28 August 2016

CD REVIEW: Charles Gounod — CINQ-MARS (M. Vidal, V. Gens, T. Christoyannis, A. Foster-Williams, A. Heyboer, N. Nahoun, M. Lenormand, J.-G. Belobo, A. Lepri Meyer, M. Ettmayr, W. Klose; Edicions Singulares ES 1024)

IN REVIEW: Charles Gounod - CINQ-MARS (Ediciones Singulares ES 1024)CHARLES-FRANÇOIS GOUNOD (1813 – 1893): Cinq-MarsMathias Vidal (Le Marquis de Cinq-Mars), Véronique Gens (La Princesse Marie de Gonzague), Tassis Christoyannis (Le Conseiller de Thou), Andrew Foster-Williams (Le Père Joseph), André Heyboer (Le Vicomte de Fontrailles), Norma Nahoun (Marion Delorme), Marie Lenormand (Ninon de L’Enclos, Un berger), Jacques-Greg Belobo (Le Roi, Le Chancelier), Andrew Lepri Meyer (De Montmort, L’Ambassadeur), Matthias Ettmayr (De Montrésor, Eustache), Wolfgang Klose (De Brienne); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Ulf Schirmer, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert in the Prinzregententheater, Munich, Germany, on 25 January 2015; Ediciones Singulares ES 1024; 2 CDs, 138:17; Available from NAXOS Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

If it were possible to establish a means of communication between the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries, perhaps no one would be more surprised than the composer himself to learn that in today’s musical circles Charles Gounod’s reputation rests almost solely upon the popularity of his operas Faust and Roméo et Juliette. From the well-received first production of Sapho in 1851 until the unsuccessful première of Le tribut de Zamora in 1881, Gounod was a dominant figure in French opera, enriching the repertory with scores as lovely but largely ignored as La colombe, La reine de Saba, and Mireille. With many new operas now devoid of anything that might be mistaken for a memorable melody, the crime for which Gounod’s reputation has been doomed to derogation can be reasonably identified as tunefulness in the first degree. Even at the height of Gounod’s fame, dissenting voices alleged that the melodies of Faust and Roméo et Juliette, though undeniably pretty, failed to parallel the literary significance of Goethe’s and Shakespeare’s scenarios, but what accounts for the reversal of fortune whereby a pair of scores maligned for euphonious vapidity are now the two of his operas to be accepted into the international repertory? Superbly recorded in concert by Ediciones Singulares in Munich in January 2015, this performance of Gounod’s Cinq-Mars offers a new perspective on Gounod’s frequently misunderstood and misrepresented artistry, vastly different from the Romantic vistas of Faust and Roméo et Juliette. If melodic beauty and bounty are indeed damnable offenses, Gounod could hope for nothing other than condemnation, but this recording of Cinq-Mars makes an eloquent argument for commuting the composer’s sentence to one of eternal enjoyment in the world’s opera houses.

Premièred at Paris’s storied Opéra-Comique on 5 April 1877, Cinq-Mars is Gounod’s setting of Alfred de Vigny’s fictionalized episodes from the life of the Seventeenth-Century courtesan Marion Delorme, familiar as the title heroine of a play by Victor Hugo and operas by Giovanni Bottesini and Amilcare Ponchielli—familiar, that is, if an observer is aware of Hugo’s drama and Bottesini’s and Ponchielli’s operas. The opera’s largely disappointing first production was conducted by Charles Lamoureaux, who also planned and presided over the first performances in France of Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde. There are few vestiges in Cinq-Mars of Wagner, whose Der Ring des Nibelungen was performed in full for the first time eight months before the première of Gounod’s opera, but the ears also search in vain for the unabashed lyricism of Faust and Roméo et Juliette. His imagination undoubtedly stoked by events from the history of his own country, Gounod composed a score for Cinq-Mars that is in some ways unlike any of his other extant operas. If Wagner is largely absent from the music, the grandeur of Beethoven and kinetic energy of Boieldieu are present, and the set pieces recall Meyerbeer and Halévy. The spirit of Verdi drifts northward over the Alps, as well, the Council Chamber Scene in Simon Boccanegra finding cousins in the elaborate ensembles in Gounod’s score, and with its idealistic tenor hero, put-upon soprano heroine, and menacing low-voiced representative of political intrigue, Cinq-Mars anticipates Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. The historical setting of Seventeenth-Century France inspired Gounod to create music that is aptly opulent without ever being pompous. Though unlikely to ever garner the widespread exposure of Faust, Cinq-Mars is a stirring, tautly-constructed work that, experienced via a performance of the quality of this one, expands the appreciation of Gounod’s theatrical flair.

A pupil of György Ligeti, Christoph von Dohnányi, and Horst Stein and once an assistant to Lorin Maazel, German conductor Ulf Schirmer has proved through performances and recordings to be an insightful, often enthralling exponent of the operas of Richard Strauss and repertory of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Here leading the excellent Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester, of which ensemble his tenure as Principal Conductor is scheduled to expire at the end of the 2016 – 2017 Season, Schirmer approaches Cinq-Mars with beneficial Teutonic discipline that does not inhibit the Gallic refinement of Gounod’s music. The conductor shrinks from neither extremes of dynamics nor forging ahead according to the dictates of the score, but his tempi do not rush the soloists, choristers, or musicians. The dramatic sweep of the opera is evident even in its most lyrical passages, and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester’s strong, stylish playing, not least of the well-crafted Prélude, reflects the considerable advantages of the musicians’ long-established relationship with Schirmer. The choral singing, prepared by Stellario Fagone under the direction of chorus mistress Eva Pons, further enhances the resoundingly positive impression made by Schirmer’s conducting. If there is a ‘Gounod school’ of conducting fostered by decades of communal acquaintance with Faust and Roméo et Juliette, successfully pacing a performance of Cinq-Mars often violates its teachings. The methodology that Schirmer employs in this performance of Cinq-Mars is very simple: follow where the score leads. The score leads Schirmer to the realization of a compelling account of this fascinating music.

The ensemble of vocalists assembled for supporting rôles in this performance of Cinq-Mars should provide every listener who complains about today’s alleged lack of truly capable singers with encouraging proof to the contrary. Cameroon-born bass Jacques-Greg Belobo as Le Roi and Le Chancelier, American tenor Andrew Lepri Meyer as De Montmort and L’Ambassadeur, German bass Matthias Ettmayr as De Montrésor and Eustache, and German bass-baritone Wolfgang Klose as De Brienne all sing handsomely, and their French diction is uniformly respectable. Moreover, whether singing ten notes or ten pages, they fashion vivid character studies from the music that Gounod gave them. The presence of French mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand as Ninon de L’Enclos and Un berger is as successful an instance of luxury casting as has graced any recording. Lenormamd shines without pretentiously making star turns of her appearances. A well-schooled, alluring instrument, her voice is used with feline grace: no matter what obstacles Gounod placed in her path, she unfailingly lands on her musical feet.

Following an opening scene in which the choristers’ singing of ‘A la cour vous allez paraître’ earns admiration for its animation and meticulously-balanced ensemble, the opera’s titular protagonist and his devoted friend de Thou, sung by French tenor Mathias Vidal and Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis, propel the action of Act One and introduce themselves in a charismatic, perhaps slightly overlong duet, ‘Henri, vous nous parliez là d’une voix légère.’ Both gentlemen sing shrewdly, the baritone’s depiction of de Thou’s initial hesitation and concern giving way to hearty, effortlessly-vocalized camaraderie. Here and throughout the performance, Vidal proves an aptly noble figure, Cinq-Mars’s actions dictated by both conscience and decorum. Christoyannis’s de Thou is in many ways his foil, but the baritone’s attractive, inviolably secure vocalism lends his every utterance an inherent dignity that renders the character a particularly efficacious second to Cinq-Mars. Their conversation is framed by another stirring performance by the chorus, their singing of ‘Allez, par la nuit claire’ a delectable evocation of the untroubled night of which they sing.

As he portrays Gounod’s saturnine Père Joseph in this performance of Cinq-Mars with a voice of thunderous authority, it is no surprise that British bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams was thrillingly potent as Donner and Gunther in Opera North’s recent traversals of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. His characterization of Père Joseph is positively reptilian: one can virtually see the sadistic smirk of this cassocked crocodile. His manipulative, suggestive interjections in Act One are ever so polite, his cautious avoidance of showing his hand in the nation-making card game between his employer, Cardinal de Richelieu, and King Louis XIII cloaked in feigned deference to the royal prerogative: the blood ultimately on this Père Joseph’s hands glows almost as ruddily as l’Éminence rouge himself. From his first notes in this performance, it is apparent that Foster-Williams’s voice is an instrument groomed for greatness, one in which the great Verdi baritone rôles meet Wagner’s Holländer and Wotan. The inky smoothness of his singing of Père Joseph’s music is unnerving, the beauty and steadiness of his voice making the character’s malevolence all the more chilling.

In Marie’s recitative ‘Par quel trouble profond suis-je ici ramenée’ and moody cavatine ‘Nuit resplendissante et silencieuse,’ soprano Véronique Gens, one of France’s most beguiling and hardest-working singers, encounters music that might have been composed especially for the purpose of exploiting her musical and histrionic strengths. The linguistic clarity of Gens’s declamation of the recitative is invigorating, but it is the poise of her singing of the cavatine, its G5 effortlessly projected, that captivates. With a wealth of experience in French Baroque music to her credit, Gens is uniquely qualified to approach Marie’s music with complete cognizance of its historical and artistic contexts, and she puts that qualification to meaningful use with a characterization of the conflicted pawn in factional maneuvering that throbs with feeling without violating the circumspect demeanor of a grand lady of Seventeenth-Century French society.

Act One concludes with a duet for Cinq-Mars and Marie, ‘Ah! vous m’avez pardonné ma folie,’ that is one of the score’s most frustrating numbers. Though very capably written for the voices, the music sounds comfortable rather than impassioned. Vidal and Gens sing commandingly, however, elevating the emotional temperature of the scene. Like his duet partner, Vidal is no stranger to Baroque repertory, and he shares Gens’s innate sense for maintaining vocal posture appropriate to the scale of the music. The foundations of Rameau, Dauvergne, and Gluck support the opulent structures of Gounod’s music, and the familiarity with French idioms of previous generations that Gens and Vidal wield gives their singing of Marie’s and Cinq-Mars’s scenes an element of legitimacy that palpably communicates the characters’ emotions; more powerfully, in truth, than Gounod’s music manages to do on its own in some passages.

The chorus and scene that begin Act Two. ‘A Marion, reine des belles,’ are performed incisively, and baritone André Heyboer gives a masterful account of Fontrailles’s chanson ‘On ne verra plus dans Paris tant de plumes ni de moustaches,’ his voice flowing through the music like the serpentine currents of the Seine. As performed here, Mélodrame that follows has the narrative thrust of radio drama, and the choristers bring energizing focus to ‘Ah! monsieur le grand écuyer, permettez que l’on vous salue.’ Vidal sings Cinq-Mars’s cavatine ‘Marie, ah! c’est la fin de notre longue attente’ romantically, his articulation of ‘Quand vous m’avez dit un jour’ shaped by the singer’s meticulous attention to both note and word values. In their trio, ‘Cet homme encore! Parlez,’ Gens’s Marie, Vidal’s Cinq-Mars, and Foster-Williams’s Père Joseph generate dramatic sparks that bring to mind the frenzied atmosphere of the final trio in Faust, the unison top B for the lovers rousingly projected as a counterattack against Père Joseph’s growling musical assault.

The chorus and Heyboer’s sonorous Fontrailles set the mood for Act Two’s second tableau with their intense ‘Ninon, dites-nous, je vous en supplie,’ introducing the fiery Ninon with perfectly-controlled but appropriately imploring ensemble. Sparkling like a priceless jewel against the dark backdrop of the drama is the Marion of French soprano Norma Nahoun, whose singing of the air ‘Bergers, qui le voulez connaître’ ignites the music with fearless handling of the its bravura flourishes to top A and B. The garnet-toned Lenormand phrases Le Berger’s sonnet ‘De vox traits, mon âme est navrée’ with the finesse expected of but so seldom heard from native speakers of French. Nahoun and the chorus deliver ‘Parmi les fougères’ with charm that contrasts markedly with the music that follows. The Conjuration that brings down the curtain on Act Two, ‘Viendra-t-il? Il viendra, Messieurs,’ is the most original scene in the score and one of Gounod’s most effective creations for the stage. The influence of Weber and Berlioz is apparent, but the musical language is exclusively Gounod’s. It is a language in which Schirmer and the cast of this performance of Cinq-Mars are fluent, and they collectively convey the genius of the Conjuration with extraordinary cogency.

It is to the chorus that Gounod entrusted launching Act Three, and the singers here repay him with a bristling account of ‘La fanfare éveillée, sous la haute feuillée,’ their work again a model of intelligently-managed balances and communicativeness. The trio for Marie, Cinq-Mars, and de Thou, ‘Madame, c’est le lieu du rendez-vous,’ receives from Gens, Vidal, and Christoyannis a performance of pulse-quickening immediacy, their vocalism glowing with the electricity of the text. The subsequent Mélodrame provides a tense transition to the brooding ambience of the next scene. Foster-Williams intones Père Joseph’s air ‘Tu t’en vas confiant dans ta folle entreprise’ with accents borrowed from the mouth of hell and sounds that satisfy like the bliss of heaven. His stark singing of ‘Dans une trame invisible’ is a tour de force, the words hurled like javelins: rarely on disc or on stage does operatic villainy sound so sinfully, almost erotically bewitching. Joining Gens in the duet ‘Demeurez ici, Madame; il faut m’entendre,’ Foster-Williams reaffirms that his dramatic sensibilities are as impressive as his voice. He and Gens engage in musical combat with the unstinting force of Shakespeare’s Iago and Desdemona. The soprano’s tones occasionally harden when the voice comes under pressure, but her musicality—one of the foremost wonders of the operatic world—carries her safely through every challenge. Like Act Two’s Conjuration, the Hallali-Chœur that ends Act Three, ‘Hallali! chasse superbe, le cerf est couché sur l’herbe,’ is an innovative number that anticipates later works like Magnard’s Guercœur and even Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Whereas the grand public scenes in Faust and Roméo et Juliette are constructed of layers of lyrical melody, the Hallali-Chœur is an imposingly bleak edifice upon which vignettes of lyric beauty are carved. Schirmer’s instinct for spotlighting the moments of dulcet expressivity without obscuring the boldness of Gounod’s writing is put to telling use. In this performance, the act ends zealously, singers and orchestra holding nothing back in the execution of their parts.

Initiated with an aura of contemplation in ‘Ami, je faisais un beau rêve,’ Act Four moves quickly to its and the opera’s tragic dénouement. Vidal sings Cinq-Mars’s cavatine ‘C’est en vain que je veux pour jamais vous bannir’ beautifully, his imaginative phrasing highlighting nuances of both music and text. Occasionally, a voice with a stronger core—Alain Vanzo might have been an ideal Cinq-Mars, for instance—would likely make slightly greater impact in the music, but Vidal is a committed artist whose comfort with the style and tessitura of his music complements the assurance of his handling of his native language. Significantly, too, his seductively sweet-toned voice is evenly produced from bottom to top. In the duo with Marie, ‘Ah! qu’ai-je dit? Se peut-il que j’oublie,’ Vidal and Gens caress their lines, descending into great depths of emotion in their unaffected depiction of their characters’ desperate straits. Christoyannis adds his voice to theirs in ‘Amis, venez, plus de tristesse,’ and his singing resounds with contrasting steel and subtlety. Cinq-Mars and de Thou face Père Joseph one last time as they prepare for execution in the opera’s final scene. The cruel sentiments with which Gounod suffused ‘Messieurs, appelez à vous votre courage’ are heightened by the crackling voltage of Vidal’s, Christoyannis’s, and Foster-Williams’s vocal acting. Gens’s cry of despair as Cinq-Mars and de Thou unhesitatingly meet their deaths epitomizes the ethos of this performance: every sound serves the drama, and the drama is drawn organically from the music.

Performance in concert form is a perfect medium for displaying the abundant merits of Cinq-Mars—and, as this wonderful Ediciones Singulares release attests, for recording the opera. Without the need for elaborate scenic effects and costumes, resources can be devoted to engaging artists of the caliber that Gounod’s score deserves. Cinq-Mars is a work that is by no means an inferior sibling to Faust and Roméo et Juliette, but a decent Faust or Roméo et Juliette can be assembled from less-than-top-quality parts. Enrico Caruso famously quipped that Verdi’s Il trovatore requires neither more nor less than the world’s four greatest singers. Cinq-Mars’s demands are not quite so incredible, but the opera’s success depends upon what it receives in this performance: knowledgeable conducting, dedicated music making, and first-rate singing. Many are the forgotten scores that could be delightfully resurrected by the quartet of Mathias Vidal, Véronique Gens, Tassis Christoyannis, and Andrew Foster-Williams. It is Gounod’s excellent fortune that they espoused his Cinq-Mars.

25 August 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | August 2016: Vincenzo Bellini & Gaetano Donizetti — ALLEGRO IO SON (Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Delos DE 3517)

IN REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini & Gaetano Donizetti - ALLEGRO IO SON (Delos DE 3517)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835) and GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Allegro io son – Bel canto AriasLawrence Brownlee, tenor; Viktorija Miškūnaitė, soprano (Puritani selections); Liudas Mikalauskas, bass (Puritani and Fille du régiment selections); Andrius Apšega, baritone (Puritani selection); Kaunas State Choir; Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Constantine Orbelian, conductor [Recorded at Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania, in April 2016; Delos DE 3517; 1 CD, 62:15; Available from Delos, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

The late thespian Sir Alec Guinness once suggested that a superb tenor voice should sound like ‘a silver trumpet muffled in silk.’ These are very pretty words, to be sure, and a legitimate observation by the owner of one of the great voices of the spoken theatre, but what does the description truly mean? Without resorting to proposing that a listener ponder how a silver trumpet muffled in silk might actually sound, how is Guinness’s assessment translated into discernible qualities that the ear unbothered by poetic conceits can perceive? Supported with ideal grace and enthusiasm by the expertly-scaled singing and playing of the Kaunas State Choir and Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the alert, stylish conducting of Constantine Orbelian, tenor Lawrence Brownlee provides with the eleven selections on Allegro io son a definitive—and, in the context of Guinness’s lovely but enigmatic observation, revealingly defining—exhibition of the silken trumpeting of a superb, polished-silver tenor voice. Even amidst the musical brilliance of Allegro io son, which is all the more enjoyable for being so vividly recorded and handsomely presented by Delos, it is the undeviating directness of Brownlee’s approach to this demanding music that distinguishes this disc. Sincerity is not a trait that is often encountered in opera, on or off the stage, but honest, unforced connection with the music and the characters that it portrays is the heart of Allegro io son. Is an uncomplicated joy in singing perhaps the silk with which Guinness stated that the finest voices are adorned?

One of America’s most acclaimed singers, Brownlee is an artist who has legitimately earned every honor bestowed upon him, not the least among which is the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. Lauded for interpretations of rôles ranging from Rossini’s dashing leading men to the legendary jazz saxophonist and composer title character in Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, premièred by Opera Philadelphia in 2015, Brownlee is a performer whose wholly organic operatic portrayals are allied with the utmost technical refinement. Whereas some singers develop idiosyncrasies as their careers progress, Brownlee has thus far honed his skills without sacrificing any of the visceral immediacy of his singing, each new experience broadening his view but never distorting his focus. The tenor’s renown owes much to his breathtaking flair for executing Rossinian fiorature, but the expansive melodic lines of Vincenzo Bellini and the dramatic bel canto of Gaetano Donizetti are equally apt outlets for Brownlee’s prodigious gifts. Avoiding the forcing that compromises many singers’ endeavors in this repertory, Brownlee’s singing on Allegro io son possesses an evenness spanning the full range that, though perhaps easier to control in the recording studio than in the theatre, cannot be faked. As with the sincerity of his expression, the authenticity of his vocalism is remarkable, especially as it is employed in the performances on this disc. Brownlee practices what many pedagogues and fellow tenors can only preach.

It is fitting that the Bellini selections on Allegro io son are drawn from the composer’s final opera, I puritani, in performances of which Brownlee has proved in recent seasons to be a stakes-raising exponent of the rôle of Arturo, created in the opera’s 1835 première by Giovanni Battista Rubini. The fearsome tessitura and stratospheric range of the part lift it beyond the reach of most modern tenors even with downward transpositions and omissions, but Brownlee’s performances of Arturo for Washington Concert Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, and other companies have been notable not only for the appearance of ease with which he sings the music, evidence of his award-worthy acting skills [anyone lulled by his singing into doubting the difficulty of Brownlee’s repertory is encouraged to sing along—at pitch—with any of the selections on this disc to dispel these illusions], but also his astounding projection of the part’s infamous F5. Brownlee here sings Arturo’s de facto entrance aria—not so designated by Bellini in the score—from Act One, ‘A te, o cara, amor talora.’ Complemented by capable, often lovely deliveries of Elvira’s, Giorgio’s, and Valton’s lines by soprano Viktorija Miškūnaitė, baritone Andrius Apšega, and bass Liudas Mikalauskas, he sculpts the arching melody with superb breath control and rises ecstatically to a bright, steady top C♯. Then, rather than awing with an account of ‘Credeasi, misera’ with the aforementioned F5, he prefers beguiling with the more subtle charms of ‘Son salvo, alfin son salvo.’ Miškūnaitė sings Elvira’s offstage passage ‘A una fronte afflitto e solo’ hauntingly, and Brownlee answers with vocalism of impeccable poise and lustrous tone. Astounding is the panache with which he manages to sound genuinely heroic whilst also placing vowels squarely on the breath as true bel canto demands.

This disc takes its title from Beppe’s popular aria from the Italian version of Donizetti’s otherwise little-remembered one-act gem Rita, ‘Allegro io son, come un fringuel.’ The rapid-fire triplets with which the composer conjured the opera’s Spanish setting hold no terrors for Brownlee, and Donizetti’s trills are dutifully attempted, the second more successfully than the first. Completely successful are Brownlee’s ascents to the top Bs and C♯. From Act Four of La favorite come Fernand’s recitative ‘La maîtresse du roi!’ and aria ‘Ange si pur, que dans un songe.’ The tenor’s French diction is exemplary, slightly more natural, in fact, than his excellent command of Italian, and the anguish expressed by the character as he reflects on his idealized passion having been shattered simmers in Brownlee’s unexaggerated singing. The beautifully-sustained top C is integrated into the line rather than disrupting it. Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal is one of Donizetti’s most daunting and therefore least-performed works, and the title character’s sprawling aria that ends the opera’s second act, ‘Seul sur la terre,’ tests Brownlee’s abilities. Reminiscent of the music that prefaces the heroine’s first scene in Lucia di Lammermoor, evocative passages for harp—beautifully played by the Kaunas harpist—introduce an exquisite principal theme that straddles the tenor’s passaggio. Brownlee conquers the aria unflinchingly, resourcefully exploiting his tones’ glistening patina rather than pushing the voice. The trio of top Cs and climactic top D♭ ring excitingly, costing Brownlee nothing in terms of toil that he is not eminently capable of paying. Luciano Pavarotti famously likened the tenor voice to a bank account into which God, nature, or whatever force to which one attributes vocal endowments deposits a finite number of top Cs. Singers’ upper registers are often casualties of the natural aging of voices, but Brownlee is the exceptionally rare singer whose technique seems adept at regularly replenishing his cache of high notes.

There have been few singers as uniquely qualified to sing Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale as Brownlee since the days of Tito Schipa and Cesare Valletti. Not even Alfredo Kraus sang Ernesto’s music so winsomely, and Brownlee has the advantage in comparison with the most noteworthy of his fellow Ernestos among today’s tenors of having a warmer, more appealingly youthful timbre. On this disc, Brownlee makes Ernesto’s Act Two recitative ‘Povero Ernesto! dallo zio cacciato, da tutti abbandonato,’ music that can too easily sound inane, truly touching. Matching the artful phrasing of the obbligato trumpet, Brownlee voices the larghetto aria ‘Cercherò lontana terra dove gemen sconosciuto’ ravishingly, the disinherited lad’s despair for once eliciting sympathy rather than derision. The moderato cabaletta ‘E se fia che ad altro oggetto’ receives from this Ernesto a rollicking reading bolstered by a newly-tapped vein of confidence: no note ever recorded exudes confidence more exhilaratingly than the interpolated top D♭ with which Brownlee ends the cabaletta. Aided by the chorus and the atmospheric sounds of the guitar and tambourine, his account of Ernesto’s Act Three serenade ‘Com'è gentil la notte a mezzo april’ is no less alluring. It may be an element of a ruse in its proper context in Don Pasquale, but the only Norinas whose hearts would not flutter in response to such a serenade would be either deaf or dead ones.

There are greater depths of expression in Donizetti’s music for Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore than many tenors bother to seek in their performances of the rôle. Content to garner laughs with a wide-eyed bumpkin’s antics, they leave to audiences’ imaginations the aspects of the guileless young man’s character that ultimately endear him to the sophisticated Adina. In his performance on this disc of the Act One aria ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara,’ Brownlee divulges to the listener that poetic wonder is not the exclusive right of those who are able to read poetry. The ebullience of a boyish affection is there in spades, but subtler emotions are also at play. This is also true of Brownlee’s singing of the ubiquitous Act Two aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima negli occhi suoi spuntò.’ There are so many dreadful recorded performances of Nemorino’s arias that one almost cringes to see them included in a disc’s track list, but Brownlee here offers performances of them that anyone who loves this music—or who appreciates singing in general—will want to hear again and again.

In November 2016, Brownlee brings his widely-praised portrayal of the lovesick Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, already savored by audiences in Cincinnati, New York, and throughout the operatically-inclined world, to Washington National Opera. Like his Italian cousin Nemorino, the Tyrolean Tonio is frequently depicted as an affable but essentially dimwitted fellow. To be sure, his Act One aria ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ is not the most intellectually stimulating piece ever composed, musically or textually, but its infectious elation is irresistible. Here, too, having no need to fret over the music’s technical requirements, Brownlee looks more closely into Tonio’s heart than many of the tenors who sing the rôle. He interacts merrily but meaningfully with Mikalauskas’s Caporal, the voice pouring out with uncontainable glee. In Brownlee’s handling, there is far more to the cabaletta ‘Pour mon âme, quel destin’ than its eagerly-awaited string of nine top Cs. Each of those Cs rockets from Brownlee’s throat with infallible intonation, soaring as if to say, ‘Is this not how youngsters in love express themselves?’ Nevertheless, the man who so eloquently pleads his case to the intractable but not unmoved Marquise in the Act Two aria ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ cannot be a backwoods yokel whose head is filled with cows and Edelweiss, and Brownlee unfurls the aria’s melodic line like a delicate ribbon. The interpolated top C♯ with which he crowns the aria is a tone of great plangency, a cry from Tonio’s wounded soul aimed squarely at the heart of the Marquise. In these performances, Brownlee’s upper register is unfailingly secure and vibrant, but his bel canto is defined by much more than effective high notes. The silver trumpet is vital, the requisite canto, but the silk is the bel without which singing is only stylized noise.

Recital discs often disclose more about singers’ egos than about their voices or artistries. In the insular setting of the recital disc, there are no needs for dramatic continuity or interactions with colleagues with which to be concerned. In too many instances, this freedom of sorts engenders sloppiness and showmanship of the most deplorable order. The singer in possession of an extraordinary voice can be forgiven for occasionally indulging the impulse to display it, but does a singer’s responsibility to composers dissipate when the project at hand is an aria recital rather than a recording of a complete opera? His singing of the selections on this disc, as insightfully-chosen a repertory as any singer has ever recorded, affirms that for Lawrence Brownlee the answer is obviously, emphatically No. These performances radiate unbreakable respect for Bellini and Donizetti and unshakable trust in the power of their music to, when sung as they intended it to be sung, convey complex emotions with universal simplicity. The tenor Marcello Giordano has been quoted as saying that ‘the tenor voice should be like sunshine.’ Sometimes sweet, sometimes scorching, Lawrence Brownlee’s voice is on Allegro io son always like silver gleaming through silk; a voice that generates its own sunshine.

20 August 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Incandescent Italian soprano DANIELA DESSÌ, 1957 – 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Italian soprano DANIELA DESSÌ, 1957 - 2016 [Photo © by Daniela Dessì/Lombardo Associates]DANIELA DESSÌ
14 May 1957 – 20 August 2016

As I have written in past, one of the most difficult tasks that an opera-loving writer faces is that of struggling with inadequate words to say farewell to admired artists, especially when those artists are taken from this world when there was so much more that their work might have given us. The unexpected passing of Italian soprano Daniela Dessì, who only recently announced a break from performing due to illness but anticipated returning to the stage for a gala concert in October 2016, is an occasion upon which celebration of all that audiences received from her is tempered by contemplation of the riches of which hateful disease now deprives aficionados of authentic Italian singing. Beautiful, intelligent, warm-hearted on and off the stage, and tirelessly dedicated to preserving the art of song, Dessì was a glistening jewel in a diadem that has become badly tarnished in the years since the voices of Magda Olivero, Anita Cerquetti, and Renata Tebaldi were silenced.

Born in Genova, Dessì was a singer whose extraordinarily expansive repertory was born not of circumstance and happenstance but of artistic curiosity and genuine interest in the history of opera since its modern emergence in the late Sixteenth Century. Acclaimed in rôles ranging from the title schemer in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Sesto in Händel’s Giulio Cesare to Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda, Dessì exhibited rare mastery of virtually the entire spectrum of Giuseppe Verdi’s writing for soprano from her first beautifully-vocalized performances of the composer’s Messa da Requiem. In his New York Times review of her 1995 Metropolitan Opera début as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a rôle that she recorded impressively during Philadelphia concerts under Riccardo Muti’s direction, noted critic Alex Ross assessed her performance as possessing ‘secure, well-projected high notes, lustrous tone quality at lower volumes, a subtle expressive sense.’ These traits made her portrayals of Verdi’s heroines unforgettable. Related but discernibly unique were the aspects of nobility that characterized her Elvira in Ernani, Leonora in Il trovatore, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, and Aida. Her Alice Ford displayed a perfect balance between joviality and decorum. Whether negotiating the intricacies of Elena’s ‘Mercè, dilette amiche’ in I vespri siciliani or braving Amelia’s long vocal lines in Simon Boccanegra, Dessì’s Verdi singing was principally noteworthy for the unmistakable command of and affection for the composer’s music.

As memorable as her bel canto and Verdi performances were, it was as an interpreter of Giacomo Puccini’s soprano heroines that Dessì shone most brightly. She was a Mimì in La bohème whose joy was as profound as her sorrow, and she was a Tosca whose spirit soared to heights as great as those reached by her voice. Often singing opposite her husband, tenor Fabio Armiliato, her Minnie in La fanciulla del West embodied the indomitable essence of the American West but as a thinking, feeling, suffering woman rather than an archetype. She rekindled the sacred fire that burned in the performances of Rosina Storchio, Geraldine Farrar, Margaret Sheridan, Licia Albanese, and Maria Callas in her own interpretation of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. To hear her sing ‘Che tua madre dovrà’ was to understand the psychological depth of Puccini’s depiction of a young girl transformed into a shrewd woman by pain and motherhood. Every moment of vocal strain was incorporated into a portrait of grace and grit, one that brought John Luther Long’s resilient heroine to life on the crests of Puccini’s music.

When Geraldine Farrar sang Cio-Cio San in the Metropolitan Opera première of Madama Butterfly in 1907, Henry Krehbiel wrote of her in the New York Tribune that ‘she sounds the note of deep pathos in both action and song convincingly.’ Could he have heard Daniela Dessì in any of the rôles in which her vocal prowess and penetrating imagination were fully engaged, he would surely have lauded her in similar terms. Dessì was an artist whose foremost goal was communication, not perfection. That she continued to share her gifts with audiences even as her body was ravaged by illness confirms that singing was for her a source of life rather than a means of making a living. There can be no redress for the performances that she now will never give us, but there must be tremendous gratitude for all that Daniela Dessì taught us about music that we cherish.

IN MEMORIAM: Italian soprano DANIELA DESSÌ (1957 - 2016) as Nedda, with baritone Mariusz Kwiecień as Silvio, in Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI at The Metropolitan Opera, 2004 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Gli uccelli sono volati troppo presto: Soprano Daniela Dessì as Nedda (left) and baritone Mariusz Kwiecień as Silvio (right) in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at The Metropolitan Opera, 2004 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

31 July 2016

CD REVIEW: Padre Antonio Soler — SIX CONCERTI FOR TWO KEYBOARDS (Philippe LeRoy & Jory Vinikour, harpsichords; Delos DE 3491)

IN REVIEW: Padre Antonio Soler - SIX CONCERTI FOR TWO KEYBOARDS (Delos DE 3491)PADRE ANTONIO SOLER (1729 – 1783): Six Concerti for Two KeyboardsPhilippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour, harpsichords [Recorded at the Scoring Stage, Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California, USA, 2 – 5 April 2015; Delos DE 3491; 1 CD, 74:15; Available from Delos, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

In nature, it is theorized that, on average, the proverbial tip of an iceberg visible to observers represents no more than twenty percent of the floe’s total volume. The same statistic could be used to accurately describe the ratio of familiar music in the Classical repertory to the overwhelming wealth of compositions that remain largely unknown. Even now, when new technologies enable Twenty-First-Century listeners to explore musical backroads and byways that previous incarnations of recording technology could not travel, there are for every Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms innumerable companies of composers living and dead whose music is substantially or wholly ignored. In truth, a well-meaning inclination to proclaim every piece recovered from neglect a rediscovered masterpiece is no more beneficial than dismissing unheard music as deserving its obscurity, but one of the inscrutable marvels of art is the rare but potent ability of artists to perform a work or a whole repertory in a way that not only figuratively clears the cobwebs but also literally redefines the ways in which the music is interpreted, performed, presented, and received. This is what Maria Callas and Magda Olivero achieved in bel canto and verismo repertories, what Marie-Claire Alain did for her brother Jehan’s music for organ, and what Arthur Grumiaux did for Händel’s forgotten violin sonatas. This, too, is what internationally-acclaimed harpsichordists Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour accomplish with this new Delos recording of the Six Concerti for Two Keyboards of Antoni Soler i Ramos. This music is not unknown, but hearing this disc, in the context of which producer and recording engineer David Bowles centers the music in an acoustical space of stunning, almost clinical clarity, may prompt the listener to believe that this is his first contact with these Concerti. A performance of music for harpsichord is expected to dazzle with virtuosity, and there is no shortage of nimbly-executed deluges of notes here, but the stylistic acuity and aesthetic sophistication are the attributes that mark this as a pioneering disc. The notes are but the tip of this musical iceberg: as played by LeRoy and Vinikour, the true merit of this music shimmers beneath the surface.

The uncertainty that undermines complete understanding of these Concerti’s provenance is as frustrating as an instance in which so much is known or can with relative credibility be conjectured can be. The Concerti were not published until the sixth and seventh decades of the Twentieth Century, and the dedication inscribed on Soler’s manuscript—para la diversion del Ssmo. Infante de España Dn. Gabriel de Bourbón—only confirms the composer’s association with the Spanish royal family documented by history. Known events and intersections in the lives of Soler and the Concerti’s dedicatee Gabriel de Borbón (1752 – 1788), the tenth of King Carlos III’s thirteen children, date the composition of the Concerti to circa 1770, when the precocious Infante remained under Soler’s tutelage, and only the demands of the music exceeding the capabilities of the instruments known to have been in the Borbón collection during the second half of the Eighteenth Century advocates for the Concerti having been intended for harpsichords rather than organs, on which they have often been performed and recorded since their publication. Whether, like Bach’s famed Notenbüchlein for his wife Anna Magdalena, the Concerti were conceived primarily for the edification and entertainment of Soler’s patron as their dedication suggests or for public exhibition of the adolescent prince’s talent remains—and is likely to continue to remain—undetermined.

What is apparent from the first bars of the Andante movement of Concerto No. 1 in C major is that Soler’s music might have been composed to showcase the assets of LeRoy’s and Vinikour’s unique artistic partnership. The harpsichordists’ individual styles are very different, the Frenchman LeRoy approaching his music with understated intensity and the Chicago-born Vinikour employing a more outwardly flamboyant but no less introspective manner. LeRoy plays in Rabelaisian poetry and Vinikour in Hawthornean prose, but the musical narratives that they fashion are uncannily compatible. Both the graceful Andante and the effervescent Minué draw from LeRoy and Vinikour playing in which refinement and technical flair are ideally merged. The imagination that both gentlemen display in handling the variations in each of the Concerti’s Minué movements is one of the disc’s greatest virtues, the novelty of their phrasing consistently enticing the listener to eagerly await the music’s next unexpected subtlety. The slyly sentimental Concerto No. 2 in A minor opens with a dulcet Andante that gains from LeRoy’s and Vinikour’s sensitive touch the lilt of a troubadour’s canso. The sparks struck by the harpsichordists’ exchanges in the subsequent Allegro movement ignite a rhythmic bonfire that elucidates the inventiveness of Soler’s part writing. The Tempo de Minué is executed with such precise synchronicity that it seems impossible that human fingers are responsible for the performance, but what is heard here is mastery, not mechanism.

LeRoy and Vinikour allow none of the slower-paced movements among the Concerti to drag or lose momentum, and their performance of the Andantino in Concerto No. 3 in G major embodies the strategy that sustains the high level of their endeavors in all of the Concerti. Imposing nothing upon the music, they ask questions of no one other than Soler and themselves, and the answers that they incorporate into their playing are all the more persuasive for not being ostentatiously purported to be definitive. Here, too, the musicians’ performance of the Minué is characterized by tightly-sprung but unforced rhythmic accuracy. The emotional profile of the Affettuoso - Andante non largo movement with which Concerto No. 4 in F major begins is powerfully projected by LeRoy’s and Vinikour’s unaffected phrasing, Soler’s melodic lines allowed to breathe and nuanced harmonies given space in which to cast their spells without either aspect being unduly emphasized. Again, their playing of the Minué is lovingly ebullient.

The Cantabile that launches Concerto No. 5 in A major, the most conventionally expressive of the Concerti, is music of palpable sincerity that would not sound out of place in Haydn’s and the young Mozart’s keyboard sonatas. The pensive camaraderie between LeRoy and Vinikour yields its richest effects in this music, their hypnotic interweaving of melodic strands extracting every joule of timbral warmth from John Phillips’s gelid-toned Florentine-inspired harpsichords. Even the fifth Concerto’s Minué looks inward more noticeably than any of its brethren, and these musicians follow where it leads, lending every ornament a distinct purpose within the movement’s broader landscape. The fascinating structure of Concerto No. 6 in D major develops from its inaugural Allegro - Andante - Allegro - Andante movement, the alternating moods of which are put to striking dramatic use by LeRoy and Vinikour. The unfettered joy of their tandem guidance of thematic development in the Concerto’s Minué produces seven-and-a-half of the most pleasurable minutes on the disc.

It seems wholly logical that, on some level, music is inherently Existential. As John Donne might have opined, neither any musician nor any piece of music is an island upon the shores of which no external influences intrude. Examined from any conceivable perspective, music is defined by collaborations, by the bonds that form and evolve among music, performers, and audiences. In essence, this disc is two uninhibitedly communicative artists’ earnestly personal solution for one of music’s great, Sartre-esque enigmas. In this music and in their awe-inspiring arsenals of musical skills, Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour are equals. Could he hear this recording of his Six Concerti for Two Keyboards, Padre Soler would surely also welcome them as equals with the pious altruism for which his contemporaries praised him.

Author’s Note: In addition to reviewing this recording of Soler’s Six Concerti for Two Keyboards, I had the great privilege of writing the liner notes for this release. I was in no way involved with the planning, preparation, making, or marketing of the disc, however, and therefore assess it without bias.

30 July 2016

ARTS IN ACTION: Berkshire Opera Festival brings Grand Opera to the Berkshire Region of Western Massachusetts with 2016 Festival production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

ARTS IN ACTION: Berkshire Opera Festival brings Grand Opera to the Berkshire Region of western Massachusetts [Graphic © by Berkshire Opera Festival]

It was said by the first Chancellor of unified Germany Otto von Bismarck—and repeated but not, as has sometimes been suggested, originated by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber in Evita—that ‘politics is the art of the possible.’ In this era of imperiled public funding for the Performing Arts, aging audiences, and short attention spans, what, then, is opera? Just as it was when the genre-initiating scores of Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi were first performed in the late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, opera is the art of the beyond possible—neither the impossible nor Ivor Novello’s ‘land of Might-Have-Been,’ that is, but what can be. Harnessing the power of what opera can be and what opera can mean to a community is central to the mission of Berkshire Opera Festival, an initiative that aims to build upon the momentum established by Berkshire Theatre Group since its inception in 2010 by bringing world-class but accessible and affordable opera to the Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts. With programming including recitals and an Opera Talk presented by eminent connoisseuse and industry insider Cori Ellison, the 2016 Festival culminates in late August and September with BOF’s inaugural mainstage opera production, a staging of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly conducted and directed by BOF Artistic and General Directors and Co-Founders Brian Garman and Jonathon Loy.

In advance of the performances of Madama Butterfly, BOF’s objectives will be furthered by a pair of intriguing recitals, both of which will introduce singers from the Madama Butterfly cast, as well as special guests. On Wednesday, 10 August, the Festival will present Breaking Down Barriers: Songs by Female Composers of Puccini’s Time in Ventfort Hall Mansion in Lenox. Featuring passionate performances of Art Song repertory composed by unjustly-neglected veriste of Puccini’s generation, this performance will confirm that the creation of red-blooded Italian melodies is not solely a gentleman’s undertaking. A week later, on Tuesday, 16 August, Puccini’s own under-explored Art Songs seize the spotlight in The “Unknown Puccini”: A Recital of Songs by Puccini, performed at First Congregational Church in Stockbridge. With General Admission tickets priced at only $30, these budget-friendly recitals offer Manhattan-quality musical adventures that do not demand that attendees be Wall Street trust-fund babies. Tickets for both recitals can be purchased online or by phoning 413.213.6622.

Imaginatively brought to life by a team of talented, experienced artists including scenic designer Stephen K. Dobay and costume designer Charles Caine, BOF’s production of Madama Butterfly brings an ensemble worthy of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, where the opera had its bafflingly unsuccessful première in 1904, to the stage of Pittsfield’s beautiful and historic Colonial Theatre. The Cio-Cio San of celebrated Moldovan soprano Inna Los will fall victim to the charisma of the Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of tenor Jason Slayden, and the couple’s drama will play out under the benevolent watch of the Sharpless of baritone Weston Hurt. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen will portray Cio-Cio San’s devoted maid Suzuki, and the meddlesome marriage broker Goro will benefit from the electric stage presence of tenor Eduardo Valdes, a Metropolitan Opera stalwart with nearly 600 MET performances to his credit. Bass-baritone John Cheek will pronounce Lo zio Bonzo’s thunderous denunciation of his delicate niece, and baritone Benjamin C. Taylor will woo her as the wily Yamadori. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Maysek will depict Pinkerton’s ‘vera sposa americana’ Kate, and to Pittsfield native baritone John Demler Il commissario imperiale’s utterances will be entrusted. Performances are scheduled for 27 and 30 August and 2 September, and tickets range in price from $20 to $98. An evening of top-quality, heartbreaking Italian opera in Pittsfield can be savored for the cost of dinner at the neighborhood trattoria! Tickets for Madama Butterfly can be purchased online or by phoning 413.997.4444.

One of the greatest challenges facing opera companies, particularly American opera companies, is the necessity of attracting new audiences to ensure the genre’s continued success without alienating the aficionados whose dedication has carried opera through the dark days of economic recessions and waning governmental support. With the myriad of instant-gratification distractions of today’s digital-media environment, a critical component of recruiting the next generation of opera lovers is overcoming the lingering stigma of opera’s perceived elitism. Talk is cheap, but, without compromising the integrity of performances and productions, opera can be, too. Committed to bringing opera that is ‘of the people, for the people, and by the people’ in the best Lincolnsian sense to Western Massachusetts, Berkshire Opera Festival is a paramount model of opera as the art of what can be.

ARTS IN ACTION: The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, venue for Berkshire Opera Festival's 2016 production of Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY [Photo by the author]Nagasaki in the Berkshires: The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, venue for Berkshire Opera Festival’s 2016 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [Photo by the author]