Mr. Hawkins bestrode the stage with the savagery of a monarch whose neuroses were unleashed by absolute authority. His voicing of his opening ‘Di Dio che parli?’ was tentative, but his account of the andante ‘Tremin gl’insani del mio, del mio furore’ was expansive. He brought the curtain down in the Act One finale with growling pronouncements of ‘O vinti, il capo a terra!’ and the presto ‘Mio furor, non più costretto.’ Mr. Hawkins’s gleaming top F in ‘Dal capo mio la prendi’ in the Act Two finale ushered in a beautifully-phrased account of the andantino ‘S’appresan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale,’ the dauntingly high tessitura managed with little evidence of strain. The repeated Fs in the adagio ‘Oh! mia figlia!’ were fired like missiles, and the baritone detonated a series of dramatic blasts in ‘Ah! perchè, perchè sul ciglio una lagrima.’ In the duet with Abigaille in Act Three, Mr. Hawkins sang ‘Oh di qual’onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto!’ with touching dignity, and the profundity of his sorrow in ‘Deh perdona’ was heartbreaking. Nabucco must wait until Act Four for his aria, and Mr. Hawkins’s singing made it worth the wait for the audience, as well. His response to the offstage chorus’s intoning of Fenena’s impending death in ‘Son pur queste mie membra!’ was deeply felt, and his shaping of Verdi’s melodic lines in the largo aria ‘Dio di Giuda!’ was marvelous. The cabaletta ‘O prodi miei, seguitemi, s’apre alla mente il giorno’ was commandingly sung, the restoration of Nabucco’s reason evinced by Mr. Hawkins’s roof-raising top notes. In the Act Four finale, his forceful ‘Empi, fermate! L’idol funesto, guerrier, frangete qual polve al suol largo a piacere’ was complemented by an unusually sympathetic delivery of ‘Ah torna Israello, torna alle gioie, alle gioie del patrio suol.’ Though Mr. Hawkins acted admirably, the production’s blocking did not always make ideal use of the singer’s bounding physicality, and only the text—and Mr. Hawkins’s clear enunciation of it—made the waning and recovery of Nabucco’s mental prowess apparent. Like Ms. Harris’s Abigaille, however, it would be a fool’s errand to seek a more potent Nabucco than Mr. Hawkins’s.

Nabucco is an undeniably imperfect opera in which passages of sublime melodic beauty alternate with banalities. The young Verdi was still learning his craft and adapting the lessons learned from his predecessors and contemporaries to his own designs, but there are in Nabucco plentiful seeds that grew into the fragrantly exotic blossoms of Verdi’s maturity. Opera Carolina’s Nabucco was an imperfect production that ultimately did not trust Verdi’s characters to bear the burden of engaging the audience with their plights. Abigaille, Fenena, Ismaele, Nabucco, and Zaccaria certainly are not Aida, Amneris, Radamès, Amonasro, and Ramfis, but they have their own public and private torments that Verdi brought to life with a score that, even in its moments of triviality, is irresistibly tuneful. Though the production failed them, the first-rate cast that Opera Carolina assembled for Nabucco thankfully responded to the music as it deserves.

IN PERFORMANCE: the Opera Carolina Chorus performing 'Va, pensiero' in Verdi's NABUCCO at Opera Carolina [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]Va, pensiero: the Opera Carolina Chorus singing the famed chorus in Verdi’s Nabucco at Opera Carolina [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]

18 October 2014

CD REVIEW: THE MEDICI CASTRATO – A HOMAGE TO GUALBERTO MAGLI (Raffaele Pè, countertenor; Glossa GCD923501)

CD REVIEW: THE MEDICI COUNTERTENOR (Glossa GCD923501)FRANCESCA CACCINI (1587 – circa 1645), GIULIO CACCINI (1550 – 1618), ALESSANDRO CICCOLINI, SIGISMONDO D’INDIA (circa 1582 – 1629), GIOVANNI CAMILLO DI PRIMI (?), FRANCESCO LAMBARDI (1587 – 1642), GIROLAMO MONTESARDO (1580 – 1620), CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643), JOHANN NAUWACH (1595 – 1630); and GIOVANNI TRABACI (circa 1575 – 1647): The Medici Castrato – a Homage to Gualberto MagliRaffaele Pè, countertenor; Chiara Granata, triple harp; David Miller, theorbo [Recorded in St. James’s Church, Keelings Road, Dengie, Essex, UK, 30 June and 2 – 4 July 2013; Glossa GCD923501; 1CD, 56:59; Available from Amazon (UK), fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

The efforts of gifted countertenors and mezzo-sopranos have restored to the names of a number of the great castrati of the Eighteenth Century—Caffarelli, Carestini, Farinelli, Senesino—at least a modicum of the notoriety that they enjoyed in the years in which their voices were heard on Europe’s stages. The names of these singers’ Seventeenth-Century ancestors, the singers whose careers paralleled the infancy of opera, largely remain hidden in manuscripts and musicological tomes, however. Even if circumstantial associations and sketchy history are the only sources available to Twenty-First-Century observers, the name Giovanni Gualberto Magli deserves the same reverence granted to the legacies of the later singers whose voices inspired Händel, Porpora, Vivaldi, and the eminent masters of the Baroque. When Claudio Monteverdi’s La favola d’Orfeo was first performed at the Mantua court of Francesco IV Gonzaga on 24 February 1607, Magli is known from contemporary correspondence to have sung Musica in the opera’s Prologue, Prosperina in Act Four, and likely either the Messaggera in Act Two or Speranza in Act Three. This alone earns for the Florentine castrato, a pupil of Giulio Caccini, a place of prominence in the chronology of opera from its birth with Jacopo Peri’s Dafne to the scores of today’s composers—a place of prominence that listeners who hear this disc of music likely inspired by Magli will undoubtedly be motivated to award him. Regrettably, from a musical perspective, at least, modern listeners have only the recordings of Alessandro Moreschi to offer hints of how castrati might have sounded. Moreschi was recorded when he was in his forties, at ages at which singers like Caffarelli and Gizziello reportedly still sang very well. Perhaps Moreschi was past his best years when his admittedly primitive recordings were made, but it is virtually impossible to imagine the singer heard in the Gramophone and Typewriter Company recordings credibly intoning Speranza’s ‘Ecco l’atra palude, ecco il nocchiero’ from La favola d’Orfeo on the operatic stage, the resonant B5 that crowns his famous recording of the Bach/Gounod ‘Ave Maria’ notwithstanding. Hearing the exquisite performances on The Medici Castrato, it is also impossible to imagine Moreschi in his prime rivaling the glorious singing of young Italian countertenor Raffaele Pè. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that even Magli himself could have sung this music so effectively. His importance to the early development of Italian vocal music renders Magli an artist worthy of homage from his stylistic inheritors: neither he nor the composers represented on The Medici Castrato could hope for finer tributes than they here receive from Raffaele Pè.

A project like this disc can succeed only if it has at its core an artist for whom the music is an experience rather than an experiment. Stylishness and carefully-researched historical context are laudable qualities that contribute mightily to the basic effectiveness of music like that on The Medici Castrato, but even these attributes fall flat, especially on a recording, if they are not assimilated with the kind of omnipresent concentration of spirit that can at best only be partially taught at conservatories. Singing in its most innocuous form is a form of ritual sacrifice: at the level of dedication demanded by a recording like this one, it is virtually a symbolic martyrdom. It is not enough for a singer to have a beautiful voice, which Mr. Pè certainly possesses. In order to inundate the listener with the innermost emotions of the music and text, the singer must first connect with them on a level that transcends ego, intellect, and even musicality. There must exist between music and singer a discernible symbiosis, and this trait is apparent in every note that Mr. Pè sings and every word that he enunciates on this disc. One of the most damaging developments in the Performing Arts in the past quarter-century is the way in which the designation of ‘artist’ must no longer be earned. With his singing on The Medici Castrato, Mr. Pè wins the right to be regarded as a true artist, not only because the quality of his singing is so exceptional but also because he submerses himself in this music so that it becomes part of him.

The collaboration that Mr. Pè shares with his accompanists, Chiara Granata on arpa doppia and David Miller on theorbo, is no less remarkable—and no less crucial—than his earnest relationship with the music. The stylishness of Ms. Granata’s and Mr. Miller’s playing is impeccable, but they never seem bound by conventions of historically-informed practice. It is clear that they, like Mr. Pè, regard this music as a consortium of living organisms, each selection having its own unique identity that contrasts with its companions on this disc. The Medici Castrato is both a commemoration of the work of one of the unheralded trailblazers in vocal music and a travelogue that documents the geographical progress of his career. The changes of scenery among the selections are audible in the musicians’ playing, the aural profile of pieces composed in Mantua differing from that of music written in Florence or Naples. Throughout their playing on this disc, both Ms. Granata and Mr. Miller are unperturbed by the difficulties of the music. Ms. Granata’s finger-numbing account of Giovanni Maria Trabaci’s Toccata seconda per l'arpa is astounding both in its virtuosity and in the expressivity that the player evinces without imposing any degree of external sentimentality upon the music. This perfectly-matched pair of musicians share Mr. Pè’s commitment, and the three of them display the unforced camaraderie and simple joy in making music together that have become all too rare.

It is only natural that an adventure intended to retrace the globetrotting of one of the first ‘star’ singers should begin with a tribute to the creation upon which his reputation is largely founded, Monteverdi’s L'Orfeo. Combining Musica’s ‘Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vego’ from the opera’s Prologue, the Primo intermezzo, Speranza’s ‘Ecco l'atra palude, ecco il nocchiero,’ a brief excerpt from the instrumental ritornello from Orfeo’s ‘Possente spirto,’ and Prosperina’s ‘Signor, quell’infelice,’ Mr. Pè offers a tremendously effective opera in miniature that distills the dramatic ambiguities of Monteverdi’s score into a pungent essence that carries nearly the same weight as the complete opera. The reverence of Mr. Pè’s delivery of Musica’s lines, emerging from a primordial clash of harmonies, is piercing, his pronouncement of the line ‘Io la musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti’ gleaming. He uses vibrato judiciously, employing straight tone to accentuate Monteverdi’s fundamental chromaticism, and the austerity of his singing of ‘Ecco l’atra palude’ is sonorously recondite. Prosperina’s ‘Signor, quell’infelice’ draws from Mr. Pè especially radiant singing, his voicing of ‘Deh, se da queste luci amorosa dolcezza unqua traesti’ glowing with the luminosity evoked by the text. The naturalness of the singer’s way with Monteverdi’s music is unmistakable and haunting in the best sense.

Emblematic of Magli’s sojourn in Brandenburg are pieces by Johann Nauwach and Giovanni Camillo Di Primi. The former’s ‘Amarilli, mia bella’ is a lovely work, and the lush imagery of the text prompts Mr. Pè to sing with inviolable attention. In Nauwach’s ‘Tempesta di dolcezza su l'anima mi versa Amor,’ too, he sings as though solely for himself: rather than projecting the sentiments of this music with exaggerated dimensions as though he were aiming at the last row of a concert hall, this singer makes of each phrase a very personal utterance that is shared with the listener as if by chance. The words of Nauwach’s ‘Jetzund kömpt die Nacht herbey’ also shape a performance that seems to come as much from Mr. Pè’s soul as from his throat. Di Primi’s ‘Se fama al mondo,’ one of the earliest surviving arias for solo voice published in Germany, receives a performance that undulates with the shifting moods of the sonnet. In all of the selections on The Medici Castrato, the poetic prescience of Mr. Pè’s use of words is indicative of a keen sensitivity not only to the layers of meaning within the contexts of the musical settings but also to the enduring literary significance of the texts.

The familial genius of Florentine father and daughter Giulio and Francesca Caccini provided Magli, who was a pupil of the former, with music that must have been nearly perfect for his voice, and so it also proves for Mr. Pè. The emotional directness of his performance of the father’s ‘Sfogava con le stelle,’ his voice touched by sonic starlight, is matched by the searching intensity of his singing of the daughter’s ‘Dispiegate, guance amate.’ Even when the music is most difficult, Mr. Pè’s vocalism is effortless, the pain in the texts conveyed through shading of his tone rather than vocal stress. This is especially true of his performance of Sigismondo D'India’s Lamento di Giasone, ‘Ancidetemi pur, dogliosi affani.’ Jason’s sorrow throbs in Mr. Pè’s singing, but neither the singer’s rhythmic vigor nor his preservation of consistently artful phrasing is sacrificed to the character’s desolation. His performance of D’India’s ‘Piangono al pianger mio le fere e i sassi’ is also affectingly dolorous without being heavy-handed, the feeling conveyed by the crispness of his diction rather than any artificial darkening of the tone.

The quiet charm of Neapolitan composer Francesco Lambardi’s ‘O felice quel giorno’ is highlighted by Mr. Pè’s singing, the bright patina of his timbre giving the simple melodic line an alluring sheen. The long-sustained pitches of Girolamo Montesardo’s ‘Hor che la nott'ombrosa’ also provide Mr. Pè with music that is virtually ideal for his voice. The surety of his tuning is exceptional, and the ease of his ascents into his upper register enables flashes of psychological lightning to illuminate the musical firmament without scorching the delicate tonal landscape. His singing displays complete comfort in the treacherous region of E5 and F5, where the voices of many countertenors weaken, but his performances on The Medici Castrato are notable for the evenness of Mr. Pè’s tones throughout his range.

Composed in 2013 by Baroque violinist and musicologist Alessandro Ciccolini in homage to Magli, ‘Solo et pensoso’ is a well-constructed piece that breathes the same air as the earlier pieces on The Medici Castrato without being a straightforward replica of any of the music heard on the disc. Written especially for this recording, Mr. Ciccolini’s work reveals a percipient acquaintance with both the music sung by Magli in the Seventeenth Century and the singular voice of Mr. Pè. ‘Solo et pensoso’ is an expertly-crafted piece that wholly succeeds in its aim of paying tribute to one of the most masterful singers of the early years of opera as it is now known: that success is solidified by the devotion with which Mr. Pè sings the music.

Raffaele Pè is a young singer poised to inscribe his name in the annals of musical history among those of the finest modern countertenors. Combining his voice with the rich playing of Chiara Granata and David Miller, he exuberantly memorializes Gualberto Magli with elegant, flawlessly stylish performances of music important in the great castrato’s career. What makes The Medici Castrato such a gladdening release, though, is its introduction of an artist who, following the path initiated by his illustrious Seventeenth-Century forebear, is destined to be one of the most memorable singers of his own time.