19 August 2014

IN MEMORIAM: Conductor and recorder virtuoso Frans Brüggen, 1934 - 2014

IN MEMORIAM: Frans Brüggen, 1934 - 2014Bach to the future: Dutch conductor and recorder virtuoso Frans Brüggen, 1934 – 2014 [Photo © Polskie Radio]

FRANCISCUS JOZEF BRÜGGEN

30 October 1934 – 13 August 2014

Pioneers are those brave souls who see a wilderness and long to go into the heart of it, to connect the present with the future by finding new ways of doing what must be done to ensure survival. During the past half-century of musical history, some of the boldest, most innovative pioneers have been those who looked to the past in order to carve out of ignorance and indifference a path via which future generations might venture into the overgrown Eden of music composed before 1750. For those who are mindful of finding within a score the truest sense of a composer’s inspiration, the pursuit of historical accuracy in the performance of Early Music is not a pedagogical ‘movement’ but a way of life. For Dutch recorder virtuoso and conductor Frans Brüggen the quest for an absolute faithfulness to composers’ musical blueprints in building edifices in sound was his life’s work. He approached Bach, Händel, Telemann, and Vivaldi as friends, and when he found in Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn the Baroque roots that so many latter-day musicians have ignored, these geniuses, too, welcomed him as an equal. Unlike a number of period-practice specialists, Maestro Brüggen never stood between the listener and the music: he opened a score before an audience’s senses like a kaleidoscope, and his awe at the technicolor flickers of sound was as great as the listener’s.

A native of Amsterdam, Maestro Brüggen began his storied career as a master of historically-informed playing of the transverse flute and recorder. At the early age of twenty-one, he was named a professor of his chosen instruments at the Koninklijk Conservatorium Den Haag. As a pedagogue, Maestro Brüggen eventually also shared his comprehensive knowledge with students at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkley. As a flautist and recorder virtuoso, Maestro Brüggen lent his playing to a number of groundbreaking recordings, including excellent accounts of Baroque music for recorder by Barsanti, Corelli, Telemann, and Veracini, as well as flute sonatas and concerti by Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Gluck, Quantz, and Johann and Carl Stamitz. He also collaborated with Gustav Leonhardt, Anner Bylsma, and Sigiswald Kuijken on recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti that remain cornerstones of the discography of period-appropriate performances of these important scores.

In 1981, Maestro Brüggen and Sieuwert A. Verster founded Orkest van de Achttiende Eeuw, the Orchestra of the 18th Century. The principal focus of Maestro Brüggen’s career was then transitioned to conducting, and his efforts on the podium proved no less revelatory than his earlier achievements as an instrumentalist. The completeness of Maestro Brüggen’s understanding of and affinity for Baroque repertory was not surprising, but the lucidity, insightful approaches to rhythmic precision and details of orchestration, and dynamism that he brought to later repertory were astonishing if hardly unforeseen by those acquainted with the dedication that he gave to every task that he undertook. The compositional styles evolved but still deeply rooted in the Baroque models from which their creators gleaned their musical educations, the Symphonies of Haydn and Mozart were natural territory for Maestro Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century: less expected was the breadth of the conductor’s interpretive skills in the music of Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. The consistency of engagement, depth, and inspiration in Maestro Brüggen’s Philips recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies make the series worthy of comparison with the most acclaimed of competing sets, and the appropriately-scaled drama of his readings of Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ and ‘Italian’ Symphonies divulges both the preeminence of the young composer’s musical pedigree and the individuality of his creativity.

The singularity of Maestro Brüggen’s manner with music, no matter when it was composed, is disclosed in recordings that follow the paths that led music from the Eighteenth Century into the Nineteenth and beyond. In his performances of Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ Symphonies with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, he exposed with exceptional clarity the ways in which Haydn worked to fashion the modern symphony from the ‘raw material’ of the Orchestral Suites of Bach and Concerti grossi of Händel. In the performances of the Mozart and Beethoven Violin Concerti with Thomas Zehetmair, Mr. Brüggen’s management of textures evinces the composers’ syntheses of tradition and innovation. There are in his performances of Chopin’s First and Second Piano Concerti with Yulianna Avdeeva the remnants of the keyboard concerti of the late Baroque and the juvenile stirrings of the piano concerti of Brahms, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Maestro Brüggen effectuated these intersections of musical past, present, and future by doing what many conductors are too distracted, stubborn, or egotistical to do—seeking the spirit of a piece within the score rather than inventing it and then distorting the music to match. When I heard him conduct Mozart’s Requiem, it was an enlightening experience: in the hour of that familiar score, I heard the voices of Caldara and Pergolesi and those of Verdi and Vaughan Williams. Primarily, though, I heard the voices of Mozart and Frans Brüggen, not in negotiation but in simple, mutually admiring conversation.

It was via Maestro Brüggen’s 1992 and 1996 recordings that I became acquainted with Bach’s Johannes- and Matthäus-Passions, and I regularly return to these performances, both of which feature tenor Nico van der Meel as the Evangelist and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Christ. Among so many memorable documents, these Passion recordings encapsulate the finest qualities of Maestro Brüggen’s conducting. Few performances adequately convey the grittiness with which Bach depicted the betrayal, trial, and death of Christ, but Maestro Brüggen finds within—rather than imposing upon—Bach’s music the fury of the crowd demanding the destruction of Christ, the fall of bitter tears upon the apostle Peter’s cheeks, the piercing of the crown of thorns, the grisly breaking of Christ’s body upon the cross. These are not specifically Christian interpretations or didactic exercises. In Maestro Brüggen’s hands, Bach’s Passions are allowed to make impressions on their own terms. Throughout his career, this was his way: find the sincerest means of performing a score as its composer intended, embracing rather than rejecting its proper context, and the music will glisten as new even after hundreds of years. It is by any standard an incredible legacy.

Bach_Johannes-Passion_Brueggen_CoverJOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Johannes-Passion, BWV 245—Nico van der Meel (Evangelist), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Christ), Annegeer Stumphius (soprano arias), James Bowman (countertenor arias), Christoph Prégardien (tenor arias), Peter Kooy (bass arias), Jelle Draijer (Pilatus), David Barick (Petrus), Michiel ten Houte de Lange (Servus), Adiinda de Nijs (Ancilla); Nederlands Kamerkoor; Orchestra of the 18th Century; Frans Brüggen, conductor [Philips 434 905]

17 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti – LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (R. Scotto, A. Kraus, S. Bruscantini, P. Washington; Myto MCD00335)

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti - LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (Myto MCD00335)

GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Lucia di Lammermoor—Renata Scotto (Miss Lucia), Alfredo Kraus (Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood), Sesto Bruscantini (Lord Enrico Ashton), Paolo Washington (Raimondo Bidebent), Luciana Boni (Alisa), Ottavio Taddei (Lord Arturo Bucklaw), and Enzo Guagni (Normanno); Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Bruno Rigacci, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ at the Teatro Comunale, Florence, Italy, on 23 July 1963; Myto Historical Line MCD00335; 2CD, 126:08; Available from ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

For listeners who love bel canto, the operas of Donizetti, or the artistry of Renata Scotto, the 1963 Florence production of Lucia di Lammermoor needs no introduction. Recorded in performance at the Teatro Comunale four years after she recorded the rôle for Ricordi under studio conditions at La Scala, Ms. Scotto remains a wide-eyed, fresh-voiced protagonist, capable of making the most decorative of Donizetti’s music dramatically significant. A Lucia with an inadequate Lucia is naturally a lost cause, but failures among the opera’s supporting rôles can also prove devastating. There is no question that Renata Scotto is the raison d’être for this release, but her colleagues also have much to offer.

Sonically, this new remastering by Myto is a marked improvement upon the ‘pirated’ recordings of this performance that have long circulated on various labels. Considering its vintage and venue, and that Italian audiences are not known for sitting on their hands or waiting until intervals to discuss the merits of a performance, the acoustics of the recording are generally good. The provenance of the recording remains enigmatic: the sound quality suggests a broadcast, but certain intrusive page turns and the proximity of coughs hint at a clandestine vantage point in the auditorium. There is enough stage noise to suggest that this was a suitably swashbuckling production, but heavy footfalls and hosts of bumps and thumps never truly undermine enjoyment of the performance. Individual voices sometimes wander out of the aural space, but balances are mostly maintained with admirable consistency. Distortion is minimal, but caution is advised whenever Ms. Scotto approaches sustained notes above the staff: there is considerable peaking on her E♭s in alt in the Mad Scene, and even the syncopated top B♭s in the cabaletta are troublesome for the recording equipment, professional or otherwise. The top D♭ with which she ends the Sextet is virtually inaudible, almost certainly a victim of microphone placement.  The Maggio Musicale Chorus and Orchestra are eager and proficient, but greater precision of ensemble would be appreciated. Still, these are Italian musicians performing Italian music, and, under the capable if occasionally self-indulgent direction of Bruno Rigacci, there are doses of chiaroscuro and slancio that evade the best efforts of more recent performances.

Ideally, the secondary players in a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor should sound as though they could stage their own production of a suitable score were the principals suddenly indisposed. If that is not the case in this performance, there at least is a higher standard of musicality among the supporting cast than is now typical. Tenors Enzo Guagni as Normanno and Ottavio Taddei as Arturo are on frolicsome form, Mr. Guagni’s Normanno spreading ill-conceived gossip with lecherous intent and Mr. Taddei’s Arturo splendidly indignant and wounded to the very core of his pride. Both gentlemen sing capably. It should be noted that some sources cite Paolo Federici as the singer of Arturo in this performance, but there is better circumstantial evidence to support Myto’s attribution. Virtually no information about Paolo Federici survives, but Mr. Taddei was a respected tenor who, among scores of leading engagements in his native Italy, sang Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor alongside Carlo Tagliabue’s Enrico in Pisa: based solely on his verifiable credentials, Mr. Taddei is the more likely candidate. Among admittedly underwhelming competition in the rôle, Luciana Boni is an above-average Alisa who actually sounds like young Miss Lucy’s age-appropriate confidante rather than a superannuated duenna.

It is not surprising that Raimondo was deprived in this performance of his lovely aria ‘Ah! cedi, cedi, o più sciagurre,’ reducing his part to far lesser importance than Donizetti intended, but bass Paolo Washington makes the most of what is left to him. He is an alert, sonorous presence in ensembles, and he is among the few recorded Raimondos with equal security on both the low F♯ and the top E required in his call for calm following the Sextet, ‘Rispettate in me di Dio la tremenda maestà.’ The horror and heartbreak with which Mr. Washington’s Raimondo recounts his encounter with the deranged Lucia are gripping. Had he been granted his full part, Mr. Washington would have been an even more successful Raimondo, but he nonetheless makes a very positive impression. He is one of those underrated singers who, though his name on the cast list alone might never prompt the purchase of a recording, seldom disappoints.

Donizetti’s music for Enrico, Lucia’s domineering brother, unites dramatic bel canto with strong foreshadowing of the young Verdi’s writing for the baritone voice. The singer who is stylistically comfortable as Verdi’s Nabucco, Macbeth, and Rigoletto will also find Donizetti’s Enrico a congenial part. Italian bass-baritone Sesto Bruscantini is indelibly associated with basso buffo rôles, particularly those in Rossini’s operas, in which his resonant voice and ebullient personality shone, but he also devoted an estimable portion of his career to Verdi’s ‘big sing’ baritone rôles. Taking into account only his work in opera buffa, it is easy to overlook what a finely-wrought, genuinely beautiful voice Mr. Bruscantini possessed. Ms. Scotto’s 1959 Ricordi recording of Lucia paired her with the Enrico of Ettore Bastianini, one of the most refulgently-voiced baritones of the Twentieth Century, but Mr. Bruscantini in this Florence performance does not prove noticeably inferior. As an actor, Mr. Bruscantini is Bastianini’s superior, in fact, and he has an even more instinctive feel for the bel canto lines in Enrico’s music. In his entrance aria, ‘Cruda, funesta smania,’ Mr. Bruscantini sings powerfully but with excellent command of the musical filigree. A couple of climactic top notes stress him, but he copes with complete braggadocio. ‘La pietade in suo favore,’ his cabaletta, is rousingly sung. Mr. Bruscantini is at his best in the scene with Lucia, ‘Soffriva nel pianto,’ in which he conveys Enrico’s bitterness, fear, and growing desperation in singing of ample thrust, tempered by real tenderness for Lucia, and he joins Ms. Scotto in a stirring account of ‘Se tradirmi tu potrai,’ ended with a ringing top G. His fury in the Sextet and the scene that follows it is so great that he can barely spit out the words, and his shock and remorse in the Mad Scene are tellingly portrayed. Enrico suffers greatly from the brutal cutting of Donizetti’s score that was standard practice in 1963, so there are a number of missed opportunities, the most regrettable of which is the excision of the Wolf’s Crag scene. Mr. Bruscantini might reasonably come to mind as an ideal Don Pasquale or Dulcamara, but in this performance his singing of ‘serious’ Donizetti is no less authoritative. Unexpectedly, this is one of the best-sung performances of Enrico in the discography.

The rôle of his début at London’s Royal Opera House in 1959, Edgardo remained in the repertory of Alfredo Kraus throughout his long career. He partnered a staggering array of accomplished Lucias: solely at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where he last sang Edgardo in 1993, his Lucias were Gianna D’Angelo, Roberta Peters, Anna Moffo, Renata Scotto, Dame Joan Sutherland, Lucia Aliberti, Mariella Devia, Marilyn Mims, Ruth Ann Swenson, Sumi Jo, and Martile Rowland. This 1963 performance finds him on excellent form, but his best performances of Edgardo came later, when he relied upon his exemplary technique and aristocratic artistry rather than the youthful pliancy of his voice. At his first entrance, Mr. Kraus is immediately recognizable, and, though a nasal and somewhat monochromatic instrument, the voice glows with ardor. In ‘Sulla tomba che rinserra,’ he sings rapturously, blending artfully with Ms. Scotto. Not surprisingly, even the prodigiously-gifted Mr. Kraus ducks the top E♭ in ‘Verrano a te,’ but he soars easily to the B♭s. He spars thrillingly with Mr. Bruscantini in launching the Sextet, ‘Chi me frena in tal momento,’ and his denunciation of Lucia in the following scene is impassioned but stylish. The depth of feeling that Mr. Kraus brings to his elegant singing of Edgardo’s ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ and the exquisitely beautiful ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,’ some of the most inspired pages that Donizetti ever wrote, is arresting. It is dumbfounding to recall that, in years past, performances of Lucia di Lammermoor often ended with Lucia’s Mad Scene: the loss of Mr. Kraus’s euphoric singing of the opera’s final scene would be an affront to Donizetti and nothing short of criminal.

Ms. Scotto is a predictably imaginative Lucia, but this performance is a study in vocal compromises. Her opening recitative is lustrously managed, and her singing of ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ brims with youthful exuberance. She and Maestro Rigacci rush through the cabaletta, ‘Quando, rapito in estasi,’ conveying the character’s ecstasy but wreaking havoc on Donizetti’s rhythms. The interpolated top D in the cabaletta’s coda is wiry and unsteady, but this is very much an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ performance in which caution is thrown to the wind. Ms. Scotto runs out of breath in the opening phrase of ‘Verrano a te’ but otherwise joins Mr. Kraus in a mercurial account of the duet. Ms. Scotto’s singing in Lucia’s scene with her brother, ‘Soffriva nel pianto’ is poised and very touching, and the measure of defiance in ‘Se tradirmi tu potrai’ is invigorating. Here, too, the top D that she adds to the conclusion is unstable. Some of Ms. Scotto’s finest singing comes in the Sextet, the top line of which she limns with true distinction. There are more uneven top notes in the stretta of the Part Two Finale, but the impulsiveness of Ms. Scotto’s singing is pulse-quickening. The intimidating test of Lucia’s Mad Scene prompts Ms. Scotto to increased concentration. She mostly adheres to the traditional ornamentation in the cadenza, but she is one of the few recorded Lucias who actually seems to believe that the flute with which she is dueting is the absent Edgardo’s voice. Here her ascents to top C are focused and secure. The E♭s in alt that crown both the cadenza and the cabaletta, ‘Spargi d’amaro pianto,’ are erratic but undeniably impactful. In this performance, Ms. Scotto’s singing is a source of ambiguity: vocally, she is an effective but not especially memorable Lucia, but the dramatic acuity that she brings to a rôle that, prior to the intervention of Maria Callas, was a perch for mechanical songbirds is special. This Lucia is not the work of a perfect vocalist, but it emphatically is the work of a great artist.

In Italy, the land of the genre’s birth, opera can still be a contact sport. This 1963 Florentine performance of Lucia di Lammermoor is Italian opera at its most zestful. An idiomatic cast compete like footballers on the pitch, and the crowd cheer their efforts with enthusiasm and encouragement. Not all of the singers’ shots find the goal, but this new edition of a long-admired performance really scores.

Soprano Renata Scotto in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at the Metropolitan Opera, 1965 [Photo by Louis Mélançon; © The Metropolitan Opera]Il dolce suono: Renata Scotto as Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera, 1965 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © The Metropolitan Opera]

16 August 2014

IN MEMORIAM: Italian-American soprano Licia Albanese, 1909 – 2014

IN MEMORIAM: Soprano Licia Albanese as Mimì in Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME at Teatro alla Scala, Milano [Photo by M. Camuzzi for Stab. Fot. Crimella, © Teatro alla Scala, Milano]Sì, mi chiamano Mimì: Soprano Licia Albanese as Mimì in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème [Photo by M. Camuzzi for the firm Stab. Fot. Crimella, © Teatro alla Scala, Milano]

LICIA ALBANESE

22 July 1909 – 15 August 2014

​In March 1938, Beniamino Gigli was probably the world’s most accomplished interpreter of the rôle of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème. This must surely have been the prevailing opinion when the great tenor stepped before a microphone in Milan to record the evergreen score for His Master’s Voice. Which Mimì could possibly partner Gigli at anything close to the level of achievement that was his calling card? That question must also have been in the minds of everyone involved with the recording of La bohème at La Scala in the spring of 1938. Gemma Bosini sang Mimì, the rôle of her professional début in 1909, in the first recording of the opera eight years later: Rosetta Pampanini and and Rosina Torri succumbed on records to the crushing chill of the Bohemians’ garret in 1928. Gigli was not always partnered with distinction before the microphones, but from her first breathless entrance in search of light the Mimì of Licia Albanese glimmers with the unsettling serenity of desperate love. The voice is both fresh and surprisingly mature, and where her Rodolfo leads she follows, not with blind faith but with the conviction of a fading woman whose life has only just begun. To be unchivalrously frank, recent seasons have offered the public a number of Mimìs not worth the trouble of a frantic search in the dark for a missing key. From the poetic wonder of her entrance to the artless sincerity of her death, though, Ms. Albanese’s Mimì was the genuine article, and so she would remain for three decades.

Born in Bari in the Apulia region of Italy in 1909 [some sources suggest 1913 and other dates, but her 1941 petition for American naturalization shows 1909 as the year of her birth], Ms. Albanese made her formal début either as Mimì in 1934 or as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly in 1935: whichever rôle introduced her to the public, it was one that would become a signature part, and it was an introduction that heralded the arrival of a Puccini soprano for the ages. Ms. Albanese’s début at the Metropolitan Opera as Cio-Cio-San in 1940 was virtually a second birth: becoming an American citizen five years thereafter, she was a beloved presence at the Metropolitan in New York and in San Francisco, where she débuted in 1941 as Cio-Cio-San. The esteemed critic Olin Downes wrote in the New York Times of her inaugural Butterfly at the MET that ‘there [were] a real simplicity and contagious emotion in it, and everything was so thoughtfully proportioned that climaxes had never to be forced or passion torn to tatters to make it carry across the footlights.’ Her career at the MET extended to a surprising array of parts: aside from her familiar Puccini portrayals, among which her Liù in Turandot opposite the Turandots of Birgit Nilsson, Mary Curtis-Verna, and Gladys Kuchta and the Calàfs of Franco Corelli, Flaviano Labò, Richard Tucker, and Sándor Kónya remains unforgettable, her repertoire at the MET included Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen, Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Susanna and the Contessa in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, Massenet’s Manon, and Verdi’s Violetta, Desdemona, and Nannetta. The restraint of her Mimì and Cio-Cio-San contrasted sharply with the abandon of her Nedda, who loved Silvio as passionately as she both hated and pitied Canio. In San Francisco, she also sang Zerlina and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Lady Harriet in Flotow’s Martha, Antonia in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Concepción in Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, Maddalena in Giordano’s Andréa Chenier, and the soprano part in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, in addition to a Puccini heroine that she never sang at the MET, Suor Angelica. Remembered as one of the Twentieth Century’s finest proponents of verismo, Ms. Albanese generally does not receive the recognition that she deserves for the incredible versatility of her artistry.

The listener acquainted primarily with her singing of Puccini rôles might well be stunned by a performance like the 1943 MET broadcast of Gounod’s Faust, in which Ms. Albanese lent her radiant singing to an ensemble that included Raoul Jobin, John Charles Thomas (as resplendent a Valentin as has ever been heard), and Ezio Pinza. Spurred by the conducting of Sir Thomas Beecham to a surprising degree of authentically Gallic poise, Ms. Albanese’s Marguerite combines the forthrightness and soaring upper register familiar from the soprano’s singing of Italian repertory with intriguing blends of innocence, curiosity, and ecstasy. Her Nannetta in the 1949 broadcast of Verdi’s Falstaff conducted by Fritz Reiner hardly sounds like a skittish young girl, but she is to the life an imaginative young lady in the first throes of youthful love. Her Desdemona in the performance of Verdi’s Otello that opened the 1948 – 1949 MET Season—the first telecasted Metropolitan Opera performance—galvanized a struggling Otello and engendered an account of Act Four of which Shakespeare himself would have been proud. Her Violetta, both haughty and haunted, seems truly surprised by death though she has known since the start of the opera that she is dying.

Comparing three recorded performances of a rôle that was part of her artistic genetic code from the beginning of her career, Mimì in La bohème, reveals both continuous development as a singer and actress and astonishingly consistent vocalism. In the 1938 studio recording with Gigli, Ms. Albanese’s Mimì is already a fully-drawn portrait of a woman who sincerely believes that love can and will enable her retreat from the brink of death. In the 1946 NBC Symphony broadcast conducted by Arturo Toscanini, her Mimì is the sympathetic heart of a body of disenfranchised Bohemians: the loss of her is disfiguring, and it is impossible to imagine her friends, even the steely Musetta of Anne McKnight [before she was transformed into Anna di Cavalieri], carrying on without her. Partnered by the ardent, guilelessly emotive Rodolfo of Carlo Bergonzi, her singing in the 1958 MET broadcast conducted by Thomas Schippers is focused, heartfelt, and still especially beautiful on high. Astoundingly, the crispness of the voice was little affected by the twenty years between the La Scala studio recording and the 1958 broadcast, and what was a compelling depiction of one of opera’s most endearing heroines in 1938 was by the time of Ms. Albanese’s final Mimì for the Metropolitan Opera, a concert performance in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1966, one of the rightfully legendary characterizations in the four-century history of opera.

Deprived by a dispute with MET General Manager Sir Rudolf Bing of a fitting farewell to the company to whose fortunes her singing so meaningfully contributed, Ms. Albanese never sang on the stage of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Her legacy is thus forever linked with the lore of the Old MET on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets. Her recordings continue to define the art of unapologetically impassioned soprano singing. The top B in her performance of Micaëla’s aria in Reiner’s Carmen is one of the most gorgeous notes ever preserved on records, and her interactions with Jussi Björling in Perlea’s Manon Lescaut set a standard in that opera that has never been surpassed. Unaccountably, the closest that she came to recording her emblematic Cio-Cio-San in studio was a pair of LPs of excerpts from Madama Butterfly for RCA Victor, the first conducted by Frieder Weissmann in 1946 and the second led by Vincenzo Bellezza a decade later. Fortunately, several surviving MET broadcasts document her Cio-Cio-San at its best, her singing of Butterfly’s entrance music rivaled for imagination only by Victoria de los Ángeles and Renata Scotto and for sheer beauty of tone solely by Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, and Sena Jurinac. As a multifaceted Italian soprano in the now-forgotten tradition of Rosetta Pampanini and Maria Zamboni, Ms. Albanese was unique, and subsequent generations have produced no worthy heir to her mantle. Through her work with The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, she nurtured the careers of many promising young singers, however: this rôle as educator and guardian of the ethos of Puccini and his contemporaries was one of the most important parts that she took in her seven-decade career.

I never heard Licia Albanese sing in an opera house or concert hall, but I have also never heard a Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, or Nedda in any of the performances I have attended who so much as approached the impact that Ms. Albanese has on recordings. Neither her technique nor her integration of registers was perfect, but she made every effort and shortcoming part of a complete absorption of the drama of her rôles that renders her singing viscerally stimulating and profoundly moving even in the digital age, more than seventy years after she first bowed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Hers is the Mimì to whom I turn when I want to hear her precisely as Puccini intended: resolved, reserved, and finally too much in love to notice that death will not relinquish her.

IN MEMORIAM: Soprano Licia Albanese as Cio-Cio-San in Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY [Photo uncredited; © The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation]Un bel dì vedremo: Licia Albanese as Cio-Cio-San in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [Photo uncredited; © The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation]

15 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Jacques Offenbach – PARISER LEBEN (A. Rothenberger, M. Bakker, R. Holm, A. Dallapozza; Warner Classics 825646289233)

CD REVIEW: Jacques Offenbach - PARISER LEBEN (Warner Classics 825646289233)

JACQUES OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880): Pariser Leben (La vie parisienne)—Anneliese Rothenberger (Baronin Christine), Marco Bakker (Baron von Gondremark), Adolf Dallapozza (Raoul de Gardefeu), Willi Brokmeier (Bobinet), Renate Holm (Metella), Karl Kreile (Gontran), Martin Finke (Jean Frick), Klaus Hirte (Pompa di Matadores, Brasilianer), Gabriele Fuchs (Gabriele), Günter Wewel (Urbain), and Elke Schary (Pauline); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Willy Mattes, conductor [Recorded in the studios of Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany, 1 – 6 February 1982; Warner Classics Cologne Collection 825646289233; 2CD, 89:28; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​In the curious crapshoot of international opera, some of the most inexplicable losers are the prolifically melodic, often deliciously satirical opéras bouffes of Jacques Offenbach. It is sometimes argued that the objects of Offenbach’s and his librettists’ musical ridicule are too specific to be appreciated by today’s audiences, especially those outside of France, but is this not also true to some extent of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan? How many audiences in Twenty-First-Century Omaha or Osaka truly grasp the minute details of Gilbert’s lambasting of late Victorian society? At the time of its première in 1866, Offenbach’s La vie parisienne was immediately perceived by the French public as a thing apart: the first of the composer’s opéras bouffes to take aim at an undisguised contemporary subject rather than employing the thinly-veiled figures from mythology who populated earlier efforts, La vie parisienne achieved instant popularity with the famously fickle Parisians. In the foppish milieu of Second Empire Paris, it was apparently acceptable to laugh at oneself provided that the tunes were memorable and, as American listeners of a certain age remember from the repeated-ad-nauseum analyses of successful songs on American Bandstand, concerted numbers ‘had good beats and were easy to dance to.’ It is interesting to note that nearly half of the performances in the La vie parisienne discography are sung in languages other than the original French of Offenbach and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, but even in English, German, or Russian the slightly bitter essence of the lampooning of Parisian society loses none of its piquancy. The restoration of this performance to international circulation is a significant contribution to appreciation of this effervescent score and of Offenbach’s farcical erudition. Though sung auf Deutsch, enough of Offenbach’s Gallic accents remain in this performance to leave no doubt that the lives under examination are truly Pariser rather than Berliner or Wiener Leben. In truth, though, a recording as thoroughly prepared and feistily executed as this one would strut with the authentic gait of Offenbach were it sung in Samoan or Swahili: Paris is, after all, a fabulously cosmopolitan town!

The performance gets off to a ripping start with a frothy account of the Overture by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, and the high spirits of the Munich players persist throughout the performance. A beloved presence in cinema and radio studios in Stockholm, Munich, and Stuttgart, Viennese conductor Willy Mattes was experienced both in the serving of Offenbach’s delectable operatic soufflés and in the preservation of Viennese operetta traditions. This recording of Pariser Leben is essentially an intersection of those worlds, and Maestro Mattes presides with the sure hand of a man who knows his work. Offenbach’s is the sort of music that sounds far easier to execute than it actually is: give an audience tunes that they can whistle, and they are inclined to think a score simplistic, but Offenbach was a savvy, often surprisingly inventive orchestrator. There is nothing in Pariser Leben that makes unreasonable demands on the orchestra, but it is to the musicians’ credit—and also to Maestro Mattes’s—that every moment of this recording simply sounds right. Even with a unapologetically Teutonic cast, the performance bubbles with the delicate bouquet of Duval-Leroy rather than the stiffer spirit of Jägermeister. Under the direction of Gordon Kember, the singers of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks distinguish themselves with vigorous performances of the choral set pieces and the madcap finales. Under Maestro Mattes’s colloquial baton, the Bayerischen Rundfunks choristers and instrumentalists readily exchange the Isar for the Seine.

Could an enterprising Schauspieldirektor now assemble for a production of any of Offenbach’s scores a cast of the quality of the ensemble convened by Electrola for this recording of Pariser Leben, he would have a sure-fire hit on his hands. Pariser Leben is the rare piece in which there truly are no small rôles, and this is the rare recording without a weak link among the cast. As Pauline, mezzo-soprano Elke Schary shines both in her duet with Baron von Gondremark in Act Three, ‘Die Liebe schwebt gleich Rosendüften,’ and in her subsequent couplets, ‘Wem sie gefällt, die Damenwelt.’ The veteran bass and Kammersänger Günter Wewel is a paragon of comic timing as Urbain, and his performance of the wickedly ironic buffo aria in Act Three, ‘Ich bin ein Held in jedem Fache,’ is outstanding. As her Pariser Leben namesake Gabriele, soprano Gabriele Fuchs brings a lovely tone and great involvement to the duet with Frick in Act Two, ‘Nur hier herein, du mein blauäugig Kind,’ and the spicy duet with the Brasilianer in Act Five, ‘Jüngst kam ein stolzer Brasilianer.’ As her duet partners, tenor Martin Finke is splendidly droll in Frick’s couplets in Act Two, ‘Ich schneid’ bei Tisch den Braten auf,’ and baritone Klaus Hirte sings adroitly as Pompa di Matadores, the licentiously exotic ‘Brasilianer.’ Gontran’s music makes modest demands of tenor Karl Kreile, but he delivers every line given to him with appealing animation, and fellow tenor Willi Brokmeier makes much of ‘Ach Gott, wie sind die Damen so traurig,’ Bobinet’s couplets with Gardefeu in Act One. The singers rise exuberantly to the occasion of the buoyant Sextet in Act Three, ‘Kinder, mein Vertrau’n ist groß,’ and each singer is an engaged member of the ensemble regardless of the number of notes in his or her part.

A familiar participant in many productions and recordings of operetta and opera in German translation, Bolzano-born tenor Adolf Dallapozza brings his expected proficiency and professionalism to his performance as Raoul de Gardefeu. The voice was an instrument of good quality, a bit short on top but plangent of timbre, and Mr. Dallapozza is a credible romantic hero in this performance of Pariser Leben. In the trio with the Baron and Baronin in Act One, ‘Bitte nur hierher zu kommen,’ Mr. Dallapozza sings winningly, his light tone filling Offenbach’s melodic lines with ease. His dramatic instincts are complemented by the dynamic performance of Dutch baritone Marco Bakker as Baron von Gondremark. A great entertainer who continues to delight audiences in 2014, Mr. Bakker gives an account of the Baron’s couplets with Gardefeu in Act Two, ‘Diese Stadt mit ihren Reizen,’ that is remarkable for its sonorous tone and expansive humor. In his interactions with each character encountered by the Baron, Mr. Bakker’s singing ripples with amusement and suggestions of apt aristocratic arrogance. There is a very Parisian esprit in Mr. Bakker’s performance, and his portrayal of the Baron is a terrific souvenir of this fine artist.

The diamonds in the diadem of this recording of Pariser Leben are sopranos Renate Holm as Metella and Anneliese Rothenberger as Baronin Christine. Neither lady was in the first flush of youth when this performance was recorded, but they were accomplished artists with extensive experience in comic operas from both sides of the Alps. Ms. Holm no longer commanded the faculty in the extreme upper register that gave her earlier performances of parts like Adele in Johann Strauß II’s Die Fledermaus gleaming glamour, and there are no interpolated excursions above the ledger lines in her singing here. In Metella’s rondos in Acts Two and Five, ‘Sie denken, liebe Kleine, noch manchmal, wie ich meine’ and ‘Um Mitternacht beginnt heir das Leben,’ however, Ms. Holm sings with complete confidence and all the enchantment of her best work. Her colleague Ms. Rothenberger sang a wide repertory encompassing rôles as diverse as Oscar in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, Zdenka in Richard Strauss’s Arabella, and Alban Berg’s Lulu. As Baronin Christine in Pariser Leben, Ms. Rothenberger sings with technique and beauty of tone little touched by time. ‘Geblendet war mein Auge ganz von diesem Glanz,’ the Baronin’s couplets in Act Four, is dazzlingly sung, and her spellbinding performance of ‘Du reist, um dich zu amüsieren’ in Act Five is the pinnacle of the recording. In ensembles, both sopranos take Offenbach’s high lines with cajoling radiance, and the ladies’ involvement and great diction make them worthy opponents for the gentlemen in the cast and near-perfect proponents of Offenbach’s music.

To perform a work as defined by its setting as Offenbach’s La vie parisienne in anything but the original French might seem counterintuitive, but this performance, a jewel in the series of recordings made for the German-speaking market by Cologne-based Electrola, is a testament of the persuasiveness of Offenbach’s music in any language. This recording of Pariser Leben preserves the efforts of an exemplary cast having a grand time in the studio, and Warner’s unobtrusive engineering seats the listener among the principals at a bustling café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. These keen singers might say ‘Ja,’ but the listener in search of the quintessence of Offenbach is likely to be provoked by this recording to repeated exclamations of ‘Oui!’

CD REVIEW: Jonathan Dove – SONG CYCLES (C. Booth, P. Bardon, N. Spence, A. Matthews-Owens; NAXOS 8.573080)

CD REVIEW: Jonathan Dove - SONG CYCLES (NAXOS 8.573080)

JONATHAN DOVE (born 1959): Song Cycles – All You Who Sleep Tonight (1996)*, Ariel (1998), Cut My Shadow (2011)*, Out of Winter (2003)*Claire Booth, soprano; Patricia Bardon, mezzo-soprano; Nicky Spence, tenor; Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano [Recorded at Menuhin Hall, Cobham, Surrey, UK, 1 – 2 April 2014 (Out of Winter, Cut My Shadow, and All You Who Sleep Tonight) and 5 May 2014 (Ariel); NAXOS 8.573080 (The English Song Series Volume 23); 1CD, 71:10; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; *WORLD PREMIÈME RECORDINGS]

​The prevalence of German Lieder in musicological examinations of the history of the Art of Song and in the repertoires of the foremost guardians of the legacy of Lieder singing past and present notwithstanding, perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the genre’s enduring allure is its diversity. There is no culture in which the marriage of words with music is not of tremendous artistic significance, and there is no culture in which that significance continues to be more nurtured, explored, and enriched than in that of Great Britain. From bawdy Renaissance ballads and the sensuous lute songs of John Dowland and his contemporaries to the knife’s-edge intensity of the works of Twenty-First-Century masters such as Thomas Adès and Joseph Phibbs, Britain has an uniquely prodigious and musically far-reaching Art Song tradition. The Naxos English Song Series has preserved on disc numerous worthy performances by some of today’s finest singers, but the truly extraordinary quality of the series to date is the insightfulness with which each installment’s programme has been selected. Choosing with a singer’s capabilities in mind is one thing, but Naxos discs display an uncanny gift for adapting the nuances of artists’ endeavors with unusually serendipitous representations of the best of composers’ œuvres. Thus have the most perfect songs of Butterworth, Finzi, Ireland, Quilter, Vaughan Williams, Rubbra, and Britten been recorded with conspicuous dedication, and thus are they joined via this disc with an aptly thoughtful selection of songs by Jonathan Dove. Spanning the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Mr. Dove’s work at its best—as it invariably is in the four Song Cycles offered on this disc—fuses techniques drawn from the fertile past of British Art Song with unmistakably but never off-puttingly modern sensibilities. Though indicative of an expansive individuality, these songs do not inhabit an environment from which rich harmonies and memorable, singable melodies have been excluded. Rather, these songs suggest that Mr. Dove possesses a wondrous gift for using the human voice to express what neither words nor music can convey separately. The four artists whose talents make this disc such an enjoyable listening experience give to Mr. Dove and his music performances of the sort of quality of which an earnest composer dreams. Moreover, everyone involved with this project affirms that the glorious flow of British Art Song continues uninterrupted.

An accompanist who merely accompanies can be of incalculable harm to a recital or recording of Art Songs. These concentrations of composers’ creative impulses can, under the most felicitous circumstances, be opportunities for chamber music-like cooperation among singers and accompanists. The ideal accompanist for collaborative music like the songs of Jonathan Dove is an artistic partner who sings through his playing: if there is not the sense that his hands are as alert and responsive to the melodic contours of a song as is the singer’s voice, he is a music box, not a true musician. In the performances on this disc, recorded by Naxos with natural but meticulously-managed balances among voices and piano, each of the three singers finds in Welsh pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen not just an intelligent, attentive accompanist but also—more importantly—an artistic friend and fellow traveler. Mr. Matthews-Owen’s technical mastery of the composer’s wide-ranging style is never in doubt, but the adaptability that he displays in traversing Mr. Dove’s evolving idiom is evidence of an exceptional level of musicality. In his interactions with each of the singers, Mr. Matthews-Owen matches the cadences of his playing to the singer’s phrasing without distorting the specific architecture of Mr. Dove’s music or sacrificing the singularity of his own artistry. It is to be hoped that any accompanist worth his keep respects his colleagues by having a complete acquaintance with the music at hand, but only the truly important accompanists—artists of the caliber of Coenraad V. Bos, Gerald Moore, and, in his exquisitely thought-out but seemingly spontaneous traversals with Sir Peter Pears of the Lieder cycles of Schubert and Schumann, Benjamin Britten—give life to their contributions to Lieder recitals with the same concentration and interpretive integrity as the singers they support. Every note that Mr. Matthews-Owen plays on this disc is shaped by an abidingly energetic elegance. His technique is equal to the most strenuous of Mr. Dove’s demands, and the poetry of his playing reaches depths of expressivity that can be accessed only by an artist who understands that accompanying a Lieder recital is not an exercise in following or leading but an act of musical camaraderie of the highest order. 

A setting of texts by the celebrated Welsh tenor and conductor Robert Tear, who premièred the present cycle in 2003 and whose unforgettable 2004 Wigmore Hall recital included performances of songs by Mr. Dove that belied the singer’s sixty-five years, Out of Winter is rousingly sung in this recording by tenor Nicky Spence. To some extent, Mr. Spence’s singing is not unlike that of Mr. Tear, whose performances were lauded for their psychological sagacity. Vocally, Mr. Spence’s performances of Mr. Dove’s Songs replicate certain qualities of Mr. Tear’s singing in its prime: elaborate but never precious use of text, unrestrained but unfailingly noble emoting, and phrasing that follows the natural flow and nuances of the words even when this interferes with vocal comfort are hallmarks of Mr. Spence’s singing in this performance, but his voice is more flexible and resonantly beautiful than that of his acclaimed predecessor. In the six songs of Out of Winter, Mr. Spence combines the boyish charm of his natural instrument with intelligence and wit. Mr. Tear’s Thomas Hardy-inspired texts are not of the quality of those by Federico García Lorca, William Shakespeare, and Vikram Seth employed by Mr. Dove in the other cycles on this disc, but they offer composer, singer, and pianist plentiful opportunities for dramatic expression. At the top of the range required by this music, Mr. Spence is occasionally pressed, and his highest notes can take on a glassy quality that never interferes with accuracy of pitch. Even when most severely taxed, however, Mr. Spence sings fearlessly, and Mr. Matthews-Owen never falters in his collaboration with Mr. Spence, instinctively allowing space when needed for Mr. Spence’s voice to take flight. The young tenor, whose Metropolitan Opera début as Brian in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys gave notice of the emergence of a lean-toned lyric tenor of exceptional promise, offers some of the best singing of his career to date in this performance, his rugged but sweet voicing of Mr. Dove’s songs drawing from his exuberant artistic personality charismatic explorations of all of the ennui, anxiety, and burgeoning vitality in Mr. Tear’s texts and Mr. Dove’s music.

From her first note in Cut My Shadow, Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon unites the poise familiar from her performances of Händel rôles with the mystery of her insouciant, irresistible Carmen in complex, splendidly incisive performances of Mr. Dove’s songs. Mr. Dove’s series of settings of Gwynne Edwards’s translations of three of Federico García Lorca’s most emblematic poems (‘Sorpresa,’ ‘La Guitarra,’ and ‘Canción del naranjo seco,’ from which the cycle’s title is taken—‘Córtame la sombra,’ in García Lorca’s Spanish), Cut My Shadow is as evocative a musical depiction of García Lorca’s idiosyncratic intellectual domains as has ever been composed. Ms. Bardon infuses her granitic tone with shades of pewter in her expression of the stark verismo of ‘Surprise,’ and the unrelenting oppression of ‘The Guitar’ inspires Ms. Bardon to singing of thorny defiance that gushes from her sensitive enunciation of the words. A restless sorrow permeates García Lorca’s ‘Canción del naranjo seco,’ and this also courses through Mr. Dove’s music. The arid sobriety of Ms. Bardon’s singing makes the bleakness of ‘Song of the Dry Orange Tree’ more piercing. The steadiness of Ms. Bardon’s tone is sometimes imperiled by vowel placements, and though her commitment to preserving clear diction is admirable, the focus of her singing is marginally undermined. In her performance of All You Who Sleep Tonight, Ms. Bardon channels operatic intensity without imposing any prima donna mannerisms on the music. In the five successive ‘movements’ of All You Who Sleep Tonight, Ms. Bardon approaches the music with the nimbleness of a practiced exponent of bel canto. She joins Mr. Matthews-Owen in scrutinizing all of the joy, disappointment, triumph, and crisis of the human condition transformed into song by Mr. Dove. Vikram Seth’s texts dance and dart through the wisdom and confusion of casual and consequential relationships, and Mr. Dove’s music ranges from the appropriate triviality of ‘Mistaken’ to the fiery disintegration of ‘God’s Love.’ In ‘Soon,’ Mr. Dove created one of the most moving songs of the past half-century, and the performance that it receives in this recording, all suggestions of sentimentality stripped from the crushing feelings of the text, taps the most profound vein of the Art of Song. Singer and pianist audibly merge their own souls with those of the poet and composer, and the results shimmer with an unfiltered humanity that is rarely articulated even in Lieder.

Soprano Claire Booth’s performance of the unaccompanied Ariel, a quintet of excerpts from Ariel’s lines in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is both earthy and ethereal, revealing the unstoppable cleverness of Mr. Dove’s treatments of Shakespeare’s immortal words. Unlike many composers, Mr. Dove obviously is not awed by the task of setting Shakespearean texts to music: Ariel possesses a naturalness that many Shakespeare settings lack, and Ms. Booth transforms the details of Mr. Dove’s sparkling music with singing of power and pulchritude. The aura of her Ariel is decidedly feminine, and this underscores the androgynous but strangely sensual essence of the character: this is a sophisticated, eerily wily sprite, as much Mr. Dove’s own as Shakespeare’s—and, in this performance, very much Ms. Booth’s urbane creation. The well-known ‘Full fathom five’ expectedly appears in Ariel, but Mr. Dove also set less-familiar passages, culminating in the provocative vocalise of ‘O, O, O,’ the cycle’s central song. Ms. Booth confronts every difficulty of the music without hesitation, and the sunbursts of tone at the top of her range are invigorating. There are a few vocal ‘sound effects’ that, while true to the character, add little to the haunting musical portrait of Ariel that Ms. Booth conjures. Ms. Booth’s superb singing effectively portrays the ethos of Ariel, however; and also the entirety of Mr. Dove’s cunning reinvention of this eternally fascinating persona.

As musical styles fall from favor and are replaced by different fashions in the broadly cyclical advancement of Art, the unchanging power of Song is derived from the inimitable ability of amalgamations of words and music to transcend the incorporeal capacities of either art to captivate the senses on its own. The best Art Songs, whether created for grimy taverns or gilded concert halls, transport the listener to places that he recognizes not from novels or films but from his own life. Neither language nor musical idiom matters: hearing Dowland’s ‘In darkness let me dwell,’ Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, or Tippett’s The Heart’s Assurance is like looking in a mirror. The reflection is not always welcome, but it is honest in ways that tangible modes of expression cannot be. The song cycles on this disc are mirrors polished to almost blinding luminosity by Jonathan Dove, and the performances by Patricia Bardon, Claire Booth, Nicky Spence, and Andrew Matthews-Owen are reflections both of new trajectories in contemporary Lieder and of timeless traditions undiminished since man first wed his speech to song.

08 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Saverio Mercadante – I BRIGANTI (B. Praticò, M. Mironov, V. Prato, P. Ivanova, R. Fiocco; NAXOS 8.660343-44)

CD REVIEW: Saverio Mercadante - I BRIGANTI (NAXOS 8.660343-44)

SAVERIO MERCADANTE (1795 – 1870): I brigantiBruno Praticò (Massimiliano), Maxim Mironov (Ermano), Vittorio Prato (Corrado), Petya Ivanova (Amelia), Rosita Fiocco (Teresa), Atanas Mladenov (Bertrando), Jesús Ayllón (Rollero); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXIV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival, 14, 18, and 21 July 2012; NAXOS 8.660343-44; 2CD, 137:52; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Who is Saverio Mercadante?

Despite a number of Mercadante’s operas having been recorded in recent years, including a delightful account of his Don Chisciotte alle nozze di Gamaccio from Naxos, the casual listener must be forgiven for asking this question when encountering this new recording of the composer’s 1836 opera I briganti. Premièred in Paris at the Théâtre-Italien by the ‘Puritani quartet’ of Giulia Grisi (Amelia), Giovanni Battista Rubini (Ermano), Antonio Tamburini (Corrado), and Luigi Lablache (Massimiliano), Mercadante’s opera is a setting of an adaptation by Jacopo Crescini of Friedrich Schiller’s 1781 drama Die Räuber that, via a libretto adapted by Andrea Maffei, also served as the source for Giuseppe Verdi’s better-known but seldom-performed I masnadieri. The modest ‘successo di stima’ that greeted the first production of I briganti was surely a disappointment to its Altamura-born composer, but the time in Paris—as well as the exposure to the masterpieces of Bellini and Donizetti in the repertory of the Théâtre-Italien—was enormously beneficial to Mercadante, whose compositional style in his operas after I briganti grew ever more assured and distinctive. Already in I briganti, however, he had meaningfully synthesized the examples of Cherubini, Rossini, and Mayr with the fully-developed bel canto of Donizetti and Bellini. Christened a ‘melodramma serio,’ I briganti is a typical early Romantic tale of the crises of a supposed-dead father, his feuding sons, and the woman loved by both brothers. Though Mercadante was already forty years old when he composed I briganti, the score palpitates with youthful exuberance. It is an opera that seizes the listener’s attention at the start and grows more enjoyable with each subsequent scene, and the same can be said of this Naxos recording, which begins on a very high plane of musical excellence and never falls from it. So, who was Saverio Mercadante? He was a composer who may now be eclipsed by the celestial genius of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, but this recording of I briganti reminds the listener that he also glowed among those stars in the constellation of true bel canto and that his operas still have the capacity to shine very brightly.

Not surprisingly for a score that exudes the intoxicating fragrance of bel canto, I briganti offers the orchestra much in the way of tuneful obbligati and finely-crafted melodic arcs and harmonic progressions but limited opportunities for the kind of concerted displays of virtuosity that became standard operatic fare as the Nineteenth Century progressed. Under the baton of Antonino Fogliani, one of today’s most insightful masters of rejuvenating little-remembered bel canto repertory, the musicians of Virtuosi Brunensis, directed by Karel Mitáš, play with the reliable eloquence and pure intonation that have made their numerous outings on Naxos recordings so enjoyable. Recorded in performance at the XXIV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival with only occasional intrusions by stage noise and almost none from the audience, the orchestra’s playing is remarkably unblemished: neither a false entry nor a flubbed note is to be heard, and the orchestra’s efforts are noteworthy for the imposing tightness of ensemble and the fluidity of phrasing. Led by chorus master Tomasz Potkowski, the choristers of the Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań contribute resonant, dramatically apt singing to the performance. The ensemble’s name raises concerns that the sounds produced by the chorus will be too small-scaled and ‘liturgical’ for red-blooded Italian opera. In this performance, the singers certainly display the sort of carefully-managed blend of tone and musical precision that a choir with a dedication to Bach might be expected to epitomize, but they also allow themselves to be carried along by the spirit of the music. The ladies of the choir give a polished account of the women’s chorus in Act One, ‘Come un etereo spirto dileguasi,’ and both the ‘coro religioso’ later in the same Act and the wonderful ‘Notte, il silenzio doppia’ in Act Three are passionately and pensively sung. This kind of music enflames Maestro Fogliani’s blood like a virus, and honoring the composer by executing his music with the greatest possible fidelity is the only remedy. The conductor supplies a healing dose of total immersion in bel canto and keeps the momentum churning throughout the performance. Mercadante could scarcely ask for more.

Every bel canto heroine with relationship issues needs a sympathetic confidante to listen to her troubles, and Teresa in I briganti fits the bill perfectly. As sung in this performance by mezzo-soprano Rosita Fiocco, Teresa is a very proper young lady whose concern for her mistress is genuine. Ms. Fiocco voices Teresa’s lines with dignity and easily-projected tone. Baritone Atanas Mladenov sings impressively in his few lines as the hermit Bertrando, as well, and tenor Jesús Ayllón brings a voice of great quality and a lively presence to his singing as Rollero, the requisite companion of the tenor hero.

Bass Bruno Praticò knows his way round Rossini’s basso buffo rôles better than almost anyone else in the business, and his performance in this performance of I briganti proves that his prowess likewise extends to dramatic bel canto. As Massimiliano, the conte di Moor and father of Corrado and Ermano whose presumed demise sets the opera’s events in motion, Mr. Praticò sings powerfully, combining his unerring instincts for bel canto phrasing with subtle hints of the comedic finesse for which he is renowned. When Massimiliano returns to his castle in Act Two, crucially if not quite miraculously restored to life, the ensuing duet with his son Ermano, ‘Deh, risparmia ch’io racconti,’ is one of the finest numbers in the score. Mr. Praticò responds to the splendor of the music with singing of verve and technical aplomb. In the opera’s thrilling trio finale, ‘Deh! non scemar con lagrime,’ in which Massimiliano believes that his son Ermano has committed fratricide and finally realizes that Ermano is the leader of the band of robbers, Mr. Praticò ably depicts the old Count’s horror, shame, and heartbreak. Whether in coloratura or cantabile, Mr. Praticò maintains a strong grasp of Mercadante’s style. The voice has weakened and the vibrato loosened, with execution of rapid-fire passages no longer as easy for him as it once was, but Mr. Praticò remains an irreproachable guardian of the sacred traditions of bel canto.

The first principal heard in this performance of I briganti is baritone Vittorio Prato, and the opening bar of Corrado’s music divulges that Mr. Prato’s singing is going to be a tremendous source of pleasure. In recitatives, arias, and ensembles, he never disappoints. Corrado’s aria in Act One, ‘Amelia angiol divino,’ receives from Mr. Prato a performance of the sort of burnished bel canto elegance that has become all but extinct. Even if his tone were not beautiful, his impeccable technique would be sufficient to ensure a performance of great artistic efficacy. The energy and virility of his singing of the cabaletta ‘Per lei che mi sprezza’ are complemented by his rousing negotiation of the coloratura and tenable efforts at the plentiful trills. Absent from Act Two, Corrado returns with a vengeance in Act Three, and Mr. Prato gives another masterclass in the art of dramatic bel canto in his performance of the aria ‘Ah! no: vivi e spargi un fiore.’ Mr. Prato portrays the most effective kind of villain, one whose treachery is cloaked in vocal velvet. Mr. Prato is clearly an engaging singer: this performance of Corrado’s music is the work of a great one.

Young Russian soprano Petya Ivanova takes the intricacies of Mercadante’s music for Amelia, Massimiliano’s ward and Ermano’s beloved, in stride, and her compact, pellucid tone ignites Amelia’s vocal lines. She sings the introspective cavatina in Act One, ‘Quando guerrier mio splendido,’ with radiance, her quick vibrato heightening her characterization of Amelia’s anxiety and vulnerability. In the subsequent cabaletta, ‘Ah! tu m’ami,’ Ms. Ivanova whizzes into the vocal stratosphere like a musical missile. Her solid, secure sopracuti sparkle like diamonds, and she sustains accuracy of intonation across wide intervals. The surge of anger and indignation in the duet with Corrado, ‘Quest’è la volta estrema,’ comes as a surprise after the ladylike poise of the aria and cabaletta, and Ms. Ivanova follows Mr. Prato’s lead in upping the dramatic ante. In the later duet with Ermano, ‘Sempre ripete mi,’ she dazzles with both her technical dexterity and the sweetness of her singing. After a stretch of fantastic singing and some breathtaking excursions above top C, Amelia’s preghiera in Act Three, ‘Ciel! del mio prode Ermano,’ inspires Ms. Ivanova to singing of marvelous sensitivity. A few instances of shrillness and wiriness, particularly at the very top of her range, detract nothing from her live-wire performance. Already an accomplished singer, this performance shows Ms. Ivanova to be an artist with tantalizing promise.

In a performance with so much fine singing, tenor Maxim Mironov appears in Act One like a comet, and his singing blazes brightly from his first line to the end of the opera. This is a young singer who has every qualification needed to be a world-class tenore di grazia: technique, charisma, an attractive timbre, and an upper register capable of galvanizing flights into the heavens. In Ermano’s cavatina and romanza in Act One, ‘Questi due verdi salici’ and ‘Qual soave armonia,’ Mr. Mironov not only bounds through volleys of coloratura worthy of any of Rossini’s tenor heroes but also offers a rare lesson in the proper use of historically-appropriate voce mista. Employing a soft-grained but well-projected head resonance, he provides a glimpse into the forgotten world of the great bel canto tenors of the first half of the Nineteenth Century. His high notes in chest voice are no less stylish, but he is an intelligent singer who integrates even the most exposed passages at the top of the voice into his seamless shaping of melodic lines. The simple elegance of his singing of ‘Incerto, che penso,’ the andante in the Act One finale, is very moving, and his unwavering intensity in the ‘Orgia’ and preghiera in Act Two, ‘Fra nembi crudeli,’ is gripping. In Ermano’s duet with his father, Mr. Mironov is an astute partner for Mr. Praticò, and his expression of Ermano’s desolation as he realizes in the opera’s final scene that his father thinks him his brother’s murderer is affecting. In a rôle composed for Rubini, of whom Bellini demanded a sustained F5 in I puritani, it is hardly surprising that Mr. Mironov is taken to the limits of his abilities by Ermano’s music. He is a singer who seems most comfortable when he is challenged, however, and his singing in this performance asserts that he is a shrewd artist who carefully evaluates every risk. His critically-acclaimed turn as the Conte di Libenskof in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims at this summer’s ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival was recorded by Naxos for future release, and he has already graced Naxos’s recording of Wildbad’s La donna del lago with a rousing performance as Giacomo V, but his singing in this recording of I briganti inducts him into the company of Lawrence Brownlee, Javier Camarena, Juan Diego Flórez, and Colin Lee, which is to say that he is among the finest bel canto tenors singing today.

It is difficult to fathom how much poorer recorded music in the Twenty-First Century would be without Naxos. Naxos recordings have led attentive listeners on innumerable journeys, some of which have ended with the rediscoveries of forgotten treasures of the musical past. The label’s journey into the operas of Saverio Mercadante is one that hopefully has many more miles to travel, but this recording of I briganti is an act that will be incredibly difficult to follow.

07 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss – INTERMEZZO (S. Schneider, M. Eiche, M. Homrich, M. Welschenbach, M. Dries, B. Fassbaender; cpo 777 901-2)

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss - INTERMEZZO (cpo 777 901-2)

RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Intermezzo, Opus 72Simone Schneider (Christine), Markus Eiche (Robert Storch), Martina Welschenbach (Anna), Martin Homrich (Baron Lummer), Michael Dries (Notar), Maria Bulgakova (Notary’s Wife), Brenden Gunnell (Kapellmeister Stroh), Marc Kugel (ein Kommerzienrat), Peter Schöne (ein Justizrat), Günter Missenhardt (ein Kammersänger), Sophie Mitterhuber (Resi), Brigitte Fassbaender (Speaker); Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Ulf Schirmer, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Festsaal Werdenfals, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, at the Richard-Strauss-Festival 2011, 7 – 8 June 2011; cpo 777 901-2; 2CD, 135:37; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Premièred in 1924 in Dresden, the composer’s artistic Olympus, with the legendary Lotte Lehmann in the rôle of Christine, Intermezzo is Richard Strauss’s piquant but affectionate musical homage to his tempestuously loving marriage. Three decades of domestic cohabitation with his wife, the famously feisty soprano Pauline de Ahna, from their marriage in 1894 until the composition of Intermezzo in 1923 likely led to the testing of every conjugal vow, but in the two hours of this idiosyncratic, sometimes cantankerous opera Strauss gave as poignant and ultimately heartening a portrait of a modern marriage between artists as has ever been enacted on the operatic stage. Compelled to write his own text by the refusals of his longtime collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal and other librettists, Strauss produced a verbose, occasionally overwrought libretto that is almost certainly a more faithful representation of the tribulations of his marriage than any spouse would want subjected to public scrutiny. It is the opera’s celebrated ‘symphonic interludes’ that do the real talking in Intermezzo, however: after every insult, the quarrels, the frivolity, and the fragility expressed in the text, Strauss’s music throbs with fear, loneliness, and uncertainty resolved by a scarred but abiding love. Christine and Robert Storch—the stand-ins for Pauline and Richard Strauss—are not unlike the Färberin and Barak or Arabella and Mandryka in the ways in which they misconstrue their partners’ thoughts and actions, but they are unique in that their wrangling involves a child, the couple’s son, whose defense of his father to his mother in the final scene of Act One is one of the most wrenchingly ‘real’ episodes in opera. A successful performance of Intermezzo can replicate interpersonal situations so intimate that witnessing them seems a gross intrusion. Ironically and perhaps apocryphally, Pauline Strauss is said to have replied to Lotte Lehmann’s comment about the remarkable gift that Strauss gave to his wife with Intermezzo by saying, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ One can imagine the same sentiment being uttered by Christine Storch, but anything less vituperous would be out of character for either Frau Strauss or her operatic counterpart. Invective is their native tongue, and there are hidden troves of adoration in the translation. Fortunately, there is no doubt that everyone who took part in this recording of Intermezzo gave a damn both about crafting a satisfying performance and about honoring this most private outpouring of Strauss’s singular artistry. Intermezzo is one of Strauss’s least-performed operas, but this recording reaffirms that it is anything but the least of his creations.

Musically, the score of Intermezzo is an anthology of the styles that bore fruit in Strauss’s operas from the time of his freshman effort, Guntram, to Intermezzo’s immediate predecessors, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten. The alternation of sung scenes with symphonic interludes, similar to Britten’s use of musical intervals in Peter Grimes, is unique in Strauss’s work though reminiscent of the concerted scene changes in Die Frau ohne Schatten. With the prevalence of the piano and chamber music-like textures in the orchestra, the sonic environment of Internezzo most closely resembles that of Ariadne auf Naxos, but the transfer of the action to Robert’s musical playground in Vienna also inspires the expected flow of waltzes in the vein of Der Rosenkavalier. In general, the music sounds airy and appropriately conversational, with the spectrum of Strauss’s colorful genius for orchestration revealing itself primarily in the interludes. A close examination of the score discloses many of Strauss’s most trusted hallmarks, however. The violent dissonance of the early operas is largely absent, but Christine has her Elektra-like moments, and Strauss wittily gives her suitably untamed music to match. It is not the composer’s most daunting music, but it presents a plethora of challenges—challenges that are met unflinchingly by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester. The Munich players respond to the music of their Bavarian countryman with unstoppable virtuosity, and every section of the orchestra proves as insightful in emotionally-charged passages and as light on its musical feet in the waltzes as colleagues in Dresden and Vienna. Conductor Ulf Schirmer is a practiced Straussian whose prior recorded accomplishments include a pair of lovely Capriccios with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (DECCA CD) and Renée Fleming (TDK DVD). His pacing of this recording, expertly compiled by cpo from two concert performances during the 2011 Richard-Strauss-Festival, exhibits absolute comfort with both the compendium of musical styles and the episodic, almost cinematic nature of the drama. Rhythmic tautness is maintained even in spoken passages, and the interludes supplement rather than interrupting the opera’s dramatic development. Maestro Schirmer has no fear of setting expansive tempi, but he never extends a phrase beyond a singer’s—or the music’s—capacity to sustain it. He also takes care to avoid overwhelming the singers, and the resulting clarity and precision of ensemble are immensely beneficial in this most loquacious of operas.

Headed by the clarion-voiced Brigitte Fassbaender, a noted interpreter of several of Strauss’s emblematic mezzo-soprano rôles who in this performance lends her still-sharp theatrical instincts to Intermezzo’s spoken parts, the artists in supporting rôles form an unusually reliable team. An especially cherishable performance is given by veteran bass Günter Missenhardt as a Kammersänger, his snarky delivery of ‘Am Anfang jeder Spielzeit haben Sie immer einen kolossalen Probeneifer, so gegen den März zu legt er sich’ during the game of Skat in the first scene of Act Two leaving no doubt about the character’s cynicism. His companions at the card table—the very promising tenor Brenden Gunnell as Kapellmeister Stroh, bass-baritone Marc Kugel as the Commercial Counselor (ein Kommerzienrat), and baritone Paul Schöne as the Legal Counselor (ein Justizrat)—add their own jaded observations to the scene in sturdy tones. Bass Michael Dries and soprano Maria Bulgakova sing delightfully as the Notary and his wife, and soprano Sophie Mitterhuber is all purring and prettiness as the tart Resi. Soprano Martina Welschenbach gives a charming but spirited performance as Anna, Christine’s chambermaid: she delivers Strauss’s ‘plebeian’ dialogue without a hint of affectation, and she sashays through her music adroitly. 

As in most of Strauss’s operas, however, the weight of performing Intermezzo effectively falls on the shoulders of the principal characters, and this recording is fortunate to have in those rôles three very fine singers. As Baron Lummer, the down-on-his-luck playboy who attempts to prey on Christine’s loneliness, tenor Martin Homrich is a fast-talking but never truly threatening trickster. Virtually from the time of the skiing Baron’s collision with the tobogganing Christine, it is obvious that his interest in the protesting wife is more financial than adulterous in nature. Still, when the fiscal consummation of their money-lending relationship is upset by Christine’s receipt of the misaddressed telegram that unwittingly implicates her husband in an illicit liaison, the sincerity of Mr. Homrich’s singing suggests that the Baron’s willingness to rush to Vienna to gather evidence for the prosecution, as it were, is motivated by a burgeoning affection for Christine as well as the understandable anticipation of his improving fortunes. The hint of wistfulness in his delivery of the Baron’s final line, ‘Ja, ja, dann empfehl’ ich mich für heute,’ is unexpected: there is in his taking leave of Christine an element of the tenderness with which the Marschallin cedes Octavian to Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. Mr. Homrich encounters a few problems when Strauss’s music requires him to cover a lot of vocal ground quickly, his slender, healthy tone sometimes thinning at the top of his range. He is nevertheless always credible as a virile suitor for Christine and rival for her husband: that she almost certainly never feels a truly amorous pang for him is not as important as the fact that, offering such handsomely-voiced flattery, he might well have wheedled his way into her heart.

The rôle of Robert was created by Joseph Correck, a gifted Hannoverian baritone who sang Wotan at Bayreuth to considerable acclaim. It is interesting to ponder how a Wotan voice would sound in Robert’s music, which is sung with full-throated lyricism in this performance by baritone Markus Eiche. In terms of basic vocal endowment, Mr. Eiche resembles the two great interpreters of Robert in the second half of the Twentieth Century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey, and his singing in this performance allies a Fischer-Dieskau-like shaping of text with a Prey-like loveliness of tone. Occasionally slightly pressed at the top of the range, a few of Robert’s climactic top notes are just beyond the upper limit of Mr. Eiche’s vocal comfort zone, but he copes manfully. He avoids putting excessive pressure on the voice when under duress on high, and he maintains surety of intonation throughout his part’s tessitura. Native German does not ensure perfect German in song, but the unexaggerated excellence of his diction—an attribute that he shares with nearly all of his colleagues in this performance—enhances the effectiveness of his singing. In the opening scene, as Robert prepares to depart on a conducting tour, Mr. Eiche first conveys frustration with Christine’s querulousness, then indignation, and finally barely-concealed hurt. Robert is prone to sulking and sullenness, long identified as aspects of an artistic personality, but he loves Christine and the unconventional life that he shares with her. Mr. Eiche movingly conveys both the peevishness and the regret of his farewell to his wife in Act One, ‘Dann also, zum Teufel! Laß es bleiben du unausstehliche Kratzbürste du! Adieu!’ The core of Robert’s artistic soul is disclosed in the unlikely company of his card-playing cronies, and Mr. Eiche’s enraptured singing leaves no doubt that Christine is both Robert’s muse and, as Beethoven put it, his ‘other self.’ This thoughtful singer seems incapable of going wrong, musically or dramatically, but he exceeds the standard that he has set throughout the performance with his heartfelt singing in the opera’s final scene. It is impossible to question the sincerity of this Robert’s reconciliation with his wife: when he responds to her plea for forgiveness by saying that there is nothing to forgive, it is not rhetoric. It might seem too self-evident to state that an operatically-impersonated composer ought to sing beautifully, but the legions of singers who overlook the logical requirements of the parts that they sing teach that nothing can be taken for granted. Mr. Eiche sings as attractively as the man he portrays is assumed to compose.

As much in Intermezzo as in any of Strauss’s operas, what is the point of such prepossessing tempting from the Baron and plaintive tribute from Robert if there is not a soprano at the heart of the matter who merits all this attention? It is fascinating to imagine how Lotte Lehmann might have sounded in Christine’s music. Her versatility was little short of miraculous: just in the Strauss repertory, in addition to creating the rôles of Christine in Intermezzo and the Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Lehmann sang both the Composer and the title rôle in Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella, and Octavian, Sophie, and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Judging the evidence presented by her singing of Christine in this recording of Intermezzo, Simone Schneider seems a viable successor to Lehmann’s wide-ranging musical empire. Though Ms. Schneider summons impressive power whenever the score requires it, there is no heaviness in her singing of Christine’s music. In the opening scene, she harangues without resorting to tonal ugliness, and her character’s oscillations from hectoring to fretting over ensuring that every possible comfort is packed for her husband’s journey are depicted without reliance upon shrillness and silly effects. Ms. Schneider manages to portray Christine as a woman who is both imperious and vulnerable, and the youthfulness of her exchanges with the Baron heightens the element of danger in their acquaintance. The way in which she deadens the luster of her tone in the final scene of Act One, as Christine denounces Robert to their son and reacts to the boy’s defense of his father, reveals that the boy is only saying what the crestfallen wife inwardly believes. There is substantial authority in Ms. Schneider’s voicing of Christine’s lines in the scene in Act Two in which she appears before the Notary to demand a divorce, but her spitfire accusations are halfhearted at best. The parallels between Christine’s sparring with Anna before Robert’s return from Vienna and the Contessa’s confiding in Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro are not lost on Ms. Schneider, whose singing throughout the performance has the poise of a great Mozartean even when Strauss’s music takes her into the vocal arenas of Salome and Ariadne. With the sure instincts of a true Strauss soprano, she pours her whole being into her singing of Christine’s final line, ‘Gelt, mein lieber Robert, das nennt man doch wahrhaftig eine glückliche Ehe?’ Theirs is what one might call an ideal marriage, Christine says to Robert. No greater praise could be given to Ms. Schneider than saying that she proves an ideal heir to the legacies of Lehmann and the radiant Lucia Popp in this most personal of Strauss’s operatic heroines.

It can be argued that none of the principal characters in Intermezzo is easy to love—or, indeed, even to like. It can be argued that the libretto of Intermezzo, the work of the composer himself, is among the weakest texts that he set to music. It can be argued that the score itself is a self-indulgent bagatelle in comparison to the uncontested masterpieces of its creator’s genius. The overreaching analyst can argue that all of the lovers in Strauss’s mature operas—Octavian and Sophie, Ariadne and Bacchus, the Kaiser and Kaiserin, Barak and his wife, Arabella and Mandryka, Helena and Menelaus, Henry Morosus and Aminta, Danae and Jupiter—are symbolic to some degree of the composer and his wife. What this recording argues most persuasively on behalf of Intermezzo is that ordinary people can and do experience love worthy of gods and heroes. Love is a delicate thing that can be wounded by ski-slope crashes and misinterpreted telegrams, but it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Lotte Lehmann thought Intermezzo the most perfect gift that Strauss could have given his wife. The performances given by the singers in this recording assert that the opera is also a precious gift to Music. Ninety years after the opera’s première, Richard Strauss continues to whisper in the ears of every listener that each failure among loving spouses is but an intermezzo in the majestic opera of married life.

05 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Francesco Cavalli – GIASONE (D. Hansen, C. Lazarenko, M. Allan, C. Saunders, D. Greco, A. Goodwin, A. McEniery, N. Dinopoulos, A. Oomens; Pinchgut LIVE PG004)

CD REVIEW: Francesco Cavalli - GIASONE (Pinchgut LIVE PG004)

FRANCESCO CAVALLI (1602 – 1676): GiasoneDavid Hansen (Giasone), Celeste Lazarenko (Medea), Miriam Allan (Isifile), Christopher Saunders (Demo), David Greco (Oreste), Andrew Goodwin (Egeo), Adrian McEniery (Delfa), Nicholas Dinopoulos (Ercole), Alexandra Oomens (Alinda); Orchestra of the Antipodes; Erin Helyard, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney, Australia, on 5 and 7 – 9 December 2013; Pinchgut LIVE PG004; 2CD, 150:40; Available from Pinchgut Opera and major music retailers]

​The listener for whom this enthralling recording of Francesco Cavalli’s masterful 1649 opera Giasone is a first introduction to Australia’s Pinchgut Opera might reasonably surmise that this is the best opera company in the world. Without question, the endeavors of Pinchgut Opera represent all that can be right with opera in the Twenty-First Century. Focusing on specific niches in the operatic repertory not out of necessity but with true advocacy, Pinchgut’s productions unite enthusiasm with musicological expertise, rich veins of indigenous talent, and community involvement. Every opera company faces extraordinary challenges in today’s climate of budgetary hostility towards the Performing Arts, but Pinchgut’s efforts succeed when so many other companies’ fail because their initiatives present opera at its most democratic: of the people, by the people, and for the people. Dedication to under-appreciated music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries is a dangerous gamble in any market, but the arresting quality of this recording of Giasone that explodes from the discs in every moment of the performance is the complete refusal to approach the music with the kind of stolid reverence granted to a tired exhibit in a museum. No, this Giasone is a mate with whom one might share a few pints of Foster’s on a Saturday night. Opera for the masses is an inherently condescending notion, but Pinchgut Opera’s productions lead the way in making even long-forgotten scores accessible and memorable. It is not about making an opera premièred in 1649 ‘relevant’ to modern audiences: Pinchgut’s performances aim to be revelatory, and this recording of the 2013 production of Giasone reveals that the real magnificence of opera continues to be, as it has always been, in the earnest performance of great music by singers and musicians who love what they do.

Musically, Cavalli’s compositional idiom is markedly advanced from the more familiar style of Claudio Monteverdi, whose operas for the insular Mantuan court are the headwaters from which the streams of operatic creativity have flowed in the subsequent four centuries. Writing for the more resourceful theatres of Venice, Cavalli lavished on his scores melodic prodigality that continues to impress and adventurous harmonies that sometimes sound surprisingly modern. A master of dramatically momentous chromaticism, Cavalli expanded the lean Monteverdian recitative into musically prodigious progressions of arias and arioso. Still, the recording of staged performances of a continuo-driven opera like Giasone presents an array of pitfalls to engineers. The closed-minded listener accustomed to the antiseptic tidiness of studio recordings may intermittently find this recording slightly hard going. There are stage noises galore in this performance, but this is recorded opera at its most visceral: every footstep, every clang and clatter enhances the sense of absorption evinced since the first bar of the opera’s Sinfonia. Hearing the audience’s laughter is delightful and provides contrast with the score’s more contemplative numbers, during which the histrionic probity of the singing silences every cough and chat. The meticulously-balanced acoustics of the recording ensure that musical details are never obscured, and a very welcome sense of space is maintained without voices losing focus. Unlike many recordings of live performances, Pinchgut LIVE’s Giasone offers the listener an opportunity to experience the production almost as audiences in Sydney must have done: with sound of this immediacy, these discs enable the listener to hear a real performance of Giasone rather than merely a recording of one.

Under the direction of Pinchgut’s co-Artistic Director Erin Helyard, the playing of the Orchestra of the Antipodes matches the highest standards of historically-informed performance practices without ever seeming inhibited by them. Indeed, this recording is as vibrant an example as has ever appeared on discs of the extent to which understanding and respect of the musical traditions of the past can secure opera’s future. The musicians’ adherence to the style of the time of Giasone’s creation is unswerving, but this consistency is crucial to the evocation of the effervescent atmosphere in which this performance plays out. Tuned to modern concert pitch (A = 440 Hz), the orchestra’s playing is such a vital, scintillating part of the performance that the musicians deserve to be cited individually as members of the cast. The bar-raising performances by violinists Julia Fredersdorff and Matthew Greco,​ violists John Ma and James Eccles, cellist Anthea Cottee, Laura Vaughan on gamba and lirone, Kirsty McCahon on violone, Simon Martyn-Ellis on Baroque guitar and theorbo, James Holland on theorbo, Kamala Bain on recorders, Neal Peres Da Costa at the Italian harpsichord, Donald Nicholson at the Neapolitan harpsichord, and percussionist Brian Nixon (he rumbles and chimes smashingly on timpani, tenor and bass drums, tambourine, and Turkish cymbals) have their own distinct life, and they blend their unique timbres in a glorious noise that produces song without words. Presiding from the continuo organ and regal, Maestro Helyard carefully but unobtrusively manages the hairpin turns in the drama with humor and an utterly disarming lack of hubris. The orchestra’s playing and Maestro Helyard’s conducting are so unaffected that nothing seems artificial: in this setting, singers carrying on conversations and sorting out dilemmas in arioso seem the most ordinary things in the world.

Fusing elements of the original structure of the opera at its 1649 première with something of the ethos of the revised version of the opera performed in Rome in 1671, when Cavalli’s score was likely supplemented by arias composed by Alessandro Stradella, the edition of the score used for Pinchgut’s production omits the allegorical Prologue and tightens the drama by streamlining minor characters. In a real sense, though, there are no minor characters in this production of Giasone. Every figure in this story has something to lose, and each singer gives a performance that compellingly suggests absolute dedication. As the cynical Alinda, soprano Alexandra Oomens sings charmingly, the bemused irony of her performance of the Despina-like ‘Per prova sò che infonde Amor nell'alme aspro’ rippling with wit. In the third scene of Part Two, she hurls out the text of ‘Quanti soldati, o quanti’ and the aria ‘Gradite tempeste, procelle adorate’ with controlled exuberance, and her phrasing in the duet with Ercole, ‘Non più guerra, non più furore,’ is wonderfully unruffled. If tenor Adrian McEniery is not having a grand time portraying Medea’s geriatric nurse Delfa, he pretends very convincingly. Having renounced fickle love in her dotage, Delfa expounds her credo of sorts in ‘Voli il tempo,’ pronounced with gusto by Mr. McEniery. He fumes and fusses through ‘Godi, godi, bella coppia’ and ‘Qual hor su queste guancie’ with brio. Vocally, he husbands his resources with obvious self-knowledge, minimizing the use of wearying mannerisms, and he brings comedy to every scene in which he appears. Tenor Christopher Saunders’s jaunt through Demo’s music is similarly strong of technique and sentiment. Mr. Saunders sings ‘Son gobbo, son Demo, son bravo’ very handsomely, and his boundless energy makes the character more of a true presence in the opera than an occasional source of comic relief. Tenor Andrew Goodwin also revels in his creation of a subtle but strikingly individual Egeo, and his lines in the duet with Demo, ‘Alla nave, alla nave,’ are sung with great comic timing and focused tone.

The rôles for low-voiced gentlemen are sung with epic technical control by bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos and baritone David Greco. As Ercole, Mr. Dinopoulos lacks none of the burly masculinity of this legendary hero. His famous labors behind him, Ercole lent his brawn to the Argonauts’ expedition to seize the golden fleece, and Mr. Dinopoulos lends his resonant voice and charismatic self-assurance to this performance of Giasone. His singing of the opening scene, ‘Dal’Oriente porge l'alba,’ is suitably robust, and his annoyance with Giasone’s amorous dalliances is amusingly evident throughout the performance. His dueting with Isifile in Part Two is extraordinarily charming, and he impresses in every scene in which he appears with his uncanny combination of firm, ringing tone throughout his range and great flexibility. Mr. Greco’s performance of Oreste’s ‘Fiero amor l’alma tormenta’ in Part One is entrancing, and the sincerity that he devotes to ‘Adoriamoci in sogno, anima mia’ in Part Two is endearing. Like Mr. Dinopoulos, Mr. Greco displays unflappable technical affinity for Cavalli’s music, and his lovely timbre gives Oreste a distinct musical and dramatic profile.

Soprano Miriam Allan’s portrayal of Isifile, the put-upon Queen of Lemnos, is one of the greatest joys of this recording and one of the most purely beautiful performances of Seventeenth-Century vocal music ever preserved on discs. The timbre is one of polished gold from the bottom to the top of the voice, and, not content to rely solely upon the beauty of the voice to carry her character’s emotions to every heart in the audience, she sings with perpetual imagination. Ms. Allan’s phrasing of Isifile’s lament in the tenth scene of Part One, ‘Lassa, che far degg’io’ is dignified and thoughtful to the point of being unbearably poignant, but the sting of her words is healed by the dulcet balsam of her singing. In Part Two, the variety of her singing is brilliant, her characterizations of Isifile’s shifting sentiments conveyed via a deftly-handled palette of vocal colors. The tremulous elation of ‘Gioite, festosi, miei spiriti amorosi’ shimmers in Ms. Allan’s voicing of the music, particularly as she ascends into her sparkling upper register, and her scene with Ercole draws from her singing of ardor and wit. In the opera’s final scene, as Isifile’s confusion and dismay give way to hard-earned happiness, Ms. Allan’s singing of ‘Infelice, ch’ascolto’ assumes an even greater brilliance, the serenity of her delivery infusing the opera’s final moments with an aura of genuine resolution. By any standard, Ms. Allan’s singing is exquisite: in the context of recorded performances of Cavalli’s music, she sets a standard that will be virtually impossible to surpass.

Cavalli’s Medea is not quite the fire-breathing virago depicted by Cherubini and Mayr, but she is no wilting flower. Adventurous soprano Celeste Lazarenko takes no prisoners in her volatile, scene-stealing impersonation of Medea in this performance, and her darker, more sinewy timbre contrasts handily with Ms. Allan’s voice. In ‘Se dardo pungente,’ Medea’s strophic aria in the third scene of Part One, Ms. Lazarenko’s singing boils with inner agitation, but in the invocation of Plutone later in Part One, ‘Dell’antro magico,’ she unleashes a formidable discharge of temperament. Cavalli’s genius seems transported for a few moments to the world of Gluck, and the unrestrained force of Ms. Lazarenko’s singing blows through the performance like a cyclone. Still, every note that leaves her throat is unpretentiously stylish. The psychological depth that she imparts in ‘Sotto il tremulo ciel di queste frondi,’ Medea’s exchange with Giasone in the sixth scene of Part Two, is intriguing. After so much strife, there is a fantastic ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ aspect to Ms. Lazarenko’s singing in the last minutes of the opera. Ms. Lazarenko is a singer who holds nothing back, musically or dramatically, in her performances. In many singers, this can lead to inconsistency: for a singer as gifted as Ms. Lazarenko, it is the portal to vocal and theatrical luminosity.

In this performance more than in any of his other recordings to date, David Hansen proves that he is precisely as he cheekily describes himself: a ‘guy who sings high.’ That he sings splendidly will come as no surprise to those acquainted with his work, but it is impossible to overstate the electric impact with which his magnetic stage presence charges through this recording. He is no androgynous-sounding overgrown choirboy singing opera to pay the rent: he is, in terms of sensual physicality and white-hot vocalism, the Franco Corelli of countertenors, and, simply put, what he brings to his portrayal of Giasone is sex in the mezzo-soprano range. From his first entrance in Part One, ‘Delizie e contenti che l’alme beate,’ Mr. Hansen rockets through this performance with grit and grandeur, and his voice, always an instrument of superb quality, has in the past couple of years grown richer and more integrated throughout his uncommonly extensive range. The brief ‘Dolor, ahi non m’uccidere’ inspires him to exalted expressivity, and the tenacity of his singing of ‘Affetti singolari’ elevates his portrayal of Giasone from heroic resilience to indisputable stardom. The sizzling sultriness that Mr. Hansen exudes in Giasone’s encounter with Medea in the second scene of Part Two, ‘Scendi, o bella, vieni al porto,’ deserves a parental guidance classification rating. His emotional directness in ‘Ovunque il piè rivolgo’ is riveting, but it is the nobility of his singing with Isifile in ‘Non ho più core in petto’ in the final scene that is rightly the summit of his performance: from such a height of musicality, the listener can survey the whole history of opera, and it is unimaginable that the greatest castrati of the Seventeenth Century could have sung Giasone as thrillingly—and touchingly—as Mr. Hansen does in this recording.

It is unlikely that more than a few people who entered Sydney’s City Recital Hall Angel Place to see the Pinchgut Opera production of Cavalli’s Giasone that produced this recording were acquainted with the music, but it is less likely that any of them departed without having been unforgettably entertained and enlightened by Pinchgut’s visionary presentation of this kaleidoscopic score. Opera companies of the world, learn from Pinchgut’s example: focus on discovering what you do well, and then devote yourselves to doing it better than anyone else. Cavalli’s Giasone is unquestionably a denizen of ‘fringe’ repertory, but if performances of the quality on display in this recording were being achieved in the music of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini would anyone be speaking seriously of the demise of opera?