09 March 2017

CD REVIEW: VIVERE — Fernando Varela, tenor (Deutsche Grammophon/Panorama 80026398-02)

IN REVIEW: VIVERE - Fernando Varela, tenor (Deutsche Grammophon/Panorama 80026398-02)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), et. al.: VivereFernando Varela, tenor; Crouch End Festival Chorus [Vocals recorded at Phat Planet Studios, Orlando, Florida, USA; Deutsche Grammophon/Panorama 80026398-02; 1 CD, 50:58; Available from Deutsche Grammophon, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Almost eighty-two years ago, on the broadcast of 7 April 1935, the long-running, nationally-syndicated radio (and eventually television) talent show Major Bowes Amateur Hour, now principally remembered as an early showcase for the talent of Frank Sinatra, featured among the field of performers a young lady called Nina Foresti. This girl, whose speaking voice on the surviving broadcast tape sounds surprisingly mature, apparently identified herself in her initial communication to Major Bowes’s producer as Anita Duval. The nervous conversation during the broadcast prefaced an obviously little-trained but hardly embarrassing performance of Cio-Cio-San’s familiar aria ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, a performance rewarded by the show’s judging committee with a grade of D and the verdict of ‘faint possibility for future’ for the young singer. How might those judges have esteemed their powers of assessment had they been in Chicago’s Civic Opera House two decades later, when the woman they dismissed as unpromising as an eleven-year-old girl again sang ‘Un bel dì vedremo,’ no longer needing the anonymity of noms de guerre, Anita Duval and Nina Foresti transformed into Maria Callas?

The unnerving task faced by anyone given the responsibility of judging the merits of young voices is simultaneously hearing what is and what can be. It is difficult to discern in the four minutes of a Mozart aria what a voice might with study and preparation be capable of achieving in the four hours of a Wagner opera, but the critical ear must possess a degree of prescience, listening beyond the current state of the voice for glimpses of its true potential. Above all, the foremost duty of a pedagogue sitting in judgement of young singers is to provide encouragement. Yes, that encouragement must sometimes be to pursue non-musical paths, but even this should be approached as a process of discovering new talents, not as an exercise in demeaning individuals’ aspirations. Whatever their qualifications were, the Major Bowes Amateur Hour judges almost certainly could not hear the voice of eleven-year-old Nina Foresti hurling out Brünnhilde’s battle cry, scaling the heights of Lucia’s mad scene, or wielding Tosca’s defiant top Cs, but their discouragement undoubtedly poured fuel onto the fire that already crackled in the spirit of as formidably determined an artist as Maria Callas. It is, in part, an assault on the validity of his musical vision that has shaped tenor Fernando Varela’s journey, too. There is in the atmosphere of Varela’s new disc Vivere something of the sense of inexpressible triumph that Callas must have felt when Chicagoans’ ovations for her singing of ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ resounded in the Civic Opera House. Rather than contorting himself into others’ musical molds, Varela finds and refines the music within himself. Vivere is not a disc that aims to say ‘I told you so’ to harsh judges. Rather, the singer says to the listener, ‘I told me so.’

The compelling, operatic story of Vivere begins with the disc’s title track, and Varela’s singing of this uplifting paean to never settling for anything other than complete realization of one’s ambitions immediately reveals why the release of this disc on Deutsche Grammophon’s Panorama label is especially appropriate. Welcoming him into a world populated by fellow tenors of the caliber of Fritz Wunderlich and Ernst Häfliger, Vivere furthers the Universal Music Group’s mission of tearing down the boundaries that have for too long artificially separated popular music from the Yellow Label’s home territory of Classical repertory. To pronounce Vivere a ‘crossover’ disc is to altogether miss its point. Here, Varela is neither a meticulously-trained operatic tenor trying his hand at marketable material nor a pop singer having a go at opera: he is simply a singer who sings music that engages his emotions. The forthrightness with which he delivers the lyrics of ‘Vivere’ epitomizes his sentimental connection with the music, and ‘Gloria,’ the first of the disc’s songs to the writing of which he contributed, draws from Varela a performance of sonorous sincerity, the vocal line propelled with rounded vowels and well-managed breath control.

Studio-produced recordings of songs like ‘Per sempre ci sarò,’ an Italian version of Christina Perri’s ‘A Thousand Years’ from the Twilight soundtrack, can bury the raw impact of a human voice beneath layers of over-processed effects, but Varela maintains focus on the voice, singing as he might if he were performing the song before an audience of ten or ten thousand. The incisiveness of his singing of Stevie Aiello’s ‘I Believe in You’ pours from the music with absolute, unshakable confidence. ‘Shine’ is an apt description of what Varela’s voice does in this, another of his own songs, and the mature artistry that he discloses in ‘If We Fall’ gives the song a timelessness that heightens the impact of its message. ‘Ti amo per sempre’ is the powerhouse cabaletta to the dolce aria ‘If We Fall.’ Pealing through the music with the force of a Metallica-singing Manrico, Varela’s vocalism impresses and thrills in equal measures.

Popularized by Céline Dion, Eric Carmen’s ‘All By Myself’ gains a new dimension of languid Latino passion in Varela’s Spanish incarnation, ‘Solo otra vez.’ This singer’s seclusion is entrancingly sensual, but the open-hearted—and open-throated—honesty of the subsequent ‘No Longer on My Own’ appeals no less strongly. As a fusion of music, text, and feeling, ‘You’ll See My Face’ is unquestionably the finest song on Vivere. There are few human experiences more difficult to truthfully depict in song than what Dante identified as the pain of recalling joy in times of sorrow. Puccini mastered this facet of musical storytelling, not least in Mimì’s dying recollection of her first moments with Rodolfo in La bohème, and so, to a marked extent, has Varela translated the language of loss into an universal musical vocabulary. Crucially, however, Varela forces neither his voice nor the sadness of the lyrics. Rather, his singing imbues the song with comforting suggestions of unspoken forgiveness and acceptance, remembrance, and affection undiminished by death. Backed here and throughout the tracks on the disc with rhythmic vitality as galvanizing as their musicality by guitarists Tom Lodewyckx and Richard Craker, bassist Vincent Pierins, and drummers Herman Cambre, John “Jr” Robinson, and Ian Thomas, Varela voices both ‘Cuore’ and ‘Verità’ with unflinching directness, the words uttered with the clarity of speech and the enhanced meaning of song. Likewise, Patrick Hamilton’s work as arranger, pianist, and producer complements Varela’s musical sensibilities, facilitating an easy camaraderie that is as audible as the tenor’s ardent singing.

If there is in opera the sort of irrepressible ‘anthem’ that might in other realms be associated with Freddie Mercury or David Lee Roth, it is surely Calàf’s aria ‘Nessun dorma’ from Act Three of Puccini’s Turandot. The allure of the aria’s soaring melody has been lost on few tenors since Turandot’s first performance in 1926, its robust masculinity limned by Francesco Merli and Franco Corelli, its poetic fervor evinced by Carlo Bergonzi and Richard Tucker, and its Italian charisma unforgettably personified by Luciano Pavarotti. To his credit, Varela attempts to mimic none of the aria’s celebrated interpreters. He makes the aria his own, and in doing so he gets nearer to the heart of Puccini’s music than many tenors trumpeting the aria, intensely focused on the climactic top B, have managed to venture. This is music of perseverance, catharsis, and rejuvenation, and Varela’s vocalism rings with the assurance of a man—and an artist—who has conquered not by brute strength but by remaining true to himself. The stratospheric interpolation at the aria’s conclusion would rightly be condemned as poor taste in the opera house, but the virtual theatre of Vivere is not the venerated auditorium of Teatro alla Scala. This is pure showmanship, of which Puccini was an avid student, and it dazzlingly expresses the commitment to using song as a means of communicating with the listener that is the core of Vivere.

Perhaps the most pernicious danger faced by the Performing Arts in the Twenty-First Century is the perception that art is the exclusive property of those with the resources and influence required to be its custodians. It is a perception that is in some cases fostered by those custodians themselves at the expense of artists’ creative liberty and audiences’ rights to experience and analyze the resulting works. There are right pitches and wrong pitches which no wealths of persuasion can convert from one to the other, but there are too many ways of singing and hearing those pitches to number. Franz Joseph Haydn once remarked that the geographical and cultural isolation of his employment at Eszterháza engendered involuntary originality. The isolation wrought by musical genius such as Maria Callas possessed might be said to yield a similar outcome. In a sense, Fernando Varela’s artistic isolation was born of dreams that those who might have helped him reach them proved too shortsighted to share. In reality, though, no one’s endorsement of his gifts matters as much as the singer’s own belief in his capacity for bringing music to life. This is what Vivere ultimately conveys most arrestingly: these are the sounds of a modern troubadour living through music.

28 February 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | February 2017: Carlo Lenzi & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — SACRED MUSIC IN LOMBARDY 1770-80 (F. Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Ensemble Autarena; Pan Classics PC 10364)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | February 2017: Carlo Lenzi & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - SACRED MUSIC IN LOMBARDY 1770-80 (Pan Classics PC 10364)CARLO LENZI (1735 – 1805) and WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Sacred Music in Lombardy 1770-80Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Ensemble Autarena; Marcello Scandelli, conductor [Recorded in Nuova Chiesa di San Massimiliano Kolbe, Bergamo, Italy, in January 2015; Pan Classics PC 10364; 1 CD, 66:58; Available from Naxos Direct (USA), JPC (Germany), and major music retailers]

Lombardy in the eighth decade of the Eighteenth Century was a region both in the clutches of ancient dynasties and on the cusp of modernity. The gateway to the European continent, the region’s principal city, Milan, was already a bustling center of commerce and culture. By the decade’s end, Milan’s great temple of operatic worship, Teatro alla Scala, would be erected and inaugurated with a performance of Antonio Salieri’s aptly epic Europa riconosciuta. Milan was also the seat of archiepiscopal authority in and beyond Lombardy, the city’s Duomo—the Basilica cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Nascente, incomplete in the 1770s despite construction having begun in the Fourteenth Century—a grandiose symbol of the importance of the Church in everyday life. In inimitable Italian style, Lombards have for countless generations craftily integrated the exercise of faith with celebration of the joys of living. From their inceptions, new forms of musical expression were utilized by Italian composers and composers fluent in Italy’s musical languages to transform the rituals of the Church into very personal works of art. From the polyphonic masterpieces of Palestrina to Puccini’s early Messa a quattro voci, liturgical music has played a prominent rôle in Italian musical life, nowhere more tunefully than in Lombardy. Focusing on the sacred music of one remarkable decade in the Eighteenth Century, this imaginatively-conceived and skillfully-engineered Pan Classics release presents music written for Lombardy by a visiting composer who needs no introduction, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, alongside works of superlative quality by an Italian composer awaiting the modern exposure his music deserves, Carlo Lenzi. That the music of the forgotten composer is as enjoyable as that of his eternally popular colleague is this disc’s most welcome surprise, but its greatest accomplishment is the captivatingly melodious recreation of a time and a place that are now perhaps preserved only in music.

Born in 1735 near Bergamo, the town some forty kilometers northeast of Milan that is now famous among music lovers for having also been the birthplace of Gaetano Donizetti in 1797, Carlo Lenzi benefited from the exceptional opportunities for musical education afforded by distant Naples, attaining an admirable level of mastery of the prevalent musical forms and trends of both his own and previous generations. His forty-year tenure at Bergamo’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, today perhaps the best-preserved church in the Lombard Romanesque style, earned him a wide exposure and some degree of celebrity within relative proximity to Bergamo. To what extent Lenzi and his work were known beyond Bergamo is largely a matter of conjecture. The reach of Lenzi’s reputation was sufficient to attract the young Bavarian Johann Simon Mayr to his tutelage. Three years before Lenzi’s death in 1805, Mayr relocated to Bergamo in order to succeed his teacher as maestro di cappella. [Most Mayr biographers identify the composer’s ecclesiastical employer as Bergamo’s Duomo, the Cattedrale di Sant’Alessandro, but, surely not insignificantly, both Mayr and Donizetti are buried in Santa Maria Maggiore.] Mayr’s teaching of Donizetti known to have been comprehensive, it is unlikely that the eventual composer of Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore was unacquainted with Lenzi’s music.

What cannot be ascertained with any measure of historical accuracy is how widely Lenzi’s musical output circulated among fellow artists of his time or how much of other composers’ work reached Lenzi in Bergamo. Though hardly a cultural backwater, Bergamo was no Naples or Venice. Still, the town’s proximity to Milan cannot have failed to yield some measure of musical cosmopolitanism. Delightfully played by Ensemble Autarena under the direction of cellist Marcello Scandelli, the Sonatas included on this disc strongly suggest that, in addition to a thorough knowledge of Italian music of previous generations gleaned from his studies in Naples, Lenzi was aware of the music of his north-of-the-Alps contemporaries. In the extended Sonata Prima, the influences of Durante, Jommelli, Pergolesi, Traetta, and other exponents of the Neapolitan school are apparent, but so, too, are kinships with the work of Abel, Johann Christian Bach, Boccherini, and the Haydn brothers. The Ensemble Autarena musicians revel in Lenzi’s part writing, their cleanly-articulated playing disclosing the excellent quality of Lenzi’s craftmanship. The Sonata Terza is a piece with considerable merits, as well, and Ensemble Autarena’s performance is an ideal introduction to Lenzi’s straightforward but eloquent style.

Both of the Lamentations for Holy Week exquisitely sung on this disc by Italian soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, two of the thirty-four settings of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah Lenzi is known to have written, were likely composed for the soprano castrato Giovanni Tajana (1755 – 1829), a singer about whom little information survives. What little anecdotal evidence exists suggests that Tajana enjoyed a successful career in opera in the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century, his name appearing in conjunction with performances as far afield as London. Lenzi’s 1780 Lamentazione seconda per il Giovedì Santo is a work of tremendous histrionic power, the composer’s use of text revealing a poetic sensibility worthy of comparison with more renowned composers’ similar aptitude. Treating the ‘De lamentatione Ieremiæ prophetæ’ text with which settings of the Lamentations traditionally begin not as a formality but as a vital, emotionally significant portion of the lament, Lenzi wrote engrossing music to open the Lamentazione, and the soprano’s phrasing in this performance establishes an atmosphere of affectionate reverence. As the movement progresses, the grace with which Lombardi Mazzulli sings ‘Cogitavit Dominus dissipare murum filiæ Sion; tetendit funiculum suum, et non avertit manum suam a perditione: luxitque antemurale, et murus pariter dissipatus est’ transports the prophet’s words directly to the listener’s heart. Her technical acumen tames the difficulties of ‘Defixæ sunt in terra portæ ejus, perdidit et contrivit vectes ejus; regem ejus et principes ejus in gentibus: non est lex, et prophetæ ejus non invenerunt visionem a Domino,’ inspiring awe without disrupting the prevailing contemplativeness of the text.

The simple elegance of the largo setting of ‘Sederunt in terra, conticuerunt senes filiæ Sion; consperserunt cinere capita sua, accincti sunt ciliciis: abjecerunt in terram capita sua virgines Jerusalem’ that starts the second movement shimmers in the Mediterranean sunlight of the soprano’s warm timbre. The bravura demands of Lenzi’s allegretto ‘Defecerunt præ lacrimis oculi mei, conturbata sunt viscera mea’ are considerable, but Lombardi Mazzulli confronts every challenge unflinchingly. Her traversal of ‘Effusum est in terra jecur meum super contritione filiæ populi mei, cum deficeret parvulus et lactens in plateis oppidi’ in the Lamentazione’s final movement is characterized by ethereal tonal beauty and a nuanced but wholly natural handling of words that haunts with its immediacy. The resolution of musical incarnations of Lamentations is also governed by tradition, and Lenzi was no less astute in dealing with the final statement of ‘Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ than in his approach to the prefatory text. Guided by the composer’s ingenuity, Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing of the Lamentazione’s conclusion is alert, focused, and attractive.

Dating from 1777, the Lamentazione prima per il Venerdì Santo is a work of intricacy even greater than that of its slightly older sibling. The composer having again devoted the best of his art to his setting of ‘De lamentatione Ieremiæ prophetæ,’ Lombardi Mazzulli responds with vocalism of the purest bel canto. The expressivity of her singing of ‘Misericordiæ Domini, quia non sumus consumpti; quia non defecerunt miserationes ejus’ reaches profound depths of spirituality, and the unexaggerated subtlety with which she shapes her reading of the melodic lines of ‘Novi diluculo, multa est fides tua’ is indicative of an artistic philosophy centered on respect for the music. The recitative ‘Pars mea Dominus, dixit anima mea; propterea exspectabo eum’ is sung with the communicative intelligibility of an accomplished Evangelista reciting Gospel in a Bach Passion. In the third movement, the contrasts engendered by Lenzi’s shifts in tempo are enhanced by the lucid playing of Ensemble Autarena. Lombardi Mazzulli voices both ‘Bonus est Dominus sperantibus in eum, animæ quærenti illum’ and ‘Bonum est præstolari cum silentio salutare Dei’ lustrously, and the incandescence of her vowels gives ‘Bonum est viro cum portaverit jugum ab adolescentia sua’ an added aura of religiosity. In her account of ‘Sedebit solitarius, et tacebit: quia levavit super se,’ it is the incisively-enunciated consonants that drive the vocal line. Epitomizing the vibrant stile galante that Lenzi adopted in his Lamentations, ‘Ponet in pulvere os suum, si forte sit spes’ and ‘Dabit percutienti se maxillam, saturabitur opprobiis’ in the Lamentazione’s last movement possess dramatic force of an operatic nature, and Lombardi Mazzulli sings the music accordingly, her performance bold but always exhibiting impeccable taste. Like its counterpart in the 1780 Lamentazione, the closing ‘Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ is a resourceful, overtly theatrical setting of the text. The performance on this disc preserves a rare union of superb music and an artist technically and temperamentally ideally suited to singing it.

Well-chosen companions for Lenzi’s Sonatas, Mozart’s Church Sonatas in D major and A major (K. 245 and 225), composed in 1776 for inclusion between the readings of the Epistle and Gospel in Salzburg Masses, are performed by Ensemble Autarena with a sure grasp of Mozart’s idiom. Well-intentioned but wrongheaded attempts at convincing listeners that every piece that issued from Mozart’s pen is a masterpiece lead some performers to artificially inflate the Sonata’s significance. They are good music, but their appeal is too easily obscured by playing them as though they were symphonies in miniature. Ensemble Autarena​’s playing enables the listener to hear the Sonatas on an appropriate scale, sounding much as they must have done when played as interludes in their original liturgical context.

Composed in January 1773 for the Italian composer and soprano Venanzio Rauzzini (1746 – 1810), the creator of the rôle of Cecilio in Mozart’s 1772 opera Lucio Silla whose vocal range may have been a fortuitous accident of nature rather than a result of blade-wielding human intervention, the motet ‘Exsultate, jubilate’ (K. 165) is one of Mozart’s most familiar sacred works—and, considering its abundant melodic charm and imposing technical demands, rightly so. Singers of virtually every Fach with the range required by the music or a reasonable approximation thereof have recorded the motet. Among the fruits of their labors, it is Swiss soprano Edith Mathis’s lovely, eminently stylish account that Lombardi Mazzulli’s performance recalls. In the opening movement, ‘Exsultate, jubilate, o vos animæ beatæ,’ Lombardi Mazzulli executes the difficult bravura passagework with confidence undermined by only a few of the most dizzying passages, but she never engages in thoughtless grandstanding. Not yet seventeen years old when he composed this music, the young Mozart was already attentive to the ways in which music could be used to both convey and heighten the impact of text, and the vocal writing in ‘Exsultate, jubilate,’ undoubtedly tailored to Rauzzini’s florid technique, is a model of artful use of music to mirror the moods evoked by words. Lombardi Mazzulli is one of today’s most persuasive performers of vocal music composed before 1800, and the joy that her singing of ‘Exsultate, jubliate’ exudes is as important a component of her performance as her fleet coloratura and crystalline trills.

In this performance, the recitative ‘Fulget amica dies, jam fugere et nubila et procellæ’ is sung with the concentration that it deserves. The serene valley between two virtuosic peaks, the bewitching dolce ‘Tu virginum corona, tu nobis pacem dona’ is rarely the most memorable portion of a performance of ‘Exsultate, jubilate,’ but as sung by Lombardi Mazzulli it is a sequence of breathtaking pulchritude, the singer’s breath control as impressive when sustaining the long melodic lines of this movement as when hurtling through its companions’ fiorature. The motet’s culminating ‘Alleluia’ is in this performance what Mozart surely intended it to be: two-and-a-half minutes of elation that uplift the soul regardless of the listener’s faith. Particularly in performances of music composed before 1800, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli is one of today’s most capable young singers, but her singing on this disc illustrates the most precious of her gifts. As performed by Lombardi Mazzulli, music is not a distraction or even an diversion: it is a friend.

One of the most fascinating aspects of music is the series of relationships that link composers and their work. Whether north or south of the Alps, east or west of the Atlantic, or near to or far from the equator, music has developed in each successive generation of artists in ways that their forebears might never have imagined. One of the most fascinating aspects of music in the past half-century has been the rediscovery of an expanding phalanx of gifted composers whose works were for many years neglected. In addition to renewing the diffusion of his own music, the rediscovery of Lenzi deepens listeners’ understanding of Mozart and the cultural surroundings in which his enduring masterworks sprang to life. Supplementing the educational value of this release, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli and Ensemble Autarena perform this music with incontestable fondness. It is fondness that the listener is moved to reciprocate.

27 February 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, K. 492 (T. Simpson, J. Cherest, D. Lombard, S. LaBrie, J. Panara, D. Hartmann, A. Anderson; North Carolina Opera, 26 February 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Baritone STEVEN LaBRIE as Conte Almaviva, bass-baritone TYLER SIMPSON as Figaro, and sopranos JENNIFER CHEREST and D'ANA LOMBARD as Susanna and Contessa Almaviva in North Carolina Opera's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, February 2017 [Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492D’Ana Lombard (La Contessa di Almaviva), Steven LaBrie (Il Conte di Almaviva), Jennifer Cherest (Susanna), Tyler Simpson (Figaro), Jennifer Panara (Cherubino), Donald Hartmann (Dottor Bartolo), Alissa Anderson (Marcellina), Wade Henderson (Don Basilio), Derek Jackenheimer (Don Curzio), Kathleen Jasinskas (Barbarina), Eugene Galvin (Antonio), Gretchen Bruesehoff (Una contadina), Rachel Stenbuck (Una contadina); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Steven Jarvi, conductor [Laurie Rogers, harpsichord continuo; Scott MacLeod, Chorus Master; Matthew Ozawa, Director; Caite Hevner Kemp, Scenic Designer; Glenn Avery Breed, Costume Designer; Ross Kolman, Lighting Designer; North Carolina Opera, A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 26 February 2017]

The city’s status as the capital of the far-reaching Habsburg empire and an artistic center rivaled in the Western world only by London and Paris notwithstanding, there can have been very few people in Vienna in 1786 more widely traveled, experienced, and exposed to cultural currents than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Accustomed to the company of princes of church and state since his childhood, during which his ambitious father paraded him before the crowned heads of Europe as a child prodigy impeccably trained for their amusement, Mozart was among the few men of his age who could boast of having been privy to the sometimes complicated dynamics of Europe’s most powerful ruling families. What Freud might have concluded about the psychological effects of such an upbringing can only be imagined, but the benefits to Mozart as a mature composer are undeniable. By the time that he abandoned the oppressive atmosphere of his native Salzburg and established himself in Vienna in 1781, Mozart was personally acquainted with Johann Christian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Josef Mysliveček and knew the music and stylistic tendencies of many of the leading composers of his time. One of the most perfect syntheses of these influences and his own singular genius sprang to life on the stage of Vienna’s Theater an der Burg on 1 May 1786. With the première of Le nozze di Figaro, a setting of a controversial and oft-banned 1778 play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and the first of Mozart’s three momentous collaborations with Lorenzo Da Ponte, the composer’s mature operatic voice enchanted first Vienna and then, via Prague, all of Europe. It is a voice that resounded enchantingly in North Carolina Opera’s visually appealing, engrossingly musical production of the opera; a voice still as potent in 2017 as it was in 1786.

It was in the turbulent milieu of pre-Revolution France that Beaumarchais’s La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro finally reached the stage of the Théâtre Français in 1784, six years after its completion and three years after the venerable Comédie Française accepted the play into its repertoire. Censorial objections prevented the play’s public première until intervention by Louis XVI paved the way for performance of a revised version of the script. Presented by London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden later in 1784, La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro was ultimately the most fiscally successful French play of the Eighteenth Century. Perpetuating the difficulties suffered by the play in France, an imperial ban prohibited productions of the German translation of La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro. Royal prerogative again prevailed, however: Joseph II authorized Mozart’s setting of Da Ponte’s prickly but depoliticized libretto from its inception. From a modern perspective, it seems that either Joseph II was a magnanimously tolerant monarch or his appointed guardians of propriety could have benefited from Italian lessons. The social satire and class disparities that lurk within the jocular lines of Da Ponte’s poetry are unmistakable. Perhaps the Emperor merely trusted Mozart to create an opera focused on people and their emotions rather than on social stereotypes and their sardonic implications. This theoretical trust was not misplaced: Da Ponte’s caustic barbs are present in the opera, but Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is predominantly a study of the connections among people, not the contrasts among their social statuses.

Festooning the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater stage with a colorful production shared with Opera Saratoga, where it premièred in June 2016, North Carolina Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro placed Beaumarchais’s, Da Ponte’s, and Mozart’s comedy of conflicting social and amorous ambitions in a deceptively posh environment in which appearances of affluence and propriety were more important than actual wealth and status–unless, of course, even that impression was yet another ruse. Dominated by a black and white checkered floor reminiscent of Notting Hill entrance halls and Graham Vick’s ill-fated 2000 Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s Il trovatore, Caite Hevner Kemp’s scenic designs were evocative more of South Kensington than of Spain but were notably successful at focusing the observer’s attention where Mozart intended it to be. The symmetry of the staging, reflected in Matthew Ozawa’s witty but sensible direction, suited the painstakingly-crafted equilibrium of Mozart’s score, the balance of frivolity and frankness maintained even in the opera’s most madcap moments. In Glenn Avery Breed’s mostly flattering costumes, created by Wardrobe Witchery, the uniformly attractive singers looked as though they emerged from a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Old Vic, dressed to the nines and ready for dinner at Simpson’s in the Strand. Ross Kolman’s well-considered lighting complemented Sondra Nottingham’s wig and makeup designs, as ever models of the elusive art of highlighting singers’ best features without impeding the physical requirements of singing. Producing any of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas in a manner that both honors the composer’s and librettist’s intentions and lures a modern audience into the drama is itself an elusive art, but it is one that North Carolina Opera’s production largely mastered.

In recent seasons, the North Carolina Opera Orchestra has gone from strength to strength, and the musicians’ playing of Le nozze di Figaro continued this trend. From the start of the sparkling Overture, all sections of the orchestra delivered their parts with spirited virtuosity throughout the performance, every trill crisply articulated and triplet perfectly in rhythm. Prepared by Scott MacLeod, the voices of the North Carolina Opera Chorus equaled the exemplary work done by their colleagues in the orchestra pit. In Act One, their singing of ‘Giovani liete, fiori spargete davanti al nobile nostro Signor’ charmingly brought the denizens of Almaviva’s court to life, injecting them into the production as participants in the drama rather than a decorative ensemble with pretty music to sing. The ladies made ‘Ricevete, o padroncina, queste rose e questi fior’ in Act Three a truly affectionate serenade to the Contessa, and ‘Cantiamo, lodiamo sì saggio Signor’ pointedly expressed his subjects’ desire for the Conte to acquiesce to pleas for the abolishment of the loathed droit du seigneur.

Leading his first production for North Carolina Opera, Steven Jarvi conducted with aptly youthful exuberance—Le nozze di Figaro is an opera about people in the primes of their lives, after all—and an abiding concentration that brought the emotional sincerity of the score’s serious passages to the surface without seeming coy or affected. He was aided in this by Laurie Rogers’s mercurial harpsichord playing, an inexhaustible source of inventive harmonic byways that guided secco recitatives with delightful expediency. ​​Only a momentary lapse in coordination between the keyboard, positioned in an orchestra-tier box, stage right, and the principal cellist in the pit disturbed the seamless flow that Rogers achieved. There is considerable debate in the musicological community about the true meanings of Mozart’s tempo markings in relation to modern notions of Eighteenth-Century pacing, but Jarvi’s choices invariably sounded right for the music and the personnel performing it. Combining something of Bruno Walter’s authority in Mozart repertory with dashes of Karl Böhm’s innate dignity and Sir Neville Marriner’s congeniality, Jarvi made a wonderful first impression on the North Carolina Opera podium. More significantly, he identified himself as a young conductor for whom Mozart operas are not a stepping stone along the path to ‘bigger’ repertory but a cherished destination of their own accord.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone TYLER SIMPSON as Figaro (left, behind hedge) and soprano JENNIFER CHEREST as Susanna (right) in North Carolina Opera's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, February 2017 [Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]Pensieri sospetti: Bass-baritone Tyler Simpson as Figaro (left, behind hedge) and soprano Jennifer Cherest as Susanna (right) in North Carolina Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, February 2017
[Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

The talent-laden depths of the pool of artists into which North Carolina’s musical institutions can dive when casting performances yielded an ensemble of singers whose work escorted this Nozze di Figaro into the company of the best productions of the opera to be seen and heard anywhere in the world. As the pair of blushing ‘contadine’ who extol the virtues of faithful lovers in Act Three, soprano Gretchen Bruesehoff and mezzo-soprano Rachel Stenbuck intoned ‘Amanti costanti, seguaci d’onor cantate, lodate sì saggio signor’ with sounds of blissful innocence. Coloratura soprano ​Kathleen Jasinskas was a girlish but surprisingly strong-willed ​Barbarina ​who was a perfect partner in mischief for Cherubino and whose melodiously melancholic andante cavatina in Act Four, ‘L’ho perduta, me meschina,’ was stylishly sung. The Antonio of bass-baritone Eugene Galvin was a grumbling grump who hurled out ‘Ah Signor! Signor!’ in the Act Two finale with such fervor that it seemed that he would have been content to see the unwitting destroyer of his beloved blooms hanged for his crime. ​One of the region’s most gifted young singers, tenor Derek Jackenheimer was similarly effective as the meddling stutterer Don Curzio, enunciating ‘Ei suo padre? ella sua madre?’ in the Act Three sextet with exasperated bewilderment and sonorous tone.

Hearing a voice of the caliber of ​tenor Wade Henderson’s instrument in a rôle like Don ​Basilio is like hearing Heddle Nash or Stuart Burrows sing Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte. The casting of Henderson as Basilio could be cited as the operatic definition of an embarrassment of riches, but the presence of such a singer is a vital component of North Carolina Opera’s success. In the Act One trio with the Conte and Susanna, Henderson sang ‘In mal punto son qui giunto’ with boundless charisma, the words spilling out with the irrepressible banter of a gurgling spring. Henderson’s account of ‘Voi Signor! che giusto siete’ in the Act Two finale was the work of a collaborative artist of exceptional finesse. With so capable a Basilio on hand, the omission of the character’s Act Four aria ‘In quegli anni in cui val poco la mal pratica ragion,’ still common practice, was particularly lamentable. Basilio was created in Nozze di Figaro’s première by Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who also sang Conte Almaviva in the first Viennese production of Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (and who created Curzio in Le nozze di Figaro, as well). Few modern stagings of Mozart’s opera uphold Kelly’s legacy as worthily as North Carolina Opera did by casting Henderson as Basilio.

​​Contralto Alissa Anderson was the rare ​Marcellina who was in no danger of retiring—or who sounded as though she should retire—before the end of the performance. In the hilarious Act One duet with Susanna, Anderson sang ‘Via, resti servita, madama brillante’ splendidly, the voice firm, focused, and filling the theatre with golden sound. Later, her entry with Bartolo and Basilio into the raucous ensemble of the Act Two finale had the force of a sudden tempest, her voicing of ‘Voi Signor! che giusto siete’ bursting forth like a thunderclap. Not even on the most acclaimed recordings of Le nozze di Figaro is Marcellina’s ‘Riconosci in questo amplesso una madre, amato figlio’ in the Act Three sextet sung as well as Anderson sang it in Raleigh. Like Henderson’s Basilio, Anderson’s Marcellina was unfortunately deprived of her Act Four aria, ‘Il capro e la capretta son sempre in amistà,’ but the singer garnered a spontaneous ovation with her adrenalized vow to defend her sex by warning Susanna of looming peril. Even without the aria, Anderson was an extraordinarily enjoyable Marcellina, one who truly sang the rôle. Without a singer of Anderson’s abilities in the part, how many audiences never fully appreciate how enchanting Marcellina’s music can be?

Fresh from boosting the sheer fun of Greensboro Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen with a fabulously flirtatious Zuniga, bass-baritone ​Donald Hartmann added decibels to the Raleigh audience’s laughter with a lovably ludicrous Dottor Bartolo in North Carolina Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro. Bartolo’s best-known music, the aria ‘La vendetta, oh! la vendetta,’ occurs in Act One, just after his first entrance, and as Hartmann sang it in this performance it was one of the afternoon’s musical and comedic peaks. His utterances of both ‘Voi Signor! che giusto siete’ in the Act Two finale and ‘Resistenza la coscienza far non lascia al tuo desir’ in the Act Three sextet generated sparks that ignited the ensembles. Despite the successful but unexpected outcome of his ‘case’ against Figaro, Hartmann’s Bartolo was neither a doctor nor a lawyer that any sane client would entrust with tasks of a life-altering nature, but North Carolina Opera could not have entrusted the task of portraying Bartolo to a better-qualified singing actor.

In his quirky way, Cherubino is as difficult a rôle to cast as any in the Mozart repertory. Clearly-categorized distinctions among soprano and mezzo-soprano and their various sub-Fächer were products of the Nineteenth Century, making Mozart’s designation of Cherubino as a rôle for soprano difficult to decipher in the context of today’s understanding—and, in some instances, misunderstanding—of voice types. More critical than basic tessitura in a singer’s deliberation about whether or not to sing Cherubino should be the question of comfort: does the music fit comfortably in the voice? For mezzo-soprano ​Jennifer Panara, North Carolina Opera’s Cherubino, the answer to that question was indisputably affirmative. Seeming to quicken the pace of the action whenever he was a part of it, this Cherubino was a predictably hot-blooded but disarmingly sweet-natured youth. The breathless Act One aria ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio or di fuoco,’ Jarvi’s tempo for which was brisk but manageable for singer and orchestra, was superlatively sung, the range posing no difficulties for Panara. In Act Two, the nervousness that seized Panara’s Cherubino as he performed the canzone ‘Voi che sapete, che cosa è amor’ for his adored godmother, the Contessa, was at once genuinely funny and touching. The repeated Fs at the top of the stave were projected with absolute ease. The hapless lad in danger of being discovered in the Contessa’s quarters by the raging Conte, the mezzo-soprano’s brightly-hued vocalism exuded anxiety in the duet with Susanna, her cry of ‘Ahimè, che scena orribile’ amusingly anticipating life-threatening calamity. Similar apprehension shone in Panara’s singing of ‘Pian, pianin! le andrò più presso’ in the Act Four finale. Some Cherubinos are so annoying that audiences can be tricked into wondering whether Mozart’s genius failed him to a degree as he wrote the character’s music. Across the full range of the music, Panara’s singing was hearteningly confident, and she was a Cherubino who toyed with the affections, not the nerves.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone STEVE LaBRIE as Conte Almaviva (left) and soprano D'ANA LOMBARD as Contessa Almaviva in North Carolina Opera's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, February 2017 [Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]Il conte e la sua contessa: Baritone Steven LaBrie as Conte Almaviva (left) and soprano D’Ana Lombard as Contessa Almaviva (right) in North Carolina Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, February 2017
[Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

In generations past, America was a bastion of great baritone singing—the land of the free upper registers of singers like Leonard Warren and Sherrill Milnes and the home of the brave dramatic instincts of men like Lawrence Tibbett and Robert Merrill. More dashing than the young Clark Gable, as fit as Johnny Weissmuller, and as debonair as Rudolph Valentino, baritone Steven LaBrie upheld that tradition as a Conte Almaviva who was entirely credible as the man who so handily wins Rosina’s heart in the previous installment in Beaumarchais’s—and, on the operatic stage, Paisiello’s and, later, Rossini’s—continuing saga of amorous intrigue chez Almaviva. A vivid presence in recitative throughout the performance, the dramatic temperature soared whenever LaBrie was on stage. To the Act One trio with Susanna and Basilio he brought a reading of ‘Cosa sento! Tosto andate, e scacciate il seduttor’ that sizzled with erotic tension, and this was handily transformed into jealous aggression in the Act Two trio with the Contessa and Susanna, the baritone​’s exclamation of ‘Susanna, or via, sortite’ fired at the ladies like a shot from the hunting rifle he wielded. With a statement of ‘Esci omai, garzon malnato’ that trembled with testosterone-fueled frustration, LaBrie launched the magnificent Act Two finale, Mozart’s most extended through-composed movement and one of the Eighteenth Century’s greatest works of art. The raw strength of the baritone’s performance never overcame his unerring grasp of Mozart’s style: his most ferocious anger was suave.

At the start of Act Three, LaBrie’s clear diction lent the recitative ‘Che imbarazzo è mai questo!’ uncommon urgency. Allowing vulnerability to dim the sheen of his pride in the duet with Susanna, this Conte revealed a suggestion of loneliness that paralleled his wife’s isolation. The expressivity with which LaBrie phrased ‘Crudel! perchè finora farmi languir così’ was all the more absorbing for being unexpected: there, in those few moments, he was only a man, not a nobleman. With his enunciation of the recitative ‘Hai già vinta la causa’ he reclaimed his thorny insouciance, and his performance of the allegro maestoso aria ‘Vedrò mentr’io sospiro, felice un servo mio’ proved to be one of the afternoon’s musical and dramatic peaks. Neither the trills nor the top F♯ troubled LaBrie, and he delivered ‘Son smarrito, son stordito, meglio è assai di quà partir’ in the sextet with the desperation of a man at the end of his tether. LaBrie’s Conte prowled the garden in pursuit of his intended assignation with Susanna like a boy on the trail of a new toy, and in the opera’s finale he sang first ‘Partito è al fin l’audace’ and then ‘Gente! gente! all’armi! all’armi!’ with explosive excitement. Beaten at his own game, however, the Conte’s andante ‘Contessa, perdono’ was​, as voiced by LaBrie, astonishingly sincere, even heartbreaking. Beyond the licentiousness, the integrity that won Rosina’s love remained. LaBrie was not a Conte content to pose and croon: every note and word of the rôle received his undivided attention, and the audience received from the baritone as intriguing and sympathetic a portrayal of the Conte as has been seen in the years since Hermann Prey relinquished the rôle.

The music that he wrote for her leaves no doubt that Mozart was profoundly affected by Contessa Almaviva’s humiliation, loneliness, and sadness. Betrayed and ignored by her lecherous husband, the man who once wooed her so passionately, she suffers the shame of watching the man she still adores unapologetically romancing other women. Cool-headed even when the drama was at its most feverish, the Contessa of soprano D’Ana Lombard was the serene eye in this operatic hurricane. The Contessa’s entrance aria in Act Two, the larghetto cavatina ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro al mio duolo, a’ miei sospir,’ is one of the most difficult pieces in the soprano repertory. Lombard sang it with excellent breath control and a lovely top A♭. She began to disclose the more volatile elements of her Contessa’s personality with her voicing of ‘Fermatevi! sentite! sortire ella non può’ in the trio with Susanna and the Conte. Interestingly, she rather than Susanna here sang the pair of ascending phrases cresting on top C. Then, in the Act Two finale, the soprano sang ‘Ah Signore, quel furore per lui fammi il cor tremar’ with a surge of defiance that seemed to surprise no one more than herself.

The Contessa’s scene in Act Three is one of Mozart’s most perfect creations, a tableau in which all artifice is stripped away and the audience is left alone with a lady and her purest emotions. Lombard sang the recitative ‘E Susanna non vien?’ timidly, almost tentatively, this Contessa hesitant to grapple with her truest feelings. The sublime andantino aria ‘Dove sono i bei momenti di dolcezza e di piacer’ received from Lombard a traversal distinguished by rounded tones and expertly-managed phrasing. The aria’s allegro second part, ‘Ah se almen la mia costanza nel languire amando ognor,’ was dispatched with growing commitment to rescuing her marriage, asserted with exhilarating top As. It is not without reason that the Contessa’s letter-writing duet with Susanna, ‘Che soave zeffiretto,’ is one of Le nozze di Figaro’s most popular numbers, and Lombard’s attractive singing wholly realized the hypnotic potential of the music. Reveling in the Contessa’s conspiratorial plotting in Act Four, Lombard deployed one of the most dangerous weapons in her arsenal: her smile. At last hearing from the Conte words of contrition, more precious to her than those of affection, Lombard gave voice to the Contessa’s magnanimity with a dulcet ‘Più docile sono, e dico di sì.’ Lombard’s voice was often stronger in the upper octave than in its lower reaches, but she was always audible and unfailingly musical. Dramatically, she was an intelligent, insightful woman who matured before the audience’s eyes from a pouting, self-pitying wife into a self-possessed, gracious, beguiling lady worthy of the title bestowed upon her by marriage.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone TYLER SIMPSON as Figaro (left) and soprano JENNIFER CHEREST as Susanna (right) in North Carolina Opera's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, February 2017 [Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]Lo sposo e la sua sposa: Bass-baritone Tyler Simpson as Figaro (left) and soprano Jennifer Cherest (right) in North Carolina Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, February 2017
[Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

​Details of her spirited portrayal of Zerlina in North Carolina Opera’s 2015 production of Don Giovanni​ lingering in the memory, soprano Jennifer Cherest expanded her Mozartian credentials with a dazzling portrayal of Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Susanna is one of Mozart’s most multidimensional characters, principled and minxish in equal measures, and she is a feast for artists hungry for opportunities to flex their musical and interpretive muscles. Joyously sparring with her groom-to-be, Cherest’s Susanna exercised her well-toned artistic physique in the Act One duet with Figaro with an elated ‘Ora sì ch’io son contenta,’ the sun-kissed sound of the voice communicating the meaning of the words. Debating the wisdom and practicality of a bridal chamber in such proximity to their employers’ respective quarters, Cherest’s Susanna countered Figaro’s arguments with a playful but forceful ‘Così se il mattino il caro Contino.’ The soprano riotously battled with Anderson’s Marcellina in their duet, Cherest making the venomous irony of ‘Non sono sì ardita, madama piccante’ unmistakable. The trio with the Conte and Basilio found her scrambling to regain the upper hand, her ‘Che ruina, me meschina!’ ringing with apprehension, but her victory was crowned with a glorious top A♭.

In the opera’s second act, Cherest sang the first of Susanna’s arias, ‘Venite, inginocchiatevi, restate fermo lì,’ with technical aplomb and consummate understanding of the character’s motivations. The boldness of her singing of ‘Cos’è codesta lite’ in the trio with the Contessa and Conte was terrific, and her vocalism in the duet with Cherubino, ‘Aprite, presto, aprite,’ twinkled with tonal beauty and perfect comedic timing. When Cherest verbalized ‘Signore! Cos’è quel stupore’ in the Act Two finale, the high stakes of the confused tangle of competing interests became startlingly apparent. She reacted to LaBrie’s ardor in their Act Three duet with an insinuating account of ‘Signor, la donna ognora tempo ha di dir di sì,’ and her incendiary ‘Alto, alto, Signor Conte! mille doppie son qui pronte’ in the sextet was phenomenal. The reluctance that shaded Cherest’s vocal acting in the Letter Duet was quickly swept aside by the Contessa’s confidence in the solidity of her plan, her perfectly-tuned singing in thirds with Lombard leading to an easy top B♭. The singer’s emotional engagement in the Act Four recitative ‘Giunse alfin il momento’ was palpable. The performance of the aria ‘Deh vieni, non tardar, o gioia bella’ that followed was mesmerizing, her unforced command of the music’s two-octave range, from A3 to A5, compelling admiration. In the aria’s final phrases, the silence that fell over the theatre was evidence of the expressive power of Cherest’s singing. Her voice glided through the opera’s finale, uniting with Lombard’s in a stirringly cathartic paean to forgiveness. Encountering a full, evenly-produced lyric voice with no weaknesses in any portion of the range of Susanna’s music was a sensational pleasure. Had Cherest’s virtues been solely vocal, she would have been a noteworthy Susanna, but the imagination and sensitivity of her performance made a distinctive Susanna an unforgettable one.

None of Mozart’s other eponymous operatic protagonists is blessed with music that rivals the unadulterated melodic fecundity that the composer lavished on his writing for Figaro. It is possible to pinpoint in the situations faced by the dutiful but disgruntled servant aspects of Mozart’s own unhappy relationship with the intractable Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, his dismissal from whose service precipitated the composer’s relocation to Vienna, but Mozart was too shrewd an artist to undermine his characterizations with anything but the most universal of sentiments. It was therefore wholly appropriate that bass-baritone Tyler Simpson depicted Figaro as a man recognized by every person on stage and in the audience as a familiar figure—the quintessential ‘factotum della città,’ to borrow Rossini’s description. Having contributed an affably scheming Bartolo to North Carolina Opera’s 2016 production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia​, Simpson was a Figaro whose expectation of conjugal bliss gleamed in the Act One duet with Susanna, his measurements of ‘Cinque, dieci, venti, trenta’ cited with glee. Subsequently, more troubling prospects crept into his singing of ‘Se a caso madama la notte ti chiama.’ The jaunty melody of the cavatina ‘Se vuol ballare, signor Contino’ was delivered with robust machismo and resonant top Fs. Establishing his Figaro as the lynchpin of the opera’s action, Simpson brought the curtain down on Act One with a performance of the aria ‘Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso’ that exuded the character’s innate goodness and joie de vivre.

Inserting himself into the fray in the Act Two finale, Simpson’s Figaro painted his proclamation of ‘Signori! di fuori son già i suonatori’ in primary colors that heightened the dramatic significance of the softer pastels of the sotto voce passage with the Contessa and Susanna, ‘Deh Signor, nol contrastate, consolate i miei desir.’ The broad humor with which Simpson limned Figaro’s reunion with his long-lost parents in the Act Three sextet was embodied by the bass-baritone’s delectably droll delivery of ‘Padre mio! fate lo stesso, non mi fate più arrossir.’ Here and in the animated tempo di marcia, ‘Ecco la marcia! andiamo! ai vostri posti,’ however, comedy did not preclude an underlying sobriety from emerging. His Act Four recitative ‘Tutto è disposto’ was phrased with honest feeling, and Simpson sang the aria ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi uomini incauti e sciocchi’ not as a hard-hearted indictment of feminine caprices but as an expression of his own wounded pride, the repeated top E♭s mimicking the blows to his love for Susanna. Simpson voiced the larghetto ‘Tutto è tranquillo e placido’ in the opera’s finale with growing anguish, and the relief that his singing of the andante ‘Pace! pace! mio dolce tesoro’ evinced when he realized that he was fooled into thinking Susanna unfaithful was therefore all the more effective. Simpson’s cunning but courteous Figaro was an ideally doting husband for Susanna, a shrewd ally for the Contessa, and a servant from whom the Conte might learn to be a better master of his own life. For the audience, Simpson was a Figaro who made his marriage an event of lasting felicity. Surrounded by colleagues on stage, in the orchestra pit, and behind the scenes whose love and respect for the score were apparent in every second of the performance, he was a Figaro whose nozze was a privilege to witness.

25 February 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — MESSA DA REQUIEM (J. Bowen Gardner, S. Foley Davis, D. Stein, D. Weigel; UNCG Choral Ensembles & Orchestra; UNCG Auditorium, 24 February 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: Giuseppe Verdi (far right) conducts the 'Ingemisco' in his MESSA DA REQUIEM at Teatro alla Scala in 1874 [Uncredited engraving; public domain]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Messa da RequiemJill Bowen Gardner (soprano), Stephanie Foley Davis (mezzo-soprano), Daniel C. Stein (tenor), David Anderson Weigel (bass-baritone); UNCG Combined Choral Ensembles; UNCG Symphony Orchestra; Dr. Kevin M. Geraldi, conductor [UNCG Auditorium, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 24 February 2017]

The death of Gioachino Rossini on 13 November 1868, was a titanic loss to opera and to the musical institutions of his native Italy. Though his pen had been retired from service to the operatic muse since the completion of Guillaume Tell in 1828, it was Rossini’s music that defined opera in Italy during the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century. From the première of his first professional opera, La cambiale di matrimonio, in 1810 until the first Italian performances of Guglielmo Tell in 1831, the Pesaro-born maestro’s scores dominated the repertories of theatres large and small, his influence extending northward from Venice, Naples, Milan, and Rome to Vienna and Paris, where the composer resided from 1855 until his death. The tenets of bel canto that he refined having been taken up by composers whose names are no longer remembered, been espoused by innovators like Mayr, and paved the way for Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi, it is not surprising that the news of Rossini’s death turned the thoughts of Italy’s musical establishment to commemorating the padre del bel canto in a manner suitable for paying tribute to the legacy of a true pioneer. How else could a man of such enduring importance to an art form and the unique culture of his fatherland be appropriately honored except in the medium of which he was a world-renowned master?

It was Giuseppe Verdi who only four days after Rossini’s death proposed the preparation of a Requiem Mass for performance in Bologna to mark the first anniversary of the sad event. In a letter to the publisher Tito Ricordi, Verdi advocated commissioning components of a Requiem from a number of Italy’s leading composers—some of whom, incidentally, are now recalled by music history almost solely for having been selected to contribute to the Requiem—that could be cobbled together to produce a coherent score for performance in 1869 and, thereafter, permanent consignment to the archives of Pesaro’s Liceo musicale Rossini. Though the thirteen composers to whom portions of the Requiem were assigned submitted their scores by the end of the summer of 1869, the intervention of economics and egos ultimately sank the vessel before its maiden voyage. [The curious reader can become acquainted with the composite Messa per Rossini, rediscovered in 1986, via a generally fine recording on the Hänssler label, conducted by Helmuth Rilling, who led the first known performance of the complete score in 1988 and has since presided over other notable performances of the work.] Its intended use in homage to Rossini thus thwarted, Verdi’s ‘Libera me’ was left as an anchor without a ship until the death of another of Italy’s foremost artists again compelled Verdi to contemplate a Mass of remembrance.

Beyond Italy’s borders, especially among music lovers, the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni is known principally for his death in 1873 having inspired Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. A leading figure in the Risorgimento movement that resulted in the unification of Italy, Manzoni was the author of I promessi sposi, a widely-respected work that is Italy’s equivalent to Don Quixote, Les miserables, and Moby Dick, as well as the source for a fine but forgotten opera by Amilcare Ponchielli. By the time of Manzoni’s death, Verdi had been acquainted with his work for most of his life, I promessi sposi having been published when the composer was in his early teens, and meeting Manzoni in 1868 intensified Verdi’s respect for the writer as one of the champions of Italian unity. When planning his musical farewell to Manzoni, Verdi’s vision included only his own voice expressing both his personal grief and the national sadness. Adapting his earlier ‘Libera me’ to function as the emotional dénouement of a Requiem reflecting his own individual concepts of death and mourning, Verdi readied his Messa da Requiem for performances in Milan in 1874, observing the first anniversary of Manzoni’s demise with the première in Chiesa di San Marco on 22 May 1874, and repeated at Teatro alla Scala less than a week later. Not least owing to the original soloists’ associations with Aida, it is not without reason that some observers have proclaimed the Messa da Requiem Verdi’s greatest opera. As Manzoni would surely have appreciated, there is no lack of drama in the music. In this epic spiritual drama, man’s soul is the protagonist.

In a broad sense, the Messa da Requiem is also the culmination of Verdi’s career-long internal and external struggles with religious authority. His earliest operas hint at suspicion of the true motivations of religious institutions, particularly in Nabucco, the clashes between Abrahamic and pagan beliefs suggesting an unmistakable element of personal conflict. Later, can it be coincidental that the Conte di Luna, the presumed guardian of Catholic morals in Il trovatore, does not balk at the notion of violating the sanctity of a convent in order to abduct the object of his desire? There can be no misunderstanding the contempt for unchecked religious power personified by the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos and Ramfis in Aida, the operas that occupied Verdi in the years just prior to his composition of the Messa da Requiem. Without joining Brahms in discarding the traditional Requiem, Verdi nonetheless created a compellingly original interpretation of the liturgy, focusing on spiritual trials and triumph rather than divine mercy. Verdi’s is neither a saint’s nor a supplicant’s Requiem. The Messa da Requiem is not a solemn plea for repose for a sinner’s soul: it is the battle with sin itself, a contest between will and temptation waged in music of exhilarating, often exquisite grandeur.

Performing the Messa da Requiem is a tremendous undertaking even for the best-funded and ​most ​impeccably-trained orchestras, choral societies, and opera companies. Frequent traversals by Italian opera houses, recent performances by Houston Grand Opera, and the inclusion of the Messa in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2017 – 2018 Season​ are evidence of the overtly operatic demands of the score. It is a ​testament to both the ambitions and the accomplishments of the School of Music in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s College of Visual and Performing Arts that performing the Messa da Requiem was considered within the department’s capabilities, but the true confirmation of the School of Music’s merits was the monumental, moving performance that the university’s musical personnel achieved. Under the direction of Welborn Young and Carole Ott, UNCG’s combined choral forces—the Chamber Singers, University Chorale, Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs, and Women’s Choir—proved equal to the grueling demands of Verdi’s music—music that overwhelms some well-schooled professional ensembles. Likewise, the instrumentalists of the UNCG Symphony Orchestra impressed with their unwavering concentration on the notes and nuances of the score. Practicing what he preaches as Associate Professor of Conducting at UNCG, Dr. Kevin M. Geraldi provided the performance with the centralized sense of purpose that successful pacing of this mammoth piece must have. The Messa da Requiem is undeniably operatic, but it is not an opera, and it cannot be conducted like Stiffelio or Aida. Dr. Geraldi’s conducting was focused solely upon the score rather than externalized impressions of it: in his hands, the text was the lead character in the drama. The emotional muscle of Verdi’s operas is derived from the relationships among the people who populate them, but the potent force of the Messa da Requiem emanates from the composer’s musical responses to the words of the Requiem liturgy. Dr. Geraldi obviously understands this, and his animated but cleanly-articulated conducting ensured that both performers and audience shared his comprehension of the score’s singular requirements.

That the standards of excellence exemplified by the chorus and orchestra are not the exclusive property of UNCG’s current student body was affirmed by the quartet of well-qualified, wholly-prepared soloists assembled for the performance, all of them alumni of the university. A prize-winning veteran of Opera Roanoke’s Apprentice Artists program and San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program, Asheville native bass-baritone David Anderson Weigel brought to Verdi’s Messa da Requiem the same towering presence and vocal solidity that he exhibited in his portrayal of Masetto in North Carolina Opera’s 2015 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Formerly an Opera Carolina Resident Artist, tenor Daniel C. Stein’s singing of Verdi’s music was no less effective than his acclaimed performances as tenor soloist in Händel’s Messiah and Chevalier de la Force in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites with the Winston-Salem Symphony. It was only a few weeks ago that mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis graced the UNCG Auditorium stage as a feisty Mercédès in Greensboro Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen, and her singing in the Messa da Requiem upheld the high caliber of her acclaimed Suzuki in Piedmont Opera’s Madama Butterfly. Her Cio-Cio San in that Winston-Salem recreation of Puccini’s little house overlooking Nagasaki’s harbor was soprano Jill Bowen Gardner, whose gallery of Verdi heroines contains lauded portraits of ladies as diverse as Lady Macbeth and Leonora in Il trovatore. Perhaps most admired in central North Carolina as a Puccini singer, not least in the wake of her triumphant Tosca for Piedmont Opera, Gardner deepened her Verdi credentials with poised, artfully-phrased vocalism in UNCG’s Messa da Requiem. Individually and in ensemble, the soloists’ work displayed an unflappable professionalism that made an extraordinary statement about the qualities that UNCG’s School of Music instills in its graduates. A credit to their alma mater, these four artists sang Verdi’s music more comfortably and effectively than many of the renowned singers whose names recur in the casts of exalted institutions’ and record labels’ performances of the Messa da Requiem.

Dr. Geraldi marshaled the choristers and orchestra with unaffected vigor in a stirring but appropriately-scaled account of the solemnly beautiful andante ‘Requiem æternam dona eis.’ Throughout the performance, the promise of the conductor’s management of the Messa’s opening pages was continually fulfilled, his thoughtful but unflinchingly propulsive tempi and command of an expansive—and obviously well-rehearsed—array of dynamics insightfully limning the music’s shifting light and shade. Plaintively intoning the yearning lines of ‘Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison,’ the soloists introduced themselves with vocalism that complemented the assurance of the choral singing. Their utterances of Verdi’s quietly anguished cries for mercy ringing with absolute sincerity, the mood of contrition was further heightened when Gardner rose to her formidable fortissimo top B.

The most familiar music in the Messa da Requiem is unquestionably the allegro agitato ‘Dies iræ, dies illa solvet sæclum in favilla,’ the anguished strains of which have been appropriated by Hollywood and Madison Avenue for virtually every imaginable cinematic and commercial purpose. The reason for this movement’s popularity beyond the context of the Messa is very simple: it is thrilling, immediately-recognizable music that compels attention even when its unapologetically ferocious depiction of the final judgment is ignored. The choristers’ singing here was astoundingly confident, the sopranos’ intonation especially commendable in the crucial chromatic writing with which Verdi evoked apocalyptic tumult. What in some performances is an embarrassing muddle was in this performance always music, the few mistakes among singers and instrumentalists quickly surmounted. Launched by the basses, ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum per sepulchra regionum’ exuded an aura of uncertainty that Weigel heightened with his sonorous delivery of ‘Mors stupedit et natura cum resurget creatura.’ Foley Davis voiced ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’ with broad phrasing and intrepid ascents to top F♯ and A♭, answered by the chorus with the organic communication of a celebrant and her congregation. The trio for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor on ‘Quid sum miser tunc dicturus’ was sung by Gardner, Foley Davis, and Stein with textual and emotional clarity, the soprano’s top B like a beacon illuminating the darkest niches of the auditorium.

The soloists and choristers in turn created in the ‘Rex tremendæ majestatis’ an aural panorama of precisely the sort of omnipotent majesty evinced by the text and Verdi’s setting of it. Gardner’s shining, secure top C was not a diva’s ‘money note’ but an extension of the composer’s voice, employed with an apt sense of awe. Carefully navigating the intervals in Verdi’s sinuous writing in the ‘Recordare Jesu pie,’ Gardner and Foley Davis blended their voices sumptuously, maximizing the impact of the harmonic discord of the fusion of the soprano’s B♭5 and the mezzo-soprano’s C4. Stein then voiced the spellbinding ‘Ingemisco tamquam reus’ captivatingly, unleashing a climactic top B♭ worthy of a persuasive Radamès. The contrasting force and suavity with which Weigel subsequently sang ‘Confutatis maledictis’ and the dolce cantabile ‘Voca me cum benedictis’ enhanced appreciation of the sentimental acuity of Verdi’s treatment of the words. The soloists and choir shaped their performance of ‘Lacrymosa dies illa’ with tenderness, Foley Davis giving the passage marked ‘piangente’ a special outpouring of beautiful tone. As the movement progressed to its resolution, further top B♭s were demanded of the soprano soloist, and Gardner delivered with little discernible expenditure of effort.

What the ‘Dies iræ’ claims in widespread familiarity the ‘Offertorio’ matches in expressive substance. Overcoming faltering intonation from the cellos in the opening bars, the solo quartet phrased the pensive ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ with deeply-felt eloquence, infusing their singing of the open vowels with warmth. Entering on a long-held E at the top of the stave, Gardner exquisitely conveyed the time-halting magic of Verdi’s writing. The contrapuntal construction of ‘Quam olim Abrahæ promisti et semini ejus’ was managed with fleet flexibility by singers and conductor, each voice always audible. Beginning the sublime adagio ‘Hostias et preces tibi’ with raptly hushed singing, Stein displayed wonderful breath control and made respectable attempts at the trills that many tenors are all too eager to overlook. The reprise of ‘Quam olim Abrahæ’ brimmed with tested but resilient faith, the dialogue among the voices like the exchange of thematic material among the manuals and pedals of an organ.

The mighty fugue for double chorus that transforms the text of ‘Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Domine Deus Sabaoth’ into sounds that submerge the listener like a musical avalanche was sung with vigor and potency that were truly remarkable for a student ensemble. The few slips in ensemble were righted without disrupting the pulsing momentum of the music. In this, the choristers were backed with faultless synchronicity by the orchestra. The musicians’ playing also belied their youth, the high strings reliably—and refreshingly—in tune and the brasses and woodwinds conquering very difficult writing with fantastically vibrant results.

Epitomizing the unteachable simplicity that is the essence of the art that conceals art, Gardner’s and Foley Davis’s singing in octaves in the andante dolcissimo ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi’ provided a masterclass in genuine bel canto. The lesson was not lost on the chorus, their singing perpetuating the atmosphere of reverence instigated by the ladies’ vocalism. Verdi entrusted the first phrases of ‘Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine’ to the mezzo-soprano soloist, and it is difficult to imagine that he could have expected them to be sung more handsomely and incisively than Foley Davis sang them in Greensboro. Following her lead, Stein and Weigel offered their most subtle singing of the evening, joining with the mezzo-soprano in a reading of the music that truly shone with the glow of the eternal light of which they sang.

From a singer’s perspective, Verdi’s writing for the soprano soloist in the moderato, senza misura ‘Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna’ that ends the Messa da Requiem is not unlike Mount Everest. For those capable of reaching its summit, the view from on high is wondrous, but the path to the craggy peak is strewn with the corpses of insufficiently-prepared voices. Supported by Dr. Geraldi’s sustainable tempo and the choristers’ attention to rhythmic and intonational accuracy, Gardner scaled the heights and the depths of the music with equal authority. Restoring tranquility after a reprise of the tempestuous ‘Dies iræ,’ the soprano’s top B♭ in the restatement of ‘Requiem æternam’ floated above the chorus with serene composure. The score’s final fugue was dispatched with zeal. After the ‘lunga pausa’ prescribed by Verdi, the ‘Libera me’ again resounded with fortitude, Gardner’s extended forte top C soaring heavenward. So much angst having been expended in the course of Verdi’s exploration of human mortality and the soul’s transition from life to whatever lurks beyond death, the score’s final bars are marked pppp, almost a murmur of exhaustion in the wake of the final struggle. In UNCG’s performance, these moments of peace were touchingly cathartic.

Had none of his operas endured until the Twenty-First Century, the Messa da Requiem would be sufficient proof of Verdi’s genius. In this phenomenal score, the composer both bade farewell to an artist of seminal importance and confronted personal demons that haunted his music from the beginning of his career. Verdi’s operas are filled with brilliant, difficult music, but the music of the Messa da Requiem possesses unique luminosity and demands. Framed by introspective projections created by the university’s School of Art, UNCG’s performance of the Messa da Requiem evinced that luminosity by meeting those demands with imperturbable musicality. This performance was not a lamentation of death and loss but a celebration of the countless victories of life.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Soprano JILL BOWEN GARDNER, mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS, tenor DANIEL C. STEIN, bass-baritone DAVID ANDERSON WEIGEL, and conductor DR. KEVIN M. GERALDI accepting the audience's applause for UNCG School of Music's performance of Giuseppe Verdi's MESSA DA REQUIEM, 24 February 2017 [Photo by the author]Bravi, tutti: (from left to right): Soprano Jill Bowen Gardner, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis, tenor Daniel C. Stein, bass-baritone David Anderson Weigel, and conductor Dr. Kevin M. Geraldi accepting the audience’s applause for UNCG School of Music’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, 24 February 2017
[Photo by the author]

17 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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