22 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 October 2014

CD REVIEW: ST PETERSBURG – Music from Imperial Russia (Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano; DECCA 478 6767)

CD REVIEW: ST PETERSBURG (DECCA 478 6767)FRANCESCO DOMENICO ARAIA (1709 – circa 1770), DOMENICO CIMAROSA (1749 – 1801), DOMENICO DALL’OGLIO (circa 1700 – 1764), LUIGI MADONIS (1690 – 1767), VINCENZO MANFREDINI (1737 – 1799), HERMANN RAUPACH (1728 – 1778): St Petersburg – Music from Imperial Russia—Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis, conductor [Recorded in Auditorio Stelio Molo (RSI Radiotelevisione svizzera di lingua italiana), Lugano, Switzerland, during December 2013 and February and April 2014; DECCA 478 6767; 1 CD, 77:57; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Though the drawing back of the Iron Curtain at least theoretically opened Russian society to the wider world, the musical culture of Imperial Russia from the time of Peter the Great’s embrace of European artistic traditions until the rise of the popularity of Tchaikovsky’s work beyond Russia’s borders forever altered the insular landscape of Russian music remains almost completely unknown in the West. Nearly every student of opera knows that the bleakly fatalistic first version of Verdi’s La forza del destino was composed for St. Petersburg, where it was premièred at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre—not to be confused with the famous Bolshoi in Moscow—in 1862, but the interactions between European artists and Russian patrons and arts institutions in the generations before Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and, perhaps most significantly, Glinka have been little explored, even in Russia. When Catherine the Great was crowned Empress of All the Russias in 1762, her adopted country was at the start of a journey that would lead to devastating wars, revolution, the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and cultural upheaval that would bury the efforts of Russian artists beneath layers of insularity and politically-motivated pseudo-nationalism for generations. The first half-century of this journey is the object of St Petersburg, and music composed at the courts of three of Russia’s most powerful sovereigns—Anna Ioannovna, Elizaveta Petrovna, Catherine II—provides abundantly deserving fodder for the famed artistic inquisitiveness of Cecilia Bartoli.

Intriguingly, no categorization of Fach is assigned to Ms. Bartoli in the notes that accompany this disc, and even if this was not intentional it is certainly appropriate. As recorded here, the voice has few of dark colorations heard in the performances of Rossini rôles that established the singer’s reputation as a coloratura mezzo-soprano of exceptional virtuosity. Ms. Bartoli’s bravura technique remains a thing of wonder, and when not under pressure the natural instrument retains its rounded, opalescent beauty, albeit with a distinctly brighter patina than in past. Ms. Bartoli has ever been unafraid of pushing the voice for dramatic effect, however, and there are moments on this disc in which her zeal for the music overwhelms tidy vocal production. The breathy hollowness that intrudes from time to time is a dramatic device rather than a vocal defect, but it occasionally undermines the core of the tone. Still, Ms. Bartoli is an artist with nothing to lose, and her choice to focus on resurrecting repertory that works for her voice rather than confining herself to a particular Fach is commendable. In truth, it is fitting that no register is attributed to her on this disc: rather than a soprano, a mezzo-soprano, or whatever label one might apply, Ms. Bartoli’s is an unique voice, judiciously used and splendidly maintained despite increasingly frequent forays into higher and heavier repertory. Though parts like Cuniza in Oberto and Gulnara in Il corsaro would perhaps be good rôles for her, Ms. Bartoli is virtually certain to never turn up somewhere in the operatic world, as a number of her less-prudent colleagues have done, as Lady Macbeth, Azucena, or Amneris. At her wildest, there is a measured stability in Ms. Bartoli’s work that contributes to both her longevity and her unwavering appeal.

In their performances on St Petersburg, I Barocchisti and Diego Fasolis continue to refine their reputations as masters of Eighteenth-Century music. Maestro Fasolis sets tempi for all of the selections on the disc that enable Ms. Bartoli to execute the intricacies of the music without coming under excessive stress. The instrumentalists of I Barocchisti do some of their finest recorded work, adapting with comprehensive virtuosity to the different styles of the music on St Petersburg. Both Maestro Fasolis and the musicians are sensitive to the subtleties of Ms. Bartoli’s phrasing, and their support provides a comforting foundation in passages that make the most painful demands on the singer.

Ms. Bartoli begins her journey along these forgotten paths with ‘Vado a morir,’ arguably the most beautiful aria on the disc, from the Neapolitan composer Francesco Domenico Araia’s 1734 La forza dell'amore e dell'odio, an opera that was premièred in Milan and revived in Russian to considerable acclaim. The aria’s expansive melodic lines reveal Araia to have possessed gifts for concentrated dramatic expression nearly as polished as Händel’s, and Ms. Bartoli capitalizes on the pellucid setting of the text with unaffected, subtly-phrased singing. The depths of emotion are conveyed without exaggeration, and Ms. Bartoli shapes the words nobly but avoids affectation, as is not always the case with her singing of music evoking pathos. Vocally, she faces greater challenges in ‘Pastor che a notte ombrosa’ from Araia’s Seleuco, a score first heard in Moscow in 1744, but her singing, ably complemented by Pier Luigi Fabretti’s supple playing of the oboe obbligato, makes light of the formidable technical skill required by the music.

German composer Hermann Raupach arrived in Russian in 1755, remaining until 1762. He returned to Russia later in his career and remained in St. Petersburg for the last decade of his life. In the interim, Raupach encountered the young Mozart in Paris, and the quality of his music was such that a Sonata for violin and piano of his composition was mistaken for and published as Mozart’s work, likely because Mozart copied the sonata in his own hand for use as the thematic basis for one of his own early piano concerti. Of the composers whose music is heard on St Petersburg, Raupach perhaps had the most lasting influence on Russian culture, his opera Альцеста (Altsesta or Alceste)—its libretto by Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov, the poet credited with having inaugurated Classicism in Russian theatre—considered one of the first true Russian operas and his composition students at St. Petersburg’s Academy of Fine Arts including Dmitry Bortniansky and Yevstigney Fomin, who also studied in Bologna with Padre Martini. The sprightly Marcia from Альцеста is engagingly played by I Barocchisti and paced to perfection by Maestro Fasolis. The pair of arias from Альцеста, Gerkules’s ‘Разверзм пёс гортани, лая’ (‘Razverzi pyos gortani, laya’) and Alceste’s ‘Иду на смерть’ (‘Idu na smert’), are sung idiomatically (and with admirable command of Russian vowels), as is the impassioned ‘O placido il mare’ from Raupach’s Siroe, rè di Persia. Though she has devoted much of her attention in recent seasons to higher repertory, the high tessitura of several of the arias on this disc tests her cruelly. Ms. Bartoli’s upper register never falters in the music on St Petersburg, but the effort of her climbs to and above top B♭ shows more than in past.

It was for the coronation of Elizaveta Petrovna in 1742 that Domenico Dall'Oglio and Luigi Madonis composed a Prologue for Johann Adolf Hasse’s 1735 opera La clemenza di Tito. The flute and archlute lines in the aria ‘De’ miei figli’ are beautifully played by Marco Brolli and Michele Pasotti, and the litheness of their approach is reflected in the nimbleness of Ms. Bartoli’s singing. Dall’Oglio and Madonis had before them a monumental task in attempting to craft music equal to the quality of Hasse’s score, and ‘De’ miei figli’ reveals that they were only partially successful. Still, Ms. Bartoli brings a Medea-like intensity to her performance of the aria, and her singing heightens the effectiveness of the composers’ work.

Nearly a quarter of St Petersburg is devoted to music from Vincenzo Manfredini’s 1763 opera Carlo Magno. Born in Pistoia in Tuscany, Manfredini was Kapellmeister to the future Tsar Peter III and upon his employer’s ascension to the throne assumed command of the Imperial court’s Italian opera troupe. He continued in this capacity in the reign of Catherine II until the Venetian composer Baldassare Galuppi arrived in St. Petersburg in 1765, at which time Manfredini’s duties were reduced. The première of Carlo Magno was obviously an important milestone in Manfredini’s career, both in Russian and abroad, and the three numbers sung by Ms. Bartoli on St Petersburg affirm that Tsar Peter III’s appreciation of the composer’s music was indicative of excellent taste. The evenness of tone that Ms. Bartoli devotes to ‘Fra' lacci tu mi credi’ enhances the sentimental depths of the music, and the sheer uninhibitedness of her singing of ‘Non turbar que' vaghi rai,’ in which she duets with the vivid playing of flautist Jean-Marc Goujon, is exciting. Giving neither Ms. Bartoli nor soprano Silvana Bazzoni real opportunities for vocal display, ‘A noi vivi, donna ecclesa’ seems a strange choice for St Petersburg, especially as the disc’s closing track. Both ladies sing well, though, and the well-trained singers of the Coro della RSI Radiotelevisione svizzera sing lustily under the direction of Gianluca Capuano.

Beyond the genre-specific realm of Eighteenth-Century opera, the most known of the composers represented on St Petersburg is Domenico Cimarosa, whose 1792 opera Il matrimonio segreto has clung to a place on the fringe of the international repertory. Cimarosa’s tenure in Russia was relatively brief, spanning little more than four years from the time of his invitation to St. Petersburg by Catherine II until he was summoned to the Hapsburg court in Vienna by Emperor Leopold II in 1792. The aria ‘Agitata in tante pene’ from his opera La vergine del sole discloses a facet of the composer’s work that is very different from the pieces for which he is remembered. The aria’s clarinet obbligato is played magnificently by Corrado Giuffredi, and Cimarosa’s urgent vocal lines provide Ms. Bartoli prime-grade meat into which to sink her musical teeth. She makes a banquet of the aria, her voice strong and soaring. The characteristic breathiness of her delivery conveys dramatically apt tension, and she phrases with the insightfulness of an experienced Mozartean.

A frequent source of unease throughout the history of the Russian monarchy was the Imperial court protocol that awarded primacy to dowager empresses over empress consorts. The plots, cabals, and coups that reshaped Russian society and redrew the maps of Europe and Asia during the Eighteenth Century were utterly operatic, and any emerging diva surely understands—whether or not she cares to admit it—the frustration felt by an ambitious young woman with a crown who was upstaged by a widow clinging to power. The music on St Petersburg leaves no doubt that the artistic culture of Imperial Russia mirrored the tumult at court, but the paramount achievement of this disc is the opportunity that it provides to appreciate the long-hidden body of pre-Glinka Russian music; or, more accurately, music composed for the Romanov court. Some of the diamonds in her crown are now slightly chipped, but Cecilia Bartoli’s singing on St Petersburg confirms that she remains one of today’s rightful Empresses of Song. Долго может она царствовать!

10 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – MITRIDATE, RÈ DI PONTO (B. Banks, M. Persson, S. Devan, L. Zazzo, K. Ek, R. Murray, A. Devin; Signum Classics SIGCD400)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - MITRIDATE, RÈ DI PONTO (Signum Classics SIGCD400)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Mitridate, rè di Ponto, K. 87 (74a)Barry Banks (Mitridate), Miah Persson (Aspasia), Sophie Bevan (Sifare), Lawrence Zazzo (Farnace), Klara Ek (Ismene), Robert Murray (Marzio), Anna Devin (Arbate); The Orchestra of Classical Opera; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded at St Jude-on-the-Hill, London, England, UK, 12 – 26 July 2013; Signum Classics SIGCD400; 4 CD, 224:18; Available from Signum Records, Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

At a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients in April 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously said, ‘I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’ From a musical perspective, similar sentiments might have been inspired by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at the age of fourteen spent the summer of 1770 in Bologna composing an opera seria for Milan’s Carnevale. Like Jefferson, whose genius was shaped by scores of thinkers of his own time and prior centuries, Mozart was not figuratively dining alone, however. He had before him the example of his father Leopold, now remembered for being the father of a famous son and the author of an important treatise on the art of violin playing but also an accomplished, likely undervalued composer in his own right and, at any rate, a natural source of knowledge for the younger Mozart. Also a frequent guest both in Mozart’s presence in 1770 and in his later correspondence was Prague-born composer Josef Mysliveček, whose opera La Nitteti had been premièred in Bologna a month prior to his introduction to Mozart. There is no doubt that Mozart was acquainted with Mysliveček’s music in general and the score of La Nitteti in particular, and it is likely from his Bohemian colleague that the teenaged Austrian learned many of the rudiments of writing for the operatic stage. Nonetheless, a vital component of Mozart’s genius was his ability to absorb the influences of his contemporaries and synthesize them into unique manifestations of his own creativity. In that regard, if Mitridate, rè di Ponto is a beginner’s work, the beginner could have been no one but Mozart.

When Mitridate premièred at Milan’s Teatro Regio Ducale, the city’s principal opera house until its destruction by fire in 1776 prompted the construction of the more familiar Teatro alla Scala, on 26 December 1770, the teenaged Mozart was exposed to—or, it might be said, victimized by—the machinations of an influential opera house and a cast of acclaimed singers who expected to retain the right until and beyond the première of a new opera to demand alterations, additions, and excisions to their music. The rôles of Farnace, Sifare, and Arbate were created by castrati, the most renowned of whom was Sartorino, who took the soprano rôle of Sifare, and the first Mitridate was Guglielmo d’Ettore, a Sicilian tenor admired by Padre Martini whose life was destined to be shorter than Mozart’s. Immersed in the stilo galante by prior engagements in Jommelli’s 1757 Temistocle, at the time of the first performance of which he was likely only seventeen years old, and Hasse’s L’Achille in Sirio, in which he originated the part of Nearco in 1759, d’Ettore brought to Mozart’s Mitridate close acquaintance with Quirino Gasparini’s 1767 setting of the same libretto, in which he created the title rôle; a familiarity that, at least in the singer’s dealings with the young Mozart, certainly bred contempt. It is known that the tenor’s obstreperous demands compelled Mozart to rewrite Mitridate’s aria di sortita, ‘Se di lauri il crine adorato,’ no fewer than five times before d’Ettore was satisfied, and he insisted on singing Gasparini’s setting of ‘Vado incontro al fato estremo’ despite Mozart’s valiant efforts to tailor his own setting to downplaying d’Ettore’s vocal shortcomings. [Four of Mozart’s sketches of ‘Se di lauri il crine adorato’ survive, the most complete of which is included on this recording’s fourth disc, along with the authentic ‘Vado incontro al fato estremo’ and alternate versions of six other numbers Mozart was forced by singers’ caprices to substantially alter or cut, all of them expertly sung by Signum’s cast.] It is suggested that agents of Gasparini conspired to convince Milan’s Aspasia, the celebrated soprano Antonia Bernasconi, to also substitute the Italian composer’s settings of her arias for Mozart’s in the première, but she seemingly was a more insightful artist than her leading man. Mitridate being his first opera seria, it may have also been Mozart’s initiation into the dominion of operatic castrati. [The alto and soprano rôles in Mozart’s 1767 Apollo et Hyacinthus, premièred at Universität Salzburg, were sung by physiologically unaltered students.] It is interesting to note that, despite similarities in the vocal distributions, there were no ‘returns’ by members of the first cast of Mitridate in the 1771 and 1772 premières of Mozart’s Ascanio in Alba and Lucio Silla, which also took place in the Teatro Regio Ducale. This sort of operatic personnel turnover was not uncommon in the Eighteenth Century, but it can hardly be doubted that the experiences of composing and staging Mitridate made impressions on Mozart that remained with him until the ink on his scores for La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte dried.

The principal goal of Classical Opera is to give the operas of Mozart and his contemporaries stylish, period-appropriate handling equal to the highest standards applied during the past several decades to the works of Baroque composers such as Händel and Vivaldi. The group’s recording of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes set the bar for future endeavors very high, and this performance of Mitridate succeeds not only in raising that bar further but also in surpassing the levels of achievement of almost every prior recording of any of Mozart’s early operas. Under the direction of Classical Opera’s founder, Ian Page, the orchestral musicians, energetically led by Matthew Truscott, play superbly, the finesse of their articulation complementing the unfaltering rhythmic mettle of Maestro Page’s conducting. A surprising degree of variety is achieved by the continuo players, cellist Andrew Skidmore, double bassist Cecelia Bruggemeyer, and harpsichordist Steven Devine, and they adapt their phrasing and management of cadences in secco recitatives to support the singers without losing sight of the importance of the continuo in driving the dramatic progress of the opera. Tuned to A = 430 Hz, which is likely a viable approximation of typical pitch in Milan (where, in the generation after the opening of La Scala, tuning rose as high as A = 451 Hz) in 1770, the Classical Opera musicians avoid the strident noises made by many ensembles in pursuit of historically-informed performances of Mozart’s operas. In this performance, when the orchestral playing jars it is because the score dictates that the dramatic situations require it. At fourteen, Mozart was already an inventive orchestrator: learning from his father, Mysliveček, and other sources, his part-writing in Mitridate exhibits sophistication superior to all but his most gifted contemporaries. Mitridate is clearly a distant relative of Idomeneo, and Aspasia is a meticulously-ornamented sister of Donna Anna and Fiordiligi. What sets the endeavors of Classical Opera and Maestro Page apart from those of similarly-purposed ensembles is that they perform Mitridate not as though it were late Händel or early Beethoven or as a piece of juvenilia that inspires curiosity rather than true interest. Earlier recordings of Mitridate have featured extraordinary casts, but Maestro Page’s adroit leadership ensures that the forces heard on this recording both place Mitridate within its appropriate stylistic context and perform it with an intensity that make any concerns other than the phenomenal quality of the music-making secondary at best.

Though her character has only one aria, soprano Anna Devin makes her mark on the performance with her portrayal of a wily Arbate, the Governor of Nymphæa. Taking advantage of every line of recitative to create a three-dimensional figure, Ms. Devin sails through Arbate’s aria in Act One, ‘L'odio nel cor frenate,’ with good diction and technical control. Still more impressive is her delivery of Arbate’s crucial recitative in Act Two, ‘Alla tua fede il padre, Sifare, applaude.’ The scheming Roman tribune Marzio was also given only one aria, but it is the daunting ‘Se di regnar sei vago.’ Like Ms. Devin, tenor Robert Murray makes much of his recitatives, striding through his scenes with machismo. Though his executions of the divisions in the aria are not without stress, he manages the range capably, his upper register ringing and reliable. Marzio was sung on the DECCA recording of Mitridate with Les Talens Lyriques by the young Juan Diego Flórez: it is indicative of the technical aplomb of his singing that Mr. Murray has nothing to fear in comparison.

As Ismene, the daughter of the King of Parthia, soprano Klara Ek sings beguilingly, the character’s love for the duplicitous Farnace inspiring Mozart to give her some of the opera’s most purely lovely music and prompting Ms. Ek to sing it rousingly. Arbate, Farnace, and Sifare having been devised for castrati, Ismene was in Mozart’s conception the opera’s seconda donna, and the quality of her music reflects this distinction. In Act One, Ms. Ek sings the aria ‘In faccia al'oggetto’ with rounded, firmly-focused tones, and Ismene’s aria in Act Two, ‘So quanto a te dispiace,’ receives from the singer a performance of dramatic and musical expertise. The aria in Act Three, ‘Tu sai per chi m'accesse,’ is the best of Ismene’s three arias, and Ms. Ek’s account of it could hardly be more stylish or beautiful of tone. The animation that she brings to recitatives enlivens her development of the character, and she embodies an Ismene who does not sit idly by and await the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: she takes up the bow and fires a few darts of her own.

The precedent of assigning the rôle of Mitridate’s elder, lower-voiced son to a countertenor is honored in this recording by the casting of American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo. Possessing a plush voice that has nearly the sound of a female contralto, Mr. Zazzo is a Farnace to whom resignation comes more easily than rage. The voice is unfailingly responsive to music and text, but the singer lacks sufficient agility for some of his music. Nothing is simplified, thankfully, but there are occasionally passages in which the effort is more noticeable than the effect. The innovative chromaticism in the B section of Farnace’s Act One aria, ‘Venga pur, minacci e frema,’ is discernible in Mr. Zazzo’s performance, and though the coloratura is imperfect the overall delivery of the number is uninhibited. The Act Two aria ‘Va, l'error mio palesa,’ sung in response to the good-hearted Ismene’s longing for a sign that her love is requited, discloses what a nasty piece of work Farnace truly is, and Mr. Zazzo seems to relish the opportunity to flex his antagonistic muscles without overdoing the schoolboy villain histrionics. Farnace corners the market on betrayal and self-serving opportunism in ‘Son reo; l'error confesso,’ in which his contrition rapidly evolves into denunciation of his brother Sifare. Here, too, the coloratura is the least impressive component of Mr. Zazzo’s singing, but his delineations of the character’s almost schizophrenic shifts in attitude are telling. In Act Three, Farnace’s full confession and quest for atonement are finally realized in his frantic accompagnato ‘Vadasi...Oh ciel’ and aria ‘Già daglia occhi il velo è tolto.’ In his most beautiful music in the opera, Farnace admits his wrongdoing to his dying father: what among people whose lives are not lived in secco recitative might be too little, too late is in opera the right sentiment at the right time. The poise and projection of Mr. Zazzo’s voice remain impressive, and in this performance he is an oily, strangely seductive Farnace who lacks only the utmost edge of bravura brilliance.

As sung by soprano Sophie Bevan, there is no doubt that Sifare, Mitridate's younger son, is the more honorable of the two brothers or that Mozart’s imagination was most challenged by Sifare’s plight. Ms. Bevan’s sharply-focused singing of her entrance aria in Act One, ‘Soffre il mio cor con pace,’ immediately announces the presence of an innate Mozartean, and the concentrated emotion that she brings to the wonderful ‘Parto: Nel gran cimento,’ never distracting from her consummate musicality, is wrenching. Sifare’s breathless desperation in the accompagnato with Aspasia, ‘Non più, Regina,’ is expressed without distortion of the vocal line. Gavin Edwards’s awe-inspiring horn obbligato in ‘Lungi da te, mio bene’ would steal the show in any performance but Ms. Bevan’s, her unflustered voicing of the dramatic two-octave ascent (and its repeat in the recapitulation) matching the vibrancy of Mr. Edwards’s playing. The duet with Aspasia that ends Act Two, ‘Se viver non degg'io,’ should be the climax of any performance of Mitridate, and the wealth of imagination that Ms. Bevan devotes to it is rivaled only by the luminosity of her singing. These qualities also shape her singing of the aria in Act Three, ‘Se il rigor d'ingrata sorte.’ Ms. Bevan’s technique encounters no challenges it is not capable of conquering, and only a few instances of forcing at the very top of the range reveal the effort that this satin-voiced singer expends in this superb performance.

It is Aspasia’s unfortunate lot to be betrothed to Mitridate, in love with one of his sons, and loved by Mitridate and both of his sons. In the hands of many composers, this combination of circumstances would lead to stereotypical operatic mayhem, but at fourteen Mozart possessed sufficient sophistication to dedicate his attention to exploring the emotions of these figures rather than their amorous entanglements; or perhaps he had thus far in his life been spared the pangs of unrequited or impossible love. If the colorful portraits of people falling in and out of love in Mitridate are solely responses to the text, however, Mozart was far more sensitive to the nuances of words than many poets. So, too, is soprano Miah Persson, whose Aspasia is a tormented but never vanquished soul with uncompromising musical values. There are passages in Aspasia’s very difficult music that take Ms. Persson to the edge of her technical abilities, but every passing suggestion of strain is allied with unaffected expressivity. Artifice is not part of this Aspasia’s character: in Ms. Persson’s portrayal, she speaks only from her heart. The punishing intervals and breakneck coloratura in ‘Al destin, che la minaccia’ are sung authoritatively, and the impact of Mozart’s clever word painting in ‘Nel sen mi palpita’ is heightened by the sincerity of the singer’s delivery. In Act Two, the accompagnato ‘Grazie ai Numi partì’ and aria ‘Nel grave tormento’ receive from Ms. Persson outpourings of knife’s-edge expressivity, the formidable coloratura in the aria’s Allegro sections ignited like a trail of gunpowder. The sensuality with which Ms. Persson and Ms. Bevan combine their voices in ‘Se viver non degg'io’ is enthralling: the duet is a remarkable explosion of Mozart’s gifts for giving musical life to the most visceral human emotions, but in this performance it is also a painfully intimate look at the private anguish of lovers in extremis. In Aspasia’s most powerful scene, the accompagnato ‘Ah ben ne fui presaga,’ cavatina ‘Pallid' ombre, che scorgete,’ and accompagnato ‘Bevasi...ahimè’ in Act Three, Ms. Persson assumes the guise of a tragic actress discerning in the drama before her a first glimmer of hope. Ms. Persson pushes her silvery, lyric instrument hard in Aspasia’s most arduous bravura passages and at the top of the range, where she is often asked to vie with Mitridate in flirting with top C, but she emerges as the victor in every battle into which the music leads her. She, Aspasia, and Mozart all triumph.

Barry Banks recently remarked that, prior to taking on the rôle of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell for Welsh National Opera, an assumption for which he has rightly been rewarded with accolades, Mozart’s Mitridate was the most difficult part in his repertoire. It is documented in contemporary correspondence, as well as in Mozart’s own later exchanges with his father, that Guglielmo d'Ettore was in reduced vocal estate at the time of the first performance of Mitridate and may already have been ill with the malady that would end his life less than two years later. If Mozart’s music for Mitridate is representative of his avoidance of the worn or compromised patches in d'Ettore’s voice, what a voice it must have been! In the introductory cavata in Act One over which the tenor gave Mozart such trouble, ‘Se di lauri il crine adorno,’ the vocal line defiantly rises to top C, and Mr. Banks makes easy going of both the huge intervals and the high tessitura. Later in Act One, the test in Mitridate’s aria ‘Quel ribelle e quell'ingrato’ is a terrifying descent from top A to low C♯, and Mr. Banks again passes with élan to spare. His first aria in Act Two, ‘Tu che fedel mi sei,’ is also shaped by difficult intervals and spiky vocal lines cresting on top C. Mr. Banks sings this as though it were the most natural means of communicating life-or-death emotions. Mozart’s unusual use of an augmented second to modulate the repetition of the development downward by a whole tone in the aria ‘Già di pietà mi spoglio’ is evidence of the faculty with which the young composer absorbed the compositional techniques to which he was exposed, similar manipulations of harmony and key progression having been employed to reflect deepening emotions in Mysliveček’s pre-1770 operas. His singing of the aria is evidence of Mr. Banks’s unwavering connection with Mozart’s style. The Act Three aria ‘Vado incontro al fato estremo’ again launches Mr. Banks to top C repeatedly, and he hits the mark accurately and thrillingly on each ascent. Mitridate’s tessitura stops just short of that of Arnold’s ‘Asile héréditaire’ and ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance’ in Act Four of Guillaume Tell, but Mozart’s coloratura is at least as taxing as Rossini’s. Mitridate would have been an ideal rôle for the first Arnold, Adolphe Nourrit, but whether he or Guglielmo d’Ettore could have equaled the red-blooded, vocally dazzling performance given by Mr. Banks on this recording is doubtful.

There are essentially two types of geniuses: those who are born and those who are created. As in so many aspects of his life and artistry, Mozart was in the scope of his creativity sui generis. He was a born genius, but careful study of the music of both his contemporaries and his artistic ancestors enabled him to become an even greater one. Mitridate, rè di Ponto is only the beginning of the journey that led to the da Ponte operas and his final opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, but the cosmopolitan sensibilities that Mozart possessed at fourteen were superior to those of many composers in their maturities. The listener fortunate enough to encounter Mitridate in the theatre will likely be compelled to accept either historically-informed performance practices of dubious applicability to early Mozart or unapologetic modern-instrument precepts that approach the score from the perspective of the Nineteenth Century. Classical Opera’s recording restores Mitridate to the way it must have sounded in the Teatro Regio Ducale in 1770—except that even the cast of luminaries by whom the opera was premièred cannot have surpassed the performance offered by the voices heard on these discs.

09 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Jacques Offenbach – FANTASIO (S. Connolly, B. Rae, R. Braun, R. Murray, B. Sherratt, V. Simmonds; Opera Rara ORC51)

CD REVIEW: Jacques Offenbach - FANTASIO (Opera Rara ORC51)

JACQUES OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880): FantasioSarah Connolly (Fantasio), Brenda Rae (La princesse Elsbeth), Russell Braun (Le prince de Mantoue), Robert Murray (Marioni), Brindley Sherratt (Le roi de Bavière), Victoria Simmonds (Flamel), Neal Davies (Sparck), Gavan Ring (Hartmann), Aled Hall (Facio); Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, England, UK, in December 2013 (music) and St Jude’s Church, Hampstead Garden, London (dialogue); Opera Rara ORC51; 2 CD, 139:08; Available from Opera Rara, Amazon, harmonia mundi USA, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Jacques Offenbach at his least inspired was capable of writing riotously entertaining music. At his best, the best embodied by Les contes d’Hoffmann, he could create music of exceptional beauty and surprising profundity. Perhaps the most damning obstacle in his career was that the Parisian audiences for his works were not reliably capable of discerning the merely very good from the truly magnificent. How else can the poor reception that greeted the first production of Fantasio be explained? Despite the presence of Célestine Galli-Marié—the creator of Vendredi in Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoé in 1867 and Bizet’s Carmen in 1875—in the title rôle, Fantasio survived after its 1872 première at the Opéra-Comique for only nine more performances. The opera was produced elsewhere in Europe within a year of its Paris première, however, and a Hamburg radio production featuring Helmut Krebs and Valerie Bak was recorded for broadcast in 1957, albeit in a bowdlerized edition with rôle transpositions that was the only form in which Fantasio was then thought to survive. Continuing the work started with their advocacy of the neglected Robinson Crusoé and Vert-Vert, Opera Rara’s musical archeologists again come to Offenbach’s rescue with a studio recording of Fantasio that is a souvenir of a concert performance of the opera at Royal Festival Hall that was one of the not-to-be-missed musical events of 2013. Restoring the score to its original splendor, complete with music that fell victim to Offenbach’s incessant pursuit of offering his audiences works of taut dramatic construction, this recording preserves a real performance of Fantasio rather than a studio-bound recital of notes; but how could anyone fail to be swept along by such fantastic music?

Sir Mark Elder again proves himself to be one of Opera Rara’s foremost assets, and here he also reveals himself to be a phonogenic vocal actor. Always a prepared, energetic conductor, Maestro Elder reaffirms in this performance that he is a top choice for leading performances of Offenbach’s music. He not only knows how music like that in Fantasio ought to sound but, far more importantly, also understands how to capitalize on that knowledge. Many of today’s conductors seemingly approach Les contes d’Hoffmann with the goal of portraying Hoffmann, Antonia, and Miracle as though they are Siegfried, Brünnhilde, and Wotan on their nights off, replacing Offenbach’s subtle humor with pseudo-Wagnerian pomposity. Fantasio is not Hoffmann, but the musical links between the two scores are unmistakable. Maestro Elder realizes that, even in a Bavarian setting, Offenbach’s music exudes the aromas of champagne and punitions, not those of beer and Schweinshaxe. His conducting of Fantasio honors the learned musicality at the heart of the score without denying the effervescent atmosphere of the Salle Favart. Every number is paced with cognizance of the inner and outer structures of the music and respect for the singers’ needs. It is a performance that treads boldly on dramatically dangerous ground but does so wearing dancing shoes.

Expectedly, the playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is another source of strength. Fantasio does not make extravagant demands on the orchestra, having as many uncomplicated, formulaic accompaniments as are attributed to any of Verdi’s early operas, but the OAE players take nothing for granted, dedicating to Offenbach’s score the same concentration that they would lavish on the most difficult music in their repertoire. The string playing is especially refined, not least in the pair of Entr’actes in Act Three, the first a stirring piece that begins with almost Wagnerian brass figures and the second a dulcet, introverted number of intimate, chamber music-like proportions. The percussion is delightfully unrestrained in public scenes, and passages of Gallic delicacy from the brasses and woodwinds alternate with boisterous spirits. This is also true of the singing of the Opera Rara Chorus. Whether lamenting the death of the King of Bavaria’s court jester, Saint-Jean, seething with bellicose impetuosity, or extolling Fantasio’s resourcefulness, the choristers sing with crisp diction—a notable achievement of the cast as a whole, in fact—and perfectly-judged tone. Moreover, the choral singing contributes ebulliently in every scene in which it is heard, starting with the scene-setting ‘Vive le roi!’ at the beginning of the opera. The sympathetic but vaguely ironic tone of the Chœur de pénitents, ‘Ô Saint-Jean! ta joyeuse face,’ is given subtle treatment by the choristers, and their singing provides a strong foundation in ensembles.

A more enjoyable rabble-rouser than the Sparck of Welsh bass-baritone Neal Davies is inconceivable. This fine singer has participated in a number of acclaimed recordings, but he has never sounded better on disc than in this performance. He is on superb form, and his firm, focused singing of ‘Si l'on veut que l'on m'accroche’ and ‘Les fous ne meurent pas’ is feisty and congenially arrogant. Mr. Davies’s singing provides comedic and musical backbone to the performance, and he is charmingly abetted by the Hartmann of Irish baritone Gavan Ring and Facio of Welsh tenor Aled Hall. Both gentlemen bring their characters to life with panache and sing with good command of music and text. Some of the sharpest arrows in Offenbach’s satirical quiver were reserved for the authority figures in his works, whom he often depicted as bumbling, blissfully distracted idiots, but the King of Bavaria in Fantasio is spared the worst of the composer’s contempt. Owing to the brawny, occasionally slightly unsteady singing of Lancashire-born bass Brindley Sherratt, this King has a measure of legitimate authority despite seeming to inclined to orate than to actually take action. As Flamel, a page at the Bavarian court who fills the rôle of the Princess’s confidant, mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds sings attractively, her lovely voice heard to advantage in the congenial lines assigned to Flamel in ensembles, especially the scintillating quintet ‘Oui, c’est bien lui, chère princesse’ in Act Two.

The indecisive Prince of Mantua—the libidinal antithesis of Verdi’s Duca di Mantova—is brought to life with manly charisma by Canadian baritone Russell Braun. This Prince may not accomplish much in the course of Fantasio, but in Mr. Braun’s performance he at least sounds fantastic. In the Prince’s strophes in Act Two, ‘Je ne serai donc jamais, non jamais,’ Mr. Braun movingly evinces the Prince’s dejection upon realizing that his title makes being loved for himself difficult. Some singers might be inclined to mope in the expression of such sentiments, but Mr. Braun’s singing avoids saccharine over-emoting. He rises to the high notes of his part with less ease than in past, but he interacts humorously with the Prince’s aide-de-camp Marinoni, who is sung vibrantly by Essex-born tenor Robert Murray. The duet in which the Prince hatches and communicates with his partner in crime his plot to observe the Munich court via traded identities comme Don Ramiro and Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, ‘Je médite un projet d’importance,’ is handsomely sung by both gentlemen, and Mr. Murray’s account of Marinoni’s Act Three couplets, ‘Reprenez cet habit mon prince,’ in which his reluctance to return to his lowly duties as a barely-noticed aide-de-camp is touchingly expressed, is sparkling. Mr. Murray’s lean, heady tones combine ideally with Mr. Braun’s darker, earthier timbre, and they form a winning partnership as put-upon servant and exasperated master.

Wisconsin native Brenda Rae is an aptly regal presence as the Princess Elsbeth. Richard Strauss famously requested a teenager with the voice of Isolde for his Salomé: the combination of her music and the line ‘Puisque j’ai seize ans à mon âge on doit voir la vie en rose’ (‘At the age of sixteen, one ought to view life with rosy hues’)—amusingly foreshadowing Liesl’s ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ in The Sound of Music—suggests that Offenbach wanted a sixteen-year-old with the voice of Lucia di Lammermoor. Ms. Rae may not be sixteen, but a Lucia di Lammermoor she is—a very fine one, in fact. Her bel canto technique serves her well in Offenbach’s music, and the proficiency and precision of her top Ds and E♭s, upon which Elsbeth’s vocal lines make few demands even with interpolations, qualify her for the high tessitura to which she is subjected in ensembles. Ms. Rae sings Elsbeth’s recitative and romance in Act One, ‘Voilà toute la ville en fête’ and ‘Hélas! je tremble, hésitante, inquiète,’ with poise and absolute security, but it is in her Act Two air, ‘Ah! dans son cœur qui donc peut lire,’ reminiscent of ‘Je veux vivre,’ Juliette’s waltz aria in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Olympia’s ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ in Les contes d’Hoffmann, that Ms. Rae’s voice rockets into the heavens most ravishingly. Elsbeth’s romance ‘Psyché pauvre imprudente’ also inspires Ms. Rae to singing of impressive fluidity, and the honesty with which she portrays the Princess’s overcoming of initial hesitation in Elsbeth’s duets with Fantasio is endearing. Throughout the performance, she creates a character whose confusion, disappointment, apprehension, and yearning are palpable, and she manages to portray a Princess whose friendship with her father’s court jester seems credible. She inspires sympathy for Elsbeth’s suffering, resulting both from the loss of her closest friend and the obstacles to her romantic fulfillment, all while singing Offenbach’s music zestfully.

An evident truth that has emerged in the past decade is that, when putting on performances of a score that includes a prominent rôle for mezzo-soprano, whether that score is by Monteverdi, Mozart, Massenet, or Mahler, a sure-fire way of guaranteeing success is engaging Sarah Connolly. Offenbach’s Fantasio is an ideal rôle for Ms. Connolly, and she impersonates him accordingly. In the Act One Ballade à la lune, ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune,’ also offered as an appendix in its original, fuller version, Ms. Connolly sings magically, her cinnamon-hued timbre seeming to shimmer with moonlight. Intoxicating murmurs are indeed the prevailing element of Fantasio’s duet with Elsbeth, ‘Quel murmure charmant,’ sung with erotically-charged simplicity by Ms. Connolly and Ms. Rae, and the couplets in Act Two, ‘C’est le nouveau bouffon de roi,’ receive similarly pointed performances from both singers. In the subsequent duets with Elsbeth, ‘Je n’ai donc rien de plus’ and ‘Il n’est qu’un refrain à chanter,’ Ms. Connolly sings powerfully and attractively. She never coarsens her tone in efforts to sound masculine, and she traverses her part’s range without strain. This Fantasio is too clever to ever be fully convincing as a fool, but Ms. Connolly exhibits understanding of the fact that the key to effective comedy is sincerity, not buffoonery. Fantasio’s music is supplemented by the inclusion—also as an appendix—of a number cut from the score by Offenbach, ‘Pleure, le ciel te voit,’ and this, too, Ms. Connolly sings beautifully. The composer’s first choice for the rôle of Fantasio was the tenor Victor Capoul, one of the Opéra-Comique’s most popular singers and the first Valentin in Offenbach’s Vert-Vert, and the lion’s share of the few revivals of Fantasio in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries have entrusted the title rôle to tenors. So unique was the range of the first Fantasio, Galli-Marié, that, like her countrywoman Cornélie Falcon, her name became synonymous with a particular Fach of high mezzo-soprano singers. Ms. Connolly’s singing is similarly unique, and she is rightly the heart of this performance of Fantasio.

It is regrettable that, even with Les conte d’Hoffmann in the repertories of most of the world’s most important opera houses, Offenbach has not fully escaped from the stigma of a reputation as a purveyor of frothy entertainments with little substance. The esteem in which the composer held Fantasio is obvious from his use of thematic material from the score in Les contes d’Hoffmann. That Fantasio is a sublime work in its own right is confirmed by this recording. Through the years, the inquisitive spirits that guide the endeavors of Opera Rara have displayed unerring instincts for uniting neglected scores with casts capable of revealing their finest qualities, and this recording of Fantasio is one of the best products of those instincts. With a studio recording of Donizetti’s seldom-heard Les martyrs featuring Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres, as well as accounts of Donizetti’s unfinished Le duc d’Albe, Gounod’s La colombe, and Leoncavallo’s Zazà, on the horizon, Opera Rara’s success, brilliantly perpetuated by Fantasio, is certain to continue blossoming sensationally in the lush garden of rediscovered music.