24 September 2016

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — ZAIDE, K. 344 (S. Bevan, A. Clayton, J. Imbrailo, S. Jackson, D. Jeffery, J. McGovern; Signum Classics SIGCD473)

IN REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - ZAIDE, K. 344 (Signum Classics SIGCD473)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Zaide, K. 344Sophie Bevan (Zaide), Allan Clayton (Gomatz), Jacques Imbrailo (Allazim), Stuart Jackson (Sultan Soliman), Darren Jeffery (Osmin, Zaram), Jonathan McGovern (Vorsinger); The Orchestra of Classical Opera; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded at the Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK, 10 – 13 March 2016; Signum Classics SIGCD473; 1 CD, 77:54; Available from Signum Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

When the twenty-something Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart abandoned the torso of a Singspiel without a head or limbs, the work that later musical meddlers would christen as Zaide did not even have a name by which to call herself. Begun in Salzburg in 1779, ostensibly in response to Hapsburg emperor Joseph II’s launching the prior year of an initiative to bring opera in German to the German-speaking inhabitants of imperial Vienna and with the intention of laying siege to the Austrian capital with a stage-ready Oper auf Deutsch in hand, the work that would eventually answer to the name Zaide was conceived as a Turkish-themed Singspiel in three acts after the fashion of similarly-scaled works by Ignaz Holzbauer and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Whatever Mozart’s intentions for his orphaned Zaide entailed, work on speculation could not supersede endeavors with guaranteed financial reward. When Karl Theodor, the deep-pocketed Elector of Bavaria, offered a commission for an opera to be premièred during Munich’s 1781 Carnival season, it was therefore ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ to Zaide and ‘Benvenuto’ to Idomeneo, re di Creta. As it turned out, Idomeneo proved to be as useful a vehicle for Mozart’s introduction into Viennese musical circles as Zaide might have been, word of its success in Munich drifting eastward over the Alps and infiltrating the Emperor’s inner sanctum by the time that Mozart arrived in Vienna with the goal of settling permanently in the city. Whether Mozart purposefully avoided resuming work on Zaide, as seems most likely, or merely never got back round to it can only be conjectured, but a fallacy that can be definitively dispelled is the notion that the score was merely a blueprint for the later Singspielen Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte.

Zaide and her pair of more widely-known siblings share notable qualities, not the least of which is exceptionally elegant writing for voices, but it is interesting to observe that Mozart’s completed numbers for Zaide did not find their way into other pieces. Imagine Händel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga,’ which began its long life as an instrumemtal sarabande in the early opera Almira, Königin von Castilien and recurred with a slightly different text as an aria in Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno before assuming its now-famous place in Rinaldo, being consigned to neglect in an unfinished score! Even as a youngster, Mozart possessed an uncanny ability to unerringly separate the musical wheat from the chaff, and he surely knew that the numbers that he wrote for his experimental, Turkish-themed Singspiel were of fine quality. Händel and Rossini would not have allowed a piece like Zaide’s ‘Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben’ to languish in silence, especially if they were drawing musical portraits of a Konstanze and a Pamina. In her extant music, Zaide’s value is easily discerned, yet transforming even the most obvious merit into sounds of comparable quality can be an unexpectedly strenuous challenge, one never fully met by previous recordings of Zaide despite the presence of several very accomplished individual performances among them. Ignoring how prior generations of performers and performances have suggested that Mozart’s operas should sound and relying upon Mozart himself for guidance in recreating the singular sound worlds of his works for the stage, Classical Opera’s ventures set new benchmarks by returning the immortal Wunderkind’s music to the parameters of his invention. Here, at last, is Zaide wholly as Mozart knew her when he capriciously cast her aside.

Their affinity for performing Mozart’s early operas with period-appropriate principals that are as fun as they are inherently right for the music previously exhibited in phenomenal Signum Classics recordings of Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, Mitridate, re di Ponto, and Il re pastore, Classical Opera and conductor Ian Page here turn their attention to Zaide with a recording that would effortlessly sweep the boards even if the score’s discography were less underwhelming. With pitch tuned to A = 430 Hz, the performance of Zaide on this disc has a bright patina from start to finish that heightens appreciation of the precious alloys with which the score was forged. Furthermore, Page paces a performance that has the continuity and linearity of a fully-functional opera rather than seeming like a disjointed traversal of a fragmentary work. Page’s work discards the once-fashionable concept of arbitrarily quickening tempi in Mozart’s music in a wrongheaded, faster-is-more-authentic approach. From his first operatic outings as a boy setting pompous texts about Arcadian idylls and moral dilemmas of antiquity, Mozart bothered to fully absorb the meanings of text when composing, and, following this example, Page establishes tempi in Zaide that highlight the skill with which Mozart united words with music. Launching the performance with the Overture from Mozart’s incidental music for Thamos, König in Ägypten (K. 345/336a), played with tremendous élan by The Orchestra of Classical Opera, the conductor collaborates with musicians and singers to create a propulsive account of Zaide that succeeds more than any other recorded performance of the score at both offering the listener a wholly satisfying musical experience and presenting the score on a scale that would have been familiar to Mozart. This is not Zaide as a prologue to Die Entführung aus dem Serail but as its own work. She is small of stature, occasionally unsteady on her feet, and a bit shy, but Zaide is, this recording reveals, compellingly unique and worthy of her creator.

With voices of the quality of those of baritone Jonathan McGovern as the Vorsinger and Peter Aisher, Robin Bailey, Simon Chalford Gilkes, Ed Hughes, Stuart Laing, Nick Morton, and Dominic Walsh as the Sultan’s Sklaven, the performance of the opening chorus, ‘Brüder, laßt uns lustig sein,’ could not possibly fail to delight, and the singing provided by this illustrious ensemble of gentlemen is as far from failure as human efforts can be. Well-trained voices are not always effective en masse, but each voice in this group occupies an appropriate space in the sonic mosaic, establishing an evocative, aptly exotic environment to host the drama to come.

Obviously a kinsman of his namesake in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Osmin in Zaide has considerably less material with which to make his mark, but bass-baritone Darren Jeffery breathes life into the blustering fellow, not as vibrantly characterized by Mozart or the librettist, Johann Andreas Schachtner, as his Entführung counterpart, with a characterful, strongly-sung performance of the aria ‘Wer hungrig bei der Tafel sitzt.’ Jeffery’s technical assurance enables him to gallop through the music without forcing or distorting his handsome, sinewy voice.

Interpreting Sultan Soliman, more sympathetic in song than Entführung’s Bassa Selim often is in speech, tenor Stuart Jackson is an expert counterbalance for the ardently romantic Gomatz. Jackson’s flexible, slightly metallic voice shimmers and slithers insinuatingly through the Sultan’s music, the singer’s command of subtle inflections apparent from the first line of the Melologo, ‘Zaide entflohen,’ and growing ever more impactful in the aria that follows. Jackson voices ‘Der stolze Löw läßt sich zwar zähmen’ with easy mastery of Mozart’s idiom, at once redolent of Händel’s writing for Grimoaldo in Rodelinda and foreshadowing music for Mozart’s own Pedrillo and Monostatos. The aria ‘Ich bin so bös’ als gut’ is sung with a keen fusion of musicality and imagination. Like Jeffery, Jackson evinces dramatic credibility in his music, lifting Soliman off the pages of Mozart’s score with spirited, sophisticated singing.

Singing Allazim with a baritone voice that sounds destined by nature for feats of greatness in Mozart’s music for Conte d’Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Guglielmo in Così fan tutte, and Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Jacques Imbrailo shares Jeffery’s and Jackson’s talent for engendering a three-dimensional dramatic profile for his rôle. Though decidedly more serious, the wily Allazim is not unlike Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, his head always in the game and his eyes always on the prize—in this case, a future in freedom for Zaide, Gomatz, and himself. Imbrailo intones Allazim’s aria ‘Nur mutig, mein Herze, versuche dein Glück’ with engrossing focus, and he voices his lines in the terzetto with Zaide and Gomatz, ‘O selige Wonne’ meaningfully, his sincerity complementing the lovers’ starry-eyed emoting and providing the ensemble with an anchor in reality. The baritone’s attractive vocalism envelops the aria ‘Ihr Mächtigen seht ungerührt’ in a cloak of velvet without smothering the vocal line. Historically, many baritones have been inclined to over-sing in Mozart rôles, digging into their lowest notes and belting out the top notes as though they were singing music by Verdi. Their basic timbres are quite different, but Imbrailo’s affinity for Mozart’s style is so complete that he could be mistaken in certain phrases on this recording for Hermann Prey. Is there any higher standard of achievement in Mozart singing?

Any doubt that Allan Clayton is a Mozart tenor in the class of Anton Dermota, Fritz Wunderlich, Stuart Burrows, and George Shirley is irrefutably put to rest by his singing of Gomatz’s music in this performance of Zaide. The innate nobility of phrasing and beauty of tone that distinguished the singing of those great Mozarteans of generations past course through every bar that Clayton sings in Zaide. If he contributed nothing more than vocalism, he would be fully convincing as the young slave who captures Zaide’s heart, but he expresses emotions through song with an unaffected immediacy that recalls Richard Tauber. Even without knowing a single word of German, it would be possible to grasp the sentimental gist of his every utterance. This is true from the first word of the Melologo ‘Unerforschliche Fügung,’ which he declaims with diction that, if not likely to be mistaken for a native speaker’s, is significantly superior to the learned-by-rote schoolboy German with which too many singers compromise their performances of Mozart rôles. Clayton traces the melodic line of the aria ‘Rase, Schicksal, wüte immer’ with the viscous flow of Turkish honey. In the duetto with Zaide, ‘Meine Seele hüpft vor Freuden,’ this Gomatz partners his Zaide with tones that truly seem extracted from the depths of his soul. The tenor’s soft-textured upper register, allied with unimpeachable support through the passaggio, gives his singing of the aria ‘Herr und Freund, wie dank’ ich dir’ an aura of newly-found peace of mind that heightens the mood conjured by the text. Clayton lavishes on Gomatz’s part in the terzetto with Zaide and Allazim, ‘O selige Wonne,’ the sort of effortlessly beautiful vocalism that listeners long to hear in Tamino’s ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön.’ A vital tenet of Clayton’s artistic credo is undoubtedly some variation of the notion that anything worth doing is worth doing well: as Gomatz in Zaide, no one on disc has done better.

Zaide’s is the sole female voice in the Singspiel as it survives, Mozart having given her no Blonde in whom to confide her secrets and ambitions, and upon her falls the task of taming the opera’s testosterone-driven madness with level-headed femininity. A singer better suited to this tall order than soprano Sophie Bevan would be a veritable operatic unicorn. Like the character herself, Bevan’s singing is sometimes marginally insecure, especially as she ascends above the stave, but her musical and histrionic instincts are never less than excellent. Zaide’s—and Zaide’s—best-known aria is the gracefully-scored ‘Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben,’ and every ribbon of eloquence that Mozart threaded into the music is unfurled by Bevan with the utmost delicacy. She is unafraid of bold gestures, however, and a throbbing vein of resilience is never far beneath the surface of her portrayal of Zaide. She guilelessly mingles her voice with Clayton’s in the duetto ‘Meine Seele hüpft vor Freuden,’ their tones joining like lovers’ hands. In the terzetto with Gomatz and Allazim, too, she proves a first-rate exponent of Mozartean ensemble singing, intertwining her lines with those of her male colleagues with the uncomplicated joy of a girl braiding her hair. Bevan’s voice gleams in her singing of the aria ‘Trostlos schluchzet Philomele,’ and her technique rises to every challenge of the demanding aria ‘Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen.’ With singing of the quality provided by Bevan’s colleagues in this performance, this is a Zaide that would be at least reservedly enjoyable without a strong Zaide, but what would be the point? The point of this Zaide is that Bevan’s Zaide is the catalyst for the Singspiel’s drama and the heart that beats within this captivating musical torso.

The performance of the opera’s de facto final quartetto, ‘Freundin, stille deine Tränen,’ is representative of this disc as a whole. Mozart deploys the voices of Zaide, Gomatz, Soliman, and Allazim with intelligence, and Page, the orchestra, and the singers respond in kind. With Bevan’s Zaide as the center of emotional gravity and Page’s conducting providing the necessary centripetal force, they indelibly broaden the theatrical efficacy and musical significance of Mozart’s discarded score.

In the decades following Mozart’s untimely death in 1791, only weeks before his thirty-seventh birthday, his lore grew to such an extent that well-meaning Nineteenth-Century guardians of the Mozart Mythology sought to protect him from the ill-effects on his reputation of such deficiencies as the perceived immorality of Così fan tutte, the alleged banality of Die Zauberflöte, and the certain embarrassments of his large assortment of musical juvenilia. Not every work composed by Mozart in the years before he reached artistic maturity is a masterpiece, but performances and recordings in recent years, particularly some of those issued in commemoration of the Mozart anniversaries in 1956 and 1991, confirmed that no apologies need to be made for the musical products of the composer’s youth. If an apology is necessitated by this recording of Zaide, it is Mozart’s to make: he really should apologize to this cast for failing to give them a complete Zaide with which to further gladden Twenty-First-Century listeners. This recording of Zaide is a splendid achievement with which every Mozartean should celebrate the 260th anniversary of the master’s birth.

19 September 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Washington Concert Opera celebrates Thirty Years with Gala Concert (A. Meade, V. Genaux, M. Angelini, J. Arrey, J. Hacker; Lisner Auditorium, 18 September 2016)

IN REVIEW: Washington Concert Opera 30th Anniversary Concert celebrants - from left to right, soprano ANGELA MEADE, mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX, tenor MICHELE ANGELINI, Artistic Director and conductor ANTONY WALKER, baritone JAVIER ARREY, and tenor JONAS HACKER [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787), FRANÇOIS-ADRIEN BOIËLDIEU (1775 – 1834), GIACOMO MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869), and GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875): Gala Concert celebrating Washington Concert Opera’s Thirtieth AnniversaryAngela Meade (soprano), Vivica Genaux (mezzo-soprano), Michele Angelini (tenor), Javier Arrey (baritone), Jonas Hacker (tenor); Washington Concert Opera Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA; Sunday, 18 September 2016]

In the troubled years since ill-advisedly speculative economics and the aftereffects of the 11 September terrorist attacks plunged the world into a recession that has yet to wholly relinquish its grip on global financial markets, a number of milestones have been observed in the Performing Arts community, many of them grim reminders of the dire consequences of the necessary relationship between money and art. Venerated opera companies have ceased to perform, and Arts institutions of all descriptions have been forced into insolvency, victims of decimated public funding and private donors adversely affected by economic conditions. Amidst this upheaval and the disappointment and disillusionment that it spawned among Arts supporters, Washington Concert Opera performances have continued to serve as a beacon to opera companies large and small, signaling that opera in the Twenty-First Century may and perhaps even must be a business but that the genre is still foremost defined by music. In recent seasons, making music at the highest possible level has often seemed a secondary concern at best for some institutions, and there is no more admirable and heartening legacy in opera today than WCO’s well-deserved reputation for reliability. The thirtieth anniversary of WCO’s formation is a milestone worth celebrating in grandiose fashion, and this the company did with a gala concert in Lisner Auditorium on the evening of Sunday, 18 September. Enlisting a well-matched ensemble of established and emerging operatic luminaries—soprano Angela Meade, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, tenors Michele Angelini and Jonas Hacker, and baritone Javier Arrey—alongside WCO’s resident orchestra, the company’s thirty years of bringing excellent-quality opera to Washington-area audiences were fêted with conviction that also whetted the appetite for future performances, not least the current season​’s presentations of Jules Massenet’s Hérodiade with Michaela Martens, Joyce El-Khoury, and Michael Fabiano [20 November 2016] and Beethoven’s Leonore with Marjorie Owens, Simon O’Neill, Celena Shafer, and Alan Held [5 March 2017].

​Founded by conductor Stephen Crout and Arts administrator and advocate Peter Russell in 1986, Washington Concert Opera sprang to life in that year with a performance of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles that featured soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, tenor Jerry Hadley, and baritone Gaétan Laperrière. From that auspicious start until the end of his tenure with WCO in 2002, Crout presided over performances that furthered the company​’s mission of providing audiences in the nation’s capital opportunities to hear works seldom if ever performed in North America. A specialization in bel canto repertory that developed early in WCO’s history has been lovingly and thrillingly nurtured by current Artistic Director Antony Walker, leading to Washington Concert Opera often surging to the forefront of opera in the United States by presenting promising young American singers early in their careers, international singers in their American débuts, and celebrated singers in rôle débuts or in parts they may not sing elsewhere.

Marking his fifteenth season at the helm of Washington Concert Opera, Walker deserves the lion’s share of praise for the improvements in the performance standards of the WCO Chorus and Orchestra, the results of which were much in evidence in the orchestral playing on Sunday evening, passing moments of ragged ensemble and a few mistakes by the horns notwithstanding. Gala concerts are apt to be boisterous affairs, and there was no shortage of enthusiasm among the WCO performers. Nevertheless, Walker maintained control, guiding the concert with the good-natured charm of a ringmaster to the manner born. This is not to imply that a circus atmosphere prevailed, except in the sense that the singers engaged in high-flying vocal trapeze acts, high notes whizzing through Lisner Auditorium: with Walker on the podium, no safety nets were required, every individual on the stage, whatever her or his function, clearly relishing the environment of unwavering support that Walker’s leadership begets.

Few if any preludes in opera are more deservedly popular than the Overture from Gioachino Rossini’s La gazza ladra. With its crisp rhythms, quicksilver thematic shifts, and Rossini’s signature crescendi, the Overture was an ideal showcase for Walker’s dynamic style of conducting. Ever an animated presence, Walker spurred the WCO Orchestra to a performance of furious brilliance, the pompous march that follows the opening snare drum rolls sprung with compelling tautness. Phrases for woodwinds were caressed by the musicians, and Walker and the orchestra highlighted the contrast with the minor-key restatement of the primary subject. The Overture​’s zany conclusion took flight—literally so in Walker’s case!—and prepared the audience for the ensuing buffet of bel canto delicacies.

IN REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX singing Maffio Orsini's Brindisi from Gaetano Donizetti's LUCREZIA BORGIA in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]La bella donna è un giovane: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux singing Maffio Orsini’s Brindisi from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​A favorite of Washington audiences thanks in no small part to acclaimed WCO portrayals of Rossini’s Falliero in Bianca e Falliero, Angelina in La Cenerentola, and Arsace in Semiramide, the Alaska native Genaux launched the concert’s vocal selections by scoring a home run for the WCO team, knocking ‘Il segreto per esser felici,’ Maffio Orsini’s Brindisi from Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, out of the park. Even in the concert setting, Genaux was the temperamental young reveler to the life, recreating on the Lisner Auditorium stage the dagger’s-point characterization with which she enlivened Minnesota Opera’s 2004 production of Lucrezia Borgia. Her Italian diction scintillated, and her performance of the Brindisi, distinguished by fiorature of pinpoint accuracy, was a rousing summons to WCO’s party.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHELE ANGELINI singing 'Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête' from Gaetano Donizetti's LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Top C x 9: Tenor Michele Angelini singing Tonio’s ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ from Gaetano Donizetti’s La fille du régiment in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​Looking like a young Kennedy with Italian rather than Irish genes, Angelini unmistakably proved himself to be a true contender in the bout for dominance among today’s foremost tenori di grazia with an account of Tonio’s ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ from Act One of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment that radiated stylistic suavity. So spirited was his declaration of his love for Marie that one almost expected her—or any number of smitten ladies in the audience, for that matter—to rush into his arms. The ebullient cabaletta ‘Pour mon âme, quel destin’ should be party fare only for the adventurous tenor who is sure of his abilities and preparation, memories of a dismal failure being dreadfully difficult to expunge from listeners’ musical consciences. In this performance, Angelini’s singing lacked neither adventure nor preparation. Each of the eight written top Cs was struck like a perfectly-tuned cymbal, and the long-sustained interpolated ninth was projected with boyish glee. Only Lederhosen was missing from the tenor’s portrayal of the shy but ardent Tyrolean lad.

​If Genaux’s singing of the Lucrezia Borgia Brindisi was a home run, her traversal of the barnstorming bravura showpiece that ends Act One of Hector Berlioz’s edition of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme,’ was a grand slam. Appended to the score for Gluck’s tenor Orphée in the Paris version of the opera, then adapted to an Italian text for inclusion in the Vienna version for altos male or female, and finally reinstated with a different French text in Berlioz’s edition of the score for Pauline Viardot, the aria’s musical construction was long—and wrongly, musicologists now assert—attributed to Ferdinando Bertoni. Genaux is likely the only singer in the world today who is an acclaimed interpreter not only of both Gluck’s and Bertoni’s Orfeos but also of music written for and by Viardot. Loading the bases with volleys of the astonishing coloratura singing that is her trademark, surprisingly soft-grained accents amidst the fireworks, and evenness across the registers that bettered her own highest standards, she concluded her performance of ‘Amour, viens à mon âme’ with a superb cadenza that accomplished the near-impossible feat of combining tastefulness and virtuosity.

​François-Adrien Boiëldieu’s La dame blanche is now almost never performed, especially outside of France, and hearing Angelini sing Georges Brown’s cavatina ‘Viens, gentille dame’ provided resounding evidence both of why the score deserves to be resurrected more frequently and why it is not. The beauties of Boiëldieu’s music are many, but difficulties abound, too, not least in Georges’s stratospheric vocal lines. Ideally, Georges demands the legato of Tito Schipa, the bravura technique of Ugo Benelli, and the upper extension of Ivan Kozlovsky, and the French diction of Georges Thill—in short, Michel Sénéchal. It was Sénéchal that Angelini’s singing often recalled, the passagework handled cleanly and excursions above the stave comfortably integrated into melodic phrases. A pair of notes at the very top of the range were compromised by the effort required to produce them, but this was evidence of the singer’s commitment to holding nothing back. French bel canto and Italian bel canto are related but not identical species, but Angelini’s technique proved as winsome en français as in italiano.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ANGELA MEADE sings Marguerite's 'O beau pays de la Touraine' from Giacomo Meyerbeer's LES HUGUENOTS in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Regina di bel canto: Soprano Angela Meade singing Marguerite’s ‘O beau pays de la Touraine’ from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​Though it is more effective, musically and dramatically, in the context of the full opera than as a concert excerpt, Marguerite de Valois’s ‘O beau pays de la Touraine’ from Act Two of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots has long been a favorite concert and recital number for sopranos. As sung in Lisner Auditorium by native Washingtonian—the state, not the District—soprano Angela Meade, the aria and its effervescent cabaletta were unreservedly enjoyable. On the form that she exhibited throughout the concert, in fact, Meade might have sung the most insipid, banal pieces in the soprano repertory and convinced the audience that they were masterworks. The limpid tones that she devoted to Marguerite’s contemplation were spun like silk, and the solidity and intonational assurance of her upper register only occasionally faltered; and then only very slightly. Hearing Meade’s voice move through Meyerbeer’s music with such ease, it was impossible to banish the recollection that the sui generis Dame Joan Sutherland is virtually the only singer in recent memory to have completely conquered Marguerite’s music on a scale befitting Grand Opéra. Meade’s timbre is nothing like Sutherland’s, but there is something of the great Australian’s grandeur in Meade’s vocal deportment. There are also elements of the exhilarating fearlessness of Cristina Deutekom and Marisa Galvany in Meade’s singing. At her best, as she was on this evening, she inspires memories of the Mexican soprano Gilda Cruz-Romo, a Metropolitan Opera stalwart in Verdi and Puccini repertory whose fiery bel canto singing in rôles like Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena—rôles that are cornerstones of Meade’s repertory—is too little appreciated. The operatic world is ever sorely in need of a true soprano drammatico d’agilità, and Meade’s singing confirmed her status as today’s preeminent candidate for that distinction.

​Genaux and Angelini united their voices in a performance of the expansive duet for Elena and Giacomo from Act One of La donna del lago that would have delighted the consummate showman Rossini. Culminating in the daunting ‘Cielo! In qual estasi rapir mi sento d’inesprimibile,’ the duet is a fearsome test for both singers, the tessitura of the music written for Rossini’s wife and muse Isabella Colbran and their frequent collaborator, tenor Giovanni David, awkward for modern voices. There was no hint of awkwardness in Genaux’s and Angelini’s singing. Individually and in tandem, their ease in navigating fiorature—punishing even for Rossini—inducing awe. Genaux expressed Elena’s reticence with touching restraint, reluctant even to allow herself to listen to Giacomo’s heartfelt words. Sung as they were by Angelini, though, resistance was impossible.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHELE ANGELINI and mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX singing Giacomo's and Elena's duet from Act One of Gioachino Rossini's LA DONNA DEL LAGO in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Sulla riva del lago: Tenor Michele Angelini and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux singing Giacomo’s and Elena’s duet from Act One of Gioachino Rossini’s La donna del lago in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​A highlight of Washington Concert Opera’s past was the company’s 2001 performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Il pirata with Romanian-born diva Nelly Miricioiu as Imogene. Until presented by WCO and subsequently staged at The Metropolitan Opera with Renée Fleming in the 2002 – 2003 Season, Pirata’s legacy in the United States consisted almost solely of a single, still-zealously-discussed 1959 concert performance by American Opera Society in which Maria Callas sang Imogene. Closing the first half of WCO’s concert with Pirata’s extended mad scene for Imogene, Meade managed the aria’s cantilena with impressive legato, but it was her singing of the cabaletta ‘Oh, sole! ti vela di tenebre oscure’ that rightfully earned her the audience’s vociferous bravos. Conjuring Callas with her pointed delivery of the words ‘palco funesto,’ with the difference of Meade’s vitriol having been aimed at the fateful scaffold of Felice Romani’s text rather than the manager’s box, her top C at the scene’s end may have rung the bells of the distant National Cathedral.

​Beginning the concert’s second half with a nod to WCO’s first performance, Wisconsin-born tenor Jonas Hacker, a current scholar at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts and one of America’s most promising young singers, and Chilean baritone Javier Arrey, the talented Alphonse in WCO’s March 2016 performance of Donizetti’s La favorite, offered a handsome account of ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. For listeners in whose esteem the recording of the duet by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill remains the gold standard, Hacker’s and Arrey’s performance gave no reason for disappointment, the tenor’s fresh, youthful tone and bright, ringing upper register not unlike Björling’s. Arrey then offered a stirring reading of Riccardo’s scene from Act One of Bellini’s I puritani. The baritone’s technical prowess served him well in the red-blooded declamation of ‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei,’ and the polished-mahogany timbre of his voice shone in the aria’s long lines.

IN REVIEW: Baritone JAVIER ARREY singing Riccardo's 'Ah, per sempre io ti perdei' from Vincenzo Bellini's I PURITANI in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Uomo dei dolori: Baritone Javier Arrey singing Riccardo’s ‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei’ from Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​Meade also sampled I puritani, offering a beautifully-phrased journey through Elvira’s haunting Act Two mad scene. Her voicing of ‘O rendetemi la speme’ was impeccably poised, and she sang the sublime ‘Qui la voce sua soave mi chiamava’ mesmerizingly, her legato caressing Bellini’s melodies with an ardent lover’s hand. The essence of the text of effervescent cabaletta, ‘Vien, diletto, è in ciel la luna,’ was audible in Meade’s vocalism, her coloratura truly seeming to penetrate and scatter the clouds of madness like soft moonlight. She ascended to the traditional, interpolated top E♭ with a gossamer touch, musing rather than blaring, her movingly innocent Elvira seemingly untrusting of her own emotional stability. The breath control alone that Bellini’s music demands is impossible for many singers, but Meade sang the scene as though coached in it by the composer himself.

​Angelini returned to Rossini with Narciso’s delightful ‘Intesi, ah! tutto intesi’ from Act Two of Il turco in Italia, a clever choice that offered the tenor an opportunity to summarize the best of his artistry in six minutes of no-holds-barred bravura singing. Angelini seized the opportunity with abandon, and he gave the audience six of the finest minutes of an uncommonly enjoyable evening. Anyone pondering standing in the way of Narciso’s realization of his amorous goals would have done well to note the intensity with which Angelini intoned ‘vendetta.’ Tenors who sing Narciso would do well to take note of how Angelini sang the aria: from the baritonal lows to the stratospheric highs and in every run that bridged the interval, the voice never faltered. Moreover, his tones fuller and more rounded than those of many tenori di grazia, Angelini is the rare representative of his Fach who sounds like a bonafide leading man.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHELE ANGELINI and mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX singing Gennaro's and Orsini's duet from Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti's LUCREZIA BORGIA in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Boys will be boys: Tenor Michele Angelini and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux singing Gennaro’s and Orsini’s duet from Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​Calbo’s aria ‘Non temer: d’un basso affetto’ from Act Two of Rossini’s Maometto secondo—or Neocle’s aria from Act Three of L’assedio di Corinto—was detonated by Genaux like a landmine, carefully-controlled volleys of notes fired into every corner of the auditorium. Capital-region audiences were treated to Genaux’s powerhouse singing of this music in Baltimore Opera’s 2006 production of L’assedio di Corinto, but her WCO performance was, remarkably, more responsive to the nuances of the text despite the concert setting. A decade after her Baltimore performance, Genaux’s voice is richer, with a broad palette of colors that evince dramatic expression in the most fiendish bravura passages, and she retains her singular gift for articulating each individual note in roulades as composers like Rossini surely intended. Her descending chromatic scales were simply incredible: Callas, the foremost mistress of chromatic scales, would have approved. The cabaletta ‘E d’un trono alla speranza’ was as much acted as sung. Limning Calbo’s conflicted feelings with each return of the words ‘basso affetto,’ Genaux’s ornaments twinkled as brilliantly as her bejeweled jacket. The performance epitomized the qualities that make Genaux a genuinely one-of-a-kind Rossini singer: every note of the music was in place as few singers can manage, and the character sprang to life in a way that even fewer artists can achieve in music of such technical difficulty.

​Prefacing the concert’s dramatic conclusion with Orsini’s and Gennaro’s duet from Act Two of Lucrezia Borgia, ‘Onde a lei ti mostri grato ella ha finto di salvarti,’ Genaux and Angelini again partnered one another with unforced charisma, Orsini’s goading as convincing as Gennaro’s misgivings. One of the marvels of Washington Concert Opera performances is the miracles of ensemble singing that are often achieved with limited rehearsal schedules, and this was especially true of Genaux’s and Angelini’s singing in the Lucrezia Borgia duet. Their dramatic timing and responsiveness to one another were extraordinary, better than in many staged performances, and they blended their very different timbres with consummate rapport. Theirs was a performance to convert any non-believers who think that opera—and especially a nearly-two-centuries-old duet for two male characters with no post-Freudian romantic subtext—cannot be sexy.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ANGELA MEADE receives the audience's adulation during Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Brava, diva: Soprano Angela Meade receiving the audience’s adulation during Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​The decision to end the concert with the finale from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia looked back to 1989, when Nelly Miricioiu made her WCO début as the infamous daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Angelini was Gennaro to Meade’s Lucrezia in the 2014 Bel Canto at Caramoor Lucrezia Borgia, and the chemistry of that performance was rekindled in Washington. Eschewing ‘Era desso il figlio mio,’ the cabaletta for Lucrezia that Donizetti added after the opera’s première, Meade and Angelini performed Donizetti’s 1840 finale nuovo, with the tenor singing the cantilena ‘Madre, se ognor lontano vissi al materno seno’ gorgeously and wielding a terrific trill. His Gennaro went about the business of dying without gasping and sobbing, expiring with interminable musicality. It was a pity that Donizetti and his librettist did not give Gennaro a stronger grasp as Meade’s Lucrezia tossed a plethora of monumental, firmly-anchored tones to him. Beguilingly naïve in Huguenots, incendiary in Pirata, and unsettlingly bittersweet in Puritani, Meade swelled her golden lungs with the air of tragedy in Lucrezia Borgia. Lighter voices—Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Edita Gruberová, Mariella Devia—have sung (and, in the cases of the last pair of these, continue to sing) Lucrezia effectively, but Meade possesses the vocal amplitude that is ideally suited to the music and the character. Her chest register, never pushed or guttural, thundered with power that would have earned Dolora Zajick’s applause, but, vitally, the snarls were Donizetti’s and Lucrezia’s, not Angela Meade’s. If human hearts responded to the electricity of notes, the mighty top D with which Meade crowned the scene might have defibrillated the poisoned Gennaro, Orsini, and their comrades back to life. The energy discharged in Lisner Auditorium was staggering.

​Birthdays can be troublesome affairs. One notes the passing of the years and detects in the mirror’s brutal honesty creasing and sagging in the most inconvenient of places. Birthdays are also celebrations of having seen and done, suffered and survived, failed and carried on, and the wrinkles and rolls remind us of having laughed at our own foibles and shared feasts with beloved family and friends. For those in the metropolitan Washington Arts community, whether as practitioners or patrons, Washington Concert Opera performances have for the past three decades been cherished friends. WCO’s thirtieth birthday was an occasion truly worthy of celebration, and the concert that invigorated the extended WCO family in Lisner Auditorium on Sunday evening commemorated thirty seasons of great performances with an unforgettable evening of world-class singing. Bring on the next thirty years!

IN REVIEW: Washington Concert Opera 30th Anniversary Concert celebrants - from left to right, tenor JONAS HACKER, baritone JAVIER ARREY, tenor MICHELE ANGELINI, mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX, and soprano ANGELA MEADE [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Quintet of quality: (from left to right) Tenor Jonas Hacker, baritone Javier Arrey, tenor Michele Angelini, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, and soprano Angela Meade during ovations for Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

18 September 2016

CD REVIEW: Jules Massenet — MANON (A. Massis, A. Liberatore, P. Doyen, R. Joakim, P. Tchuradze, P. Delcour, S. Pastrana, A. Yerna, S. Conzen; Dynamic CDS 7751/2)

IN REVIEW: Jules Massenet - MANON (Dynamic 7751/2)JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912): ManonAnnick Massis (Manon), Alessandro Liberatore (Le chevalier des Grieux), Pierre Doyen (Lescaut), Roger Joakim (Le comte des Grieux), Papuna Tchuradze (Guillot de Morfontaine), Patrick Delcour (De Brétigny), Sandra Pastrana (Poussette), Alexise Yerna (Rosette), Sabine Conzen (Javotte); Chœur et Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie – Liège; Patrick Davin, conductor [Recorded during live performances at l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, Belgique, in October 2014; Dynamic CDS 7751/2; 2 CDs, 151:49 (also available on DVD – Dynamic 37751); Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]

When Abbé Antoine François Prévost’s controversial novella L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut was first published in 1731, it is doubtful that its author, no matter how cognizant he was of the quality of his work, could have imagined the lasting influence that the seventh and final installment in his Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité would exert on literature and art in general for generations to come. Educated by Jesuits and eventually accepted as a postulant by Benedictines, Prévost was as unconventional a man of the cloth as he was a man of letters. The morals of his Manon Leacaut and Chevalier des Grieux are decidedly more pragmatic than traditionally Christian, but there is at the heart of Prévost’s tale of the troubled lovers a grim explication of the repercussions of envy, greed, and recklessness. Presumptuous though it may be, it is not difficult to see in the Abbé des Grieux of the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice an autobiographical portrait of the Abbé Prévost glumly going through the motions of his Benedictine duties. Whether or not the author identified with his creations on a profoundly personal level, the vibrancy with which the characters in L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut are drawn is unquestionably a principal reason for the work’s appeal to later generations of artists. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, Jean-Louis Aumer’s 1830 ballet and Daniel Auber’s 1856 opéra comique, both entitled Manon Lescaut, had firmly established Prévost’s Manon and Des Grieux as enduring presences in European art; presences that would continue to expand in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries on canvas, on film, and via musical settings including Hans Werner Henze’s 1952 Lyrisches Drama Boulevard Solitude.

Premièred at Paris’s famed Opéra-Comique on 19 January 1884, Jules Massenet’s Manon is both its composer’s best-known opera and, alongside Giacomo Puccini’s breakthrough 1893 Manon Lescaut, one of the two most enduring operatic adaptations of Abbé Prévost’s novel. Performed a thousand times at the Opéra-Comique in the quarter-century after its first outing there, Manon was immediately recognized in and beyond France as the pinnacle of Massenet’s writing for the stage. A decade later, Massenet revisited the milieux of Prévost’s protagonists in Le portrait of Manon, an opéra-comique in one act in which the aged Des Grieux ultimately sanctions his nephew’s marriage to a young woman upon learning that she is Manon’s niece, but it was his Manon that both solidified Prévost’s legacy and secured his own position among the revered composers of opera. Now, 134 years after the opera’s first performance, Manon’s fortunes often seem imperiled by the decline of the legitimate French school of singing. At New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where Manon received its company première on 16 January 1895, with the ideal cast of Massenet’s beloved Sibyl Sanderson as Manon, Jean de Reszke as Des Grieux, and Pol Plançon as Comte des Grieux, the opera has been presented 272 times between its first hearing and 28 March 2015, the date of its most recent performance at the MET, whereas Gounod’s Faust and Bizet’s Carmen have been performed 752 and 1,001 times since their respective MET premières in 1883 and 1884. In recent seasons, singers of the caliber of Natalie Dessay and Diana Damrau have argued Manon’s case in opera houses throughout the world, but not even their best efforts have fully restored the Gallic sparkle that shone on archaic recordings of the opera featuring Fanny Heldy and Germaine Féraldy. Sparkle is what the heroine of this new Dynamic recording offers bountifully, giving listeners a rare Manon with a portrayal of Prévost’s and Massenet’s complex title character that can be appreciated without serious reservation.

Recorded during 2014 performances at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, also taped and released on DVD by Dynamic, this recording documents a production by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera that updated the opera’s action from Prévost’s time to that of a more modern, Louis Malle-esque France. On these discs, the only aural evidence of the production’s revised setting is the revving of the getaway vehicle’s engine as Des Grieux is abducted at the end of Act Two. Hardly what Massenet imagined for the scene more than a century ago, it is very effective on disc, the motor’s growling leaving no doubt that Des Grieux has been spirited away. Under the baton of conductor Patrick Davin, the Liège choral and orchestral forces give performances that are alternately sinewy and sumptuous as the score requires. The choral singing is impressive throughout the performance, especially in the Cours-la-Reine scene in Act Three, and, if not unfailingly first-rate, the orchestral playing is polished and often beautiful. The wit of Massenet’s orchestrations benefits from Davin’s handling of the score, which is confident despite tempi that occasionally hinder the momentum of scenes, not least in the opening minutes of Act One. In both the large-scaled public scenes and the moments of greatest intimacy between Manon and Des Grieux, however, Davin displays masterful control over the musical forces under his command, reveling in the contrasting grandeur and introspection. Utilizing the edition of the score with sung recitatives published by Heugel and Company, Davin maintains admirable continuity even when the energy of the performance intermittently wanes, enabling the cast to delve deeply into the nuances of Massenet’s music and Henri Meilhac’s and Philippe Gille’s libretto.

As Guillot de Morfontaine and De Brétigny, tenor Papuna Tchuradze and baritone Patrick Delcour sing excellently, bringing their characters to life with secure, vibrant tone and animated, intelligent use of text. The callous, opportunistic aspects of both men are revealed without either of them wholly descending into base villainy: Tchuradze’s and Delcour’s expertly-judged performances provide the antagonism required by the drama but spare the listener melodramatic excesses and ugly sounds. The trio of Spanish soprano Sandra Pastrana, Belgian mezzo-soprano Alexise Yerna, and Belgian soprano Sabine Conzen make Poussette, Rosette, and Javotte far more than the twittering ciphers that they are in many performances of Manon. Skillfully and mellifluously blending their voices, the ladies sing delightfully, creating distinctive vignettes that cast the ladies individually and collectively as effective foils for Manon. Pastrana’s and Conzen’s upper registers glisten, and Yerna’s tones are secure throughout the range of Rosette’s music. Poor singing in any of the opera’s supporting rôles is disfiguring though rarely altogether ruinous, but an ensemble of voices as capable as these markedly enriches this Manon.

The Comte des Grieux of baritone Roger Joakim is a commanding figure in the drama as an aptly authoritarian father for Des Grieux. Singing robustly throughout the performance, he gives a moving account of ‘Épouse quelque brave fille’ in the second tableau of Act Three, pleading with his son to put perpetuating the family name ahead of his newfound religious convictions. In Act Four, Joakim voices ‘Oui, je viens t’arracher à la honte qui chaque jour grandit sur toi’ powerfully. His refusal to aid Manon is harsh, but there is great warmth in Joakim’s Comte’s interactions with his son. As Manon’s cousin Lescaut, baritone Pierre Doyen complements Joakim’s strengths, singing handsomely and declaiming the text with burly clarity. His voice rings out impressively in ‘C’est bon! Je perdrais la mémoire quand il s’agit de boire!’ in Act One, and he chides Manon gently but potently in ‘Ne bronchez pas, soyez gentille.’ In solo lines and ensembles, Doyen’s singing is always noticed, and he plays his part in the opera’s plot with avidity. Lescaut’s ‘Frappez, je donnerais ma vie’ in Act Five is delivered with telling vehemence. As Lescaut’s realization that attempting to free Manon from imprisonment by force is futile turns to desperation and despair, Doyen’s tones become more rather than less focused, lending the actuality of Manon’s sentence added sting. Both Joakim’s and Doyen’s performances recall another Belgian singer with a significant relationship with Manon, José van Dam.

Italian tenor Alessandro Liberatore made his rôle début as the idealistic Chevalier des Grieux in this production, and it was an auspicious beginning for a characterization that, as recorded, already makes all of the points requested by Massenet. Liberatore’s vowel placement and basic timbre, especially above the stave, are often reminiscent of Roberto Alagna at his best, and the Italianate ardor of his singing—a quality that need not be excluded from performances of French repertory—compensates for occasional coarseness, uncertain intonation, and conspicuous effort. Des Grieux is a high part in terms of tessitura, but Liberatore copes encouragingly, the upper register projected firmly if not always smoothly. It is apparent that the tenor is a shrewd, capable musician, and the character he creates is therefore all the more believable. From des Grieux’s first sighting of Manon in Act One to the opera’s final scene, Liberatore sings captivatingly, never allowing the listener to forget that, once seen, Manon never leaves des Grieux’s heart. This is palpably expressed in Liberatore’s ardent voicing of ‘Enchanteresse! Manon, vous êtes la maîtresse de mon cœur’ in Act One: so zealously does Liberatore utter des Grieux’s words that his infatuation with the bewitching girl before him overtakes the listener. Joining his voice with Manon’s, this des Grieux sings ‘Nous vivrons à Paris tous les deux’ with a sense of purpose that makes his love at first sight seem inevitable.

The first of Des Grieux’s well-known arias, Act Two’s ‘En fermant les yeux, je vois là-bas une humble retraite,’ is phrased artfully, Liberatore’s vocalism just strenuous enough to remind the hearer of the incredible difficulty of the music. Battling uselessly in the second tableau of Act Three to rid himself of the memories of Manon that haunt him in the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in which he has sought refuge in holy orders, he sings ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image à mon âme trop chère’ with bitter self-recrimination and blazing intensity. The change in the voice as Des Grieux sings ‘Non, j’avais écrit sur la sable ce rêve insensé d’un amour’ could not be greater: the fire is not extinguished but refined, the fervor channeled into a stream of molten silver that flows through Massenet’s sensual melodies. The conflagration grows hotter still with Liberatore’s singing of ‘Manon, Manon sphinx étonnant, véritable sirène!’ in Act Four, his burnished timbre conveying the depths of Des Grieux’s emotions. In this performance, the tragedy in the opera’s final act is devastating largely because of the spontaneity of Liberatore’s singing and the immediacy of his reactions to his Manon: rather than seeming like a well-rehearsed tenor singing his part correctly, he sounds like an anguished young man whose one true love is dying in his arms. His pained articulation of ‘Manon! pauvre Manon! Je te vois enchaînée avec ces misérables,’ the words too hurtful to him to be uttered, is at once both wrenching and alluring. There is no question that Manon is the fulcrum upon which Massenet’s drama balances, but Liberatore provides this Manon with a Des Grieux of equal grace and gravity.

Shamefully underrepresented on disc, French soprano Annick Massis is here a Manon of exceptional charisma and absolute, almost insouciant comfort with the music—music of a degree of difficulty that prompted another memorable Manon, Beverly Sills, to refer to the rôle as ‘the French Isolde.’ There is little Wagner in Manon, and at her most tempestuous Massenet’s heroine faces nothing like the orchestra avalanches that Isolde must withstand. In stamina, in managing the dispensation of her vocal resources in arduous music, and in preserving the purity of the upper register without exhausting the octave-and-a-half below, though, a Manon faces ordeals that are not unlike those that an Isolde must conquer. That Massis surmounts these challenges can be plainly heard on these discs, but the technical assurance and dramatic acuity with which she sings the rôle will surprise even her staunchest admirers. Not since the young Mirella Freni sang the part in Italian at La Scala in 1969 has a soprano of international stature so unaffectedly conveyed both sound and demeanor utterly right for a young woman en route au couvent.

When Massis finesses the melodic line of ‘Je suis encor tout étourdie’ in Act One, it is impossible to doubt her innocence, and the wide-eyed wonder with which she shapes ‘Par aventure, peut-être avons-nous mieux une voiture la chaise d’un Seigneur’ is nothing short of perfect for the sentiment conjured by the words. Like Liberatore, Massis imparts a suggestion of destiny fulfilled in Manon’s first scene with Des Grieux, and soprano unites with tenor in a rapturous but engagingly personal account of ‘Nous vivrons à Paris tous les deux!’ As Massis voices ‘On l’appelle Manon, elle eut hier seize ans’ in Act Two, there is a momentary notion of the Violetta of Act Two of Verdi’s La traviata having melded with the Cio-Cio San of Act One of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the fragile girl finding herself in a world for which she was not prepared and which she does not fully understand. In Massis’s performance, Manon’s ‘Adieu, notre petite table, qui, nous réunit si souvent!’ is not a melancholic farewell to a sort of adolescent ‘playing house’ but an acceptance of the unalterable farce in which she has cast herself and the necessity of playing her part in it.

This element of fatalism is manifested again in Act Three, in which the carefree façade that Massis’s Manon fabricates never hides the character’s vexation and vulnerability. The easy, spot-on top D with which she concludes ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’ in the Cours-la-Reine tableau is but one of the attractions of her performance of the number: still more appealing are the lilting girlishness of her delivery and her unassailable intonation, the latter quality proving commendably consistent throughout the opera. The famous Gavotte, ‘Obéissons quand leur voix appelle,’ is sung with a proficiency not surprising in an acclaimed Lucia di Lammermoor: on recordings, only Bidú Sayão and Victoria de los Ángeles rival Massis’s performance of the Gavotte, and the French soprano’s voice is more evenly-produced in the lower octave than Sayão’s and sturdier and steadier at the top of the range than de los Ángeles’s. In the Act Three tableau set in the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice, Massis’s statement of ‘Oui! Je fis cruelle et coupable!’ is crippling: what response is there to such a plea other than absolution? Her repetitions of ‘Je t’aime!’ are inflected with shifting attitudes, tentative and almost frightened at first but growing ever bolder.

Massis evinces an evolving determination in Act Four that stops just short of ferocity. She has acted foolishly but is no man’s fool, and there is a core of steel beneath the satin of her singing of ‘Notre opulence est envolée.’ The unforced expressivity with which she molds ‘Mon être tout entier, ma vie, et mon amour!’ and ‘Ce bruit de l’or ce rire et ses éclats joyeux!’ is enlightening, each note and word weighted precisely as the music dictates. Literally and figuratively, the landscapes of Act Five are vastly different from all that came before, the revelries of earlier scenes crushed by the fruits of humanity’s darkest impulses. In such a setting, Massis’s voicing of ‘Seul amour de mon âme!’ is a ray of pure light, her pristine sound distilled to an essence of emoting through song. The text motivates the flickering heat of the soprano’s articulation of ‘Ah! je sens une pure flamme m’éclairer de ses feux,’ and the directness with which she sings Manon’s last words, ‘Et c’est là l’histoire de Manon Lescaut,’ is heartbreaking. Admittedly, Massenet’s and his librettists’ ending can be slightly silly when performed indifferently, but for Massis, and because of her stunningly complete vocal and dramatic embodiment of the rôle, this performance truly is the simply-told story of Manon Lescaut.

As noted an interpreter of French repertory as British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham is cited as having remarked that he would have willing sacrificed all six of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti in order to have the score of Massenet’s Manon. Beecham of course had the luxury of living during the last stand of French opera in the magnificent tradition of the Nineteenth Century, a final burst of Gallic esprit for which he was responsible in part. Were he hearing today’s performances of the opera that he so loved (and today’s period-appropriate renderings of the Brandenburgs), would he still feel compelled to readily discard Bach’s works in favor of Massenet’s? Beecham also had the luxury of insightfulness: he could discern in the pages of Massenet’s score the splendors that have too often been obscured in performances of Manon in the past three decades. It is imperfect, as any human effort is doomed to be, but this Opéra Royal de Wallonie Manon is far closer to the kind of performance that Beecham might have imagined. With as distinguished a Manon as has appeared on disc in a generation and an earnest, impassioned Des Grieux who loves her, it is difficult to imagine Prévost, Massenet, Beecham, or any listener who hears this recording failing to love her, too.

IN REVIEW: Tenor ALESSANDRO LIBERATORE as Chevalier des Grieux and soprano ANNICK MASSIS as Manon Lescaut in Opéra Royal de Wallonie's 2014 production of Jules Massenet's MANON, recorded for release on CD and DVD by Dynamic [Photo © 2014 by Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège]Les amants malheureuses: Tenor Alessandro Liberatore as Chevalier des Grieux and soprano Annick Massis as Manon Lescaut in Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s 2014 production of Jules Massenet’s Manon
[Photo © 2014 by Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège]

10 September 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | September 2016: Ange Flégier — MÉLODIES POUR VOIX BASSE ET PIANO (Jared Schwartz, bass; Mary Dibbern, piano; Toccata Classics TOCC 0306)

IN REVIEW: Ange Flégier - MÉLODIES POUR VOIX BASSE ET PIANO (Toccata Classics TOCC 0306)ANGE FLÉGIER (1846 – 1927): Mélodies pour voix basse et pianoJared Schwartz, bass; Mary Dibbern, piano; Thomas Demer, viola (‘Apaisement’) [Recorded in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral, Dallas, Texas, USA, 27 – 28 April 2016; Toccata Classics TOCC 0306; 1 CD, 64:31; Available from Toccata Classics, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers; includes WORLD PREMIÈRE and MODERN PREMIÈRE RECORDINGS]

For the dedicated angler, among the greatest anxieties of time spent by, on, or in the water is the gnawing ignorance of what bounties were just beyond his grasp—the ones that got away. For the dedicated musician, too, there are always questions about the boundaries of his repertory. There are not neglected masterpieces in every music library and archive, shrugging their shoulders and wondering why they are incapable of lifting themselves out of the shadows, but there are untold numbers of works still waiting to be discovered by artists with the particular gifts needed to disclose their finest qualities to observers whose skepticism is a natural-born offspring of unfamiliarity. Recorded with mostly natural ambiance in the bright acoustic of Dallas’s Cathedral Church of Saint Matthew, this Toccata Classics disc unites superb-quality Mélodies for bass voice by little-remembered French composer Ange Flégier with American bass Jared Schwartz, a young Indianan whose singing on this disc is characterized by the qualities for which the music begs: clarity of mind, tone, and language. Not a newcomer to recording despite his youth, Schwartz nonetheless infuses this disc with an engrossing freshness that reveals far more than a thoughtfully-attained acquaintance with overlooked repertory. It is apparent in his singing here that, for Schwartz, music is not a casual paramour with whom he flirts but an adored mistress whose integrity he passionately upholds and increases. He and music are devoted lovers, in other words, and these accounts of Flégier’s Mélodies are their sweet kisses.

Born into a working-class family in Marseille in 1846, Flégier was in some ways an unlikely candidate for a position of importance in France’s often fiercely competitive musical establishment. Following a period of study at the Conservatoire de Marseille, the young musician left his native city and in 1866 enrolled at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris, where he encountered a number of the luminaries of French music of his time, including Hector Berlioz, Ambroise Thomas, and Daniel François Esprit Auber. Flégier’s music failed to take top prizes in the exalted competitions of the day, but it is worth noting that the names of the composers-in-training whose scores were victorious in the years in which Flégier’s compositions were their competitors are no more familiar to modern eyes than Flégier’s. Unless his dedications of his published works were exercises in well-aimed sycophancy, the Marseillais counted among his friends as discriminating a colleague as Jules Massenet, and neither the lack of historical documentation of extensive details of his youthful precocity nor the paucity of his works before the Twenty-First-Century public detracts from the undeniable quality of the Mélodies on this disc. Without question, these Mélodies reveal that Flégier was a tunesmith whose creations warrant comparison with the Lieder of Franz Schubert, Hugo Wolf, and Richard Strauss.

Accompanied by pianist Mary Dibbern with abundant sensitivity and the complementary firm rhythmic core and interpretive flexibility that are at the heart of the music, Schwartz sings ‘Le Cor,’ a setting of a text by Alfred de Vigny and perhaps the most widely known of Flégier’s Mélodies, with focus that reveals the emotional nuances of the song without exaggerating them. No less insightfully communicative is his performance of Flégier’s treatment of de Vigny’s words in ‘La Neige,’ the distinctive sounds of French vowels used to highlight the intelligence with which the composer translated the poet’s sentiments into musical language. The young bass does not allow the similarities between ‘La Poésie,’ an adaptation of verses by Édouard Pailleron, and Adolphe Adam’s familiar ‘Cantique de Noël’ to distract him from the originality of Flégier’s writing. Schwartz’s cognac-hued timbre, reminiscent of the voices of great French-speaking singers of prior generations like Heinz Rehfuss and René Bianco, flows through the music intoxicatingly, consonants lightly but effectively voiced.

The depths of expression reached in Flégier’s handling of Jean Richepin’s text in ‘Au crépuscule’ are reflected in the expansiveness of the accompaniment, and Dibbern provides Schwartz with a profoundly eloquent palette upon which to mix the colors of the vocal line. The interaction between singer and pianist is a model of the art that conceals art, their collaboration having been refined to the point of seeming as much biological as artistic without sounding in any way artificial or studio-bound. ‘À la dérive,’ another Richepin setting, was esteemed highly enough in the Nineteenth Century to be included alongside songs by Gounod, Massenet, and Verdi in a volume entitled Classical Vocal Gems by the Best Modern Composers, published in Boston in 1892. As performed on this disc by Schwartz and Dibbern, the song’s appeal is immediately apparent. In Flégier’s exquisitely melancholic response to Richepin’s ‘Les Larmes,’ too, the bass’s voice drapes over the polished-marble pillars of Dibbern’s playing like rustic silk, the occasional blemish in the vocal fabric revealing not ruinous imperfection but heartening humanity. Unlike so many young singers, Schwartz has the good sense and the musicality to transform very minor lapses in intonation into fleeting moments of vulnerability that suit the lush textures of the music.

The starkly descriptive text of ‘L’Homme et la Mer’ is drawn from Charles Baudelaire's seminal Les Fleurs du mal, one of the most influential collections of poetry published in the Nineteenth Century in any language, and the superb lyrical quality of Flégier’s setting is a testament not only to his skill as a composer but also to his acute perceptiveness as an interpreter of words. Schwartz and Dibbern heighten appreciation of the quality of Flégier’s music by exploring every recess of angst and ambiguity without overextending the dimensions of the music. The pair of Mélodies constructed from texts by René de Saint-Prest, ‘Le Manoir’ and ‘Ma coupe,’ occupy very different emotional landscapes, but the consistency of Dibbern’s playing, her phrasing always expertly matched to Flégier’s masterful mirroring of the flow of the text, aids Schwartz in limning the Mélodies’ differences solely by singing the music as written. The notes on the page serve singer and pianist well in the Armand Silvestre setting ‘Chant d’automne,’ as well, and they in turn craft a performance that is a splendid service to both composer and poet.

‘Apaisement’ is unique among the Mélodies recorded here in pairing the vocal line with an obbligato part for viola, delivered in this performance with warm tone and elasticity of line by Thomas Demer. The way in which Schwartz and Demer blend their sounds brings to mind the inner movements of Bach’s D-minor Concerto for two violins (BWV 1043) and Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra (K. 364/320d), their euphonious give and take enhancing the piquancy of Paul Verlaine’s words. Verlaine’s text again makes a strong impression in Schwartz’s singing of ‘Je ne sais pourquoi,’ the easy solidity of tone making the elegance of Flégier’s marriage of music with text all the more apparent. The most unusual of these Mélodies proves to be one of the most profoundly enjoyable: employing an excerpt from the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, ‘O salutaris’ is the kind of song that reaffirms that the simplest modes of musical expression are sometimes the most metaphysically complex. With their performance of the piece, Schwartz and Dibbern reaffirm that the same can be said of singing. ‘Less is more’ is a cute cliché, but in music it is too often cited as a justification for performances that are marred by musicians whose resources are not equal to the demands of the music. This is a concern that never materializes in the context of this disc. Schwartz and Dibbern lack nothing that Flégier requires of them, and in their ideally-scaled, richly imaginative performances of these thirteen Mélodies they give neither more nor less than the music needs.

Every musical institutional whether educational or professional should demand and ensure that its constituents of all ages and levels of ability fully comprehend that impeccable vocalism is a component of but neither on its own constitutes nor is synonymous with good singing. Exasperatingly, great voices sometimes inhabit the bodies of idlers and idiots. Sometimes, too, remarkable techniques counterbalance and conceal the flaws in decidedly imperfect voices. For singers as much as for politicians, though, Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom is abundantly true: one might manage to fool some people all of the time and all people some of the time, it is impossible even now to deceive everyone all of the time. In his tenure at the Opéra de Paris, Ange Flégier likely learned this through observation, and perhaps this experience prompted him to compose Mélodies that offer performers nowhere to hide, vocally or artistically. In this age in which it sometimes seems that young singers are trained to think identically and to look and sound as impersonally interchangeable as possible, encountering a disc like this one and a developing artist like Jared Schwartz is an unexpected delight. How strange it seems that an intuitive young bass singing little-known but fascinating music beautifully and idiomatically might be interpreted as consciously ​daring to be different.

08 September 2016

IN MEMORIAM: South African tenor JOHAN BOTHA, 1965 - 2016

IN MEMORIAM: South African tenor JOHAN BOTHA (1965 - 2016), photographed in the title rôle of Giuseppe Verdi's DON CARLO at The Metropolitan Opera in 2006 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]JOHAN BOTHA
19 August 1965 – 8 September 2016

When Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg received its first production in the United States during The Metropolitan Opera’s 1886 – 1887 Season, it was written in the pages of The New York Times that the Walther von Stolzing of German tenor Albert Stritt ‘was picturesque and broadly handled, and he treated the music with artistic judgment and richness of vocal expression’ and that ‘he sang his prize song with great vigor and awoke the enthusiasm of the audience.’ One of the foremost lessons that can be gleaned from the performance history of Die Meistersinger is that vocal beauty and stamina, qualities that a wholly successful Walther must possess, rarely inhabit the same bodies. Walthers with voices of lyrical beauty are sometimes swept away by Wagner’s orchestral deluges, and more stentorian singers are apt to make Walther’s impassioned Preislied a martial salute to Walhalla rather than a paean to burgeoning love. In the 416 performances of Die Meistersinger heard at the MET since 1886, Walther’s demanding music was sung on seventeen memorable occasions by Johan Botha, one of the few tenors heard since the ends of the eras of Leo Slezak, Max Lorenz, Set Svanholm, Sándor Kónya, Jess Thomas, and James King for whom Walther was natural, comfortable vocal territory. A man with an imposing physique, Botha brought straightforward dramatic sincerity to his characterizations, portraying the men he became on stage as their creators envisioned them. Though his carefully-wrought and fastidiously-maintained technique enabled him to effortlessly project his voice to the most distant seats in large opera houses, the attribute of his voice that was most arresting was its sweetness. Botha finessed music that other singers force, and his passing at the age of fifty-one, another artist felled by the monstrous effects of cancer, is a tremendous loss both to those who knew him and to those who appreciate the art of song. He is survived by his wife and sons.

A native of South Africa, Botha débuted at The Metropolitan Opera as Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in 1997, only eight years after his professional début as Max in Weber’s Der Freischütz in his homeland. It was his interpretation of the caddish Lieutenant Pinkerton in Opéra Bastille’s 1993 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that heralded Botha’s arrival in the international opera community. Two years later, Botha was a delightfully fresh-voiced Rodolfo in Covent Garden’s revival of Puccini’s La bohème. He went on to sing several of his finest rôles at the Royal Opera House, garnering praise from British audiences and critics for his performances as Cavaradossi and Calàf in Puccini’s Tosca and Turandot, the Kaiser and Apollo in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and Daphne, Radamès in Verdi’s Aida, and Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. His repertory at the Wiener Staatsoper, by which company he was awarded the coveted distinction of Kammersänger, included these parts in addition to the title rôles in Wagner’s Parsifal, Verdi’s Don Carlos and Otello, and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier; Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio; Arrigo in Verdi’s I vespri siciliani; Erik and Siegmund in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Die Walküre; Ein Sänger, Bacchus, and Stimme eines Jünglings in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten; and Turiddu and Canio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

Many of the rôles that featured prominently in Botha’s international career also endeared him to American audiences. The San Francisco Examiner’s critic observed that Botha’s 2009 interpretation of Verdi’s Otello, his début rôle with San Francisco Opera, was ‘majestic and towering, yet believable, invoking sympathy,’ and esteemed critic John von Rhein, reviewing Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2015 production of Wagner’s opera, wrote that ‘Botha is today’s definitive Tannhäuser, and he has the vocal heft, lung power and stamina to make it through to the end of a very long opera without a hint of strain.’ In addition to Canio and Walther, his eighty-one performances at the MET also included portrayals of Beethoven’s Florestan, Verdi’s Don Carlo, Radamès, and Otello, Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Siegmund, and Puccini’s Calàf.

Botha was a sterling example of an artist for whom an expansive girth was an aspect of rather than a hindrance to his stage presence. He was sometimes criticized for being a ‘stand and deliver’ singer, but how he delivered! His MET broadcasts document a legacy of fine, involved singing—a legacy not always advanced by his colleagues in those MET performances. There could be no better memento of Botha’s work as a Wagnerian than his account of the title rôle in the Profil recording of Lohengrin conducted by Semyon Bychkov. On disc, only Peter Anders truly rivals Botha as a Lohengrin whose timbre alone qualifies him for the title of Schwanritter. It was a timbre that should have gone on entrancing listeners for years to come.

IN MEMORIAM: Tenor JOHAN BOTHA (1965 - 2016) as Siegmund in Richard Wagner's DIE WALKÜRE at The Metropolitan Opera in 2009 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Der Mann mit dem Schwert: South African tenor Johan Botha (1965 – 2016) as Siegmund in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera in 2009
[Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]