15 January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 January 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2017: Alban Berg — WOZZECK (R. Trekel, A. Schwanewilms, M. Molomot, N. Berg, G. Gietz, R. McPherson, K. Ciesinski, C. Griffin, S. Schultz, B. Ryan; NAXOS 8.660390-91)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2017: Alban Berg - WOZZECK (NAXOS 8.660390-91)ALBAN BERG (1885 – 1935): Wozzeck, Opus 7Roman Trekel (Wozzeck), Anne Schwanewilms (Marie), Marc Molomot (Hauptmann), Nathan Berg (Doktor), Gordon Gietz (Tambourmajor), Robert McPherson (Andres), Katherine Ciesinski (Margret), Calvin Griffin (Erster Handwerksbursche), Samuel Schultz (Zweiter Handwerksbursche), Brenton Ryan (Der Narr); Members of Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus, Deutsche Samstagsschule Houston, Chorus of Students and Alumni of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music; Houston Symphony Orchestra; Hans Graf, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 1 – 2 March 2013; NAXOS 8.660390-91; 2 CDs, 97:52; Available from NaxosDirect, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It is now difficult to believe that Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Händel’s Tamerlano, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s La forza del destino, virtually all of Wagner’s mature operas, Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, and Britten’s Peter Grimes were considered radical when they were first performed. The history of opera is shaped by innovations, advancements in compositional techniques enacted upon the stage in efforts conscious and unconscious to propel musical invention. Each generation’s operatic revolutions provide the foundations for subsequent generations’ efforts at progress. In the decades since the course of Western music as a whole was altered by cataclysmic World Wars, the question with which opera companies, record labels, and opera lovers have contended is whether new scores have taken opera in directions that are artistically and fiscally sustainable—a question for which there are no easy answers. There were certainly no prefabricated responses to the social and psychological stimuli that led Viennese composer Alban Berg to grapple during the moral and physical devastation of the Great War with making an opera of Nineteenth-Century playwright Karl Georg Büchner’s thorny Woyzeck. Written over the course of eight years, 1914 – 1922, and premièred in Berlin with Erich Kleiber on the podium, Berg’s Wozzeck proved to be a turning point for German opera, largely deserting Wagnerian Romanticism in favor of a starker, tonally ambiguous modernity that continues to be manifested in the music of Aribert Reimann and Basel-born Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, whose E.T.A. Hoffmann-inspired opera Der Sandmann embodies aesthetics not unlike those of Wozzeck. Not surprisingly, Wozzeck, too, was deemed a radical, dangerous piece in 1925, and it is as chameleonic an opera as has ever been written, one with music that can take on an astonishing array of colors in the glows of different performances. Documenting a pair of concert performances by the Houston Symphony Orchestra that earned praise from the local press, this new NAXOS recording, expertly engineered and edited by Bradley W. Sayles, enriches the Wozzeck discography with an uncommonly dignified reading of the score. In short, what makes this Wozzeck radical is its uncompromising musicality.

There are a plethora of reasons for singers, orchestras, conductors, opera companies, record labels, and listeners to fear Wozzeck. For opera companies and record labels, a production or recording of Wozzeck rarely equates with robust sales, and conductors often receive credit, fairly or unfairly, for performances’ failures of both commission and omission. Wozzeck is indeed a score to be approached with caution, and it is with the caution of dedication to treating the opera with the unconditional preparedness that it merits that Austrian-born conductor Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony Orchestra approach it in this performance. In Graf’s case, that preparation occasionally leads to an atmosphere of stolidity that deprives the performance of momentum. Graf’s pacing emphasizes the score’s cinematic construction, his focus on the quixotic humors of each of the fifteen scenes facilitating a traversal that accentuates Wozzeck’s episodic rather than its cumulative might. The unfailingly capable playing of the Houston Symphony musicians undoubtedly owes much to Graf’s leadership, but their individual virtuosity, not least in the gripping D-minor Interlude in Act Three, confirms that their conscientiousness is no less comprehensive than their director’s. [At the time of the Wozzeck performances in 2013, Graf was completing his final season as Houston Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director, at the end of which he assumed the title of HSO’s Conductor Laureate.] ​Trained by chorus mistress Karen Reeves, the singing of members of Houston Grand Opera Children's Chorus​ in the opera’s final scene is ideal, sounding thoroughly professional but credibly childlike in music that can be spoiled by the well-meaning efforts of youngsters who sound as though they wandered in from a choir school. Likewise, the work of the chorus of students and alumni from Rice University's Shepherd School of Music is accomplished without being too refined: the denizens of Wozzeck are hardly courtiers singing madrigals, and the impact of Berg’s choral writing is undermined by singing that lacks the grit exhibited by the Houston choristers. With these personnel all on peak form, recording Wozzeck in concert yielded an aural document which preserves the tension of live performance without the distractions of stage noises. Though lacking consistent musical and narrative propulsion, this is a Wozzeck in which everyone’s best efforts are audible, an achievement of which few studio-recorded Wozzecks can boast.

The first voice heard in Wozzeck is that of ​the Hauptmann, the petulant captain whose puerile and frankly bizarre taunting of Wozzeck heightens the title character’s disenfranchising isolation and social ineptitude—often with sounds of dubious musicality. In this performance, that voice belongs to tenor Marc Molomot, whose intrepid singing of the Hauptmann’s angular, awkwardly high-lying music is one of this Wozzeck’s greatest strengths. Precisely what motivates the Hauptmann’s idiosyncratic actions is one of Büchner’s and Berg’s gnawing enigmas, but Molomot, ever a shrewd artist with an uncanny ability to topple façades and reveal the most basic foundations of a character and his music, employs his incisive vocalism in the opening scene of Act One with aptly insinuating insipidity that contrasts with the enticing sheen of his timbre. Singing ‘Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam! Eins nach dem Andern!’ with absolute security and an uncommon degree of intonational accuracy, he endows the performance with a Hauptmann who both intrigues and repulses. The clarity of the tenor’s diction lends his utterance of ‘Es wird mir ganz angst um die Welt​’ unanticipated dramatic force. In the second scene of Act Two, Molomot’s Hauptmann momentously spars with the Doktor, his voicing of ‘Wohin so eilig, geehrtester Herr Sargnagel?’ bursting with irony. Then, in the fourth scene of Act Three, Molomot weights his delivery of ‘Es ist das Wasser im Teich. Das Wasser ruft. Es ist schon lange Niemand ertrunken. Kommen Sie, Doktor! Es ist nicht gut zu hören’ with intensity appropriate to the meaning of the text but without forcing or artificially inflating his tonal amplitude. His singing allows the listener to hear far more of the notes that Berg wrote for the rôle than is typical of most depictions, and, moreover, they are notes that one actually enjoys hearing. In many performances, the Hauptmann is more a pathetic jester than a serious combatant in the psychological contest that precipitates Wozzeck’s ultimate tragedy. Molomot’s Hauptmann is a three-dimensional figure, however, a Twentieth-Century cousin of Rameau’s Platée who perhaps victimizes Wozzeck because he has in some unknown way been a victim himself. Vocally, not even Hugues Cuénod’s RAI Roma Hauptmann in italiano is more distinguished.

As sung by​ bass-baritone Nathan Berg, the sinister Doktor is both a suitably neurotic foil to Molomot’s Hauptmann and a menacing catalyst in the tragic chain of emotional reactions that destroy Wozzeck. In the fourth scene of Act One, Berg—the fortuitously-surnamed native of Saskatchewan is presumably of no close relation to the composer—pours out ‘Was erleb’ ich, Wozzeck? Ein Mann ein Wort?’ lustily, his dark-hued voice enfolding music and words like the melodramatic twirl of a silent-film villain’s cape. The eery suggestiveness of his statement of ‘Ich hab’s geseh’n, Wozzeck, Er hat wieder gehustet​’ is unsettling and, again complementing Molomot’s Hauptmann, all the more riveting for being so handsomely sung. Berg’s command of Baroque repertory is evident in his Doktor’s incisive exchanges with the Hauptmann in Act Two’s second scene, the bass-baritone articulating ‘Wohin so langsam, geehrtester Herr Exercizengel?’ with the sure timing of a singer skilled at enlivening secco recitatives. Berg’s Doktor is unnerving without being wholly unhinged; irredeemable, to be sure, but not altogether unsympathetic. With the voice always under complete control, Berg creates a characterization that is as steeped in sadness as in sadism, a convincing individual both troubled and troubling rather than an unimaginative shadow of Josef Mengele.

There is nothing foolish about tenor Brenton Ryan’s voicing of ​Der Narr’s fateful pronouncement of ‘Ich riech, ich riech Blut!​’ in the fourth scene of Act Two: for once, the quality of the singer’s voice is equal to the significance of the character’s words. Similarly, the Erster and Zweiter Handwerksburschen of bass-baritone Calvin Griffin and baritone Samuel Schultz bring voices of excellent caliber and potential to their duties in the fourth scene of Act Two. Upholding the standard set by her male colleagues, mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski ​brings the often-negligible Margret to life with vocalism of inviolable concentration that makes her a fitting partner for the opera’s equivocal heroine in the Act One scene with Marie. [Incidentally, Ciesinski’s sister Kristine is a celebrated Marie, so perhaps there is a genetic predisposition to mastery of Berg’s music.] In the third scene of ​Act Three, Ciesinski articulates ‘In’s Schwabenland, da mag ich nit​’ with apposite simplicity, an exemplary example of the benefit of the work of a major artist in a minor rôle.

Wozzeck’s comrade Andres, like Margret a rôle that is frequently forgettable even in effective performances, receives from versatile tenor Robert McPherson a portrayal of musical and dramatic integrity bolstered by fine singing. In his appearance in Act One’s second scene, this Andres phrases ‘Das ist die schöne Jägerei’ with stirring vigor, the character’s presence broadened by the suppleness of the singer’s musical declamation. In the fourth scene of Act Two, McPherson’s sonorous account of ‘O Tochter, liebe Tochter, was hast du gedenkt’ exudes a quality rarely deployed in Wozzeck: charm. McPherson’s enunciation of text is occasionally slightly wooden, at odds with his smooth vocal production, but there are alluring nuances in his handling of Andres’s music that are also seldom encountered in performances of the opera. Wozzeck is a man who is much in need of a true friend, and McPherson here adds a new facet to the work’s cataclysmic dénouement by subtly bringing Andres from the periphery to the center of the drama.

The ​Tambourmajor is one of the most loathsome characters in opera, a sexual predator exhilarated by the pursuit of challenging prey. Nevertheless, like the confrontation between Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Donna Anna, there is uncertainty about the extent of Marie’s complicity in the sexual assault perpetrated upon her by the Tambourmajor. By accepting his gift of earrings, the latent symbolism of which would have been bounteous fodder for Sigmund Freud, there is at least an implication of receptiveness, but it is clear that Marie is taken by brutality, not by wooing. The Tambourmajor of Alberta-born tenor Gordon Gietz is that most threatening of psychopaths, one who masks his neurosis with normalcy. His portrayal is a study of the sort of irrepressible appetite for carnal conquest that engenders a dissociative disbelief in both the act and the concept of refusal. The drive with which Gietz sets this in motion places too much pressure on the voice in some passages, but the singer never allows the actor to push too perilously. In the contest of wills with Marie in the final scene of Act One, Gietz’s Tambourmajor hurls out ‘Wenn ich erst am Sonntag den grossen Federbusch hab’, und die weissen Hanschuh!​’ scorchingly, the voice resounding with a metallic ring that would be welcome in Siegfried’s forging song. His prevailing musical muscularity notwithstanding, this is a thinking Tambourmajor, one who transcends the mindless trumpeting of a libidinous fraternity brother obsessed with his own erotic prowess.

Acclaimed for her compelling interpretations of Richard Strauss’s operatic heroines, German soprano Anne Schwanewilms ignites this Wozzeck with a forceful, fascinating interpretation of the prismatic Marie. Like Nedda in Leoncavalli’s Pagliacci, Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro, and Zemfira in Rachmaninov’s Aleko, Schanewilms’s Marie is a woman in crisis, not so much a conventional operatic damsel in distress as a working-class Mother Courage whose circumstances crush idealism. Interestingly, Schwanewilms’s performance on this recording often brings to mind the work of two very different musical personalities, the unflappable Eleanor Steber, the Metropolitan Opera’s first Marie, and Regina Resnik, a magnificent singing actress who was not a MET Marie but should have been. In Schwanewilms’s singing here, the luminosity of the upper octave of Steber’s voice is combined with the evenness of the young Resnik’s negotiations of vocal registers. Vocally, Schwanewilms is as talented a technician as has ever been heard as Marie, and she rivals Steber, Eileen Farrell, Christa Ludwig, and Sena Jurinac for tonal luster in this music. From her lulling ‘Tschin Bum, Tschin Bum, Bum, Bum, Bum! Hö​rst Bub? Da kommen sie!’ at her entrance in the third scene in Act One to the final note of her part, Schwanewilms inhabits the rôle with conviction, breathing life into Marie with atypical decorum and no shortage of temperament. She voices ‘Mädel, was fangst Du jetzt an?’ ardently, and this tigress reveals her claws in her first faceoff with Wozzeck. In the fifth scene, battling the Tambourmajor, Schwanewilms’s manages Marie’s erupting fury with the adroitness of a great Brünnhilde in Act Two of Götterdämmerung. She both goads and recoils from her attacker, and the soprano’s measured, perceptive singing juxtaposes meaningfully with Gietz’s more savage emoting.

In the opening scene of Act Two, Schwanewilms phrases ‘Was die Steine glänzen? Was sind's für weiche? Was hat er gesagt?’ with keen judgment of the gravity of the text, and she pilots the discourse in the succeeding scene with Wozzeck with a voicing of ‘Ich bin doch ein schlecht Mensch’ of unmistakable purport. In the act’s third scene, she again seizes the advantage over Wozzeck, investing her declaration of ‘Lieber ein Messer in den Leib, als eine Hand auf mich’ with a wealth of expressive zeal. In Act Three, Schwanewilms’s Marie is a woman at her breaking point who nonetheless possesses reserves of resilience and defiance. The first scene is representative of the sophistication of the soprano’s artistry: at once flinty and seductively feminine, even romantic, she sings ‘Und ist kein Betrug in seinem Munde erfunden worden’ with fervor. Her Marie faces her final conflict with Wozzeck unflinchingly, seeming to embrace death at her partner’s hand as the inevitable destination of her harrowing journey. By turns maternal, sensual, dominating, and demure, Schwanewilms’s performance has markedly greater depth than many Maries, eschewing the commonplace trend of portraying the character as a soulless harridan. Above all, it is an unexpected and therefore increased pleasure to hear the rôle truly and glamorously sung.

German baritone ​Roman Trekel is a Wozzeck with a Lieder singer’s suavity and sensitivity, recalling the Wozzeck of his countryman Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau but bringing to Berg’s music a tougher, more rugged natural instrument and a notion of the rôle defined more by machismo than by metaphysics. This is not to intimate that Trekel’s Wozzeck is a bumbling simpleton, but the resonant bonhomie of his singing of ‘Wir arme Leut! Sehn Sie, Herr Hauptmann, Geld, Geld!’ at his first appearance in Act One is redolent more of testosterone than of grey matter. In the scene that follows, Trekel intones ‘Du, der Platz ist verflucht!​​’ with glimmers of the frustration, violence, and inability to overcome social barriers that eventually overwhelm and obliterate him. The very different demands of the dialogues with first Marie and then the Doktor in the ensuing scenes are met with commendable comprehension of the consequence of their dramatic volatility.

Reuniting with Marie in the first scene of Act Two, Trekel’s growling ‘Was der Bub immer schläft!’ reflects Wozzeck’s discomfort with the social rôles he is expected to play. Tellingly, he is more comfortable in the next scene with the Hauptmann and the Doktor, dispatching ‘Herr Hauptmann, ich bin ein armer Teufel!’ with assurance. Insecurity steals back into the characterization with Marie’s return in Scene Three, but the baritone’s singing of​ ‘Der Mensch ist ein Abgrund, es schwindelt Einem, wenn man hinunterschaut mich schwindelt...’ is formidably solid. Trading gibes with Andres in Scene Four and jeers with the Tambourmajor in Scene Five, Trekel’s vocalism flickers with growing discontent and angst.

In the opera’s final act, Trekel’s portrait of Wozzeck is painted in dark colors that do not entirely obscure the lighter aspects of the tormented man’s psyche. What light has shone in Wozzeck’s spirit is extinguished in the second scene of Act Three, however, his exasperation exploding into deadly ferocity with a vehement account of ‘Bist weit gegangen, Marie.’ The raw expressivity of Trekel’s pained ‘Tanzt Alle; tanzt nur zu, springt, schwitzt und stinkt, es holt Euch doch noch einmal der Teufel!’ in Scene Three is haunting, but it is his despondent ‘Das Messer? Wo ist das Messer? Ich hab’s dagelassen...’ in Scene Four that breaks the heart. Partnering Schwanewilms with comparable eloquence and captivating vocalism, Trekel rescues Wozzeck from the caricatured Punch and Judy show buffoonery in which it has often been mired in recent years. Dramatically, Trekel’s Wozzeck is a peer of Tito Gobbi’s astute interpretation, and his singing is some of the finest heard in Wozzeck’s music since Hermann Uhde introduced the character to the Metropolitan Opera in 1959.

It is indicative of the adaptive artistry of this cast that, with the addition of a pair of capable sopranos, they might constitute a near-perfect ensemble for Richard Strauss’s Arabella. If this suggests that the voices in this performance are plusher than those in many Wozzecks, it is a valid suggestion. The voices are, in fact, the glory of this Wozzeck. They are the pith of a performance in which the many beauties of Berg’s score are permitted to cast their spells on the listener, shattering the stigmas of atonality and Sprechgesang. When there is ugliness in this performance, it arises from the text rather than from the music, Berg having set the text with extraordinary responsiveness to its complexities. Seemingly paradoxically, the preeminence in this performance’s ethos of unveiling the oft-hidden beauties of the music causes the score to sound more, not less, revolutionary. There can be no single definitive Wozzeck, but this is a brilliant one in which the music appeals as powerfully as the drama appalls.

09 January 2017

ARTS IN ACTION: Maestro del bel canto — Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA to lead Bellini's Norma for Lyric Opera of Chicago début

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA on 28 January 2017 [Photo © by J. Henry Fair]

​A score of such profound beauty that as vitriolic a critic of Italian opera as Richard Wagner extolled its virtues, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma has in its 185-year history come to epitomize bel canto in the hearts and minds of many opera lovers. First performed at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 26 December 1831, by a cast that included Giuditta Pasta in the title rôle, Giulia Grisi as Adalgisa, Domenico Donzelli as Pollione, and Vincenzo Negrini as Oroveso, Norma was celebrated almost immediately as Bellini’s magnum opus, a distinction made all the more apparent by the musical and dramatic miracles wrought by the singers to whom the opera’s creation was entrusted. Considering that he famously remarked that the success of a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore depends upon as minor a thing as the engagement of the world’s four greatest singers, how might Enrico Caruso have assessed Norma’s demands? As evidenced by performances featuring an array of Normas of varying technical and histrionic abilities, ranging from Maria Malibran to Maria Callas and from Ángela Peralta to Angela Meade, a Norma with a wholly-qualified exponent of its eponymous heroine at its core can be one of opera’s most memorable experiences. A Norma with an ill-suited or ill-prepared Druidess, on the other hand, cannot be forgotten quickly enough. The ferocity of the title rôle’s demands notwithstanding, the part in Norma that is too easily overlooked when performed well but is impossible to ignore when poorly done is that of the conductor. Rarely is the presence on the podium the prime attraction of a performance of Norma, but Lyric Opera of Chicago’s January – February 2017 presentation of Kevin Newbury’s production of Bellini’s bel canto juggernaut will offer audiences what they now so seldom encounter: a conductor with the interpretive and musical skills necessary to bridge the divide between the people on the stage and those in the seats. Débuting with the company with this Herculean labor, Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza brings to the Windy City an acquaintance with Italian repertory that might justifiably be characterized as one of today’s most productive love affairs.

Born in Brescia in Italy’s Lombardia region, where he assumes a place in a centuries-old musical legacy including one of the world’s most influential schools of violin making and the eminent pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Frizza has in the course of the fifteen years since his professional début in a Pesaro performance of Rossini’s Stabat mater restored to performances of Italian repertory in many of the world’s important theatres aspects of authentic Italianate style lacking since the età d’oro of Arturo Toscanini, Victor de Sabata, and Tullio Serafin. Surprisingly for someone so comfortable in the topsy-turvy world of opera, Frizza’s earliest musical encounters were not with the great divas of his youth, and he maintains that unmistakable comfort by observing the vital difference between being a servant to music and a slave to the demands of an international career. ‘When I go on holiday, I don’t want to hear music,’ he offers. ‘If it’s obligatory to take an iPod to a desert island, I would load it with music of rock bands from the 1980s and ’90s, which is the music I grew up with.’ Recalling the example of Callas, whose intensity on stage was reportedly offset by a fondness for television cartoons when she was away from the stage, Frizza is cognizant of the necessity of balancing industry with repose. ‘I need to rest my brain,’ he imparts. This is one of the important lessons that he has learned from the progress of his career, about which he is characteristically circumspect, as candid about failures as about successes. ‘If I could go back, I would try not to make some of the mistakes I made,’ he muses. ‘The experience I gained by myself. I started young and never worked with a great conductor. Having not had that chance, I precluded the opportunity to make myself known when I was very young. In today’s media market, to start now, at thirty-five you’re old!’ Now only in his mid-forties, Frizza exudes healthful, youthful energy both in conversation and in performance, an artist in his prime who possesses a great conductor’s interpretive sagacity and a rock star’s easy charisma.

Launching a tenure at New York’s Metropolitan Opera that has to date encompassed sixty-eight outings in operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini, Frizza first bowed at the MET in a 2009 performance of Rigoletto. His focus at the MET on these cornerstones of the Italian repertory has both sharpened his attention to details of familiar scores that are overlooked in many performances and intensified his appreciation for the defining lifeblood of Italian opera. The masterworks of Italian opera constitute their own sort of alternate universe, Frizza suggests; one that enthralls opera lovers not with artificial relevance but with its liberating implausibility. What happens in opera stays in opera, one might say, but are there situations in the operas that he conducts that Frizza might strive to convince the composers to alter to better suit modern sensibilities? ‘If someone suggested that I try to get a composer to change something—I am just an interpreter!’ he exclaims without hesitation. ‘I have the background and information I need from the composer himself or herself. We must always think about the historical periods in which these works were written and the value they had at those times,’ he says. This, he asserts, is critical not merely to the enjoyment but also to the survival of opera in and beyond the Twenty-First Century. ‘If [these values are not considered],’ he adds, ‘all the works of the Italian melodrama would never be performed. Who would believe today that we can avenge a lover’s betrayal? It is far-fetched.’ How, then, does opera forge a path forward that balances respect for composers’ intentions with contemporary social trends and the prospective expectations of future audiences? Returning to his commitment to upholding the sanctity of composers’ and librettists’ endeavors, past, present, and future, Frizza states, ‘To a lesser degree, it is appropriate not to change something that was perfect in the era in which it was composed but to write new works.’ The dramatic struggles of Norma and Rigoletto are precisely as Romani, Bellini, Piave, and Verdi meant them to be. Today’s attitudes belong in scores written to express them, Frizza philosophizes, not in the distinctive milieux of works of past generations.

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA on 28 January 2017 [Photo from the 2013 Richard Tucker Gala © by Dario Acosta]Stage creature in his natural habitat: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on 28 January 2017, conducting at the 2013 Richard Tucker Gala [Photo © by Dario Acosta]

Among Frizza’s sixty-eight appearances at The MET are acclaimed performances of Rossini’s Armida, Bellini’s Norma, and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, joining lauded productions of other bel canto scores that the conductor has paced throughout Europe and with San Francisco Opera. If not a conscious specialization, Frizza’s mastery of this repertory has garnered recognition of his unaffectedly stylish handling of bel canto—recognition that, as Frizza is eloquent in conveying, begets enormous responsibility. ‘Performing and interpreting the bel canto style is a challenge,’ he confides, ‘because it requires special care and, above all, a musical vision of the writing from the point of view of the voice.’ This seems obvious, especially in the analysis of an idiom that can be translated as ‘beautiful singing,’ but Frizza is uncommonly sensitive to the abuses that bel canto has suffered as the principal focus of opera has deviated from voices. ‘The writing cannot be separated from the vocal quality and technique of the interpreter,’ he insists. ‘Basically, it’s like we wanted to play a Chopin piano concerto, ignoring the characteristics, attitudes, and tendencies of the pianist. In bel canto, the same thing happens.’ How, then, does he pursue his goal of remedying the distortion to which bel canto has been subjected in recent years? ‘What I like to emphasize in my performances of bel canto operas,’ the spirited Maestro shares, ‘is the chance to not betray the spirit and the will of the composer, while using the “peculiarities” of each individual voice with which I am working.’ Without pause, he concedes that this is anything but an easy task. ‘It’s a very difficult challenge, but I don’t think there can only be one interpretation for bel canto works, as well as for opera in general. To the contrary, each piece is transformed by the same element that makes it alive: the voice!’

Though twenty years have passed since Bellini’s Norma was last heard at Lyric Opera of Chicago, with June Anderson in the title rôle, the company’s relationship with the score began in LOC’s inaugural season, when the formidable quartet of Maria Callas, Giulietta Simionato, Mirto Picchi, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni treated Chicagoland to two performances of Norma in November 1954. Frizza perceives the significance of this history more clearly that anyone. ‘Performing Norma is difficult for all the interpreters: singers, conductor, and director,’ he says. ‘From my perspective, the greatest difficulty is to tell the story with a lot of tension, without ever letting it falter, supported by the slow moments and elasticity of Bellini’s writing.’ With these ‘slow moments’ in mind, are there ways in which Frizza feels that Norma could be improved? ‘Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything in either the libretto or plot,’ he responds, echoing his thoughts on efforts to ‘modernize’ works of the past. ‘I think that the central theme of the finale is well demonstrated by the protagonist by making us reflect on the rôle of a mother and her bond with her children.’ How does Adalgisa fit into this stratagem, Romani and Bellini having omitted her from the opera’s penultimate and final scenes and denied her tribulations resolution? ‘Adalgisa actually serves to help us get to this,’ Frizza proposes. ‘She is just a means to help the story evolve: she is not central but only functional.’

The title rôle in Norma is altogether another matter, however. In his career, Frizza has worked with several of today’s most celebrated Normas, each of whom brings unique qualities to her interpretation. In Frizza’s view, the act of singing Norma initiates a singer into a sorority that is rightly respected, the rôle being easy, as Zinka Milanov quipped, only if sung badly. ‘All Normas become legendary when they die or when they stop singing,’ the Maestro surmises, but he quickly augments this with a more nuanced assessment. ‘Well, I think that after Maria Callas there have not been many other legendary Normas—excellent, yes, and great, as well, but not legendary. I wish that I could have been able to work with La Divina, more to learn some secrets of her art than for me to give her something. It is obvious that when two artists collaborate, there’s always a synthesis of different ideas that merge when each brings something and then receives something in return.’ While elevating performances of Norma to the greatest heights of lyric tragedy, this exchange of ideas can make the opera difficult going for the novice. ‘I would say that Norma is not the work I would propose as a first opera,’ Frizza confesses, ‘but I’d try to make [a first-time operagoer] understand how music and poetry together are the tools to express the highest and deepest feelings.’ Frizza’s performances confirm that he is among the very small number of conductors, of whom there are likely no fewer now in previous generations, who is capable of making a listener’s first or fiftieth Norma an unforgettably moving experience.

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA in January 2017 [Photo © by Merri Cyr]From Brescia, con amore: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on 28 January 2017
[Photo © by Merri Cyr]

Looking beyond Norma, Frizza’s advocacy for bel canto repertory has done much to rejuvenate the spirit of the renaissance spurred by Callas, Sutherland, Gencer, Sills, and Caballé. Leading performances of Donizetti’s still-too-seldom-performed Linda di Chamounix in Rome in 2016, Frizza verified to audiences that Donizetti at his best equaled Verdi as a dramatist. Asked about the progress and the work still to be done in advancing the cause of bel canto, Frizza summarizes, ‘I believe that in bel canto there has been a tremendous resurgence of study and rediscovery. There are some composers who have not yet become known or totally understood. I think that Donizetti is a composer who today is unfortunately too misunderstood and poorly exhibited in productions. Rossini, on the other hand, has done very well.’ The mistreatment of Donizetti in no way results from any deficiency on the composer’s part, this devoted exponent of his work argues. ‘I think that [Donizetti] is brilliant,’ Frizza asserts, ‘and I’m sure that in the next few years, with the help of the Fondazione Donizetti and the Festival Internazionale Donizetti Opera di Bergamo, we will get to know him.’ There is no doubt that Riccardo Frizza’s help will also contribute invaluably to that acquaintance.

Leonard Bernstein said that ‘technique is communication: the two words are synonymous in conductors.’ This is true in the literal sense that a conductor’s gestures communicate to the musicians under his guidance the course that their efforts are to take. Less tangible but no less meaningful is the conductor’s rôle as the bridge over which composers’ ideas cross into audiences’ collective consciences. That he describes the essence of his artistry as a ‘burst of energy’ that electrifies a performance ‘without overpowering the voices’ indicates the prodigious gifts of technique and communication that Riccardo Frizza brings to his work. Virtually every music lover has his own definition of a great conductor, but Bernstein’s wisdom is as solid a foundation as any: a conductor in whose work technique and communication are synonymous has the potential to achieve greatness. Rather than grabbing at greatness by attempting to reconfigure masterpieces of Italian opera to conform with today’s tastes, this son of Brescia earns greatness by reminding audiences of composers’ tastes. In a field too often mired in egotism and elitism, Riccardo Frizza is a Rooseveltian conductor who walks softly but wields a baton with big impact.

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA in January 2017 [Photo © by J. Henry Fair]Norma’s leading man: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's Norma on 28 January 2017
[Photo © by J. Henry Fair]

 

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Bellini’s Norma featuring Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma, Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa, Russell Thomas as Pollione, and Andrea Silvestrelli as Oroveso opens on Saturday, 28 January 2017, and repeats on 1, 5, 9, 13, 18, and 24 February. To purchase tickets, please visit LOC’s website.

To learn more about Riccardo Frizza and his engagements throughout the world, please visit his official website and follow him on Twitter.

Sincerest thanks are extended to Maestro Frizza for his engaging, intelligent responses and to Karen Kriendler Nelson of KKN Enterprises for liaising with Maestro Frizza and translating his responses for this article.

31 December 2016

BEST CONCERTO RECORDING OF 2016: Dmitri Shostakovich & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — VIOLIN CONCERTI (Linus Roth, violin; Challenge Classics CC72689)

BEST CONCERTO RECORDING OF 2016: Dmitri Shostakovich & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - VIOLIN CONCERTI (Challenge Classics CC72689)DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975): Violin Concerto No. 2, Opus 129 and PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893): Violin Concerto, Opus 35Linus Roth, violin; London Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Sanderling, conductor [Recorded at LSO St. Luke’s, London, UK, 2 – 4 May 2016; Challenge Classics CC72689; 1 SACD, 74:25; Available from Challenge Records, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

​The Serbian poet Dejan Stojanović wrote in his poem ‘Dancing of Sounds’ that ‘There is no competition of sounds / Between a nightingale and a violin.’ When he penned these words, Stojanović had perhaps never heard the playing of German violinist Linus Roth, so it is likely that he did not realize how insightful his words are. Simply put, to hear Roth play is to experience one of Art’s greatest phenomena, a human equivalent of birdsong echoing through a wood and the roar of Niagara. From the violin in his hands, th​e 1703 Stradivarius instrument played in years past by Jean Baptiste Charles ​​​Dancla and Nathan Milstein, Roth cajoles sounds ​that recall not only the playing of these legendary forebears [one of Dancla’s most precocious pupils, Maud Powell, left a legacy of recordings said by contemporaries to enshrine vital elements of Dancla’s technique] but also, more pointedly, the mesmerizing tones of Austrian violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan and the disarming lyricism of Schneiderhan’s wife, soprano Irmgard Seefried. Perhaps it is too clichéd to suggest that Roth’s playing ‘sings,’ but his violin is truly the voice of artistry that encompasses understanding of the most intimate implications of musical communication. As his well-documented espousal of the nearly-forgotten music of Mieczysław Weinberg has revealed, Roth clearly perceives his responsibility as one of the Twenty-First Century’s most gifted violinists as extending beyond the interpretation of composers’ music to acting as a direct link between composers and listeners, whether they are separated by a fortnight or a century. ​Here focusing his artistry on concerti by Dmitri Shostakovich and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in performances preserved in sound of sparkling clarity, Roth bares the souls of both works, playing them as freshly as though the ink on the scores were still wet. Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky are now viewed from a post-Freudian perspective as composers with proverbial ‘baggage,’ but Roth frees these concerti from anachronistic pseudo-psychological associations. His formula is disarmingly simple: combine great music with great music making, and all contexts and subtexts become irrelevant.

​Formally premièred in 1967 by David Oistrakh, to whom the score was dedicated, and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the second of Shostakovich’s two remarkable concerti for violin and orchestra (Opus 129) was the last of the composer’s six concerti, completing the symmetry of the pairs of concerti for cello and piano. ​The base key of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2, C♯ minor, has prompted comparisons with other significant works with the same tonal foundation, not least Beethoven’s powerful Opus 131 String Quartet, but Shostakovich’s music is utterly original. The dialogues that the composer created between soloist and orchestra are sometimes stunningly creative but are unfailingly integrated into the Concerto’s flow. There are virtually always suggestions of anxiety, ambiguity, and stark expressive candor in Shostakovich’s music, but performances that emphasize these qualities do so at the expense of the brighter moods that emerge when allowed to penetrate the surface. At its most powerful, Roth’s playing of the Shostakovich Concerto maintains a concentrated lightness, a vein of unaffected humility amidst the cyclonic virtuosity. In the Concerto’s opening Moderato movement, this is manifested most rewardingly in the violinist’s subtle handling of the thematic continuity with which Shostakovich manipulated the sonata form that constitutes the music’s skeleton. Roth’s individual style of playing bears little resemblance to that of David Oistrakh, but the younger musician shares with his Ukrainian predecessor an uncanny capacity for spotlighting melody, a skill that Roth exercises without placing a single accent contrary to the score’s indications.

The meandering course of the Adagio movement is followed by Roth with a gossamer tread that gives the music a dream-like aura. Returning to​ ​Stojanović​’s analogy, the violin is here a weary nightingale greeting the dawn, its song subdued by its exhausting nocturnal vigil. Things are rarely wholly as they initially seem in Shostakovich’s music, and there is a steely core that lurks in these bittersweet cadences like the blade beneath a matador’s muleta. Shostakovich crafted and Roth recreates a delicate but endearingly awkward pas de deux between slow movements from a Prokofiev symphony and a Bach partita: past and present embrace, first one and then the other lifted into view. Roth’s supple phrasing makes the transitions imperceptible. ​This is also true in the Concerto​’s closing movement, in which Roth manages the shift from Adagio to Allegro​—and the corresponding changes of mood—with irrepressible momentum and imagination. This is some of Shostakovich’s most exhilarating, spontaneous-sounding music, and it is a testament to Roth’s absorption of every detail of the composer’s writing that his performance exudes easy confidence. His connection with the music’s expressivity never disrupted by his often breathtaking feats of virtuosity, Roth exudes assurance in a piece in the performance of which many violinists rely upon arrogance.

In certain ways, the Russia into which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 was not markedly different from Russia in 2016. At the time of the composer’s birth in the town of Votkinsk in today’s Udmurt Republic, the doggedly conservative Tsar Nicholas I was in the middle of his three-decade reign, a period in which Russia was plagued by inner turmoil—at the time of his succession, the Decembrist revolt of 1825, the subject of an once-popular opera, threatened to prevent Nicholas from occupying the imperial throne vacated by one of his older brothers and refused by another—and a litany of ill-conceived foreign policies that politically and economically isolated the vast, fiercely proud nation. Isolation was likewise perhaps the single most defining aspect of Tchaikovsky’s life and musical career. His was a life that embodied the ambiguity of Francesco Maria Piave’s familiar description of Paris in his libretto for Verdi’s La traviata as ‘questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi.’ Reading the body of his correspondence that survived familial and governmental censorship, the Tchaikovsky who quickly emerges is a man whose existence could accurately be described as a populated desert, a life that was lonely and often distressingly solitary despite its extensive dramatis personæ.

The extent to which Tchaikovsky fell victim to the frequently hypocritical social conventions of his time continues to be questioned without hope of definitive resolution, but what cannot be doubted is that even an artist as important as Tchaikovsky would find today’s political climate in Russia little if any more hospitable than it was in 1893, when, under circumstances still debated by scholars, the composer’s life ended, perhaps at his own hand. Nevertheless, the kinship between Tchaikovsky’s life and Piave’s characterization of Parisian demimonde society in La traviata is analogous to the parallel between Twenty-First-Century perspectives on Tchaikovsky’s music and Maria Callas’s oft-quoted remark about attentive listeners finding the full spectrum of her artistry in her recordings. In music, knowledge is not always power; or not the sort of power that consistently proves beneficial, at any rate. That Tchaikovsky was homosexual is beyond doubt, but the notion that he was an archetypal ‘gay artist’ is a meaningless and frankly ill-considered application of modern sensibilities to a man whose manifest seriousness of purpose confirms to have been concerned with being a worthy heir to the legacy of Mozart, not with furthering a social agenda. Which are the passages in any of Tchaikovsky’s works that would miraculously be of lesser quality were it discovered that their creator was actually heterosexual? The tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s life is that he could not live openly, publicly following his heart’s lead, but the tragedy of his afterlife is that his music is now too often subjected to scrutiny based not upon its inherent quality but upon superfluous connotations. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is a masterpiece not by a gay composer but by a great one.

Composed in 1878 whilst Tchaikovsky sought refuge in Switzerland from his farcical marriage, the writing for the soloist in his Opus 35 Concerto was guided by Iosif Kotek, a violinist with a burgeoning reputation and Tchaikovsky’s pupil and probable paramour. A decade passed before the Concerto was published in full score and began to be widely established in the international repertory, a delay that now seems inexplicable, but, as was often the case, the quality of Tchaikovsky’s music was not immediately recognized. Subsequent generations of violinists have vindicated the Concerto and its sensitive composer, and Roth’s performance further honors Tchaikovsky’s genius​. ​The technical demands of the Concerto’s Allegro moderato movement are near-demonic, but Roth tames even the most ferocious passages with playing that blends palpitating brilliance with astonishing calmness. This music has been recorded by many of the greatest violinists of the past century, and Roth here equals the best of their performances, recalling the majesty of David Oistrakh’s recording with Franz Konwitschny and Staatskapelle Dresden and the ebullience of Jascha Heifetz’s reading with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. Unique to Roth’s performance is its prevailing youthfulness: in his hands, this is a young man’s music, the influence of Iosif Kotek and the fact that Tchaikovsky was only thirty-eight years old at the time of the Concerto’s genesis continually apparent.

In the G-minor Andante Canzonetta, Tchaikovsky partners the violin and orchestra as though he were writing chamber music for only two instruments. Roth responds with playing of conversational immediacy, each note’s significance in the musical conversation carefully but not obsessively considered. One of the most compelling components of Roth’s artistry is that he listens to rather than merely playing the music—all of the music, not solely his part in it—and reacts to intricacies that many soloists seemingly do not hear. The passing of thematic material from soloist to orchestra is a vital element of the construction of many concerti, but Roth bothers to question why motifs are treated in specific ways: it is not enough to suppose that Tchaikovsky did so because Brahms did so, who did so because Schumann did so, who did so because Beethoven did so, who did so because Mozart and Haydn did so. As the Canzonetta is played in this performance, Tchaikovsky’s voice resounds with tremendous personality, the lush Romanticism of the harmony cushioning wistful, emotionally vulnerable melody that seems as natural to Roth as to Tchaikovsky.

The Concerto’s Allegro vivacissimo finale is the sort of ambivalent music that Tchaikovsky composed with extraordinary profundity and tunefulness. Like that of Mozart, whose work the Russian composer idolized, Tchaikovsky’s music often evokes contrasting emotions simultaneously: effervescent, even banal melodies can convey surprising depths of discord. The breadth of the finale’s spiritual adventure, its heart stated by the composer to be the pursuit of pure beauty, is enhanced by the expansiveness of Roth’s phrasing, his affinity for finding song within any piece disclosing the close kinship of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto with music by Grieg and Sibelius. As in his performance of the Shostakovich Concerto, the sureness of his negotiations of difficult intervals and passagework and the security of his intonation are unimpeachable, but these are only facets of Roth’s playing. In opera, those who possess great voices are not necessarily great singers. A violinist with a great technique can only be a great artist if that technique is allied with sagacity that begins rather than ends with notes on a page. Roth’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto is built upon a lovingly-honed acquaintance with the score that he shares with the listener with the enthusiasm of introducing one cherished friend to another—in short, the work of a major artist.

In the performances on this disc, Roth enjoys superlative support from the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Thomas Sanderling. Some of today’s most talented soloists seem to exist in artistic vacuums, never interacting or communicating with their orchestral colleagues, and their recordings, while technically proficient to a considerable degree, flounder in a sort of emotional wasteland littered with meaningless notes. Artists need not be kindred spirits in order to collaborate effectively, but camaraderie and cordiality are as vital in music as chemistry between Romeo and Juliet is in theatre. Roth’s efforts on this disc are enhanced by tempi that are right both for the music and for his performance of it. Balances between orchestra and soloist sometimes sound slightly artificial, reminding the listener that this recording is a product of the studio rather than the concert hall. Likewise, the orchestral playing is occasionally pedestrian, especially in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Always professional and commendably precise, the orchestra’s work contrasts with rather than sharing the propulsive energy of Roth’s playing. These Concerti are soloist-driven, however, and both Sanderling and the LSO are attentive, engaged passengers in Roth’s success-bound musical caravan.

In the poem quoted at the start, Dejan Stojanović also wrote that ‘Art is apotheosis; / Often, the complaint of beauty.’ In the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, the poet’s words echo a particularly poignant truth. Their works were perhaps the complaints of beautiful souls subjected to the ugliness of societies in which they were seers amidst almost universal blindness. Humanity still crawls along, seeking distant trinkets in darkness when there are so many well-lit treasures within reach. Though only towering peaks in a career already as magnificently craggy as the Himalayas, Linus Roth’s performances of these Violin Concerti by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky are an apotheosis in an important artist’s mastery of his instrument.

18 December 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | December 2016: Johann Sebastian Bach — PARTITAS FOR HARPSICHORD, BWV 825 – 830 (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Sono Luminus DSL-92209)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | December 2016: Johann Sebastian Bach - PARTITAS FOR HARPSICHORD, BWV 825 - 830 (Sono Luminus DSL-92209)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Partitas for Harpsichord, BWV 825 – 830: Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [Recorded at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 17 – 21 March 2015; Sono Luminus DSL-92209; 3 CDs, 153:34; Available from Sono Luminus, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

​Readers who visit Voix des Arts often know that the harpsichord music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the playing of harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour are two of this author’s greatest passions. It will hardly be surprising, then, that Vinikour’s new, sonically-spectacular Sono Luminus recording of Bach’s six remarkable Partitas for solo harpsichord, BWV 825 – 830, was eagerly awaited. Those readers who are familiar with Vinikour’s work will be even less surprised to discover that the anticipation was justified and is magnificently fulfilled by the performances that grace these three discs. Born in Chicago and now again based in his native city after a long residency in France, Vinikour restores to America one of her foremost musical treasures, one who enriches life in Chicagoland and throughout the United States through both his solo playing and his leadership of Chicago Bach Ensemble and Milwaukee-based Great Lakes Baroque, Ltd. Still, not even these accomplishments overshadow what Vinikour achieves with this recording of the six Partitas. Measured solely against the exalted standards of Bach’s work, this is demonically demanding, richly rewarding music, music that some keyboard virtuosi perform as insipid exhibitions of their technical proficiency. Vinikour of course deserves profuse praise for the incendiary virtuosity with which he ignites the Partitas, but his pyrotechnics are intended to illuminate, not to distract and blind. Ultimately, what ushers this release into the company of the most important Bach recordings is its documentation of Vinikour’s faculty for allying historically-informed erudition with timeless eloquence. In his playing of the Partitas, the music sighs and smiles, jokes and jostles, ponders and prays, but the supreme marvel of this recording is that every sentiment that emanates from these performances comes directly from Bach’s scores.

Built in 1995 by Virginia-based Thomas and Barbara Wolf, the double-manual ​harpsichord heard in these performances of Bach’s Partitas was modeled after a 1739 single-manual instrument from the workshop of Hannover-born Christian Vater. Any music played on this splendid instrument could not fail to make a favorable impression on the listener, but the interplay of the harpsichord’s exceptional clarity and rich but perfectly-balanced overtones, expertly managed by Vinikour and captured with rare immediacy by Sono Luminus’s technicians, is ideal for Bach’s opulent music. Published individually between 1726 and 1730 and collectively under the title Clavier-Übung I in 1731, the six Partitas were likely the last of Bach’s suites for keyboard to be composed, furthering the aims pursued in his so-called English and French Suites. That the Partitas are milestones both in Bach’s writing for the harpsichord and in the keyboard literature as a whole is apparent in every bar of the music, and Vinikour’s playing, while observing every intricacy of the scores, reveals that Bach’s expressive vocabulary was no less prodigious in the harpsichord’s language than in his musical essays for orchestra and voices.

Introducing his performance of Partita No. 1 in B♭ major (BWV 825) with a broadly-phrased but quicksilver account of the magisterial Praeludium, a movement worthy of the greatest of Bach’s works for organ, Vinikour at once establishes a musical environment in which virtuosity and interpretive intelligence are the defining virtues of the playing. In this performance, the solemnity of the music is never allowed to completely overshadow the flashes of humor. Vinikour’s fingers deliver the Allemande with the unerring precision of a dancer’s feet, and he makes the bustling Corrente redolent not of a society of starched jabots and powdered periwigs but of an assembly of spirited youths. This is not to suggest that Vinikour’s performance is in any way lacking in sophistication: rather, his is the sophistication of sincere connection with the music rather than snobbish proselytizing. There is an appealing serenity at the heart of his playing of the Sarabande, the bel canto flow of its melody emphasized, and Menuets 1 and 2 are here genuinely festive, not artificially formal. The energy that Vinikour expends in his exhilarating performance of the Giga that ends the first Partita sounds sufficient to illuminate the Manhattan skyline for years to come, but, instead of the harpsichordist’s ego, it is the composer’s brilliance that glistens in the tuneful glow.

What can superficially be deemed an arbitrary progression of tonalities among the Partitas is revealed upon closer scrutiny to be a carefully-considered, deliberately-wrought exploration of the full range of sonorities and expressive possibilities afforded by the keys selected by Bach. Partita No. 2 in C minor (BWV 826) begins with a Sinfonia that receives from Vinikour exceptionally fine handling. His recent conducting of Händel’s Agrippina for California’s West Edge Opera and Purcell’s Fairy-Queen for Chicago Opera Theater confirmed the depth of Vinikour’s talent for attentive management both of pieces’ individual structures and of their functions within the overall construction of a score, and this talent is as apparent in the Partitas as in large-scaled vocal works. As in Partita No. 1, the sequence of Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande in Partita No. 2 is traced with focus on the distinct rhythmic identities of each form, thematic development exposed with remarkable clarity that never disrupts the lyrical tides of the music. Unique among the Partitas, the effervescent Rondeaux is dispatched by Vinikour with cosmopolitan elegance: the fallacy of Bach having virtually been an artistic loner is dispelled by the close kinship with similar music by François Couperin, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Johann Jakob Froberger that Vinikour’s performance discloses. The Partita’s closing Capriccio is an ideal showcase for harpsichord and harpsichordist. The instrument’s response is as compelling as the musician’s mastery of it, the flawless articulation of passagework putting many fine harpsichords and harpsichordists to shame.

It is with an imaginative Fantasia of the type found throughout Bach’s oeuvre for keyboard that Partita No. 3 in A minor (BWV 827) begins, and the freedom within historically-appropriate parameters with which Vinikour plays it expands the sparks of ingenuity that flicker throughout the Fantasia into a conflagration that consumes the Partita as a whole. The taut fingering in the subsequent Allemande gives way to appealing contrasts of vigor and tranquility in the Corrente and Sarabande, the player’s wrists seeming first to be controlled by tightly-wound springs and then by spring zephyrs. The term having a substantially less risqué connotation in the Eighteenth Century than it now evokes, Bach’s Burlesca is charming rather than insinuating, but there is nothing quaint about Vinikour’s playing; no more so than there is anything overtly comical in his playing of the Scherzo, an early use of this form which further validates Bach’s stature as an innovator. The concluding Gigue’s demands are met with unflappable ease, but Vinikour is not satisfied by merely playing the notes capably—a feat, it must be admitted, that is commendable in its own right. His playing here is beguilingly balletic, every decorative note of the Gigue perfectly en pointe.

​Partita No. ​4 in D major (BWV 828) is prefaced by an Ouvertüre in Bach’s most extroverted ceremonial style, and Vinikour’s performance verifies its place among the Eighteenth Century’s greatest compositions for the keyboard. Prefiguring Brahms by more than a century, an essential aspect of Bach’s artistry was his ability to make even rigid adherence to conventions seem revolutionary, and Vinikour highlights the breadth of the composer’s creativity by achieving an astounding degree of expressive pliability whilst also carefully observing rhythmic and dynamic boundaries. In this Partita, an Aria infiltrates the Allemande – Courante – Sarabande formula between the latter two numbers, and this simple addition alters the course of the Partita surprisingly. Nobly phrased by Vinikour, the subdued Aria introduces an aura of introspection that persists in the Sarabande, one of Bach’s most beautiful. The Menuet and Gigue that follow breathe the unpolluted air of Bach’s purest vein of musical expression. Vinikour understands that the only means of performing this music that is true to Bach is to regard the notes upon the page not as a portal that leads to some hidden world of meaning but as the essence of that meaning. To interpret this music effectively is simply to play it without agendas or affectation: Bach said all that needs to be said in the music itself, and Vinikour’s stylish, selfless playing allows Bach to speak with tremendous impact.

The opening movement of Partita No. 5 in G major (BWV 829) was designated a Praeambulum by Bach, and the number has in Vinikour’s performance the driving force of a Verdi overture. More than almost any of his contemporaries, Bach excelled at developing thematic material in novel ways, exploiting every form known to him so cleverly that he redefined their emotive capacities, and Vinikour is sensitive to the manner in which Bach employed subjects and countersubjects in intimate dialogues. The harpsichordist recounts the narrative that Bach wove into the trusted pattern of Allemande, Corrente, and Sarabande with playing of demonstrative beauty, extracting frequently-overlooked subtleties from the music’s inner voices. The Tempo di Minuetto, Passepied, and Gigue constitute as varied a concatenation as occurs in any of the Partitas, and Vinikour plays each of the three pieces insightfully, differentiating their individual atmospheres and spotlighting the links among them.

​With Partita No. ​6 in E minor (BWV 830), Bach brought to fruition a cyclical body of work for the harpsichord that, whatever his initial intentions may have been, has ultimately exerted as great an influence on Western music as Beethoven’s String Quartets and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. It is impossible to hear Domenico Scarlatti’s, Haydn’s, Mozart’s, or Beethoven’s Sonatas for keyboard, Chopin’s Nocturnes, or the Piano Concerti of Schumann, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky without perceiving the lessons that these composers learned from Bach’s keyboard music. As Vinikour plays the blazing Toccata with which the sixth Partita commences, it is also impossible to hear this music without gaining or refining a sense of Bach’s significance as one of the musical guideposts at which past and future meet. There is special gravity in Vinikour’s performance of this Partita’s Allemande, too, his pacing facilitating complete realization of Bach’s unerring symmetry. After the fashion of Partita No. 4, an Air here steals into the company of the Corrente and Sarabande, punctuating the pulsating dances, both charismatically played by Vinikour, with a dulcet interlude almost stream-of-conscience-like in its harmonic evolution. Like the fifth Partita’s Tempo di Minuetto, the Tempo di Gavotta in the sixth Partita receives from Vinikour a traversal of uncompromising concentration melded with uncommon expressive elasticity. Too many musicians seemingly believe that Bach repertory must either be approached with arms-length reverence or subjected to overwrought interpretations in order to be acquitted of charges of academic dullness. Crowning a performance notable for its undeviating commitment to providing the listener with an experience akin to what might be heard were Bach himself at the keyboard, Vinikour’s playing of the final Gigue entrances, his fingers truly jigging through the music. As in every movement in all six of the Partitas, Vinikour finds precisely the correct mood for the Gigue—Bach’s.

More than a half-century after it was liberated from opera house orchestra pits, there are listeners who still think that the harpsichord belongs in drawing rooms and salons rather than in concert halls; or recording studios, for that matter. Likewise, an image of Bach as a dour figure peering down upon the world from an organ loft persists. Indicative to Twenty-First-Century observers of shortsightedness and downright ignorance, it is telling that Bach was primarily esteemed by his own children not as a composer but as a keyboard virtuoso. Industrious as he was throughout a long career, one wonders how much music other than his own his children heard Bach play. Could they hear the performances of the six Partitas on these Sono Luminus discs, how might they have re-evaluated their father’s legacy? Bach is now rightly esteemed as one of music’s greatest masters, but even a reputation such as his can stand occasional substantiation. Were Bach an unknown composer whose Partitas were discovered in a moldy library, Jory Vinikour’s performance of them would convince the skeptical listener that their creator was surely an unheralded genius. He now needs no advocacy, but a performance like this one, a performance in which the Partitas sound newly discovered, reaffirms that Bach was a genius both of his own age and for all time.