07 December 2016

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — MANON LESCAUT (A. Netrebko, Y. Eyvazov, A. Piña, C. Chausson, B. Bernheim, E. Anstine, P. Vogel, S. Vörös; Deutsche Grammophon 479 6828)

IN REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - MANON LESCAUT (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6828)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Manon LescautAnna Netrebko (Manon Lescaut), Yusif Eyvazov (Il cavaliere Renato des Grieux), Armando Piña (Lescaut), Carlos Chausson (Geronte di Ravoir), Benjamin Bernheim (Edmondo), Erik Anstine (L’oste, Un sergente), Patrick Vogel (Il maestro di ballo, Un lampionaio), Szilvia Vörös (Un musico), Simon Shibambu (Un comandante di marina), Daliborka Miteva (Madrigalista), Martina Reder (Madrigalista), Cornelia Sonnleithner (Madrigalista), Ariana Holecek (Madrigalista); Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Marco Armiliato, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at the 2016 Salzburger Festspiele, Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria, in August 2016; Deutsche Grammophon 479 6828; 2 CDs, 127:50; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

His early operas Le villi and Edgar, both scores with undeniable though hardly abundant merits, never having claimed places in the standard repertory, it is with Manon Lescaut that Giacomo Puccini's three-decade career as the master of sentimental music drama began in the esteem of most opera lovers. Premièred at the Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1893, with soprano Cesira Ferrani—also Puccini’s first Mimì in La bohème three years later—in the title rôle and tenor Giuseppe Cremonini as Chevalier des Grieux, an adaptation for the Italian stage of Abbé Prévost’s 1831 saga L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut for was a daring choice for the thirty-something composer and his proponents. Though it was not until eight months after the première of Manon Lescaut that Jules Massenet’s Manon reached Italy, news of the phenomenal success of Massenet’s opera had flowed southward over the Alps for nearly a decade by the time that Manon first met her tragic end in italiano on the stage of Milan’s Teatro Carcano on 19 October 1893. Respectively published by the rival firms Casa Sonzogno and Casa Ricordi, there is no doubting that Massenet’s and Puccini’s scores were subjected to publicity-stunt rivalries. Intriguingly, though, it was a Manon judiciously reworked to more closely resemble Manon Lescaut that besieged Milan. Gone was Massenet’s pivotal Cours de la Reine scene, but ‘in’ were a new, evocative Italian translation of the libretto and widespread revisions to the score. Despite Puccini’s vow to eschew the ‘powder and minuets’ of Massenet’s quintessentially Gallic retelling of Prévost’s story, there is a certain heady sophistication amidst the churning emotions of Manon Lescaut. As Puccini asserted and the heroine of this recording of Manon Lescaut, internationally-acclaimed soprano Anna Netrebko, would surely agree, as multidimensional a woman as Manon can have more than one lover, and the Italian composer pressed his suit with music that retains its magnetism after 113 years.

Puccini the orchestrator seldom receives the appreciation that he deserves, even his La fanciulla del West and Turandot, Puccini’s most progressive works, seldom being praised for the ingenuity of their scoring. From the bustling open pages of Act One to the opera’s evocative Intermezzo, Manon Lescaut exhibits the flair for orchestration that would produce its most luscious fruits in the final fifteen years of Puccini’s career. Under the well-honed, authentically Italianate guidance of conductor Marco Armiliato, a familiar presence in performances of Puccini repertory throughout the world, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester musicians provide this Manon Lescaut with a vibrant setting redolent both of Puccini’s Romanticized Italy and of Prévost’s France. An aptly French cosmopolitanism permeates the orchestral playing, complemented by welcome doses of take-no-prisoners Italian temperament and Teutonic discipline. The high standard set by the instrumentalists’ work is upheld by the excellent singing of the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. Whether portraying the rowdy patrons of the Amiens tavern or the abusive populace of Le Havre, the choristers balance characterful singing with well-schooled ensemble. The efforts of both orchestra and chorus benefit from Armiliato’s sensible tempi. The conductor provides his leading lady with the frame in which to display her portrait of Puccini’s tempestuous heroine without seeming to passively indulge her. There is no doubt that the soul of this Manon Lescaut resides upon the stage, but the spine of the performance is in the pit, where it belongs.

In generations past, the concept of ‘festival casting’ suggested a level of artistic quality in the context of a major festival like the Salzburger Festspiele that exceeded the everyday achievements of opera companies in their regular seasons. Salzburg’s cast for this Manon Lescaut recaptures some of that now-elusive allure, filling supporting rôles with voices of leading-rôle potential. Anchoring the relay team of promising young artists, South African bass-baritone Simon Shibambu delivers the Comandante di marina’s few words with wonderful presence. Singing attractively, American bass Erik Anstine impresses as both L’oste in Act One and Un sergente in Act Three. Also embracing double duty, German tenor Patrick Vogel voices Il maestro di ballo’s ‘Un po’ elevato il busto’ in Act Two and Un lampionaio’s ‘...e Kate rispose al re’ in Act Three with fine, focused tones.

Singing the rôle of the anonymous Musico who serenades Manon in Act Two, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Szilvia Vörös, winner of the First Éva Marton International Singing Competition, dispatches ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte erri, o Clori’ lusciously, her timbre ideally suited to the music. She is backed dulcetly by the Madrigalisti of sopranos Daliborka Miteva and Martina Reder and mezzo-sopranos Cornelia Sonnleithner and Ariana Holecek. The ladies create a formidable ensemble, uniting their voices in a wall of sound that is handsomely adorned by the intricately-woven tapestry of Puccini’s faux-Baroque madrigal.

The singing of French tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Edmondo is one of this performance’s foremost strengths. His spirited depiction of the boisterous young student’s humor and hubris enlivens Act One. The opera’s rollicking opening scene begins with an account of ‘Ave, sera gentile, che discendi col tuo corteo di zeffiri e di stelle’ in which Bernheim’s vocalism is as fresh and free as the music itself. Later, he sings ‘Addio mia stella, addio mio fior’ with insinuating subtlety. The irony of ‘Vecchietto amabile, incipriato Pluton sei tu!’ is anything but subtle, but it is sung so appealingly that it for once seems merely jocular rather than truly mean-spirited. Bernheim’s Edmondo is a fun-loving fellow who makes easy going of the top G♯s, As, and B of his part. The only regret inspired by Bernheim’s performance is that Edmondo appears only in Act One.

Spanish bass-baritone Carlos Chausson is a great asset to the performance as the vindictive roué Geronte di Ravoir, the veteran singer’s voice still as steady as the character’s practiced flirtation is vile. With his vivid but unexaggerated singing in Act One, Chausson makes Geronte’s infatuation with Manon palpable: listening to his exchanges with Lescaut, the old man’s rapacious lust is unmistakable. In Act Two, his singing of ‘Affé, madamigella, or comprendo il perché di nostr’attesa!’ exudes the impotent rage of a man whose pride has been deflated by his lover’s betrayal. Chausson’s Geronte is not all bluster, however: in the quieter moments of his interaction with Manon before Des Grieux’s arrival, there are suggestions of gentleness and legitimate affection in his demeanor. There is no question that Geronte is a caddish, spoiled misogynist, but Chausson, consistently singing well, gives the hateful codger an unexpected vein of humanity.

The rôle of Lescaut, Manon’s brother in Puccini’s opera [he is her cousin in Massenet’s Manon], is in many ways a thankless part. The casts of many performances of Manon Lescaut are promoted as Soprano Lead, Tenor Lead, and Some Other People, but a lackluster Lescaut can markedly dim the wattage of several of Puccini’s most illuminating scenes. In this Manon Lescaut, Mexican baritone Armando Piña is a Lescaut who works hard to match the vocal lumina emitted by his high-profile colleagues. Lescaut is something of an enigma, his agenda never wholly obvious, but Piña lets the music speak for itself. Taking charge of Act One like an amiable but self-serving master of ceremonies, his Lescaut seems to be at the center of every plot, and the baritone voices ‘Certo, certo, ho più sana la testa di quel che non sembri’ robustly. In Act Two, this Lescaut sounds as bored as his sister, and Piña sings ‘Ah! che insieme delizioso! Sei splendida e lucente!’ with a wonderful flash of boyish glee. The contrast with ‘È il vecchio tavolier (per noi) tal quale cassa del danaro universale!’ could hardly be greater. Manon is an unabashed but idealistic materialist, but Lescaut, no less an opportunist, always has an eye turned towards the consequences of his and others’ decisions. Piña does not ignore the callousness of Lescaut’s character, but, like Chausson, he strives to make the part atypically sympathetic. Lescaut’s tessitura is high, and there are rough patches in Piña’s negotiations of it, but his is an earnest, ably-sung performance that reflects thorough preparation.

Netrebko’s husband off the stage, Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov joins her compellingly on the stage in this performance of Manon Lescaut, strengthening the drama by making Renato des Grieux a genuine protagonist rather than merely another of Manon’s admirers. Entering in Act One with the brooding sensitivity of Werther or Hoffmann, Eyvazov sings ‘L’amor! L’amor?! Questa tragedia, ovver commedia, io non conosco!’ impetuously, notes and words pealed out insouciantly. The tenor’s voice tends to blare above the stave, especially when dynamics rise above mezzo forte, and his vocalism can be monotonous. Still, the delicacy of ‘Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde si nasconde giovinetta vaga e vezzosa’ is not lost on him, and he phrases ‘Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!’ with red-blooded passion that crests on easy, secure top B♭s. In duet with Manon, this Des Grieux holds nothing back, matching his partner decibel for decibel. Bursting in on Manon’s comfortable but listless cohabitation with Geronte in Act Two, Eyvazov depicts a figure not unlike Mozart’s Donna Elvira, disenfranchised and entranced at once. His elation turning to desperation as Geronte’s vengeance is enacted, the tenor’s singing grows ever more intense, culminating in a piercing ‘Ah! Manon, mi tradisce il tuo folle pensier’ of cataclysmic dramatic force. Their timbres are very different, the younger tenor’s brighter and more metallic, but Eyvazov’s daring, driven singing in this performance often recalls that of Francesco Merli, the first recorded Des Grieux. Act Three of Manon Lescaut is a veritable obstacle course for the tenor, and the fact that Eyvazov emerges unscathed from the act’s final anguished utterance is a testament to the solidity of his technique. His deliveries of ‘Dietro al destino mi traggo livido’ and ‘Manon, disperato, è il mio prego!’ are viscerally exciting, but it is his ‘Ah! non v’avvicinate! Ché, vivo me, costei nessun strappar potrà!’ that lingers in the memory. The upper register is pushed, but it responds without serious weakness, only an openness on the highest tones prompting lasting concern. In many performances of Manon Leacaut, the expiring heroine dominates Act Four to such an extent that the brief act seems like an extended solo scene. Here, though, Eyvazov does not allow the listener to forget that this is also Des Grieux’s tragedy. The desolation of his ‘Tutta su me ti posa, o mia stanca diletta’ is wrenching, and he heeds Puccini’s ‘con passione infinita’ instructions in his pained articulation of ‘Un funesto delirio ti percote, t’offende.’ Also featured alongside Netrebko in selections on her Deutsche Grammophon disc Verismo and recently acclaimed as Calàf under Gustavo Dudamel’s baton in a Wiener Staatsoper revival of Turandot, Eyvazov is rapidly establishing his credentials as a valuable interpreter of Italian repertory. More refulgent than refined, he is not yet a highly-polished artist, but as recorded here he is a savvy, sonorous Des Grieux.

Thus far in her career, Manon Lescaut is the Puccini heroine that Netrebko has most made her own. Her Mimì in La bohème, unfailingly touching, has generally lacked the unforgettable frailty of Rosanna Carteri’s portrayal or Mirella Freni’s unaffected sweetness, but the Russian soprano’s Manon Lescaut, not unlike her much-appreciated depiction of Massenet’s Manon, possesses consummate musicality and a sharply-etched dramatic profile. Netrebko’s is not a conventionally Italianate voice, but it can be and in this performance often is a very beautiful one. Her rôle début as Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin in Dresden, earlier this year, was nothing short of revelatory, clearly indicating one path open to Netrebko as her career progresses. At times, her Manon in this performance wields a Wagnerian grandeur, honoring the tradition of Marcella Pobbe and Renata Tebaldi, both persuasive Elsas, albeit in Italian. Missing from this performance are Licia Albanese’s near-perfect command of Puccini’s style, Dorothy Kirsten’s vocal unflappability, and Magda Olivero’s boundless charisma, but Netrebko’s Manon is a memorable portrayal in its own right, an insightfully-concocted melange of the best aspects of her artistry. When she intimates ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ in Act One, this Manon immediately has Des Grieux—and the listener, for that matter—in the palm of her hand. Innocence, while not inherently objectionable, equates with inexperience and missed opportunities, and Netrebko is a Manon who is anxious to get on with the business of living. For her, love is an adventure, not a commitment. Nevertheless, Netrebko’s singing of ‘Una fanciulla povera son io’ radiates sincerity, and the sheltered young girl’s contrived coquetry is gradually transformed into fanciful jubilation as she duets with Des Grieux. In Act Two, Netrebko sings Manon’s aria ‘In quelle trine morbide’ beautifully, soaring to the top B♭s without worry, and her top C in the subsequent duet with Lescaut gleams. Netrebko is at her most charming in Manon’s gavotte, ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella,’ phrasing the number with elegance. Reunited with Des Grieux, she unleashes a deluge of emotion in ‘Tu, tu, amore? Tu? Sei tu, ah, mio immenso amore? Dio!’

Epitomized by her readings of ‘Io voglio il tuo perdono’ and the desperate outbursts of Act Three, not least the ecstatic top C on her dejected ‘Addio’ to Des Grieux and Leacaut, this is Netrebko’s most expressive performance on disc to date; and, along with her touching portrayal of the title rôle in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, also her most beautifully-sung. In the brief span of Act Four, Netrebko the diva is wholly absorbed by Manon Lescaut the tragic heroine. She voices ‘Sola... perduta, abbandonata... in landa desolata!’ with enthralling immediacy, demanding that the listener look with her into the face of death. The climactic top B♭ is her cry of surrender, the moment at which reality banishes her illusions. As Netrebko inflects the words, ‘Io t’amo tanto... e muoio!’ becomes a sort of philosophical mantra of her Manon. Her ‘Le mie colpe... travolgerà l’oblio... ma... l’amor mio... non muore’ is shaped less by selfishness and self-pity than by a longing for Des Grieux to cling to memories of a happier past. The deficiency of Act Four of Manon Lescaut is that, unlike Mimì’s, Cio-Cio San’s, and Liù’s demises, the soprano must consciously strive to give Manon’s death histrionic gravity. Netrebko succeeds, not by overdoing the melodrama of the opera’s final scene but by having theretofore created a Manon who engages the senses and garners the listener’s affection. The soprano’s experience with Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder is put to good use: hers is a Manon Lescaut whose final moments movingly convey a Straussian acceptance of the inevitable. The tragedy is not to die but to die without having made peace with life. Aided by a fine ensemble of singers and musicians and a conductor whose sensibilities harmonize with her own, one of today’s most famous singers here bequeaths to posterity a recording of an interpretation that nobly justifies her reputation.

04 December 2016

BEST INSTRUMENTAL SOLO RECORDING OF 2016: Johann Sebastian Bach — GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, BWV 988 (Ignacio Prego, harpsichord; Glossa GCD 923510)

BEST INSTRUMENTAL SOLO RECORDING OF 2016: Johann Sebastian Bach - GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, BWV 988 (Glossa GCD 923510)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Goldberg Variations, BWV 988Ignacio Prego, harpsichord [Recorded in Centro Cultural La Torre, Guadarrama, Spain, in July 2015; Glossa GCD 923510; 1 CD, 79:08; Available from NAXOS Direct, fnac (France), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

​In a musical history from which so many pages are exasperatingly missing, one episode in the career of Johann Sebastian Bach that is at least moderately well-documented is his composition of the so-called Goldberg Variations. Unlike the vast majority of Bach’s many works, the aria and its thirty variations were published during the composer’s lifetime, appearing in print in 1741 in copies pressed from hand-engraved, error-filled copper plates prepared in Nürnberg by Bach’s acquaintance Balthasar Schmid. Bearing the title ‘Clavier Ubung bestehend in einer ARIA mit verschiedenen Verænderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen,’ the Schmid edition leaves no doubt that Bach intended for the work to be performed on a double-manual harpsichord, a conclusion further solidified by corrections in the composer’s own hand in one of the nineteen surviving copies from Schmid’s initial print run. Even with this wealth of evidence, though, there are unanswered—and now likely to remain unanswerable—questions about the genesis of the Goldberg Variations. If the oft-repeated story suggesting that the variations were composed in fulfillment of an explicit commission from an insomniac Russian aristocrat is credible, why does the score have no dedication to the patron to whom its existence was owed, and why, if intended solely for private performance, was Bach allowed to publish it?

​A logical point at which to begin wrangling with the variations’ enigmas is the obvious question suggested by the title by which the work came to be identified: who was Goldberg? Born in the Prussian town of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) in 1727, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg had achieved the advanced age of fourteen by the time that the variations that now carry his surname were published, a circumstance that has led some Bach biographers to dismiss as apocryphal the notion that the variations were composed for the adolescent Goldberg to play on demand for the soothing of his employer, Count Hermann-Karl von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to Saxony. Mozart, Mendelssohn, and virtually any of Bach’s children could certainly have played—or written, for that matter—the variations at the age of fourteen, and Goldberg having garnered aristocratic patronage and contact with Bach at an early age suggests some degree of precocity. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the adolescent Goldberg was to his master what Farinelli was in his retirement to the Spanish court, an exceptional talent reserved for private enjoyment. In spite of gnawing inquisitiveness, though, to concentrate too much on solving what is now likely to remain an inscrutable mystery is perhaps to overlook the greatest thrill of the Goldberg Variations: experiencing them as their still-unidentified first performer and hearer must have known them more than two centuries ago.

Playing a clarion-toned harpsichord built in Milan in 2004 in the mode of a Christian Vater instrument dating from 1738, Spanish harpsichordist Ignacio Prego surprises, educates, and gladdens the listener wearied by lifeless, pedantic performances of Bach’s music with a sparkling, stimulating traversal of the Goldberg Variations. One of his generation’s most ruminative artists, one whose talents as a soloist were confirmed by his superb Cantus Records recording of Bach’s French Suites [reviewed here] and whose expertise in continuo playing is revealed on the recently-released Glossa disc featuring music from Cervantes-inspired operas by Antonio Caldara [The Cervantes Operas featuring La Ritirata and Josetxu Obregón—Glossa GCD 923104], Prego brings to his playing of the Goldberg Variations an exuberant youthfulness tempered by profound respect for both the music and previous interpretations of it. In this performance, there is never a sense of a young musician making radical choices solely for the sake of putting his idiosyncratic ‘stamp’ on the music. Rather, Prego has clearly studied and appreciated the efforts of Bach interpreters ranging from Wanda Landowska (and her magnificently anachronistic Pleyel harpsichord)​ ​and lead-wristed pianists​​ ​to more recent, historically-informed practitioners. There are many harpsichordists capable of playing the Goldbergs proficiently, but mastery of this music depends upon skills only partially governed by technique: imagination and individuality. Bach was an innovator, and his works are frequently mistreated by performers who follow fads rather than the music. On this disc, however, Bach’s music is in exceptionally loving, properly-guided hands.

Presented with the informed advocacy of a doctoral thesis on the interpretation of the variations, Prego’s performance begins with an account of the Aria that truly sings, the player’s measured tempo enabling atypically clear articulation—and appreciation on the listener’s part—of the subject that is subsequently so adroitly handled by the composer. Throughout his performance, Prego shapes each variation like a paragraph in a continuous narrative, the first pair of variations phrased with keen focus on Bach’s use of the source thematic material. The third variation, Canone all’ Unisuono, receives a performance that revels in the music’s contrapuntal intricacies without turning the piece into a dull academic treatise. Vitality is at the heart of Prego’s playing of the fourth and fifth variations, as well, and the expressive harmonic nuances of the sixth variation, Canone alla Seconda, are drawn to the surface by the young harpsichordist’s wonderful animation of inner voices. The subtle transitions of mood and chromatic twists in the seventh and eighth variations here lead organically to the brilliant virtuosity exhibited in the ninth and tenth variations, Canone alla Terza and Fughetta. For the next pair of variations, culminating in the Canone alla Quarta of the twelfth, Prego summons a burst of interpretive energy that he channels into the darkest recesses of the music, spotlighting thematic links lurking in the densest passages. This spirit of adventure persists in his deliveries of the very different thirteenth and fourteenth variations, the undulating melodic lines of which are traced with determined delicacy. Notable throughout the variations is the combination of strength and softness that Prego employs: passages that demand raw power receive it, but the prevailing lyricism of Prego’s playing, disclosing felicities in Bach’s writing that remain hidden in many other keyboardists’ performances, gives compelling credence to the notion of the Goldbergs having been composed to soothe a restless mind. The Canone alla Quinta of the fifteenth variation blossoms under Prego’s care, Bach’s treatment of the principal subject illuminated by the unexaggerated lightness of the harpsichordist’s approach. Some musicians are ostensibly inclined to toil at making this music sound important: Prego is content to allow the variations’ importance to emerge by pursuing no agenda but Bach’s.

With the Ouverture of the sixteenth variation, Prego figuratively begins the Goldbergs’ homeward journey, christening the voyage with an effervescent toast to the Ouverture’s musical landscape. The crispness of his executions of Bach’s ornaments contrasts marvelously with the graceful flow of his playing. The transition to the seventeenth variation has the unforced awe of rounding a curve in the road and seeing a wholly new vista, and the Canone alla Sexta of the eighteenth variation transforms that vista with the diverting novelty of a kaleidoscope. The linear momentum of the nineteenth and twentieth variations surges from Prego’s fingers but never at the expense of the music’s latent poise. From the bustling interplay of voices in the twenty-first variation’s Canone alla Settima, the sequence of the twenty-second and twenty-third variations progresses naturally, never hurried, to the fugal kinesis of the twenty-fourth variation’s Canone all’ Ottava. Similarly, the tuneful springs of variations twenty-five and twenty-six, tapped by Prego with especially sensitive playing, feed the deluge of invention that gushes from the Canone alla Nona of the twenty-seventh variation. Prego dedicates particular attention to the thematic relationships woven into the resplendent fabrics of the final three variations, facilitating heightened recognition of the triadic structures that Bach utilized throughout the Goldbergs. Whether the remarkable mathematical precision of Bach’s work was achieved by design or arose unintentionally from his unparalleled skill for fostering musical symbiosis, the Goldbergs are essentially a brilliant algorithm, one enacted by Prego with the computational genius of René Descartes. Still more rewarding is the emotional directness with which the harpsichordist bares the souls of variations twenty-eight and twenty-nine, every note of his performances allied with its purpose within the scope of the Goldbergs. So, too, is the Quodlibet of the final variation given expertly-judged emphases on both its individual qualities and its function within the Goldbergs as an unified entity. In his playing of the Aria’s da capo​, Pregro resolves the cycle with a potent reminder of the sentiments that provided the journey with its expressive destination. This is no carbon copy of the opening Aria, however. Prego evokes a conscious feeling of fulfillment, his unerring musical stewardship having led the listener into the presence of the true spirit of the Goldbergs and into the wondrous heart of Bach’s creativity.

The musical milieux of the first half of the Eighteenth Century inspire many confounding questions among modern musicologists, musicians, and audiences. To precisely which pitch were instruments in a particular venue tuned? How did the realization of continuo in one city differ from those in other cities? How did the voices of great castrati like Farinelli and Senesino truly sound? Alongside such queries as these, the questions of for whose performance and for whose enjoyment the Goldberg Variations were intended seem largely insignificant, especially considering that questions of provenance have—or should have—little effect on performance of the music. That Ignacio Prego is an accomplished technician is apparent as soon as his fingers cause plectra to make contact with strings, but the finest aspects of his artistry emerge when the sounds that result from his playing cause listeners to surrender their preconceptions and prejudices to the seduction of music in its most distilled forms. In his performance of the Goldberg Variations, this gifted young musician renders the music’s lingering conundra inconsequential. What matters is the quality of the music, and this music has never sounded more beautiful, searching, or revolutionary than in Ignacio Prego’s performance on this indispensable disc.

03 December 2016

ARTS IN ACTION: Coloratura coronation — Soprano JESSICA PRATT to début at The Metropolitan Opera as Mozart’s Königin der Nacht on 20 December 2016

COLORATURA CORONATION: Soprano JESSICA PRATT, débuting at The Metropolitan Opera as Mozart's Königin der Nacht on 20 December 2016 [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega; used with permission]Schöne Königin: Soprano Jessica Pratt, débuting at The Metropolitan Opera as Die Königin der Nacht in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on 20 December 2016
[Photo by Benjamin Ealovega; used with permission]

Mimi Benzell, Lucia Popp, Cristina Deutekom, Colette Boky, Rita Shane, Edita Gruberová, Luciana Serra, Laura Aikin. In the 116 years since the company's first performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on 30 March 1900, these are some of the acclaimed singers whose voices were first heard at The Metropolitan Opera in the stratospheric reaches of the Königin der Nacht’s music. Sung in the opera’s 1791 première in Vienna’s Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, the capacity of which is estimated by historians to have numbered no more than a thousand seats, by Josepha Hofer, eldest sister of Mozart’s wife Constanze, the Königin der Nacht joined rôles in operas by Ignaz Holzbauer, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Antonio Salieri in the ranks of the most daunting parts composed for the soprano voice in the second half of the Eighteenth Century. Hofer retained her brother-in-law’s cantankerous Königin in her repertory for a decade before her retirement from the stage in 1805, and in her footsteps an astonishing array of singers have followed, ranging from high coloraturas like Lily Pons and Erika Köth to more dramatic voices like those of Zdzisława Donat and Edda Moser. So great are the Königin’s trials that even a singer as renowned for her easy mastery of high tessitura as Dame Joan Sutherland employed downward transpositions in her few performances of the rôle. Requiring no adjustments to Mozart’s fiendish music and already widely celebrated for her fearlessness in traversing musical terrain where many singers rightly fear to tread, soprano Jessica Pratt is uniquely qualified to bring fresh sparkle to the Königin’s diadem when she débuts at The Metropolitan Opera on 20 December 2016, reigning over the family-oriented, holiday-season revival of Julie Taymor’s groundbreaking production of Die Zauberflöte. Hark, opera lovers: as Die drei Damen exclaim in Act One, ‘Sie kommt!’ Here is the rare Queen of the Night worthy of her starry crown.

Her sensational technical acumen notwithstanding, Pratt’s Königin der Nacht for the MET, which will be sung in J. D. McClatchy’s English translation, will not be solely a vocal phenomenon. As she revealed in a recent exchange, she is not only cognizant of the legacy of the ladies who have donned the Königin’s mantle in years past but has also deeply pondered the character’s emotions and motivations. For Pratt, bringing the Königin to life necessitates the fostering of a delicate but unassailable equilibrium between music and drama. ‘To not let the fury of the part ruin the vocal line, to find the right balance between portraying her anger and frustration and keeping an accuracy and a good quality in the vocal line and in the tone of the voice,’ she cites as the foremost principles that guide her interpretation of this fascinating woman. Pursuing this balance puts both the voice and the mind on the right path, she suggests—and proves with her performances, not least in her 2011 rôle and house débuts as Die Königin at London’s Royal Opera House.

Ever a practical creature of the theatre as well as a lofty-minded artist, Pratt is alert to the non-vocal difficulties posed by the Königin. ‘The other challenge for me,’ she confides, ‘is all the time I have on my hands between arias! The main bulk of my repertoire consists of rôles [in which], once I go on stage, I usually remain on stage and come off again at the end of the opera, three or four hours later. There’s no time to get nervous.’ Her critically-acclaimed triumphs in recent portrayals of the eponymous heroines of Rossini’s Semiramide and Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix and rarely-heard Rosmonda d’Inghilterra confirmed that her near-constant presence on stage kept nerves at bay. With this in mind, Pratt has given particular thought to ensuring that New Yorkers are as delighted by her Königin as Roman and Florentine audiences were by her Rossini and Donizetti performances. ‘My extra little challenge [in Die Zauberflöte] is to distract myself and keep the voice warmed up and ready, while taking care not to tire it out it before I go back on stage!’

COLORATURA CORONATION: Soprano JESSICA PRATT, débuting at The Metropolitan Opera as Mozart's Königin der Nacht on 20 December 2016 [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega; used with permission]Nachdenkliche Sängerin: Soprano Jessica Pratt, débuting at The Metropolitan Opera as Die Königin der Nacht in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on 20 December 2016
[Photo by Benjamin Ealovega; used with permission]

Many Mozart aficionados are familiar with Trollflöjten, Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film adaptation of Die Zauberflöte, much-loved images in which depict the Königin, portrayed by Swedish soprano Birgit Nordin, and Die drei Damen smoking—directly beneath a ‘No Smoking’ placard—and perusing magazines backstage, the embodiments of ennui. Beverly Sills famously quipped that she and her husband managed to address 250 holiday greeting cards in her dressing room in the time between the Königin’s two arias, ‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn’ in Act One and ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meimen Herzen’ in Act Two. How will Pratt pass the time in which Mozart and Schikaneder leave her stranded backstage? ‘Probably reading a book, doing some cross stitch, or sewing beads on a gown,’ she replies without hesitation, adding, ‘I don’t like being idle, so, during rehearsals and performances, I tend to sew beads on performance gowns or stoles or cross stitch.’ These, she intimates, are ‘small distractions that relax me but don’t require too much concentration, as most of my mind will be on the performance.’

The technical demands of Pratt’s repertory, in which the Königin is only one of many coloratura beasts, are extraordinary, both in the contexts of each performance and in the cumulative impact on the voice. Ever aware of the centuries-old traditions of bel canto singing that she furthers, this soprano is uncommonly clear-sighted about the unstinting care that must be expended in maintaining the quality of the superb technique that she has cultivated. As she starts to judiciously consider ‘heavier’ rôles, especially in Verdi repertory, Pratt recalls the wisdom of Birgit Nilsson, who sang Elettra and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Idomeneo and Don Giovanni and retained ‘lighter’ Italian rôles in her active repertory even when her career consisted primarily of legendary outings as Wagner's Brünnhildes and Isolde and Richard Strauss’s Elektra. ‘I think Birgit Nilsson was right,’ Pratt says. ‘Singing rôles that have a lot of coloratura demands that the singer dominates [her] technique for coloratura, and this in itself will help to keep flexibility in the voice.’ Is this unique to the Königin and Mozart repertory, or does the same logic apply to all coloratura parts? ‘I feel the same way about Rossini and Donizetti,’ she answers. ‘Every composer has something in particular which requires us to develop our technical abilities. I find [that] the coloratura di forza of Rossini is great for keeping my coloratura in line. The languid central lines of a Bellini rôle help me to develop my legato.’

Uncharitable to her colleagues as it may be to say so, it is her understanding of both the obstacles of the music that she sings and the skills needed to conquer them that sets Pratt apart from today’s would-be prime donne. Rather than obsessing about the rôle’s ferocious fiorature and five F6s, she focuses on giving audiences a Königin of dramatic specificity and vocal health. Débuting with a company of the MET’s significance, in a house of such vast dimensions, in a rôle like Die Königin der Nacht is a prospect that might justifiably give many singers nightmares, but Pratt’s attention is devoted not to this milestone but to the miles that she has traveled in her career to date and those still before her. ‘The choice of repertoire is a very important thing for a singer,’ she summarizes. ‘It shapes a voice over time more than many of us are aware.’ More than most singers are aware, she might have truthfully said, but not more than she is aware. With this thoughtful singer’s début, The Metropolitan Opera roster gains a Königin der Nacht who not only deserves her crown but has measured meticulously to ensure that it is a true fit.

COLORATURA CORONATION: A design sketch for Die Königin der Nacht's costume in Julie Taymor's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE for The Metropolitan Opera [Image © by Julie Taymor]Rötliche Königin: A design sketch for Die Königin der Nacht's costume in Julie Taymor's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for The Metropolitan Opera
[Image © by Julie Taymor]


MET performances of Die Zauberflöte featuring Jessica Pratt as Die Königin der Nacht are scheduled for 20, 23, and 29 December 2016, and 5 January 2017. To purchase tickets, please visit the MET’s website.
Her début performance on 20 December will be live-streamed on the MET’s website [free] and via MET Opera Radio Channel 74 on SiriusXM® [subscription required].

To learn more about Jessica Pratt and her engagements throughout the world, please visit her official website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Sincerest thanks are extended to Ms. Pratt for her astute and candid responses and to Mindi Rayner of Mindi Rayner Public Relations for facilitating this article.

28 November 2016

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2016: Jeffrey Roden — THEADS OF A PRAYER, volume one (Solaire Records SOL1003-2)

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2016: Jeffrey Roden - THREADS OF A PRAYER, volume one (Solaire Records SOL1003-2)JEFFREY RODEN: threads of a prayer, volume oneSandro Ivo Bartoli, piano; Bennewitz Quartet; Szymon Marciniak, double bass; Wolfgang Fischer, timpani; Johannes Kronfeld, trombone [Recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany, 20 – 22 May 2016; Solaire Records SOL1003-2; 2 CDs, 140:50; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

Casting aside semantics and etymology, how does one really define music? It seems obvious enough: combinations of melody and harmony manipulated in specific ways produce music. What, though, does this truly mean? Patterns of notes, rests, dynamics, tempi, and key signatures make music of arbitrary lines and scribblings on a page, of course, but what makes music significant in an artistic sense is the way in which sounds transcend the mechanics of physics to become audible emotions. To hear sound is one of the most basic functions of being human, but to hear emotions is an essential tenet of humanity, one not possessed by all members of the species. Hearing threads of a prayer – volume one, Solaire Records’ new release dedicated to music by American composer Jeffrey Roden [volume two will be forthcoming in 2017], adds dimensions to the meaning of music in the simplest but most profound ways, asking each listener not to observe and react but to participate, to discern within his own experience the origins of each note, the places in the psyche from which the notes are ripped, still pulsating with life. This is music that speaks not in individual chords, bars, or phrases but in extended paragraphs, in great swaths of thought that seem neither to begin nor to end, and it cannot be played or discussed in conventional ways. As acknowledged in Tobias Fischer’s wondrously literate liner notes [his essay in lieu of a dates-and-facts biography of the composer is fantastic] and by Dirk Fischer’s immaculately-engineered acoustics, this is also music that must not be presented to the listener with the modern recording industry’s slick, assembly-line indifference. Like Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the works on this first volume of threads of a prayer redefine music with insights as illuminating but ungraspable as sunlight. Like the touch of the summer sun upon one’s face, Roden’s music is as much felt as heard.

From the opening bars of the first of the twelve prayers that begin disc one, it is apparent that Roden is as gifted and communicative a composer for piano as Chopin was and that Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli is as keenly insightful an interpreter of Roden’s work as Artur Rubinstein was of Chopin’s. The splendors of Bartoli’s technique are never doubted, but spiritual virtuosity is the hallmark of his playing here. The rhythmic precision of his executions of Roden’s pieces is no less impressive or vital than in his previous Solaire recording of music by Franz Liszt, but, unlike the heartbeats that propel Liszt’s melodic lines, Roden’s rhythms are footsteps, cautiously placed but ambivalent. Are they the performer’s own steps, or is he retracing someone else’s? The prayers need no programmatic context, but they might be interpreted as abstract portraits of Christ’s apostles, each man in his turn revealed as a crumbling façade of ceremonial—and sometimes sanctimonious—faith behind which humor, doubt, anger, and pride lurk. Perhaps they are representatives of the dodecagonal tone row or the artificial calendrical divisions of a year. Subtly but slyly contrasted, the prayers are at once appeals to all and to no deities: nothing is either as pure or as putrid as it first seems, in life or in music, and these pieces sputter and sigh with half-told truths. Bartoli understands that striving to impose finite interpretations on the prayers would be to obstruct the connection between composer and listener.

The untitled 10 pieces that follow the twelve prayers are of a vastly different character but exhibit the same devotion to giving emotions audible essences that can be molded according to performers’ and listeners’ unique psychological identities. Bartoli’s pianism is here like a microscope, examining the individual particles of Roden’s musical molecules and revealing the stunningly beautiful landscapes within the stark tonal topography. Each of the ten pieces is its own microcosm, but they collectively function as a compelling entity, lodestars within a galaxy near enough to be perceived but too distant to be wholly scrutinized. Bartoli again fuses rhythmic tautness with elasticity of phrasing, maximizing the impact of each melodic unit without jeopardizing each piece’s structural integrity. There are very discreet allusions to sonata form in the interplay of principal subjects within and among the pieces. Bartoli is alert to every motivic device, emphasizing even the relationships intimated by measured silence. To assert that these pieces are not bountifully tuneful in the manner of music by Brahms or Dvořák is to overlook their greatest achievement: rather than overtly stated, their wealths of melody are suggested, cunningly inspired in the listener’s mind and therefore different for every pair of ears. Indeed, the pieces as recorded here seem to change with every hearing, a powerful testament to both Bartoli’s astonishingly skills as a musical storyteller and Roden’s creation of a musical language that is comprehensible regardless of the dialect with which it is delivered.

Conceived in homage to the late B.B. King, the passing of a king is equals parts elegy, raucous New Orleans jazz funeral, dialogue with a silenced voice, and coming to terms with an altered reality. It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but Roden disavows that platitude with a tribute to a musical legend shaped not by quotations from his works but by reminiscences of the feelings evoked by King’s music. Whether or not his style is one’s proverbial cup of tea, it is impossible to steep in B.B. King’s music without surrendering to its propulsive energy. The same can be said of Roden’s the passing of a king and Bartoli’s playing of it. The pianist’s performance draws the listener into the embrace of the music, and the unaffected sincerity of the composer’s writing fills the listener with wistful recollections. Any musician should be honored to be so lovingly remembered by a colleague. This music reveals that the most exalted mode of flattery for an artist is serving as the foundation upon which other artists erect their own monumental works.

Composed for an octet comprised of two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, trombone, and timpani, the many latitudes of grief is a work of such deeply-considered emotional honesty that it sometimes seems too intimate for public performance, as though an exchange between confessor and sinner were conducted in music. Joined by Bartoli, double bass player Szymon Marciniak, trombonist Johannes Kronfeld, and timpanist Wolfgang Fischer, the musicians of Bennewitz Quartet—violinists Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek, violist Jiří Pinkas, and cellist Štěpán Doležal—engage with Roden’s music not merely as professionals realizing their parts but as fellow travelers on the journey of coping with loss. There is perhaps no greater fallacy in modern psychology, especially in America, than the concept of closure. For all of society’s efforts at compartmentalization, life is not a book in which grief is written upon a page that is subsequently turned and forgotten. Just as the abundance or absence of water sculpts physical landscapes, torrents of grief carve recesses in human hearts, canyons that resound with reminders of voices that can only be heard in the memory—or, Roden discloses, in music. Wielded by Kronfeld with piercingly accurate intonation, the trombone startles, mourns, and consoles with equal force, and the piano and timpani form an unlikely confederation of safety and insecurity. Like the grieving process, nothing in the many latitudes of grief is predictable. Relative tranquility is interrupted by unexpected, unstoppable agony, and the paralysis of uncertainty suddenly gives way to the sure footing of even-measured acceptance. Like all of the pieces included on this pair of discs, this is groundbreaking, fresh music that nonetheless immediately sounds familiar. John Milton and William Styron wrote of ‘darkness visible’: in the many latitudes of grief, Jeffrey Roden wrote of darkness audible.

The differences between the untitled quintets #2 and #3 are as significant as they are understated, but Roden’s craft in the works on these discs is guided by making bold statements with delicate expressions. As performed here, the quintets capture the fleeting effervescence of champagne: they sparkle alluringly, ignite the senses, and are rapidly but satisfyingly consumed. Unlike many composers past and present, Roden was endowed with intelligence and sagacity that prevent him from lingering over even the most fecund of ideas. Not one concept is extended beyond the music’s inherent ability to sustain it. The quintets are Existential pieces, however. Each note has its own importance, and each note contributes to the cumulative impact of the music. The musicians comprehend and highlight this, often playing as though they were a single organism. Likewise, leaves for string quartet is magically played by the Bennewitz Quartet, the shifting textural profiles of the music given unanticipated dimensions that expose the skillfulness of Roden’s part writing like complex stitchwork held under a magnifying glass. Listening, one feels the pierce of the needle, the pull of the thread, and the exhilaration of gaps closing. These are not works to be heard passively: like the heroine’s ribbon in Claude Berri’s film Manon des Sources, these works become affixed to the listener, not like garments slipped on but like appendages that grow with every subsequent sound.

When writing about a composer’s work, especially that of one whose compositions are not yet familiar like Beethoven’s symphonies and Chopin’s nocturnes to virtually every listener apt to be interested in them, comparisons with other composers are tempting and sometimes helpfully informative. To state that a Vivaldi opera is like a Händel opera without the flashes of emotional insight is to provide the curious reader with a point of reference from which to launch an exploration of his own. The composer who denies having been influenced by fellow tunesmiths cannot be trusted, but comparing Jeffrey Roden’s music to that of any other composer in any genre would be a disservice to this artist and the originality of his work. Composition cannot be a vocation for Roden, something that he pursues at certain hours and in certain places, jotting down notes like the minutes of a meeting between himself and his muse. No, music must be second nature for Roden, an alternate comfort zone in which he contemplates, reasons, and dreams. As our world continually invents new means of communicating, we forget how to listen, how to truly hear and absorb the confounding cacophony that engulfs us. With the pieces on this first volume of threads of a prayer, all superbly performed, Jeffrey Roden reminds us that there is music even in our most unassuming thoughts and actions. We need only switch off our devices, silence our tongues, and let music happen.

25 November 2016


BEST ARTISTS OF 2016: Tenors STEPHEN COSTELLO (left) and ZACHARY WILDER (right) [Photos © by Merri Cyr/Askonas Holt (Costello) and Teddie Hwang/Hazard Chase (Wilder)]Tenori trionfanti: Tenors Stephen Costello (left) and Zachary Wilder (right)
[Photos © by Merri Cyr/Askonas Holt (Costello) & Teddie Hwang/Hazard Chase (Wilder)]

In 1996, I waltzed at the age of eighteen into a well-meaning university professor’s voice studio, armed with every quality necessary to prepare for and pursue a successful career as an opera singer—every quality, that is, except for those two most vital ones, talent and ambition. Like F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in Miloš Forman’s film adaptation of Amadeus, the passion was abundantly present, the discipline was a work in progress but steadily progressing, and the thirst for knowledge was all-consuming. Ultimately, though, the acquired craftsmanship was of far greater value than the raw materials bestowed by nature. I have sung and occasionally might even have sung well, but there is no musical alchemy capable of transforming vocal lead into platinum. No lesson is more difficult to impart to the sort of stubborn young singer that I was (and sometimes still am, fleeting youth notwithstanding) than that which conveys the plain truth that he is a pretender, no golden-throated Duke of York but a tuneless Perkin Warbeck. It is a lesson that I have been slow to learn and even slower to fully accept, but the most precious gift of mediocrity is the ability to appreciate greatness on a profoundly intimate level. In that regard, two of America’s most talented singers have been especially influential teachers. With very different voices and careers similar only in their conscientiousness and significance in their respective repertories, tenors Stephen Costello and Zachary Wilder are the practitioners of the philosophy that led me to the door of that voice studio twenty years ago. Artists of once-in-a-generation distinction, they are something considerably more personal for me: they are artists who epitomize the singer that I can never be.



Neither Stephen Costello nor Zachary Wilder is as extensively represented on disc as he deserves to be. In truth, though, despite their considerable merits, neither gentleman’s recordings fully convey the broad spectrum of vocal colors with which their live performances are illuminated. Nonetheless, their recordings are excellent introductions to their work.

Documenting both Costello’s beautiful handling of bel canto repertory and his début at London’s Royal Opera House, Opera Rara’s ‘live’ recording of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix [ORC43] preserves the tenor’s exquisitely-phrased account of Carlo’s romanza ‘Se tanto in ira agl’uomini.’ His native Philadelphia’s spirit of brotherly love permeates his performance of Jake Heggie’s Friendly Persuasions: Homage to Poulenc on Pentatone’s disc Here/After, Songs of Lost Voices [PTC 5186 515], but the most persuasive of the qualities evident in his singing of the Persuasions is the voice’s beauty. Costello created the rôle of Greenhorn in Heggie’s Moby-Dick in the opera’s 2010 première at The Dallas Opera, and his reprisal of the part in San Francisco was filmed and released on DVD and Blu-ray by EuroArts: see it to experience a remarkable fusion of sublime singing and intensely moving characterization. Among performances not currently available on disc, seek recordings of the Wiener Staatsoper broadcast of Puccini’s La bohème dating from 6 September 2010, in which Costello’s heart-wrenching Rodolfo partners the poetic Mimì of Krassimira Stoyanova, and Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2016 concert presentation of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, in which his singing of the Sänger’s ‘Di rigori armato il seno’ was mesmerizing.

Stephen Costello on disc: Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX (Opera Rara ORC43) and Jake Heggie's (Pentatone PTC 5186 515)

One of his generation’s finest exponents of Baroque repertory, Wilder is heard at his estimable best in the recently-released ATMA Classique recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243) and Johann Kuhnau’s Cantata ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ [ACD22727]. His singing of Bach’s ‘Et misericordia’ (with countertenor James Laing) and ‘Deposuit potentes’ and Kuhnau’s ‘Ich huld’ge dir, grossmächt’ger Prinz’ exudes confidence and absolute comfort with both composers’ idioms. Simply put, his performance of ‘Would you gain the tender Creature’ in Händel’s Acis and Galatea [cpo 777 877-2] is one of the most sublime pieces of singing ever committed to disc. In recordings of music by composers as diverse as Giosotto Zamponi, John Blow, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Félicien David, Wilder’s voice flows like molten silver. Poised to conquer bel canto repertory with the same grace and elegance that he brings to his Baroque performances, Wilder’s recordings to date chronicle a compelling, uncompromisingly musical journey.

Zachary Wilder on disc: Johann Sebastian Bach's MAGNIFICAT (ATMA Classique ACD22727) and Georg Friedrich Händel's ACIS AND GALATEA (cpo 777 877-2)