09 February 2016

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Revisiting Dame Joan Sutherland’s Norma in its infancy, courtesy of Immortal Performances

REASON FOR CELEBRATION IN GAUL: Vincenzo Bellini - NORMA (Immortal Performances IPCD 1055-3)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): Norma—Dame Joan Sutherland (Norma), Marilyn Horne (Adalgisa), John Alexander (Pollione), Richard Cross (Oroveso), Betty Phillips (Clotilde), Karl Norman (Flavio); Chorus and Orchestra of Vancouver Opera; Richard Bonynge, conductor [Recorded ‘live in performance at Vancouver Opera on 26 October 1963; Immortal Performances IPCD 1055-3; 3 CDs, 216:41; Available from Immortal Performances; includes bonus material featuring Sutherland in arias and scenes from La traviata, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Alcina, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, and Tosca]

When writing about music, my foremost goals are to assess performances fairly and as knowledgeably as my flawed and woefully incomplete education and comprehension permit and to do so in a manner that always remains respectful of artists and their endeavors. Reconciling the pursuit of the first of these goals with adherence to my commitment to the second is not always an easy task, but my work is guided by a maxim often quoted by my grandmother, who still personifies its wisdom at the age of ninety-five: if I have nothing positive to say, it is better that I say nothing at all. In this age in which artists must endure the venomous barbs not only of wagging tongues and agenda-laden pens but also of likes and shares, tweets and retweets, and every imaginable public degradation of dignity and privacy, there is a war on criticism that is not unjustified. What I regret most is that the demands faced by artists—demands that often have little to do with singing—beget an environment in which the insecurities even of singers with little to fear from the stupidities of would-be critics diminish their abilities to reciprocate the conviction of those writers who respect them whether they sing like paragons or pillocks. With every good intention under heaven, however, there are performances about which I cannot be wholly impartial. One of these is the Vancouver Opera performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma of 26 October 1963, an illustrious evening in the production that inaugurated one of the most widely-traveled operatic portrayals of the second half of the Twentieth Century, the Norma of Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland. It was for her singing of the title rôle in Händel’s Alcina, also the rôle of her American début in Dallas in 1960, that the Venetian public christened her as La Stupenda, but her impersonation of Norma, a characterization revealed by the near-miraculous sonics achieved by Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances—an achievement described in a 2001 letter, reproduced in Immortal Performances’ typically superb liner notes [both Fanfare critic Henry Fogel’s introductory essay and Caniell’s and Robert Dales’s remembrances of Irving Guttman, the director of the Vancouver Opera Norma and source of the original recording that yielded this release, meaningfully enhance enjoyment of this Norma], by the conductor of the performance, Sutherland’s husband and frequent collaborator and Artistic Director of Vancouver Opera from 1974 until 1982, Richard Bonynge, as ‘wonderful, so present and vibrant’—to have been remarkably consistent from its inception in Vancouver to its final outings in staged form in Costa Mesa, California, and Detroit, Michigan, in 1989. After being exposed as a musically unambitious high-schooler to John Pritchard’s studio recording of Raymond Leppard’s abridged edition of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Lorin Maazel’s DECCA Fidelio with Birgit Nilsson and James McCracken, and Sir Colin Davis’s Philips La bohème with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras, it was hearing the 1980 DECCA recording of Verdi’s La traviata—recommended to the aspiring singer that I was twenty years ago for Matteo Manuguerra’s under-appreciated Giorgio Germont rather than for its Violetta—that introduced me to Sutherland, and it was Sutherland whose tenacious dedication to respecting audiences by always giving of her best planted the seeds of my own diligence in respecting conscientious artists even when they fail. The most savage of Sutherland’s detractors, those who complain that her Norma lacked the psychological acuity brought to the part by Maria Callas and the fire-breathing abandon of Leyla Gencer’s study of the character, could never accuse her of outright failure; not when she sang the music as she does on these discs. What would a critic like Winthrop Sargeant, who wrote in The New Yorker in response to Sutherland’s first Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in 1970, among words of praise for the overall quality of her vocalism, that ‘hers is a cold coloratura voice, without much emotional coloring,’ say were he able to hear Immortal Performances’ restoration of this document of Sutherland’s Norma in its infancy with performances of Norma at the MET—indeed, in any of the world’s opera houses—in recent seasons in his mind’s ear?

Richard Bonynge said of his wife in a 2011 interview with The Australian, not long after her passing on 10 October 2010 [perhaps some sort of cosmic symmetry is reflected in this most balanced of artists having made her final exit from life’s stage on 10.10.10], that ‘she didn’t need applause, she was a very down-to-earth, practical lady. It’s quite true she had no idea of the importance of what she’d done in the world. You could tell her, but I don’t think she really listened. She loved to sing and that was it.’ The bonus material included on this Immortal Performances release confirms the validity of Bonynge’s appraisal of his consort’s musical ethos. From her first North American performances of Violetta in La traviata with Opera Company of Philadelphia, also directed by Irving Guttman, are drawn the final ten minutes of Act One and the magnificent scene for Violetta and Germont père in Act Two, pairing Sutherland first with Mississippi-born tenor John Alexander’s Alfredo and then with French baritone Gabriel Bacquier’s Giorgio. Predictably superb in ‘Sempre libera degg’io folleggiar di gioia in gioia,’ she reaches more exalted heights of expression in her interactions with Bacquier than contemporary accounts of her Violetta, most of which are founded upon unfavorable comparisons with Callas’s very different interpretation of the rôle, suggest were within her purview. An especially valuable addition to Sutherland’s discography is the scene from Act Three of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that culminates in the great Quintet, here sung in English in a performance extracted from a 1957 Covent Garden gala and nobly conducted by Rafael Kubelík. Alongside James Pease’s Hans Sachs, the young Jon Vickers’s Walther, John Lanigan’s David, and Noreen Berry’s Magdalene, Sutherland voices Eva’s lines with an ideal blend of vocal freshness and amplitude. This is an Eva with a genuine trill whose tones are not apt to go missing in ensembles! Die Meistersinger, sung in Wagner’s original German, was in Covent Garden’s repertory in the 1956 –1957 Season, during which Sutherland’s Eva auf Deutsch was complemented by the David of Sir Peter Pears and the Beckmesser of Sir Geraint Evans, with Pease singing Sachs and the little-remembered Erich Witte as Walther: perhaps some collector has a recording of a complete Meistersinger from the January 1957 run that could be shared with Immortal Performances. Sampling the opera that was the vehicle for her Teatro La Fenice and North American débuts in 1960 and the rôle of her triumphant MET début a year later, excerpts from a 1959 BBC concert broadcast conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent offer arias from Alcina and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The brilliance of Sutherland’s fiorature in Lucia’s ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ is unsurprising, but ears accustomed to the avian fluttering of the small voices frequently employed in Baroque repertory since the 1970s may be stunned to hear an instrument as vast as Sutherland’s reveling in the intricacies of Alcina’s ‘Dì, cor mio, quanto t’amai’ and Morgana’s familiar ‘Tornami a vagheggiar,’ the Dame from Down Under hardly being the only Alcina guilty of usurping her sister’s showpiece aria. Sutherland was a far more stylish Händel singer than many historically-informed performance practice advocates have been willing to acknowledge, her ornamentation when left to her own devices—the differences among the Kölner Rundfunk performance of Alcina conducted by Ferdinand Leitner and the DECCA studio recording prepared and led by Bonynge are particularly telling in that regard—unfailingly tasteful and far more restrained than might be imagined. The richness of the timbre and, of course, the trills are truly revelatory and inarguably period-appropriate. After all, she famously quipped whilst recording the title rôle in Händel’s Athalia with The Academy of Ancient Music late in her career that she was the oldest period instrument in the room! Under the direction of Donald Vorhees in gems from the Bell Telephone Hour transmission of 22 March 1968, Sutherland’s Gilda manages to marginalize Tito Gobbi’s Rigoletto, Nicolai Gedda’s Duca di Mantova, and Mildred Miller’s Maddalena in the rightly beloved Quartet from Act Four of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Gobbi takes revenge of sorts in Scarpia’s confrontation with the heroine from Act Two of Puccini’s Tosca. Gobbi is not as secure of voice or dramatic instincts as when he sparred with Callas’s Tosca in the 1950s, but he remains a Scarpia of visceral menace, here facing a Tosca he could not dominate solely via vocal means. Sutherland’s studio recording of Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ was appended in one CD reissue to her DECCA recording of Suor Angelica, another piece in which she excelled, not least in Australian Opera performances that united her in 1977 with the implacable Zia Principessa of Rosina Raisbeck, but the thoroughly competent studio reading of the aria pales in comparison with this performance. For once, one need not make apologies for the sounds with which the Tosca at hand professes to have lived for Art. Sound quality in these selections is not High Fidelity, but, as in the Vancouver Norma, Caniell’s wizardry produces aural ambiances in which one hears all that one needs to hear in order to marvel at the stylistic variety of which Sutherland—she of the ‘cold coloratura voice’—was capable.

Recorded at Irving Guttman’s request via a house feed in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the audio quality of the Vancouver Norma is imperfect, the voices sounding varyingly distant as the singers move about the stage and the orchestra frequently over-prominent, but, based upon surveys of previous recorded incarnations of this performance, the source materials for which are conspicuously unidentified, Caniell has considerably brightened the sonic landscape, granting the voices clear focus without jeopardizing accuracy and stability of pitch. Vitally, though, the depth of the sound enables a far better cognition of the size and thrust of Sutherland’s voice than her studio recordings permit, and one adjusts to the sound quickly as the performance draws one into the drama. To Vancouver Opera’s credit, Sutherland is surrounded by an ensemble of singers who merit the distinction of taking part in such an historic occasion. Bonynge remained ‘green’ as a conductor of opera when he mounted the podium for the Vancouver performances of Norma, and if his pacing of the performance on these discs lacks the idiomatic drive and command of nuance brought to the score by Vittorio Gui and Tullio Serafin there is no want for attentive support of the singers, an element for which one often searches in vain in today’s performances. The Vancouver Opera Chorus and Orchestra, giving Bellini’s score its first hearing in Canada, obviously prepared fastidiously for their tasks, their work undermined by commendably—astonishingly, really—few mistakes and virtually no lapses in ensemble. Soprano Betty Phillips and tenor Karl Norman are more than serviceable as Clotilde and Flavio, never embarrassing themselves in their scenes with their larger-voiced colleagues. Bass-baritone Richard Cross is a vocally solid Oroveso who evinces a measure of sympathy for the father’s predicament, his voicing of ‘Ite sul colle, o druidi’ in Act One and ‘Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno’ in Bellini’s Act Two—Vancouver Opera’s Act Four—gratifyingly secure. Sutherland’s Philadelphia Alfredo, as well as her leading man in MET performances of La sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma, La fille du régiment, Les contes d’Hoffmann, La traviata, and Esclarmonde, John Alexander is in this Vancouver performance an even more reliable Pollione than he was in the 1964 RCA Victor/DECCA studio recording of Norma, in which he and Sutherland were also reunited with their Vancouver Adalgisa and Oroveso. Here, Alexander sings ‘Meco all’altar di Venere era Adalgisa in Roma’ phenomenally, his top notes impressive despite the paucity of the squillo of a Lauri-Volpi, Penno, or Corelli, and machismo mixes with suavity in his red-blooded account of the cabaletta ‘Me protegge, me difende un poter maggior di loro.’ The impact of Alexander’s bronze-toned singing of ‘Va', crudele; al dio spietato offri in dote al sangue mio’ in the duet with Adalgisa is tremendous, and he continues to build momentum with fearless showings in the trio that ends Act One and the stirring duet with Norma in Act Two [again, Act Four in the Vancouver production], ‘In mia man alfin tu sei,’ in which he proves more capable than many Polliones by singing all of the roulades entrusted to him by Bellini rather than ceding half of them to Norma. Moreover, when he sings ‘Ma tu morendo, non m'aborrire, pria di morire, perdona a me’ in the opera’s final scene, Alexander is the rare Pollione who sounds as though he means it.

Listeners familiar with the 1964 studio recording or the storied MET broadcast of 4 April 1970, one of the truly legendary afternoons in MET history, are already acquainted with the feats that Marilyn Horne accomplished in her performances of Bellini’s music for Adalgisa. Composed for Giulia Grisi, the rôle was commandeered by mezzo-sopranos by the beginning of the Twentieth Century, but Horne, though a mezzo-soprano herself, restored to the part the flair and unflinching command of the range of the music that Grisi surely brought to it. From the first notes of her expansively-phrased ‘Sgombra è la salva secra’ in this performance, she fashions a depiction of Adalgisa that veritably defines bel canto, musically and dramatically. She answers Alexander’s ‘Va', crudele’ with a firm but feminine ‘E tu pure, ah! tu non sai quanto costi a me dolente!’ Then, divulging the shame of her affair with Pollione to Norma, she projects both embarrassment and the frisson of young love in ‘Sola, furtiva, al tempio io l’aspettai sovente.’ Sutherland’s and Horne’s singing of ‘Ah! sì, fa' core, e abbracciami’ was one of the musical wonders of the Twentieth Century, and here, in one of its earliest manifestations, it is an artistic equivalent of Old Faithful—a sensation both in the moment and in the dependability with which it was repeated throughout the duration of the singers’ Norma partnership. Horne articulates ‘Oh! qual traspare orribile dal tuo parlar mistero!’ and ‘Ah! non fia, non fia ch’io costi al tuo core sì rio dolore’ in the trio with the potency of an earnest Sieglinde pleading for Brünnhilde’s protection. Norma’s and Adalgisa’s ‘Deh! con te, con te, li prendi,’ ‘Mira, o Norma, a' tuoi ginocchi questi cari pargoletti,’ and ‘Sì, fino all’ore estreme compagna tua m’avrai’ in Act Two constitute one of the finest sequences in Italian opera, and no listener past, present, or future could hope to hear this music executed more electrifyingly than Sutherland and Horne sing it in this performance. One of the gnawing enigmas of Norma is the uncertainty of Adalgisa’s fate after her final duet with Norma: some productions insert her into the opera’s final scene as an observer, but this is an extrapolation rather than a faithful realization of Bellini’s and his librettist Felice Romani’s stage directions. The singing of many recent Adalgisas has inspired an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ reaction: having endured their vocalism, one is not overly concerned with the future of the character they portrayed. Horne’s Adalgisa, on the other hand, deserves her own opera in which to explore her life post-Norma. Horne did not long retain Adalgisa in her repertory, reuniting with Sutherland at Covent Garden in 1967 and for seven performances at San Francisco Opera in 1982 and singing the rôle at the MET twenty-five times in 1970 from her company début on 3 March until the matinée broadcast performance of 19 December, Sutherland her Norma in each of those performances, but not returning to the part at the MET between the opening of the 1973 revival of the Deiber production for Montserrat Caballé and her retirement from the company in 1996, but she was already an Adalgisa for the ages at the time of this Vancouver performance. From perspectives of both technical prowess and histrionic credibility, few singers in recent memory have as completely inhabited a rôle as Horne did Adalgisa.

Vocally, neither Callas nor any other singer consistently sang Norma’s music as accurately or as easily as Sutherland sang it, and this performance reveals that her dominion over the notes of the part was present from the inception of her interpretation. That an artist as attentive as Sutherland was to ensuring that she gave every audience who gathered to hear her a memorable experience should have sung a rôle only when she was painstakingly prepared to do so might be taken for granted, but this recording confirms the breadth of Sutherland’s artistic integrity. A weapon in Sutherland’s vocal arsenal that few singers in the Twenty-First Century can cite as a component of their own work is the immediately-identifiable timbre: she has here produced no more than two notes in ‘Sedizïose voci, voci di guerra’ before an irrefutable signal rushes from the ears to the brain, saying, ‘Ah, yes, this is definitely Dame Joan!’ Few Normas would be likely to dispute the assertion that ‘Casta diva, che inargenti queste sacre antiche piante’ is one of the most difficult arias in the soprano repertory, its exacting legato—the ‘melodie lunghe, lunghe, lunghe’ of which Verdi wrote—taxing a singer’s breath support as dauntingly as the most fiendish fiorature. Nevertheless, there is nothing tentative about Sutherland’s singing of the aria in this performance. She must have been nervous to some degree, but whatever apprehension she felt was kept far from the vocal cords. It was frequently said even at this juncture in her career that Sutherland’s diction was quite poor, but I am apparently fluent in the idiosyncratic dialect in which she sings on these discs as I encounter little trouble with discerning the text. The aria’s cantilena is shaped with intelligence and imagination. Sutherland does not treat ‘Fine al rito; e il sacro bosco sia disgombro dai profani’ merely as a conduit from aria to cabaletta, but, once arriving at the cabaletta, she hurls out the divisions and top notes in ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna del fido amor primiero’ with almost insouciant assurance. The first duet with Horne is pure magic: if Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi sang this more beautifully than Sutherland and Horne sing it here, they can hardly have been of this world. Not even Callas and Ebe Stignani or Giulietta Simionato sang the passages in thirds so precisely. Bonynge has not yet fully sorted out how to keep the sprawling trio moving seamlessly, but Sutherland, Horne, and Alexander generate energy that propels the music towards its organic conclusion. Many Normas come to grief in the coloratura outbursts that preface a pair of top Cs, but Sutherland is unperturbed, her calm negotiations of her part’s obstacles encompassing unflappable traversals of ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido’ and ‘Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima crudo e funesto inganno!’ Vehemence seemingly was not part of her natural temperament, but her singing of ‘Vanne, sì: mi lascia, indegno, figli oblia, promesse, onore’ is not without flashes of the anger of a scorned woman. Among her Normas widely available on compact disc, only the top Ds that brought the curtains down on Act One in the 1969 Teatro Colón broadcast and the earlier of the two 1970 MET broadcasts match the D6 in this performance in conveying a sense of the titanic dimensions of Sutherland’s voice.

Sutherland was not the singing actress to unleash Imelda Staunton-esque intensity in the scene at the start of Act Two in which the distraught Norma contemplates slaying her own children, but in this performance her ‘Dormono entrambi’ throbs with the conflicting passions of a betrayed lover and maternal instincts. It is inconceivable that any Norma could ignore the entreaties of Horne’s Adalgisa in ‘Mira, o Norma,’ but Sutherland’s Norma’s acquiescence is all the more touching for being voiced with such beauty and impeccable sculpting of line. Assiduous students of bel canto could find no better models for perusal than Sutherland’s and Horne’s singing of the duets for Norma and Adalgisa in this performance: their tones ideally projected, the breath support unfaltering, with lines driven by vowels, the ladies’ endeavors perfectly embody the primary tenet of bel canto defined when Mathilde Marchesi wrote that ‘sound is a property of the air, as colour is of light, for there can be no sound without air, any more than there can be colour without light.’ Following his colleagues’ examples, Alexander’s singing in the duet ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ is gloriously heroic but unimpeachably stylish, but even his sterling efforts are eclipsed by Sutherland’s Herculean performance. What warmth and profundity of emotion that ‘cold coloratura voice’ radiates! The interpolated E♭6 with which she crowns the duet—a note that she attempted in performances of Norma only in Vancouver and in her first Covent Garden Normas in 1967, when Horne was again her Adalgisa—is staggering, a colossal, thrillingly secure sound from the throat not of a canary but of a cannon cloaked in velvet. Sutherland does not rival Callas’s dramatic fervor with her utterance of Norma’s critical mea culpa, ‘Son io,’ but her unaffected enunciation of those two most important words in the opera is effective on its own terms. The sheer tonal pulchritude with which she delivers ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdesti’ and ‘Deh! non volerli vittime del mio fatale errore’ is arresting, ending the opera not as a singer who has put in a good evening’s work but as a Norma who, burned by life, seeks refuge and respite in a fiery death.

As mind-boggling as the sangfroid with which Sutherland ascended to this summit of Lyric Art on her first attempt is the fact that Norma remained in her repertory for nearly twenty-six years. Amassing more than 120 performances of the rôle in the quarter-century spanning the period from her Vancouver performances to those for Opera Pacific and Michigan Opera Theatre, she is likely the most-heard Norma in the opera’s history. In a Los Angeles Times interview after a rehearsal for one of her valedictory Costa Mesa Normas in 1989, Sutherland responded to a question about bel canto purists who objected to her downward transpositions of certain passages by saying, ‘Well, the purists don’t have to sing, do they?’ This epitomizes her candor and no-nonsense approach to maintaining equilibrium among service to the composer, management of her vocal resources, and fulfilling audiences’ expectations. Listening to Immortal Performances’ edition of this Vancouver Opera Norma has given me pause to consider why Norma is my favorite opera—a favorite opera alongside Händel’s Tamerlano, Verdi’s Don Carlos and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, that is. The enchantingly diverse Normas of Gina Cigna, Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Cristina Deutekom, Rita Hunter, and Marisa Galvany are those that have molded my understanding of the opera’s theatrical potential, but hearing this Vancouver performance with the clarity and scope of detail that Richard Caniell’s restoration facilitates causes me to fully appreciate and extol the extent to which Dame Joan Sutherland is as responsible as Bellini might claim to be for my love for Norma.

BELLES OF BEL CANTO: Soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND as Norma and mezzo-soprano MARILYN HORNE as Adalgisa in Vincenzo Bellini’s NORMA at the Metropolitan Opera in April 1970 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Belles of bel canto: Soprano Dame Joan Sutherland as Norma and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne as Adalgisa in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in April 1970 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

01 February 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Charles Gounod — ROMÉO ET JULIETTE (J. Boyd, S. J. Miller, K. Sogioka, K. Langan, E. Solís, B. Arreola, S. Nicely, A. Sewailam; Opera Carolina, 30 January 2016)

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano MARIE-EVE MUNGER and tenor JONATHAN BOYD as the title couple in Opera Carolina's production of Charles Gounod's ROMÉO ET JULIETTE, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]CHARLES-FRANÇOIS GOUNOD (1818 – 1893): Roméo et Juliette, CG 9Jonathan Boyd (Roméo), Sarah Joy Miller (Juliette), Kimberly Sogioka (Stéphano), Kevin Langan (Frère Laurent), Efraín Solís (Mercutio), Brian Arreola (Tybalt), Susan Nicely (Gertrude), Ashraf Sewailam (Le comte Capulet), Eric Loftin (Le comte Pâris), Andrew McLaughlin (Grégorio), Martin Bakari (Benvolio), Keith Brown (Le duc de Vérone); Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Bernard Uzan, Director and Production Design; Michael Baumgarten, Production, Lighting, and Projection Designs; Kara Wooten, Ph.D., Fight Director; Martha Ruskai, Wig and Makeup Designs; A. T. Jones and Sons, Inc., Costume Designs; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; Saturday, 30 January 2016]

When William Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616, opera in the form typified by the works of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini was in its infancy. Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, now widely though not universally acknowledged as the earliest known work recognizable as an opera in the modern sense, was first performed less than two decades before Shakespeare’s death, and the operas of Claudio Monteverdi, like Peri a close contemporary of the English playwright, influenced the development of Italian opera in the Seventeenth Century as powerfully as Shakespeare’s plays propelled writing for the English stage. Whether Shakespeare was musically inclined is unknown, but his characteristic iambic pentameter undeniably possesses an inherent melodiousness. This, combined with the psychological perspicacity of his depictions of the aspects of humanity that he brought to life in London’s theatres, makes Shakespeare’s dramas uncommonly fertile fodder for operatic treatment. From Francesco Bianchi’s La morte di Cesare, premièred in Venice in 1788, to Thomas Adès’s Twenty-First-Century masterpiece The Tempest, Shakespeare’s plays have inspired an astounding array of works spanning virtually the entire stylistic spectrum of opera. A pair of operas could hardly be more different than Rossini’s and Verdi’s settings of Otello, but they share a genuine dedication to translating the poetry of Shakespeare’s iconic play into music of equal sentimental impact. If Rossini succeeded in this aim only in his music for Desdemona, Verdi arguably produced a score that is a paragon of the art of setting a Shakespeare text—in this case, superbly adapted by Arrigo Boito—to music. In its very different way, so, too, is Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Jules Barbier’s and Michel Carré’s libretto for the opera having been justifiably praised as an exceptionally faithful recreation of Shakespeare’s play at the time of the work’s première at the Théâtre-Lyrique Impériale du Châtelet in Paris on 27 April 1867. Owing in no small part to the espousal of Hector Berlioz, whose symphonie dramatique Roméo et Juliette was first performed in 1839, Shakespeare was as revered in Nineteenth-Century France as Corneille, Molière, Racine, Voltaire, and Hugo, a reality of which Gounod, Barbier, and Carré were keenly aware. It is hardly surprising that English critics, de facto guardians of their literary heritage, found much to criticize when Roméo et Juliette reached London later in 1867, with the legendary Adelina Patti as Juliette, but it is intriguing—and, admittedly, amusing—to note that Gounod’s opera was unfavorably compared as a Shakespearean homage to Nicola Vaccai’s now largely-forgotten [except for its celebrated final scene, a favorite of Maria Malibran] 1825 Giulietta e Romeo, the libretto for which, like that of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, was not even derived from Shakespeare! Gounod was taken to task for composing a score that was dismissed as nothing more than an extended duet for the title couple, but, the complications of its drama notwithstanding, are the interactions between its hero and heroine not also the heart of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Directed by Bernard Uzan and framed by Michael Baumgarten’s lighting and projections with the blend of imagination and insight absent from so many productions not just of Roméo et Juliette but of all the works that enliven the world’s stages, Opera Carolina’s new production, soon to also be seen at Virginia Opera, Toledo Opera, Opera Grand Rapids, and Lyric Opera Baltimore, excelled precisely as Gounod’s music and Shakespeare’s drama demand: in placing Roméo and Juliette at the center of the opera’s psychological journey. In details large and small, on the stage and in the pit, this was a Roméo et Juliette that kindled a suggestion that the Place du Châtelet runs through Charlotte.

It is indicative of the affection that Roméo et Juliette inspired in the first few decades after its première that the opera entered the repertory of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in April 1884, during the company’s inaugural season, albeit in Italian and on tour in Philadelphia. The opera subsequently opened the MET’s 1891 – 1892 Season with a phenomenal cast headed by the brothers Jean de Reszke and Édouard de Reszke as Roméo and Frère Laurent and Emma Eames—the MET’s first Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Charlotte in Werther, Alice Ford in Falstaff, Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, Mascagni’s eponymous Iris, and Ero in Luigi Mancinelli’s forgotten Ero e Leandro!—as Juliette and, remarkably, was revived to launch the 1894 – 1895, 1895 – 1896, 1899 – 1900, 1900 – 1901, and 1906 – 1907 Seasons. The star-crossed lovers portrayed by Jean de Reszke and Dame Nellie Melba, Beniamino Gigli and Lucrezia Bori, and Jussi Björling and Bidú Sayão are rightly legendary, and it was as Juliette that Geraldine Farrar débuted at the MET in 1906. The stylistically insensitive but vocally refulgent Roméo of Franco Corelli looms large in the opera’s history in the second half of the Twentieth Century, contrasting markedly with the more refined Roméos of Nicolai Gedda, Alain Vanzo [never heard at the MET, unfortunately], and Alfredo Kraus. Extending this legacy into the Twenty-First Century, Opera Carolina’s production exuded respect for Gounod’s score, the team of artists performing it, and the audience gathered to enjoy their endeavors. The evocative juxtapositions of fantasy and realism in the production team’s set and projection designs, the rich tones of A. T. Jones and Sons’ costumes, and the unfailingly becoming wigs and makeup by Martha Ruskai credibly situated the drama in Fourteenth-Century Verona as stipulated by original source, librettists, and composer, compellingly depicting the isolation imposed upon Roméo and Juliette by the belligerent environment in which their love somehow takes root.

The grandeur conjured on the stage was enhanced by the Gallic sophistication that emanated from the orchestra pit. Without mimicking any of their individual styles, Opera Carolina’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena paced a performance of Roméo et Juliette—the score that was the vehicle for his début with Opera Carolina in 2001—that sporadically brought to mind celebrated traversals of the score led by Emil Cooper, Jules Gressier, and Jean Fournet. Like his conducting of Gounod’s Faust in Charlotte in 2008, Meena’s handling of this performance of Roméo et Juliette was attentive to the score’s nuances, reveling in the exuberance of the Ball Scene, luxuriating in the romance of the Balcony Scene, and mixing pained emoting with restraint in the opera’s final scene, but there were conspicuous lacks of cohesion among scenes and cumulative momentum. Using an edition that bizarrely restructured Gounod’s five acts into two [Opera Carolina’s website suggested that the production presented the opera in four acts, but the playbill specified two—and then the break curiously did not correspond with that indicated in the printed synopsis: for the sake of clarity for those readers not in Charlotte whose acquaintance is with Gounod’s five-act structure as published by Choudens, references in this review adhere to the five-act form], Meena nonetheless achieved musical and sentimental equilibrium on an impressive scale, managing orchestral textures and layers of ensemble with concentration that gave the singers the support that they needed without downplaying the music’s moments of Wagnerian largesse. Occasionally, the inconsistent energy of the conductor’s work threatened to break the silken thread of delicacy that envelops even the score’s most ironclad pages, and there were numerous instances in which tempi were sluggish. Under his baton, however, the playing of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was competitive with the sounds produced by the world’s foremost opera house orchestras. Gounod’s music is often damned with the faint praise of being said to predominantly be pretty. Indeed, the music in Roméo et Juliette is frequently very pretty, but is that really a quality to be condemned? There are passages of great difficulty in the orchestral parts of Roméo et Juliette, and the Charlotte Symphony musicians executed them splendidly. Individually—the clarinet solo that prefaces Roméo’s ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil!’ and the chamber-like writing for small groups of strings were fantastically played—and in ensemble, the musicians reacted to Meena’s leadership with shared vision, acquitting Gounod of charges of being a composer of tuneful but mostly uninspired music.

Whether making merry at the Capulets’ ball, perpetrating the street violence between the rival families, or reacting to Roméo’s banishment by the Duke, the choristers in Roméo et Juliette are, en masse, a character in their own right. In this performance, that character was entrusted to performers as committed to singing well as any of the principals. Building on their strong showings in Turandot and Fidelio, the ladies and gentlemen of the Opera Carolina Chorus ably partnered their colleagues in the pit by offering singing that challenged the performances by any of the world’s preeminent opera houses’ choruses. The choristers’ training resonated in every bar in this performance, the balances among parts often virtually ideal without the ensemble seeming transformed into an over-sized church choir. In the opening chorus of what Gounod and his librettists, following Shakespeare’s example, designated as the opera’s brief Prologue, ‘Vérone vit jadis deux familles rivales,’ the choristers proclaimed the familiar introduction of the feuding families and their beleaguered offspring with ominous depth of tone. At the Capulet ball in Act One, they voiced ‘L’heure s’envole joyeuse et folle’ with the carefree zeal of people ready for a good party. Their exclamation of ‘Ah! qu’elle est belle!’ upon catching sight of Juliette was appropriately filled with awe, but the ladies infused their singing of ‘Nargue! nargue des censeurs’ with darker implications. Sobriety also defined the choristers’ account of ‘Mystérieux et sombre’ in Act Two. The choral singing was at its peak when it counted most, in the Act Three finale. Every singer on stage contributed to a rousing performance of ‘Ô jour de deuil!’ that sparked a spiritual conflagration that was not extinguished until the curtain fell on Juliette dead in Roméo’s arms. Choral singing is a weakness in many performances of Roméo et Juliette: in Opera Carolina’s performance, it was a decided strength. Regrettably, the audience seemed not to realize that the chorus’s curtain call at the close of Gounod’s Act Three marked the choristers’ last appearance on stage: the tepid applause surely cannot have reflected the audience’s assessment of the choral singing.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano SUSAN NICELY as Gertrude (center) with members of Clan Capulet in Opera Carolina’s production of Gounod’s ROMÉO ET JULIETTE, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]Oh, Nurse: Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely (center) as Gertrude with her Capulet tormenters in Opera Carolina’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]

Opera Carolina’s Roméo et Juliette drew from a deep well of talent in casting supporting rôles. Donning the elaborate habit of the stern Duc de Vérone, bass-baritone Keith Brown articulated ‘Eh quoi? toujours du sang!’ in the Act Three finale with easy command of the compass of his part, resonantly sentencing Roméo to exile and futilely attempting to reconcile Capulet and Montague pères. Baritone Andrew McLaughlin’s bronze-voiced Grégorio and tenor Martin Bakari’s live-wire Benvolio were vibrant characterizations, the latter’s singing of ‘Sa blessure est mortelle!’ in the Act Three finale escalating the tension of the scene. As le comte Pâris, bass-baritone Eric Loftin potently portrayed the character’s wide-eyed wonder at the opulence of Capulet’s ball and Juliette’s beauty with a nobly-phrased ‘Richesse et beauté tout ensemble sont les hôtes de ce palais!’ in Act One. Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely provided much-needed moments of levity with her effervescent portrayal of Juliette’s nurse Gertrude. She was delightful in her Act One scene with Juliette, breathlessly singing ‘Respirez un moment!’ with unerring comedic timing. Accosted by the roving Capulets, Nicely’s Gertrude safeguarded her matronly honor with hilarious seriousness. The mezzo-soprano’s best singing was done in the two quartets in which Gertrude participates, first joining with Juliette, Roméo, and Frère Laurent following the young lovers’ nuptials and then with Juliette, Capulet, and Frère Laurent in the scene in which her father informs the already-married Juliette that she is to wed Pâris. The quality of Nicely’s vocalism did not always parallel her histrionic dynamism, but she lifted the spirits of every scene in which she appeared. Though Opera Carolina’s production made her part seem even more superfluous than is sometimes the case, mezzo-soprano Kimberly Sogioka dispatched Stéphano’s chanson ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle’ attractively, negotiating its triplets and the top C in the cadenza with aplomb.

There was a time not so long ago, a time still remembered by many opera lovers, when opera houses fostered genuine troupes of singers rather than being the impersonal arrivals and departures lounges they have now largely become. Opera Carolina’s roster has an ensemble artist of the first order in tenor Brian Arreola, an accomplished singing actor who, among many lauded portrayals for the company, graced Opera Carolina’s recent productions of Verdi’s Nabucco and Beethoven’s Fidelio with world-class performances as Ismaele and Jacquino. He added another well-drawn portrait to his gallery with his bellicose Tybalt in Roméo et Juliette. He launched Act One with a bright-toned ‘Eh! bien? cher Pâris!’ and sang strongly in the Act One finale, in which the character’s rabble-rousing nature was fully revealed. In the Duel Scene in Act Three, Arreola proved marvelously balletic in his combats with both Mercutio and Roméo, and he exhibited rare perfection of the elusive art of dying on stage. In truth, Gounod’s declamatory music for Tybalt gives an artist of Arreola’s abilities limited opportunities for lyrical expression [he would undoubtedly prove a poetic, euphonious Roméo], but the tenor’s voice rang out excitingly, and his blade-to-the-throat acting provided the oppressive danger that must permeate a production of Roméo et Juliette if the opera’s tragedy is to be on a par with that of Shakespeare’s play.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenors BRIAN ARREOLA as Tybalt (left) and JONATHAN BOYD as Roméo (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Charles Gounod’s ROMÉO ET JULIETTE, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]Mortal enemies: Tenors Brian Arreola as Tybalt (left) and Jonathan Boyd as Roméo (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]

Acclaimed for assignments as diverse as the Pirate King in Lyric Opera San Diego’s rollicking 2010 presentation of the Gilbert and Sullivan chestnut The Pirates of Penzance and the black-hearted assassin Sparafucile in New Zealand Opera’s 2012 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, Cairo-born bass Ashraf Sewailam introduced himself to Charlotte with a flinty but not unfeeling impersonation of Capulet, Juliette’s father. In Act One, his robust voicing of ‘Soyez les bienvenus, amis, dans ma maison!’ and ‘Allons! jeuenes gens!’ was intermittently compromised by weakness at the top of the range, but his singing in later scenes was unfailingly secure in all registers. Looking like a figure who stepped out of a Holbein portrait, Sewailam’s Capulet demanded justice for the slain Tybalt in tones of granitic solidity, and, unaware of his daughter’s union with Roméo, he informed Juliette of his accedence to Tybalt’s final desire for her betrothal and imminent marriage to Pâris with a concerted effort at lessening her dismay that only gradually metamorphosed into an angry insistence upon obedience. Sewailam’s vocal and dramatic representation of unbending paternal sovereignty placed a character often on the fringes at the nucleus of the drama in this performance of Roméo et Juliette.

After exchanging a few lines of recitative with his friend Roméo, Mercutio takes charge of Act One with the familiar Ballade de la Reine Mab, ‘Mab, la reine des mensonges.’ In this performance, baritone Efraín Solís took charge of the Ballade with an outpouring of soaring, virile vocalism, scaling the heights of the music with absolute confidence. Even this inadequately prepared the audience for Solís’s galvanizing singing in the Duel Scene. Sparring with Arreola’s Tybalt with feline prowess, the baritone proved a swashbuckler worthy of Douglas Fairbanks films. Solís delivered Mercutio’s famous ‘a plague o’ both your houses’ aggressively but sadly, his character sensitive even as his life was ending to the impact of the interminable violence on people he loves. Solís’s Mercutio allied swaggering machismo with refreshing subtlety, but it was the quality of Solís’s singing that truly exhilarated.

Anyone who heard his Timur in Opera Carolina’s 2015 production of Puccini’s Turandot cannot have been surprised by the humor, sincerity, and sonorous authority of bass Kevin Langan’s depiction of Frère Laurent, Shakespeare’s benevolent friar whose involvement in Roméo’s and Juliette’s predicament both engenders their greatest joy and precipitates their eventual tragedy. Langan sang ‘Eh! quoi! le jour à peine se lève et le sommeil te fuit?’ eloquently, and, in the trio in which Laurent clandestinely joins Juliette and Roméo in matrimony, his expansively-phrased ‘Dieu, qui fit l’homme à ton image’ radiated kindness and magnanimity. He anchored the subsequent quartet with Juliette, Roméo, and Gertrude with velvet-cloaked power. In the scene following Capulet’s announcement of Juliette’s engagement to Pâris, Langan reacted with heartbreak and compassion to Juliette’s longing for death. Giving her the potion intended to liberate her from her suffering and reunite her with Roméo, he became the father that Capulet was incapable of being, the natural father’s judgment clouded by insurmountable violence. Langan’s was the most distinguished singing of the evening, and his Frère Laurent was the poignant epicenter of the performance.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor JONATHAN BOYD as Roméo (left) and soprano MARIE-EVE MUNGER as Juliette (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Charles Gounod’s ROMÉO ET JULIETTE, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]Man and wife: Tenor Jonathan Boyd as Roméo (left) and soprano Marie-Eve Munger as Juliette (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]

Tenor Jonathan Boyd was a hardworking, handsome, and earnestly heroic Roméo whose interpretation of the rôle stopped laudably short of emotional excess. Gamboling across the stage with libidinously boyish athleticism, he seemed endearingly out of place in Act One, both as an intruder in Capulet’s house and as a hapless voyager lured by the siren song of Juliette’s beauty and demeanor. The conversational bite that Boyd brought to his singing of recitatives was most welcome, and the fluidity of line with which he intoned ‘Ange adorable, ma main coupable profane, en l’osant toucher’ in the Madrigal with Juliette was beautifully maintained. In Act Two, his awestruck ‘Ô nuit! sous tes ailes obscures abrite-moi!’ was a suitably exultant prelude to Roméo’s widely-known cavatine, ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil!’ Boyd manfully braved the number’s difficulties, applying every ounce of his technique to preserving legato. The three top B♭s did not come effortlessly, but the singer’s intonation was steady. Taking the nasalized vowels of French into consideration and noting that the tenor’s diction was, on the whole, quite good, the voice often sounded forced and pinched, particularly in and above the passaggio. Nevertheless, his stylish use of falsettone to achieve a diminuendo on the final B♭ was admirable. In the first duet with Juliette, Boyd’s impassioned ‘Ô nuit divine!’ throbbed with newly-minted eroticism that persisted into Act Three, his part in the trio with Juliette and Laurent in the Wedding Scene conveying irrepressible joy. Roméo’s elation quickly turned to horror and rage in the Act Three finale, Boyd detonating ‘Allons! tu ne me connais pas, Tybalt, et ton insulte est vaine!’ with the force of a thunderbolt. His despondent, desperate singing of ‘Ah! jour de deuil et d’horreur et d’alarmes’ was telling evidence of the extent to which this Roméo, stained with both Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s blood, matured from a optimistic lover into a tragic hero. Though on pitch and undeniably exciting, Boyd’s interpolated top C was an error in judgement: what the tone added to the scene was outweighed by the risk to the singer’s vocal health. In the Act Four duet with Juliette, Boyd caressed the melodic line in his hypnotically-phrased ‘Nuit d’hyménée!’ From his first notes in ‘C'est là! Salut! tombeau sombre et silencieux!’ at the start of Act Five until his poison did its work, Boyd’s Roméo followed his fate wherever it led. Courageous even in the throes of death, his foremost care was Juliette’s wellbeing. Roméo’s music sometimes taxed Boyd perilously, but he shrank from none of the part’s demands, depicting an impetuous but deeply-feeling young man whose path to happiness wound through snares from which he could not escape.

To beamingly youthful soprano Sarah Joy Miller fell the unenviable task of assuming the heroine’s gossamer mantle when the scheduled Juliette was taken ill after the production’s opening night. Making her entrance in Act One blindfolded, she sang ‘Ecoutez! ecoutez! C'est le son des instruments joyeux’ charmingly despite faltering in her first excursion into the upper register. Juliette’s F-major waltz arietta ‘Je veux vivre dans le rêve qui m’enivre’ is arguably the opera’s most famous number, and Miller sang it captivatingly, with secure top B♭s and sparkling fiorature. She did not quite reach the top D to which one roulade takes the line, but her performance of the piece was otherwise commendably assured. She voiced ‘Calmez vos craintes!’ in the Madrigal with Roméo pointedly, and her lovely timbre shone in the din of the Act One finale. Appearing on the fateful balcony in Act Two, Miller offered an ‘Hélas! moi, le haïr!’ that exuded girlish innocence and the awakening of unfamiliar passions. In the duet with Roméo that followed, Miller notably gained confidence, her vocalism growing ever more focused and lustrous. She joined Boyd, Langan, and Nicely in alluringly bel canto performances of the trio and quartet in Act Three before being crushed in the finale by the shock and dismay of seeing her cousin felled by a wound inflicted by her husband. Gently contradicting Roméo’s interpretations of the harbingers of dawn in their Act Four duet ‘Nuit d’hyménée!’ drew from the soprano sounds of radiant purity that contrasted unmistakably with her despair when reminded by Capulet of Tybalt’s dying directive that she should marry Pâris. Robbed by Laurent of the dagger intended to end her tribulations, Miller’s Juliette resolved to bow to the friar’s well-meaning advice in the often-cut aria ‘Amour ranime mon courage.’ Miller’s strong-willed singing of the aria, its trills and top Cs utterly secure and employed as dramatic as well as vocal devices, provided the zenith of her reading of Juliette and the dramatic climax of the performance as a whole. Miller and Boyd blended their voices seductively in Act Five, the soprano’s disarmingly simple statement of ‘Où suis-je? Ô vertige!’ lending Juliette’s final moments a touching sense of dedication, her physical fragility giving way to ethereal fortitude. On the whole, Miller’s potential seemed greater than her actual performance, but she brushed aside the adverse circumstances of her appearance, conquered the nerves those circumstances are likely to have induced, and sang with undaunted poise and professionalism.

Opera is an adventure that in ways seen and unseen by audiences epitomizes Charles Dickens’s frequently-quoted words from the opening page of A Tale of Two Cities, an art form that can in a single performance be both the best of times and the worst of times. The worst of times in opera is undoubtedly when a production’s leading lady succumbs to illness, but Opera Carolina’s Roméo et Juliette represented the ‘show must go on’ mentality at its best. Saturday evening’s performance displayed many of the qualities necessary to fashioning a memorable Roméo et Juliette, but what was missing despite diligent, thoughtful efforts from cast, chorus, orchestra, and production team was heart. Beautiful as the stage tableaux and music-making often were, one ultimately had to take on faith that one’s tears should flow for Juliette and her Roméo.

[Note: Production photographs of Opera Carolina’s Roméo et Juliette feature soprano Marie-Eve Munger, the originally-scheduled Juliette who sang only in the opening-night performance on 24 January. Apologies to Ms. Miller for this unintentional neglect.]

14 January 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / January 2016: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — IL RE PASTORE (J. M. Ainsley, S. Fox, A. Tynan, A. Devin, B. Hulett; Signum Classics SIGCD433)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - IL RE PASTORE (Signum Classics SIGCD433)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Il re pastore, K. 208John Mark Ainsley (Alessandro), Sarah Fox (Aminta), Ailish Tynan (Elisa), Anna Devin (Tamiri), Benjamin Hulett (Agenore); The Orchestra of Classical Opera; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded at St John’s, Smith Square, London, UK, 17 – 25 July 2014; Signum Classics SIGCD433; 2 CDs, 117:12; Available from Signum Records, ClassicsOnline HD (Download / Streaming), Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In terms of precocity and mastery of virtually every musical genre in vogue during his brief life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a truly remarkable composer, perhaps rivaled only by Felix Mendelssohn. Mozart’s extraordinary genius and versatility have prompted later generations of admirers to assume and assert that every work of which his authorship is authenticated, from juvenilia to the undoubted gems of his maturity, is at least on some level a masterpiece. Well-meaning as such advocacy of the master’s work invariably is, in reality it does Mozart and his music few favors. The Romantic minds of the Nineteenth Century determined that, in order to deserve their adulation, Mozart must be a tragic hero, so his music was performed, promoted, and published with embellished subtexts of intrigue and strife, fabricating a larger-than-life persona that in many ways had little in common with the historical Mozart. The Wunderkind of Salzburg endured many hardships, to be sure, but the Mozart who emerges from the composer’s extensive preserved correspondence is not a brooding, melancholic, echt-Romantic figure. Rather, he is an engaging, sometimes delightfully ribald fellow who, for all his social frivolity, is both utterly serious about his craft and tremendously insightful in assessing the work of his contemporaries. As the significance of composers like Josef Mysliveček has gradually been reestablished in the past half-century, it has become increasingly apparent that Mozart was not the sole musical innovator in the second half of the Eighteenth Century, single-handedly responsible for the transition from Viennese Classicism to early Romanticism. From the earliest of his works, though, there is a singularity in Mozart’s music that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Splendidly-written as the operas of both Haydns, Mysliveček, Dittersdorf, Holzbauer, and Salieri often are, they only fitfully display the emotional directness—the heart, as it were—that Mozart’s operas consistently wield. It is a disservice to Mozart to claim that Il re pastore is a masterwork equal in importance to the later Singspiele and Da Ponte operas, but the serenata has a compelling charm of its own, the Arcadian delicacy of its setting contrasting with music that frequently pushes singers to the limits of their techniques. What makes Mozart one of the greatest composers of opera is the manner in which he lures audiences into genuinely caring about characters who go about their business in recitatives and roulades. What his Il re pastore needs in order to capitalize on that allure is a cast and conductor who are capable of mastering the score’s many difficulties without bloating the dimensions of the drama. What Signum Classics’ and Classical Opera’s recording of Il re pastore offers is, simply put, an account of the piece that comes as near to perfection as any performance might ever hope to do.

Mozart had reached the advanced age of nineteen when Il re pastore—his tenth endeavor in operatic form!—was first performed on 23 April 1775. Commissioned to celebrate a visit to the archiepiscopal see of Salzburg by Archduke Maximilian Francis, the youngest son of Empress Maria Theresa and an almost exact contemporary of Mozart, the serenata made use of an adaptation of a 1751 Metastasio libretto by Prince-Archbishop Colloredo’s resident chaplain and poet, Abbé Varesco, who would later supply the libretto for Mozart’s first fully mature opera, Idomeneo, re di Creta. Reducing Metastasio’s three acts to two for Salzburg, Varesco and Mozart condensed the drama into a taut nucleus from which attentive performers can extract surprising jolts of electricity. Il re pastore is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, English horns, bassoons, and trumpets, four horns, strings, and harpsichord and cello continuo, complemented here by double bass—and brilliantly done by harpsichordist Steven Devine, cellist Joseph Crouch, and double bass player Cecilia Bruggemeyer. The musicians of the Orchestra of Classical Opera approach the virtuosic hurdles of Mozart’s music as though clearing them were as easy as walking. Playing by strings and winds alike is exemplary, the atmosphere of concentration and assured grasp of the idiom apparent from the first bars of the Molto allegro Overtura, delivered with quicksilver rhythms that would make the piece an introduction as suitable to ballet as to opera. The courantes, passacaglias, and sarabandes of Baroque opera were not altogether forgotten in 1775, after all, especially in Salzburg, where Heinrich Biber had virtually redefined the passacaglia a century earlier. The Classical Opera musicians execute their parts with passion and precision, wholly sidestepping the pedantry frequently encountered in performances of music of this vintage. The musical component of the Prince-Archbishop’s court was under the supervision of Michael Haydn at the time of the first performance of Il re pastore [it is conjectured that Haydn’s wife, the soprano Maria Magdalena Lipp, may have sung Tamiri in the première], but it is difficult to imagine Mozart having heard his music played as well as it is on this recording. The very favorable impression made by conductor Ian Page’s leadership of Classical Opera’s previous recordings of Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots and Mitridate, re di Ponto [reviewed here] is expanded exponentially by his conducting of Il re pastore. With traversals of the score led by committed Mozarteans Leopold Hager, Sir Neville Marriner, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the discography, Il re pastore has not been poorly served on disc, but Page’s direction reveals how greatly the music can benefit from a fresh approach that takes it cues solely from the music at hand, not from the perspectives of Mozart’s later operas. Conducting Il re pastore like a smaller-scaled Idomeneo or La clemenza di Tito is not wholly ineffectual, but the score yields far greater joys when treated not as a momentary stop on its composer’s journey but as its own entity. Page allows the specific atmosphere of Il re pastore to materialize on its own terms, guiding a performance that presents the opera without the editorial commentary of viewing the opera through lenses clouded by external influences. Page's focus remains solely on performing Il re pastore as Mozart’s score dictates.

Il re pastore is an opera in which the drama largely plays out in volleys of fiorature: passages of the lyrical delicacy familiar from the great operas of Mozart’s maturity, especially Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte, are few, but at the age of nineteen Mozart already possessed a gift for individualizing characters’ utterances despite similarities among the vocal lines composed for them. Both acts of Il re pastore subject the singers to progressions of arias as daunting as any written in the Eighteenth Century, and the greatest joy of this recording is the confidence with which the obstacles are overcome by this cast. In Act One, the amorous entanglements among Aminta, the modest shepherd who is actually the rightful king of Sidon, his fellow peasant Elisa, the unfortunate Tamiri, and the aristocratic but lovesick Agenore are tied into a Gordian knot of misunderstandings and shifting ambitions. Created in Salzburg by soprano castrato Tommaso Consoli, the rôle of Aminta is the sentimental spine of the opera, and the depiction of the character by soprano Sarah Fox is nothing short of authoritative. Fox sings the Andantino aria ‘Intendo, amico rio, quel basso mormorio’ with extraordinary poise, almost wholly avoiding shrillness at the top of the range. As a most welcome appendix to Act One [Il re pastore is not a long piece, after all], Mozart’s concert reworking of Aminta’s scene is provided, too, and Fox communicates with the histrionic force of a Hamlet or a Troilus in the Andante accompagnato ‘Ditelo voi pastori,’ unique to the concert version and strongly reminiscent of ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. In both contexts, Fox sings the Allegro aperto aria ‘Aer tranquilo e dì sereni’ with winning panache, untroubled by the repeated top B♭s. Her vocalism is especially radiant in the aria’s Grazioso section, ‘Che, se poi piacessi ai fati di cambiar gl’offici miei,’ which she phrases with impeccable musicality and concentration on the meaning of the words.

The Phoenician shepherdess Elisa is portrayed with vivacity and awe-inspiring technical polish by soprano Ailish Tynan. She enlivens the proceedings with her every appearance, an accomplishment exemplified by her traversal of the Allegro aria ‘Alla selva, al prato, al fonte.’ Her singing of the tricky divisions taking her to top B and C shows no signs of effort, but she emotes with immediacy even when negotiating fearsome fiorature. Ending Act One with the accompagnato ‘Che? m’affetti a lasciarti?’ and exquisitely-written Andante duet in A major, ‘Vanne a regnar, ben mio,’ Tynan’s Elisa and Fox’s Aminta sing as stirringly together as apart, their timbres combining alluringly in the duet’s opening and excitingly in its Allegretto section. The ethos of Mozart’s later music for Idamante and Ilia in Idomeneo and Annio and Servilia in La clemenza di Tito resounds in the ensemble writing for Aminta and Elisa, but Fox and Tynan ensure that the singular charms of Mozart’s music for Aminta and Elisa are apparent to the listener. The age of its composer notwithstanding, music of this quality is not merely a ‘trial run.’

The meddlesome but ultimately magnanimous conqueror Alessandro’s—yes, that Alessandro, he of ‘the Great’ notoriety—ferocious Allegro aria in D major, ‘Si spande al sole in faccia nube talor così,’ is delivered by tenor John Mark Ainsley with grandeur and unerring precision of pitch befitting a regal personage. Ainsley’s voice has sometimes sounded slightly fatigued in the past couple of years, but he is here wholly in his element—quite a feat in such throat-threatening music—and sings with the kind of fluency and fluidity that Fritz Wunderlich brought to Belmonte and Tamino. Unflinchingly taming the bravura beasts of his part, Ainsley is a phenomenally virile, visceral Alessandro. Heard on disc in many rôles, including as an uncommonly sensitive but rousingly heroic Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano, Ainsley is reliably a suave, intelligent artist, but these qualities have never been more in evidence than they are in his singing on the present discs.

Singing Agenore, the Sidonian nobleman who is incurably besotted with Elisa, tenor Benjamin Hulett is, like Ainsley, audibly on familiar, comfortable terrain in the character’s Grazioso aria ‘Per me rispondete, begl’astri d’amore’ in Act One. Indeed, Hulett has never sounded better on disc. In a Moscow concert performance of Händel’s Alcina in January 2015, not long after this Re pastore was recorded, the young tenor, perhaps affected by a seasonal malady, occasionally struggled with Oronte’s music, and his singing of Agenore’s music is not wholly devoid of effort. Every endeavor made by this fine singer is put to telling dramatic use, however, and the effort that he expends in this performance of Il re pastore is indicative of the extent to which he genuinely cares about singing Mozart’s vocal lines as the composer intended them to be sung. There is no question that hearing Hulett’s splendid performance of ‘Per me rispondete, begl’astri d’amore’—the best on disc by a considerable margin—would have prompted a hearty ‘Bravo!’ from the punctilious Mozart.

Tamiri, the daughter of the tyrannical ruler of Sidon deposed by Alessandro, is portrayed by soprano Anna Devin with disarming sincerity and a profound exploration of the competing emotions that make the character so fascinating. Devin sang Morgana opposite Hulett’s Oronte in the Moscow Alcina, and her Tamiri brims with the same energy and sparkling tone that defined her performance of Morgana’s celebrated ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ in Russia. Here, she sings Tamiri’s Allegro aperto aria ‘Di tante sue procelle già si scordò quest’alma’ exhilaratingly, soaring through the divisions with laudable poise. Devin, Fox, and Tynan take pains to ensure that their respective characters are discernible in recitatives and arias, and Devin’s Tamiri is a strong-willed, credibly conflicted woman who pursues her destiny most musically.

All five of the singers in this performance of Il re pastore are as expressive in their articulations of recitatives as in their readings of arias, and they are aided immeasurably in their avoidance of studio-bound ennui by Page’s conducting. Tynan bravely handles the task of jump-starting the drama of Act Two with her full-throated voicing of Elisa’s Andante aria ‘Barbaro! oh Dio! mi vedi divisa dal mio ben,’ making easy going of the punishing tessitura and technique-testing fiorature repeatedly cresting on top B♭. Her display of unflappable artistry is answered by Ainsley, who makes Alessandro’s arias in Act Two, the Allegro moderato ‘Se vincendo vi rendo felici’ and the Allegretto ‘Voi, che fausti ognor donate,’ penetrating studies of the mighty Macedonian’s complicated psychology. Still, even Ainsley’s meticulously-honed skills as a vocal actor pale in comparison with his stylish but imposing musical bravado.

Aminta’s E♭ major Andantino Rondeaux ‘L’amerò, sarò costante’ is the most familiar—a relative term in this context—number in Il re pastore, the only aria in the score to have enjoyed exposure beyond the handful of performances of the complete opera. It is a fine piece, worthy of its occasional inclusion in concerts and recordings of Mozart arias, but, in truth, it is not markedly superior to its siblings in Il re pastore, the music in the serenata being of admirably high quality from start to finish. As sung by Fox in this performance, though, ‘L’amerò’ is undoubtedly a zenith in both the score and this recording of it. Tamiri’s Andantino grazioso aria ‘Se tu di me fai dono’ is also a high point in the opera’s topography, and Devin phrases it with feeling and finesse. Hulett, too, sings as satisfyingly in Act Two as in Act One, his grand performance of Agenore’s Allegro aria ‘Sol può dir come si trova un amante in questo stato’ leaving the listener with an unforgettable souvenir of his artistry. The effect of the undeviating excellence achieved by the singers in this Il re pastore, bolstered by unusually well-informed conducting, cannot be overstated.

The closing Coro, ‘Viva, viva l’invitto duce,’ prefigures the extended finales of Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, but this recording succeeds again by presenting the serenata’s final scene not as a prototype for the concluding pages of later scores but as an intelligently-written resolution in its own right. In performances of music from the Eighteenth Century, authenticity is an elusive commodity. It is known, for instance, that Aminta in Il re pastore was first sung by a castrato, but how might he have sounded? Did the composer write to order for the capabilities of the musicians at his disposal, or did his music expand their technical boundaries? Though Mozart’s career is for the most part painstakingly researched, a work like Il re pastore nonetheless poses difficult questions. Rather than inventing hypotheses and then attempting to convincingly translate them into Mozart’s musical language, this performance seeks plausible answers to those questions in the music itself. Classical Opera’s endeavors aim not at the manufactured authenticity born of conjecture and dry theory but at insightful interpretation of the clues interwoven among the ledger lines, and this is a recording of Il re pastore that educates by making carefully-considered decisions rather than apologies and excuses. For what could a performance such as this need to apologize unless it is for eclipsing all previous recordings of this appealing score?

03 January 2016

CD REVIEW: Pietro Generali — ADELINA (D. Bijelić, G. Nani, G. Quaresma Ramos, S. Beltrami, E. Muñoz, U. Rabec; NAXOS 8.660372-73)

CD REVIEW: Pietro Generali - ADELINA (NAXOS 8.660372-73)PIETRO GENERALI (1773 – 1832): AdelinaDušica Bijelić (Adelina), Gabriele Nani (Varner), Gustavo Quaresma Ramos (Erneville), Silvia Beltrami (Carlotta), Elier Muñoz (Simone), Ugo Rabec (Firmino); Eliseo Castrignanò, fortepiano; Virtuosi Brunensis; Giovanni Battista Rigon, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during the XXII ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival in the Königliches Kurtheater, Bad Wildbad, Germany, on 14, 16, and 24 July 2010; NAXOS 8.660372-73; 2 CDs, 90:41; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Italy in the first half of the Nineteenth Century—when there was no unified Italy in the modern sense, that is—was a volatile menagerie of ever-changing cultures similar enough to foster a burgeoning sense of shared national identity and sufficiently dissimilar to perpetuate the divisiveness begotten by generations of political intrigues and constantly-shifting allegiances. With the establishment of the short-lived Napoleonic Republic of Italy in Alpine Italy in the century’s first decade, a vital step towards eventual unification was taken, but would-be Italians in reality only traded Hapsburg overlords for Buonaparte scions. The seeds of the Risorgimento were sown, however, and the dissolution of the Papal States further redefined dominion over the Italian peninsula. It was into this cultural and political maelstrom, the Italy represented by Sardou’s and Puccini’s Baron Scarpia, that Pietro Generali’s ‘melodramma sentimentale’ Adelina was born at Venice’s Teatro San Moisè in September 1810. Using a libretto adapted by Gaetano Rossi from a French model set to music in the previous decade by André Grétry, Adelina combines a bucolic Swiss setting reminiscent of that in Bellini’s La sonnambula with surprisingly modern sensibilities. No standard-issue concoction of mistaken identities and fortuitous last-minute revelations, the drama of Adelina is a convolution of illicit love, an illegitimate child, and the effects of shame and social stigmas on individuals and families. If this seems unlikely subject matter for the venue in which the eighteen-year-old Gioachino Rossini’s hastily-written first opera, the one-act farsa La cambiale di matrimonio, premièred less than two months after the first performance of Adelina, perhaps it was: after devoting the next eight years to producing a further five of Rossini’s operas—L’equivoco stravagante, L’inganno felice, La scala di seta, L’occasione fa il ladro, and Il signor Bruschino—and a forgotten opera by Giovanni Pacini, the San Moisè, inaugurated in 1640 by the first performance of Monteverdi’s L’Arianna, closed. Few things in opera are ever wholly as they seem, however. The nature of the reception that Adelina received at its première is undocumented, but it is recorded in The Harmonicon that Adelina was performed at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket in London in 1825, when the rôle of Erneville was sung by famed tenor Manuel García not long before his departure for New York at the invitation of Lorenzo Da Ponte. Ironically, it was stated by The Harmonicon’s unnamed author that Generali ‘has taken his best subjects from Rossini’—an interesting observation considering that the sole intersection among the two composers’ works was Adelaide di Borgogna, Rossini’s setting of which, utilizing a libretto by Giovanni Schmidt, premièred in 1817 in Rome, Generali’s, its libretto by Luigi Romanelli, in 1819 in Rovigo. There is no evidence that Generali was familiar with Rossini’s score, but he was clearly confident enough of his own renown to risk competing with his younger colleague. That Adelina was performed in London fifteen years after its première strongly suggests that the work won lasting favor in and beyond Venice. One of the defining missions of the ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival is exploring the music of Rossini’s contemporaries, and the Festival’s 2010 production of Adelina offered an unexpected opportunity to make the acquaintance of Generali’s fascinating score. Now, NAXOS’s ongoing commitment to recording ROSSINI IN WILDBAD productions brings Adelina to an even wider audience.

Born in 1773 in Masserano in the Piedmont, near today’s border with France, Generali is not among the most widely-known composers of his era, but he was clearly extensively and sincerely admired during his lifetime. His first opera having met with at least moderate success at its first performance in 1800, he was an established entity in northern Italian opera by the time of Adelina’s première. Eighteen years later, on 27 December 1828, Generali’s opera Francesca da Rimini had the distinction of reopening the extensively-renovated Teatro La Fenice, and one act from Francesca da Rimini was included in the gala performance featuring an act from each of the season’s greatest successes that was presented to mark the end of Carnevale in 1829. Logically, then, the impression that Adelina made in Venice almost certainly cannot have been negligible. Despite a few problems, this NAXOS recording also makes a vivid impression. Foremost among those problems is the recording itself. Likely a result of the staging rather than flaws in microphone placement, this is one of NAXOS’s noisiest recordings, every footfall, sneeze, and cough captured and reproduced with crystal-clear fidelity. Appreciation of Generali’s music is not adversely effected, but the near-continuous non-musical distractions are a considerable nuisance. Veterans of a number of ROSSINI IN WILDBAD productions recorded by NAXOS, the Virtuosi Brunensis play Generali’s score idiomatically under the direction of Giovanni Battista Rigon, whose steady beat keeps the performance moving without rushing either the singers or the pace of the drama. Occasionally, the editing of material from the three performances that yielded the recording makes transitions among tempi seem clumsier than they probably were in the theatre, but Rigon maintains a firm hand and instinctively supports the singers. The fortepiano continuo of Eliseo Castrignanò is one of the recording’s greatest strengths, his playing masterfully enlivening otherwise dull secco recitatives. Under Rigon’s direction, the musicians deliver a lively account of the opera’s Sinfonia, its initial Largo shaped with subtlety that gives way to exuberance in the animated Spiritoso, and musical standards are commendably high throughout the performance. This is not uniformly great or greatly difficult music, but there is never a moment in this recording when the musicians’ performances suggest anything other than complete faith in Adelina’s stage-worthiness.

In the opera’s opening scene, ‘Ecco il sol che spunta fuori’ introduces the listener to the Latin-spouting schoolmaster Don Simone and prominent man about town Varner, sung by baritones Elier Muñoz and Gabriele Nani. The Havana-born Muñoz interacts with his colleagues with expert timing and is often genuinely funny in his singing of Simone’s droll recitations of Latin maxims, a conceit that could quickly become tiresome. A native of Bergamo, Donizetti’s hometown, Nani sounds as though he has bel canto in his blood: his Belcore and Malatesta in his fellow Bergamascho’s L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale are sure to be as delightful as his paranoid, pompous Varner. They are joined by the sparkling Carlotta of Bolognese mezzo-soprano Silvia Beltrami in ‘Si tu vales, vale, valeo,’ delivered charmingly by all three singers, father and daughter—Varner and Carlotta—responding to Simone’s pseudo-scholarly bluster with wit and boundless energy.

Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and later resident in Serbia, soprano Dušica Bijelić brought to her assumption of the title rôle in the Wildbad Adelina a cosmopolitan résumé that belied her youth. In 2012, two years after the production heard on this release, she participated in a very selective Carnegie Hall masterclass with Renée Fleming, and even by 2010 she already had an impressive array of performances to her credit. Her portrayal of Adelina is a testament to the solid technical foundation of her musical education and to her gifts as an introspective singing actress. It is indeed sweet sound that characterizes her singing of ‘Dolce suon mi scendi al core,’ and she voices ‘Che farò?’ and ‘Chi mi consiglia?’ attractively and aptly pensively. Bijelić possesses a voice that seems destined for important contributions to performances of bel canto repertory in the Twenty-First Century, her upper register and negotiations of fiorature consistently impressive in this performance. She, Nani, and Muñoz sing the trio ‘Ah! l’avesse almen colpito’ engagingly, the soprano’s voice floating alluringly above the baritones’ grumbling.

In passages of recitative preceding the aria of Adelina’s seducer, said reprobate’s servant Firmino is portrayed by bass Ugo Rabec. Born in the French commune of Vittel, famous for its widely-distributed bottled water, Rabec voices his lines with dramatic directness and sturdy tone. When his master Erneville arrives on the scene, it is in the person of Rio de Janeiro-born tenor Gustavo Quaresma Ramos, a singer who, like Bijelić, seems earmarked for an estimable career in the tenor repertory of the first half of the Nineteenth Century. He phrases Erneville’s aria ‘Al respirar quest’aure, fra così ameni oggetti’ with suavity, his timbre taking on a lovely sheen as the vocal line climbs above the stave. The estranged lovers are reunited in the appealing duet ‘Oh, il più ingrato,’ Bijelić’s Adelina audibly falling in love with Quaresma Ramos’s Erneville anew as their voices intertwine. Indeed, their voices are as captivating in ensemble as they are individually: they would surely charm listeners as Rossini’s Comtesse Adèle and Comte Ory.

Muñoz provides a rollicking reading of Simone’s aria ‘Falsus, falsus est, che Amor sit,’ dispatching Generali’s patter writing with the acumen of a natural Figaro or Dandini. Muñoz is a source of vocal mettle and spirited but restrained humor throughout the performance: as Muñoz portrays him, it is hardly surprising that it is Simone who is the catalyst for the opera’s lieto fine. Bijelić sings Adelina’s aria proper—Generali identifies her first appearance in the manuscript solely as ‘Sortita di Adelina’—‘Oh dio! Esporre il sangue mio!’ with great immediacy, the ornaments elegantly integrated into her articulation of the vocal line. Likewise, her traversal of ‘Ma in ciel v’è un nume giusto, pietoso’ is distinguished by graceful nimbleness. The opera’s finale evinces an ‘all’s well that ends well’ philosophy, the wily Simone manipulating Varner’s prejudices and facilitating the ultimate reconciliation of father, daughter, and new son-in-law. ‘Oh natura, sì, ti sento’ and ‘La scelta del mio core’ receive from the entire cast the kind of what-will-happen-next concentration that can prove so effective in opera, no matter who wrote the score. Rigon and the Wildbad cast pay tribute to Generali with a rousing performance of Adelina’s effervescent finale.

It cannot be claimed that Adelina is a rediscovered masterpiece that is likely to carve for itself a niche in the international repertory among the better-known works of its composer’s generation. Making such a claim was not the purpose of ROSSINI IN WILDBAD’s production of the opera or of this NAXOS recording of it. What this and other Wildbad productions and NAXOS recordings of them do so efficaciously is confirm that Rossini was not a solitary genius in an artistic desert. If Adelina is representative of his work, Pietro Generali was a fantastic craftsman whose dramatic instincts transcended the uncomplicated frivolity of many of his contemporaries. Though imperfect in execution, this stylish, thoroughly enjoyable Adelina is much more valuable than another inadequate, half-hearted Barbiere di Siviglia.

02 January 2016

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVESBetter late [but great!] than never: BEST ARTISTS OF 2015

History suggests that it was Aristotle who mused that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.’ One of the principal dismays of those who love Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century is the frequency with which even the most admired musicians fail to achieve that aim. The notes are there, the rhythms, the correct accents, those outward appearances, but where is the inner significance that transforms notes, rhythms, and accents into music? Few Americans with televisions in their homes can have avoided the ubiquitous Law and Order franchise, in the opening sequence of which it was famously stated that citizens are protected by those who enforce laws and those who prosecute offenders, complementary instruments of justice whose experiences the series sought to recreate. Music, too, is served by two groups of practitioners: those who make noise and those who communicate emotions in sound. Max Emanuel Cenčić, Michael Lewin, Timothy Myers, Andrew Owens, and Angela Renée Simpson are musicians whose aim is sure, their endeavors unerringly revealing the inner significance—the art—of the works that they perform. These are their stories.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Countertenor MAX EMANUEL CENČIĆ [Photo by Anna Hoffmann, © by Parnassus Arts Productions]Baroque and beyond: Countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić [Photo by Anna Hoffmann, © by Parnassus Arts Productions]

Not so long ago, countertenors were by their very existence remarkable. When Alfred Deller on one side of the Atlantic and Russell Oberlin on the other dedicated their talents to sparing the works of Baroque composers the indignities of transposition and gender reassignments, they ushered in a new age of reassessing, rejuvenating, and respecting Baroque repertory. They also charted the course that in the later Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries has lead singers in their Fach to virtually all of the world’s important opera houses and concert stages. I have been aware of the artistry of Max Emanuel Cenčić since he was a golden-voiced treble soloist with the famed Wiener Sängerknaben. His was an astonishing talent then and is even more awe-inspiring now, but it is not solely an incredible natural instrument that elevates Cenčić into both the ranks of exceptionally gifted countertenors and the company of the greatest musical artists of any voice type and genre, past and present. His most recent disc, Arie Napoletane [DECCA 478 8422], my choice for Best Solo Vocal Recital Disc of 2015, epitomizes the qualities that mark Cenčić as one of the new millennium’s most important musicians​. Supported by Il pomo d'oro and harpsichordist and conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, who unexpectedly headlines the disc’s virtuosic finale with a no-holds-barred performance of Domenico Auletta’s Concerto for harpsichord, two violins, and basso continuo in D major, Cenčić sings arias from Leonardo Leo’s Demetrio, Scipione nelle Spagne, and Siface, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s L'olimpiade, Nicola Antonio Porpora’s ​Germanico in Germania [a complete recording of which, recorded in June 2014, will be forthcoming on DECCA, following the February/March 2016 international release of Cenčić’s new recording of Händel’s Arminio] and Polifemo, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Cambise, Massimo Puppieno, Il prigioniero fortunato, and Il Tigrane, and Leonardo Vinci’s Demetrio and Eraclea, many of which appear on disc for the first time. When I saw Cenčić perform the rôle of the grieving Sposa of the title character in Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio with Les Arts Florissants in New York, he achieved the astonishing feat of making the exalted Alessio—portrayed by no less an artist than Philippe Jaroussky!—seem insignificant except as the Existential motivation for the Sposa’s suffering. A laudably finished artist even in his youth, when he recorded astoundingly mature interpretations of Lieder by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss [alongside his Capriccio recordings of cantatas by Antonio Caldara, Domenico Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi, his Lieder disc Schöne Fremde, recorded before his transition to the countertenor register, remains a title to which I listen often], Arie Napoletane and his DECCA recordings of Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia [reviewed here] and Vinci’s Catone in Utica [reviewed here] reveal that Cenčić continues to refine both his technique and his wide-ranging artistic curiosity with every new project. Not yet forty years old, he has already enjoyed a career longer than those of many of the most admired singers of recent years, but each assertion that he has reached his artistic peak is confounded by his next effort. Among the eleven arias on Arie Napoletane, all splendidly sung, ‘Dal suo gentil sembiante’ from Leo’s Demetrio is emblematic of Cenčić’s work: handsomeness, stylishness, and expressiveness are hallmarks of both the singer and the man.

BEST SOLO VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2015: ARIE NAPOLETANE (Max Emanuel Cenčić; DECCA 478 8422)BEST SOLO VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2015 | D. AULETTA (16?? – 1747), L. LEO (1694 – 1744), G. B. PERGOLESI (1710 – 1736), N. PORPORA (1686 – 1768), A. SCARLATTI (1660 – 1725), & L. VINCI (1696? – 1730): Arie NapoletaneMax Emanuel Cenčić, countertenor; Il pomo d’oro; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor & harpsichord soloist [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 7 – 14 February 2015; DECCA 478 8422; 1 CD, 75:31; Available from DECCA and major music retailers]

To learn more about Max Emanuel Cenčić, please visit his website.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Pianist MICHAEL LEWIN [Photo by Lucy Cobos, © by Steinway & Sons]Prophet of the Piano: Pianist and Steinway artist Michael Lewin [Photo by Lucy Cobos, © by Steinway & Sons]

‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world,’ Portia exclaims in Act Five of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. With which words might the Bard have extolled the work of a genuinely gifted, important pianist amidst the deafening babel of so much bad playing? Man of flesh or literary phantom, Shakespeare might have argued that the plethora of poorly-written plays that congested Elizabethan theatres caused the genius of his own work to shine all the more brightly. So, too, does the haphazard playing of poorly-trained, emotionally vacuous pianists serve a purpose in facilitating appreciation of and gratitude for the playing of Michael Lewin, whose triumphant new recording of music by Claude Debussy​, Starry Night [Sono Luminus DSL-92190], the sequel to the disc Beau Soir [reviewed here] yielded by the pianist’s exceptional and wholly natural affinity for Debussy’s music, is my choice for Best Solo Piano Recording of 2015. Encompassing a complete traversal of Book One of the composer’s genre-redefining Préludes​ and authoritative performances of several small-scaled gems, Starry Night is a fitting tribute both to Debussy and to the pianist whose technical and interpretive versatilities render him a conduit for Twenty-First-Century listeners’ spiritual communion with the composer. Lewin’s ardent but subtle account of ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ (Estampes, L. 100, No. 3) is aptly representative of the ingenuity of Starry Night and of his playing in general. From a vocal perspective, Lewin’s playing brings to mind Maria Callas’s singing of chromatic scales: every tone is discernibly touched, but none is unduly emphasized. In other words, an assured placement of each step ensures that the destination is never obscured by the journey. An instinctive comprehension of a piece’s provenances on its own, in the broader context of its setting, and within the narratives of the composer’s life and process, allied with an innate ability to convey these details to listeners, constitute the core of Lewin’s artistic identity. Many pianists play the works of Debussy, but, especially in the performances on Starry Night, Lewin experiences them—and enables the listener to experience them, as well. Thus does he cultivate art where others are content to hide behind artifice.

BEST SOLO PIANO RECORDING OF 2015: Claude Debussy - STARRY NIGHT (Michael Lewin, piano; Sono Luminus DSL-92190)

BEST SOLO PIANO RECORDING OF 2015 | CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918): Starry Night – Préludes, Book I; Estampes, L. 100; Arabesque No. 1 in E major, L. 66; Golliwog’s Cakewalk; Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon; and Nuit d’etoilesMichael Lewin, piano [Recorded at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 7 – 8 July 2014; Sono Luminus DSL-92190; 1 CD, 68:56; Available from Sono Luminus, ClassicsOnline HD (Download / Streaming), and major music retailers]

To learn more about Michael Lewin, please visit his website.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Conductor TIMOTHY MYERS [Photo by Simon Pauly, © by IMG Artists]Maestro on the ascendant: Conductor Timothy Myers [Photo by Simon Pauly, © by IMG Artists]

One of the simplest joys of exposing young children to Classical Music is watching their hilarious, often surprisingly intuitive efforts at mock-conducting. One of the most gnawing annoyances of loving Classical Music is observing how many conductors never truly outgrow that sort of naïve, unschooled stick-waving, retaining the puerility but not the uncomplicated elation. Great conductors are as varied as the scores that they conduct, the largesse of a Bernstein a world apart from the restraint of a Böhm. Indeed, insightful conducting is not always easily discerned from charismatic conducting, but it is a critical distinction. In his time with North Carolina Opera, of which company he is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, and its previous incarnation, Opera Company of North Carolina, Timothy Myers has proved himself to be an invaluable asset to musical life in North Carolina and beyond and an exceptionally intelligent repertory conductor of the type all but extinct since the advent of the era of conductor-as-would-be-action-heroes. His accomplishments on the North Carolina Opera podium in recent seasons include a powerful semi-staged account of Dvořák’s Rusalka, a concert performance of Act Two of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that made contemporaneous Bayreuth efforts seem amateurish by comparison, and consistently engaging, unimpeachably musical productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Verdi’s La traviata. Living composers trust Myers with the preparation and premières of new music. Singers trust his leadership when making important rôle débuts. Audiences trust him to always give of his best. A prevalent theme in my writing for Voix des Arts is the worrying distrust among young conductors of the music that they conduct. A vital component of what makes a conductor great is belief in the absolute necessity of a piece being heard, a trait that is sometimes innate and sometimes acquired but is always apparent to a conductor’s colleagues and audiences. When conducting Don Giovanni, for instance, Myers clearly made choices not because Mahler did this, Maazel did that, and Mehta did something else entirely but because Mozart created a score in which the music makes its own demands, inviting individual interpretation, of course, but not to be ignored because some latter-day sage professes to know better. The results of Myers’s efforts at improving the quality of North Carolina Opera’s orchestral playing are, on their own scale, no less monumental than what first Mahler and then James Levine achieved at the Metropolitan Opera [in seasons before Myers’s residency in Raleigh, playing was seldom truly embarrassing, but it rarely increased enjoyment of performances as it has done recently], but I find the most comforting, enthralling, and gratifying aspect of Myers’s conducting to be the assurance that, no matter which score is before him, I will hear the composer’s music as it exists on the page, delivered with imagination, intensity, and, above all, uncompromising fidelity to no one’s notions of how the piece should sound other than the composer’s and his own—notions that in Myers’s performances are exceptionally compatible. Youngsters whose introduction to Classical Music is born of a fascination with the baton could find no more knowledgeable, thoughtful, and sheerly fun a rôle model than Timothy Myers.

To learn more about Timothy Myers, please visit his website.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Tenor ANDREW OWENS [Photo by Wilfried Hösl, © by IMG Artists]Bella voce di bel canto: Tenor Andrew Owens [Photo by Wilfried Hösl, © by IMG Artists]

​Dashing is a word that is tossed about with ridiculous regularity to describe every sort of performer and performance, but young American tenor ​​Andrew Owens is the personification of the overused term, vocally and histrionically. His Don Ramiro in Greensboro Opera’s August 2015 La Cenerentola [reviewed here] was the kind of performance about which Rossini aficionados dream, one in which every demand of the score was met without hedging or hesitation. In 2016, North Carolinians are granted another opportunity to hear this musical magician casting spells in Rossinian fiorature as Conte Almaviva in North Carolina Opera’s April production of Il barbiere di Siviglia. It is significant that Owens was mentored by fellow tenor Enrico Di Giuseppe, one of the unheralded heroes of American opera. When Dame Joan Sutherland’s Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du Régiment was introduced to Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinée broadcast listeners in 1972, her Tonio was not Luciano Pavarotti but Di Giuseppe, a beloved member of the New York City Opera company and frequent costar there of the incomparable Beverly Sills whose top Cs were no less stirring and even more reliable than those of his Italian colleague. The next year, Di Giuseppe partnered Gilda Cruz-Romo and Robert Merrill in a superb MET broadcast performance of Verdi’s La traviata, and he rescued the 1971 opening night of a new production of Massenet’s Werther, opposite the Charlotte of the magnificent Christa Ludwig, by substituting for Franco Corelli in the title rôle. Andrew Owens is among the very small number of tenors singing today whose vocal brilliance and firm technical footing qualify him as a legitimate inheritor of Di Giuseppe’s mantle. A true tenore di grazia, Owens is a bold singer who is unafraid of taking risks but is also unfailingly, meticulously prepared. His Ramiro provided much of the bel in the Greensboro Cenerentola’s bel canto, and his portrayals of parts ranging from Barbarigo opposite Plácido Domingo’s Francesco in Verdi’s I due Foscari to Chevalier Léon in Darius Milhaud’s La mère coupable during his tenure as a young artist with the company of Vienna’s Theater an der Wien have disclosed an uncommon capacity for thoughtful, thought-provoking characterizations. What I find most fascinating about Owens’s singing is the ambiguity that he conveys by vocalizing so confidently whilst finding and spotlighting among the traits of the men he portrays touching elements of vulnerability. There is something unique and endearing about a Ramiro who sings Rossini’s music with absolute ease but seems wholly sensitive to the fact that happiness is not something obtained by royal prerogative. In part, this is a parable of the genre itself. Opera in the new millennium is no longer conquered by voice alone, but Owens is a crusader who reminds us, as Enrico Di Giuseppe reminded a previous generation of listeners, that a well-schooled, well-used voice is the heart of an important artist, of a successful performance, and of the survival of opera.

To learn more about Andrew Owens, please visit his website.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Dramatic soprano ANGELA RENÉE SIMPSON [Photo © by Angela Renée Simpson]Queen [and Queenie] of the Stage: Dramatic soprano Angela Renée Simpson [Photo © by Angela Renée Simpson]

In the magnificently tumultuous history of song, there have been near-continuous progressions of great singers and great voices. In the first instance, there are singers who excel despite an absence of vocal resources of the highest order. By contrast, there are singers who are only occasionally satisfactory as technicians but whose voices are exquisite instruments. Perhaps rarer than any other occurrences in music are those in which talent and technique intersect, thereby genuinely meriting application of the oft-abused distinction of artist. Hearing the singing of dramatic soprano Angela Renée Simpson, whether she is portraying a storied heroine of the operatic stage or bringing a composer’s intentions to life in concert or recital, is to wholly understand the indelible catharsis of surrendering without hesitation to an artist whose voice is as miraculous as the intelligence that sustains it. When assessing performances by singers, my analyses are guided by what I hear, but it is impossible to consider a performance by Angela Renée Simpson without thinking first and foremost about what her singing causes me to feel. To experience her vocal acting as Serena in Porgy and Bess or Queenie in Showboat​ is to know how it must have felt to hear Nordica’s Brünnhilde, Fremstad’s Salome, Flagstad’s Isolde, and Varnay’s Elektra. Comparing voices, particularly those of great quality, is a dangerous and essentially useless sport, but the singers who voices resound in my mind’s ear when I contemplate Simpson’s artistry are Eileen Farrell and Jessye Norman. Like the former, Simpson is not heard in her native country’s opera houses with anything approaching the frequency that her talents warrant, and, like Norman, her vocal and dramatic abilities cannot be neatly compartmentalized and pigeonholed. Simpson has both suffered and benefited from today’s musical establishment’s bumbling ignorance of how to train and maintain dramatic voices. Crucially, though, she has thrived on the freedom granted by the failures of conventional methodologies, honing her technique according to the physical and expressive dimensions of her voice and polishing her artistry within her own parameters, not someone else’s. When hearing Simpson’s voice surging from the abyss of despair in ‘My man’s gone now,’ Serena’s lament for her murdered husband in Act One of Porgy and Bess, it is virtually impossible to not be reminded of the rôle’s creator, the radiant Ruby Elzy, whose brief life tragically ended not long before she was to have sung her first Aida. Could she have heard her successor as Serena sing Verdi, ‘ol’ man sorrow’ might have been held at bay for a while. Then again, it is difficult to imagine that a voice like Angela Renée Simpson’s does not reach heaven every time that its owner sets it free. Without question, her singing propagates cherished oases of heaven on earth whether the words are those of Catfish Row or the disconsolate daughter of the Ethiopian king.

To learn more about Angela Renée Simpson, please visit her website.